A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to view the footage of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab’s preliminary questioning. The same footage also had transcripts of communication between terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November and their handlers controlling them from across the border.
I’m not a stranger to killing or killers. But the matter-of-fact way in which Kasab narrated his instructions and rationale for committing the atrocities and the cold-bloodedness of the controllers would chill anyone, regardless of their exposure to combat.
Kasab was being questioned while he still lay on a hospital bed, shortly after his capture. His narration was of a village boy who had been motivated by his handlers to come to India and kill people to become a big man (sic). When asked whether he had any qualms while accepting the job, Kasab said his handlers assured him that such things had to be done to become an important person and that they had done it themselves and so should he.
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It was clear from his fatalistic demeanour and his accomplice’s intercepts that the hit men were lured into this mission and had little ideological motivation beyond making money and achieving fame, or what they perceived to be martyrdom. That, of course, does not diminish the heinousness of the act; it underlines that Kasab and company are a dime a dozen. No matter how many billions India spends on preventing access to the Kasabs of the future, some will still get through.
The transcripts of the handlers told a different story altogether. They persuaded, cajoled, guided, instructed and bullied the attackers through the entire operation. They reminded the terrorist team at Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel that it was the most important target and needed to be set ablaze so that the world could feel the terror. They instructed the terrorists to lob grenades into crowds. They reminded the team at Chabad House, the Jewish centre, that “killing one Jew was equal to 50 others”. They talked them through the negotiation strategy to free Kasab using two hostages. Realizing that a commando strike was imminent, they instructed the attackers to shoot hostages in the back of the head, while taking care not to be injured by ricochets. When one of the terrorists faltered, they insisted on listening on while the hostages were shot. The handlers reminded their wards repeatedly that not getting captured alive was critical to the success of the mission.
We are aiming at the wrong guys. The Kasabs are mere pawns. This battle needs to be carried into deeper fronts. Against the masterminds who plan these attacks, the financiers who fund them, the criminals who facilitate them and the handlers who train and control the pawns.
Terrorist leadership is a demanding profession. Operational leaders have to be merciless, courageous, highly mobile, hardy, charismatic and have an uncanny warrior instinct. The ruthless nature of their calling needs all these competencies not only to become a leader but just to stay alive. Loss of hit men is irrelevant—as a matter of fact, if it is glamorous enough, such encounters serve as a recruitment drive like 26/11 proved to be. Loss of leaders is a different matter altogether.
The very nature of terrorism limits the number of good leaders. First, leadership in terrorist organizations emerges by a probabilistic process of natural selection and elimination. Second, high needs of secrecy and mobility keep the tacit knowledge of the leaders in limited pools—usually inside their heads. Finally, the siloed structure of terrorist outfits prevents the transfer of one body of followers to another leader if their own is killed. Which is why it makes a lot of strategic sense to take the battle into enemy ground and start targeting their leaders, planners, financiers and handlers.
Hot pursuit, reprisal strikes and deep penetration raids are phrases bandied about, especially after we get a bloody nose. But beyond token sabre-rattling or posturing, we have rarely managed to stage a convincing retaliatory strike against any degree of provocation. This seeming impotence has often been attributed to our lack of capability—which is incorrect. Indian security forces, if unleashed and adequately supported, could create capability to storm the very gates of hell. On the contrary, what India needs to change is its doctrine of dealing with enemies.
If nations don’t defend themselves forcefully, they will become the playground of other countries’ power struggles. The fact that Pakistan has little control over large parts of its territory is obvious. The Pakistani high command has to make appropriate noises about dominance, but the reality is that US drones and special forces have a free run in Pakistan’s territory and more tellingly, even its army headquarters—possibly the best defended location in Pakistan—is not safe. These should be clear signals that India needs to take matters into its own hands rather than keep whimpering about Pakistan’s inaction against its terrorist strongholds.
I am not suggesting hot pursuit as an alternative to diplomacy; instead, it is a strong complementary strategy. Given our virtual encirclement by hostile forces, India does not have the luxury to endure another 26/11. The recent resolute action initiated against Naxalites clearly demonstrates that the nation has had enough. It is time to unleash the Indian wrath on the masterminds who sit in the safety of foreign shores and believe that Indians don’t strike back.
Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this fortnightly column at firstname.lastname@example.org