In July 1972, a nine-man team of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) deployed in Oman held out against a band of local rebels for over 6 hours until they were relieved. Conventional military wisdom advocates an attacking ratio of three to one when assaulting entrenched positions. However, the SAS commandoes held off over 300 men (a ratio of 30 to 1) and beat back several waves of attacks, killing and wounding over 80 of the rebels with a loss of just three of their own.
This incident illustrates the power of Al Qaeda and its affiliate’s recent operational strategy in which a small group of terrorists infiltrates or blasts their way inside a fortified garrison and then fights from within—inside out. This is the tactics used by the terrorists in Kashmir, by the Mumbai attackers and now the attackers of the Mehran naval air base in Pakistan. In military parlance, the manoeuvre is loosely comparable to the “turning move”, which can be implemented at a tactical level as in these instances or at a strategic level.
The essence of a “turning move” is to force the defender to turn his defences away from its original anticipated direction thus changing their strength into weakness. The Al Qaeda fighters have now mastered the ability to infiltrate a defensive position and fight outward rather than attacking the position from outside in—tactics preferred by guerillas such as Naxalites, who rely on overwhelming numbers to smother their (usually isolated) target from multiple directions.
This is clever operational strategy by Al Qaeda for many reasons. One, military bases and critical locations are well protected against full-blown conventional attacks, and require large number of terrorists and heavy-weapons support to subdue. Then, amassing such numbers in urban locations would be impossible, as urban militants need to be sophisticated to move or blend into the crowds. Hence the Al Qaeda/Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) assembly line produces a different cadre of terrorists, who are trained for “single-use” suicide missions that they are not expected to survive.
The Mehran base attack in Pakistan, essentially, reversed the SAS stand by infiltrating a group of terrorists inside a well-fortified defensive position, and then wreaking havoc from within the complex; successfully holding off repeated attacks from Pakistani forces and elite units such as the Special Services Group for over 17 hours. During this time, they could destroy strategic assets such as the Orions and by extrapolation would also have had enough time to destroy or capture assets, including nuclear weapons.
Recent Al Qaeda /affiliate’s strategy seems to favour the “turning move” even at the policy level. Historically, terrorist organizations have a tacit understanding of not carrying their battles into the region they regard as a base. In turn, the host state provides them assistance and sanctuary or at the very least looks the other way.
As Bruce Riedel, security adviser to four US presidents, observes, the Inter-Services Intelligence, especially under former Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq, created region-specific terrorist factions. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the father of the modern global Islamic jihad—and a major influence on Osama bin Laden—was encouraged to create the Markaz-ud-dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI), whose purpose was to transfer the skills learnt in the Afghan war into Kashmir. The militant wing of MDI went on to become one of the most brutal terror groups focusing on India. The deadly entourage Azzam cultivated included Osama; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the brain behind 9/11; Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and even leaders from as far as Indonesia such as Riduan Isamuddin who was later responsible for the Bali bombings.
The largely autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan gradually turned into a melting pot of global jihad with thousands of eager recruits pouring in from an estimated 43 countries, being trained and routed to carry out terrorist activities across the globe. Initially Pakistan itself was spared other than the odd attack on the more liberal politicians. But this situation changed after 9/11 when Pakistan switched loyalties with the very nation whom the jehadis abhorred.
The Al Qaeda and its affiliates realized that Pakistan provided all the elements needed to accelerate terror from within the region that created and nurtured it.
In Pakistan, they have a teetering country, a society with deep schisms, but united in their obsession with India. A geopolitically advantageous location, a fragmented military and, above all, potential access to nuclear devices. In short, the perfect environment for fomenting chaos. Al Qaeda’s overarching objective is to precipitate a deadly spiral of destabilizing events that force either the US’ or India’s hands into the regional powder keg. And the way to achieve this could be further attacks on Pakistani nuclear-asset locations or another outrage like Mumbai. If the US was sufficiently jittered about the possibility of loss of Pakistani control over the nuclear assets or India was sufficiently provoked, then the region could well go into a free fall, taking the globe with it.
And while all stakeholders, including Pakistan, must obviously work hard to prevent such occurrences, it would be prudent for India to create an environment which allows its neighbour to focus on eliminating internal threats rather than worrying about its western border.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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