Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

The grey matter of security

The grey matter of security

The global war on terror offers opportunities for imbibing lessons that other countries have learnt at high costs—often paid for in blood. The last decade of anti-terror and anti-insurgency operations conducted the world over offers valuable insights for the conduct of such operations in the future.

Historically, conflicts have had four distinct eras. After World War II, there was a race to achieve arms superiority, culminating in the nuclear détente between two superpowers and the other members of the nuclear club. The next era of the Cold War saw the superpowers’ ideologies being played out in proxy wars all over the globe. The third era was a variation of the arms race, but backed by economic power. During this, the US, under Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars" programme, broke the Soviet Union’s back by upping the economic ante so high that the Soviets couldn’t afford to stay in the game. The emerging doctrine at the end of this era was that strength ruled the world. Conventional, nuclear and economic supremacy was the strategy that guaranteed security and safety.

Photo: AFP

Though India faced challenges of secessionism, insurgency and terrorism virtually since its independence, much of the world’s attention was occupied by the US-Soviet conflict. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, terrorism and guerrilla warfare started occupying global centre stage. And while this was a game changer, the Western world relegated it to a Third World or West Asia problem.

The 9/11 attacks changed that dramatically. The much vaunted two-ocean defence assurance (the idea of being guarded by the existence of two oceans on its two sides) that the US had historically banked upon evaporated overnight. Al Qaeda showed that it was possible to strike the world’s sole remaining superpower, just like 10 years earlier the Taliban had shown that they could take on the mighty Soviet Union. And while the US responded with its own and allied military might, it was hobbled by a doctrine that was woefully out of date. Several hundred thousand troops and kilotonnes of bombs later, its enemy was very much alive and kicking. Around seven years after George W. Bush pronounced “Mission Accomplished" in 2003, the world has discovered that when it comes to terrorism, the mission itself has to be redefined. Killing insurgents does not equate to killing insurgency.

The basic strategy behind 9/11 and other terrorist incidents such as the London bombing in 2005 or the Mumbai attacks in 2008 is not new, though. They have their origins in the early 1940s when, in the midst of World War II, British Lieutenant David Stirling drew up the concept of small raiding parties (of about five highly trained and motivated commandos) being inserted deep behind enemy lines to create havoc. His idea was initially rubbished until Stirling convinced General Neil Ritchie to give him a shot. The unit he founded was called the Special Air Service, or SAS, which is considered the forerunner of Special Forces, including counterterrorist units such as GSG9 and the National Security Guard.

Raiding parties and guerrilla tactics attack the weakness of the old war doctrines. Conventional forces are useless against them because the enemy is small in number and interspersed among the local population. Guarding frontlines doesn’t help because the raiders are already inside the country. Spy satellites don’t work because they are designed to detect large formation movements, not a few men slipping through. As a matter of fact, powerful divisions, fighter aircraft and every other form of conventional weaponry is rendered impotent because they have no target to hit. And those are the same strategies utilized by terrorists, guerrillas and insurgents—from Al Qaeda to the Mumbai attackers.

Case studies of the Russian and US imbroglio in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that insurgency is a beast requiring different treatment. At the core of the problem lies the fallacy that old war doctrines will work against the “new warriors". But there are some fundamental paradigm differences between conventional and irregular war doctrines. Not surprisingly, it is the guerrillas and terrorists who have seized the initiative in leveraging these differences.

The first of these is that numerical superiority doesn’t matter much. Guerrilla tactic hinges around choosing the time and place of attack, striking hard and disappearing swiftly. This allows insurgents and terrorists to retain initiative. Since they don’t engage in pitched battles, the advantages of superior manpower or weaponry of security forces is largely nullified. The smaller size works in favour of terrorists. They can find motivated recruits easily because they need just a handful, they can train them better with frugal facilities. They don’t have to maintain establishments, fixed infrastructure or elaborate administrative echelons. And their ability to choose the target pins down security forces far in excess of the terrorists’ numbers. They know where they are going to hit, but security forces have to protect everything.

The second is their ability to work closely with ideologically similar or divergent groups spread across the world—regardless of legality and protocol. For instance, the Basque separatist groups specialized in kidnappings not just to press their political demands, but also to fund their movement to the tune of $2 billion. Terrorists can work with drug cartels, human traffickers, pirates, forgers, money launderers and other terrorist groups with different agendas—sometimes without even meeting each other. Compare that with the challenges governments face in the extradition of even known criminals between friendly nations.

