Construct of a terrorist attack and the next steps

Construct of a terrorist attack and the next steps

Intelligence analysts begin their assessment of such events by answering three fundamental questions. Firstly, who has the capability? Secondly, que bono?—who benefits?—and thirdly, what is likely to happen next. Answering the first two questions usually gives a fair idea of the third.

The benchmarks of terrorist operations are synchronization, speed of execution, complexity of the mission and the end objectives.

Let’s examine these in some detail. There were at least three-four sub-units with distinctly different targets. These targets were tactical and diversionary such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Leopold Cafe, strategic such as Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and Oberoi hotel and surgical strikes such as Nariman House. Synchronizing diverse categories of strikes down to an hour in conjunction with other diversions such as bombs in taxies, demonstrate abilities of a high degree.

Consider the number of plans that had to be synchronized for such an operation to be mounted and a clearer picture emerges.

At least five to eight executive teams were needed to effect such an operation.

Firstly, adequate number of motivated assets had to be found within the talent pool. Then they had to be trained for months, for the sea crossing, insertion into hostile territory, identifying targets, overcoming preliminary resistance and accomplishing the mission. They needed to be given intelligence, reconnaissance inputs, local logistics and communication support. The attacks had to be simultaneous to debilitate resources of anti-terrorist forces and yet had to be in common vicinity to facilitate a single insertion point.

Selection of the Taj and Oberoi, as against say an Intercontinental or President, shows the intent to give the terrorist more operating space, and thus a larger window to cause damage and hold media attention. The surgical strike at Nariman House was to send a strong message to Israel since these assets would have been far more damaging in casualty terms in another hotel or office complex. Plus improvization that indicates higher calibre of leadership. (The capture of boats for the last mile connectivity was certainly an improvization because something went wrong. One doesn’t launch an operation across hundreds of kilometres into hostile territory hoping to find a boat that can be commandeered.)

All in all, a complex operation and well executed.

Which brings us back, to the first question. Who has the capability? The process of elimination based on elements of the operation brings it down to just three or four organizations. Of which, two, Naxalites and Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, can be eliminated because their modus operandi does not warrant such attacks. So let us subject the two remaining organizations with the second question. Who benefits?

We find the answer to that question by answering another question? What did the terrorists want to achieve?

What they did was obvious. They stormed four locations and killed scores of victims. They held the nation to ransom. They were on TV for over three days. But let us see what they did not do. They did not hold hostages, and they did not intend to. Hostage takers do not indiscriminately cause collateral damage ab initio because that reduces the pressure on the state to save the lives of the remaining hostages. They were not aiming for highest possible casualties. Bombs in crowded places are a much better bet to achieve that objective. So just what did the terrorists want to achieve?

The answer lies in asking how India feels in the aftermath of the incident. The unanimous consensus is summed up in one word—outraged! And when you put that hypothesis, everything falls into place. No hostages, no demands, just seemingly meaningless slaughter. Deep inside the nation’s backyard, multiple strikes, gunning down expats, Israelis, 62 hours of mayhem, every minute of it televised, leaves a very angry nation in its wake.

So who benefits from an angry and outraged nation? When a nation is outraged, it needs to lash out. At its leadership or at someone else, or both. People have indeed lashed out out at the leadership. Heads have rolled and the citizenry is demanding more.

But the interesting question is—who would India lash out at externally? After the Parliament attack in 2001, the Indian leadership mobilized the defence forces into a precarious détente that lasted over eight months. What if that happened again? Pakistan would have no choice but to reposition its troops to its eastern border to counter the Indian mobilization, which means it would denude the area which Al Qaeda has used as its base—and which was rapidly becoming their death knell between the US troops on one side and the Pakistani army on the other.

The Indian leadership cannot be seen as weak and doing nothing. At the very least, it would need to mobilize the Indian forces. Last time this happened in 2001, the Bush administration was very much in command with Pervez Musharraf controlling the Pakistani forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence. Now, there is no one in charge—in either the US or in Pakistan. When two traditionally hostile nuclear armies mobilize, provocation overcomes logic. Caught between the Pakistani army and the US troops (who incidentally want to wind up operations in Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan as per President-elect Barack Obama’s agenda), the best option for Al Qaeda would be to start a provocation between a nation that has just gone through an ineffectual election and the other which is going into one—with the only mediator busy with the aftermath of its own. A brilliant move.

What does all this mean for India? In the backdrop of the poor record in the financial crisis and internal security performance, the government will have to take concrete steps for a nation that is baying for blood. While rational elements will try to activate the back channels, it will be in Al Qaeda’s interests to maintain the momentum driven by bloodthirstiness. And the obvious way to do that would be to keep India reeling under a secondary wave of attacks. It is time for India to look beyond the obvious reactions to this event and understand the forces which are driving our actions at this stage.

And so, where do we begin? The answer lies in the basic construct of the attacks. This attack would not have been possible without local support, logistics and intelligence. And that is the place to start the counter-attack. Political patronage has long shielded the nexus of the local mafia and terrorist elements. Landing points in ports, laundered money, safe houses, immunity from the police and local logistics all need active support of criminal elements and political patronage. There is evidence to prove that we have information about exactly who these elements are and who safeguards them. The answer to India’s battlefronts lies much closer than the jingoists would have us believe. It is time that India started with liquidating the enemy within.

India simply needs to make it horribly expensive for any politico-criminal nexus to even consider the option of being anti-national. Channelling all our anger against this single point should be our counter-attack.

Raghu Raman is chief executive of Mahindra Special Services Group, India’s leading corporate risk consulting firm that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at