Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar for the first time. The grandeur and the serenity did not dilute the fact that this temple has the unique distinction of affecting the destiny of our nation in a manner whose aftermath is felt even a quarter century later.
Since I had gone to my unit for its silver jubilee celebrations, I was with many officers on this yatra. Because we were soldiers, there was no way we could not contemplate Operation Bluestar from a purely tactical angle. And as a natural extension, think about the origin and the challenges of dealing with extremist organizations. Almost as an answer, Tomar, one of my company commanders, recounted this story from Hindu mythology.
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Bhasmasur, a demon from the netherworld, sought powers that would enable him to achieve dominance over the three worlds. His penance paid off with Shiva granting him a boon. Bhasmasur asked for the ability to destroy anyone he touched on the head. Impressed by Bhasmasur’s devotion and convinced of his loyalty, Shiva acceded. No sooner had he done so, the demon wanted to test his powers on Shiva himself and the latter had to flee to save his life. Bhasmasur chased Shiva to kill him and take his wife Parvati for himself. In sheer desperation, Shiva, the feared destroyer, had to flee and seek refuge from Vishnu.
Demons who get their powers from the benign and then turn on the very people who supported or created them, are not new. The Taliban, the creation of the US and Pakistan, has done a Bhasmasur on its sponsors. The recent spate of attacks on Pakistani establishments is a clear indication of the demon crossing its threshold and going for the jugular of its creator.
While a lot of time is spent on studying the rise of terrorist organizations, it is equally instructive to analyse their demise. Most terrorist outfits lose their edge and deteriorate when their leaders can be made to stray from the core values or strategy that established them in the first place. Equally often, the larger-than-life image of an individual leader makes the organization vulnerable to a single point of failure. The Khalistan movement and, more recently, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are good examples of how strong, well-supported movements can be systematically defeated and destroyed by targeting the fountainhead or the leaders, rather than just the frontline soldiers.
Let’s consider the LTTE, for instance. V. Prabhakaran created the movement almost single-handedly. His leadership prowess had been equated with legends of guerilla warfare such as Ahmad Shah Masood, Che Guevara and even Osama bin Laden. His writ ran for around two decades (about 10 years more than Hitler’s) and he had the charismatic ability to inspire women to join his armed cadre, a feat that few terrorist movements can boast of. He created the concept of suicide bombing as a force multiplier and a game changer. By any standard, Prabhakaran was a formidable leader and built a redoubtable organization.
Yet during later years, the Sri Lankan forces could leverage the fact that the LTTE and Prabhakaran strayed from the core tenets of guerilla warfare. Instead of fighting a mobile war, consisting of hit-and-run tactics, the LTTE started getting attached to the comforts of static bases. From an inspirational leader who led from the front, Prabhakaran’s image was transformed into an opulent intransigent despot, who wanted Eelam—or nothing. The very Tamils he was supposed to be fighting for were bearing the brunt of atrocities caused by his inflexibility. Any dissidence against his style of command was brutally purged, thus, decimating his second line of leadership. This proved to be the LTTE’s Waterloo when it was isolated in pockets during the endgame.
The Punjab terrorist movement was demolished very similarly. The government leveraged the fact that ideology had waned and racketeering was flourishing.
An essential lifeblood of terrorist and insurgency movements is the need for tacit or overt local support. Every atrocity committed by security forces strengthens the support base for the terrorist movement, which is why terrorists often provoke security forces into reprisals against innocent population. Terror groups also have sophisticated spin doctors who present skewed views to garner support, influence opinion or mobilize funds.
While the security forces must tackle the frontline insurgents with force, the government needs to leverage instruments of transparency to demonstrate its own intent and methodology and expose the dark side of terrorism.
War in any form is a dirty business. The standards imposed on government forces are extraordinarily stringent compared with those they are battling—and it should rightly be so. But at the same time, the media and independent observers must wield their influence to disclose the instigators of terrorist movements through unbiased lenses.
Coming back to Shiva’s predicament, Vishnu realized that tackling Bhasmasur required astuteness rather than force. He took the avatar of the beautiful Mohini and began seducing the demon, challenging him to a dance. Enraptured by Mohini’s beauty and blinded by his lust, Bhasmasur started aping Mohini’s moves until she placed her hand on her own head. Bhasmasur followed suit and was instantly reduced to ashes. Perhaps there lies a lesson in dealing with terrorism.
The strategy to deal with asymmetric warfare necessitates adoption of correspondingly wily tactics. “Hit and run” guerillas need to be countered by “search and destroy” missions. When terrorists attack unsuspecting innocents, the establishment needs to respond with hot pursuit operations. Every attempt of the terrorists to demonstrate their capability to strike at will has to be replied with an equally befitting response right up to their leadership and sponsors.
Fighting the guerillas’ battle on their terms is a prolonged and a debilitating exercise, but if the establishment could leverage its capability to wean away their support bases, incapacitate their leadership capability and force them to dance to a different tune, the demons’ powers could well prove to be their downfall.
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.
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