In 1985, a Trans World Airlines flight from Athens was hijacked by Islamic Jihad and diverted to Algiers. A US Delta team reached the Algiers airport and was cleared by then US secretary of state George Shultz to mount a rescue attempt after negotiations with the Algerians. However, “paperwork" delayed the assault and the hijackers flew the plane to Beirut where 32 hostages were taken off and distributed in various parts of the city, making a rescue attempt impossible. The US was forced to cave in and pressurize Israel into releasing 700 prisoners. The good guys have to fight by Queensberry rules (and often fight allied and their own government’s bureaucracy as well) whereas the terrorists fight no holds barred.

The third difference is the leveraging of the media at strategic and tactical levels. The ability of the Mumbai attackers to hold the world’s attention for 72 hours was because of this, as was the ability of the handlers to direct operations at a tactical level. NSG was severely disadvantaged because of the very same reasons. A constant harangue of “10 men holding one billion people to ransom" was putting pressure on them to end the operation as soon as possible, yet any collateral damage would have been interpreted as ineptitude on their part and publicized worldwide.

The fourth and perhaps the most important game changer is that in irregular warfare, tactical and strategic aspects are fused together. In a conventional war, say, Kargil, tactical gains and losses are separated from strategic ones. Loss of a post, peak or a couple of aircraft has relatively minor effects on the overall campaign. Compare that with an atrocity such as rape or custodial death committed by a soldier in a counterinsurgency environment. The latter can inflame the entire region and result in the loss of the moral high ground and goodwill gained laboriously over the years by thousands of troops. This fusing of tactics and strategy means that every event, no matter how insignificant, has the potential of turning into a strategic blunder or immense success. Imagine what could have happened if Ajmal Kasab had not been captured alive.

Fighting a new war with old doctrines loads the dice in favour of terrorists and insurgents. To rout them, we have to attack their weakness. For all their advantages, terrorists and insurgents have one major Achilles heel: They have to depend on the environment for survival and conduct of their activities. They have to live within the society, rent places, use phones, financial networks and public transport, cross transit points and so on to remain plugged into the social ecosystem. Bomb makers have to buy chemicals, planners need to survey targets, financiers need to move funds. There are many traces of surreptitious behaviour that are buried in the information repositories of our environment, which stay buried because we are used to looking for specific tactical information within each individual repository, usually post facto.

One way to beat terrorists at their own game is to start recognizing the early warning signs by correlating discrete pieces of information and looking for tell-tale signs of their presence, preparation and action. Security forces globally are realizing the flaws of relying on silos of piecemeal data rather than aggregated information. Insightful intelligence is the product of cross-linking different sources of information rather than in-depth knowledge of just one source. Often, a single source can spur decisions that seem obvious but are actually incorrect. For instance, a well built by US forces at the centre of an Afghan village was destroyed—not by the Taliban, but by the women of the village. Before the well had been built, the women had to walk some distance to fetch water, which is exactly what they wanted because it gave them an opportunity to interact socially.

Such “tribal" and undocumented knowledge exists in abundance within the society where insurgents and terrorists operate. And the local populace is best placed to discern the earliest sign simply because they have their ear closest to the ground. The problem is that much of this knowledge exists in silos and at times individual levels. In the absence of capture and aggregation of this gold mine, security personnel are forced to look at specific instances rather than environmental trends. And this limits the search to known tactical instances that have occurred in the past, rather than strategic environmental signals that predict future risks or opportunities. So, despite the ability to respond hard, security forces simply don’t know where to respond until it is too late.

The good news is that much of this ability already exists in our country. There is a great deal of automation in different domains such as immigration, finance, banking and telecommunications. More importantly, several other domains such as vehicle registrations and train travel will have to be automated and connected to a central database for efficiency purposes in the future. So, all the information is already or soon will be available. This needs to be stitched into an analytical view that gives security forces the visibility they need to do their job. Just improving our force’s capability to respond to situations is not enough—their capability to anticipate those situations is equally important. In the war against terror, we also need John Nashs—not just John Rambos.

Raghu Raman is an expert and commentator on internal security. These are his personal views. Comment at