Originally Published 2005-07-11 10:15:47 Published on Jul 11, 2005
In the recent history of terrorism, there have been four instances of well-planned, well-executed and well-synchronised multiple explosions by terrorist groups causing large casualties. These are the explosions in Mumbai (Bombay) in March,1993, which killed over 200 innocent civilians, at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in February,1998,
London Blasts: An Analysis
In the recent history of terrorism, there have been four instances of well-planned, well-executed and well-synchronised multiple explosions by terrorist groups causing large casualties. These are the explosions in Mumbai (Bombay) in March,1993, which killed over 200 innocent civilians, at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in February,1998, which killed about 40 innocent civilians, at Madrid in Spain in March 2004, which killed 191 innocent civilians and at London on July 7,2005, which have killed about 50 innocent civilians.

All these explosions were organised by angry Muslims. The Mumbai explosions were organised by a group of angry Muslims, with no previous history of involvement in terrorism. They were enraged over the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by a Hindu mob in December,1992, and the failure of the Mumbai Police to protect the Muslims during the communal clashes that followed. They were motivated to retaliate by Dawood Ibrahim, the leader of a trans-national mafia group, and got trained in Pakistan by its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The explosions were the outcome of an intense anger collectively felt by a group of young Muslims.

The explosives, the detonators and the chemical timers used in the explosions were given by the ISI to Dawood who had them shipped and landed at a clandestine point on the Indian coast, with the alleged complicity of some local officials, who had apparently been bribed by him to close their eyes to the landing. The officials did not know that the clandestine consignments consisted of explosives, which were meant to be used for a terrorist strike in Mumbai.

The Coimbatore blasts were also organised by a group of young Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, who were enraged over the destruction of the Babri Masjid and over the alleged excesses committed by the local Police against young Muslims, who had taken to violence in protest against the Babri Masjid demolition. The perpetrators of the Coimbatore explosions had a previous history of involvement in conscious acts of political and religious violence and belonged to an organisation called the Al Ummah. They had reportedly procured the explosives, the detonators and the timers used by them either for money from legitimate users of industrial explosives or through theft from such users.

The Madrid blasts were the handiwork of a group of angry Muslims---many of them of Moroccan origin-- subscribing to the extreme fundamentalist Salafi beliefs. They shared the intense rage in the Islamic world over the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and in the Muslim community in Spain over the participation of Spanish troops in the Iraqi occupation. Even though they were not members of the Al Qaeda, they subscribed to Osama bin Ladedn's pan-Islamic ideas advocating the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate in the Ummah. Like bin Laden and his Al Qaeda, they also believed that the Ummah had a rightful, historic claim to parts of Spain, if not to the entire country. Like the members of the Al Ummah of Tamil Nadu, they would also seem to have procured the explosives used by them locally from legitimate users of industrial explosives.

The investigation into the London blasts are still in the initial stages. The perpetrators have not yet been identified by the Police. It has not yet been established what kind of explosives they used and how and where they procured them. Most probably, these too were procured locally. Ever since bin Laden came on the world scene in February,1998, his anger had been directed not only against the US and Israel, but also against the UK because of its close relations with the USA and its uncritical support for US policies. Another reason for the anger against the UK is historic, namely, its perceived responsibility for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

All these four instances had certain common factors:

  • An intense anger in sections of the local Muslim community, though the reasons for the anger were not common. In the case of the Mumbai and Coimbatore blasts, the reasons were purely domestic and had no pan-Islamic angle. The perpetrators of the Mumbai and Coimbatore explosions were giving vent to the anger felt by them. The explosions were tactical acts of reprisal, which had no strategic objective, though Pakistan had a strategic objective in instigating and supporting them. In the case of the Madrid---and possibly London too---blasts, the reasons for the anger were largely pan-Islamic and hardly domestic. These explosions were not only tactical acts of reprisal. They also had a strategic objective---the ultimate correction of the wrongs committed to the Ummah and the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate. 
  • Individuals, who had no legitimate grounds for possessing explosives, managed to procure them without being detected by the Police and the security agencies. In the case of the Mumbai explosions, the explosives, the detonators and the timers were supplied by the ISI, but in the case of the Coimbatore and Madrid explosions, the explosives were procured from commercial/industrial sources, which failed to alert the police. 

In the case of these multiple explosions as well as the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, one noticed a disturbing apathy on the part of certain individuals/ establishments, who were not associated with terrorism, which made these terrorist strikes possible. As already mentioned, the individuals/establishments from which the perpetrators of the Coimbatore and the Madrid blasts procured the explosives failed to alert the police. In the case of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, 19 Arabs, with no flying background, who did not belong to any airline company and who had no aspirations of becoming commercial pilots, joined flying training schools in the US and underwent training in piloting wide-bodied commercial aircraft. Some of them reportedly wanted to be trained only on a simulator on how to pilot an aircraft after it had taken off. It did not occur to any of these institutions to immediately alert the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Presently, the Police and the security agencies all over the world educate the public on the need to be vigilant and the importance of alerting the police when they notice any suspicious-looking object. It is equally important to educate the public and all legitimate producers and users of explosives and arms and ammunition on the need to alert the police whenever anyone not having legitimate grounds for possessing explosives or other material capable of being used in acts of terrorism tries to procure them. Rules for the reporting of thefts of explosives have to be tightened up and strictly enforced.

The perpetrators of the Mumbai and the Coimbatore blasts used conventional timers. The terrorists of Mumbai got their timers, which were of American origin, from the ISI. The Coimbatore terrorists procured them from commercial sources. The perpetrators of the Madrid blasts reportedly used mobile phones for triggering the explosions. One does not as yet know how the perpetrators of the London blasts triggered the explosions.

Mobile telephones and the Internet have become important tools in the hands of the terrorists, thereby considerably adding to the difficulties of the counter-terrorism agencies. While both are used for clandestine communication purposes, the mobile telephones are also used by many terrorist organisations for the remote-controlled activation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Pakistan introduced mobile telephones long before India. In 1994-95, there was a major outbreak of terrorism in Karachi. The Pakistani security agencies faced considerable difficulty in dealing with the terrorists, who used stolen mobiles for communicating with each other. They used to talk to each other only while moving around in vehicles and avoided using the mobiles from fixed places. This made it almost impossible to localise them, even if their conversations were intercepted. On the advice of the ISI, Mrs.Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, banned the mobiles. This facilitated the identification and arrests of a number of terrorists by the Pakistani agencies, which managed to bring the situation under control within a few months.

In 1995, when the Government of India was contemplating the introduction of mobiles, I wrote a personal letter to Mr.Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister, from my retirement pointing out the security hazards of mobile telephones and gave the example of what was happening in Karachi. He sent an official of the intelligence community to discuss the matter with me in detail.

Before allowing the mobile telephones, the Government of India laid down certain precautions to be observed by the phone companies for the identity and residence verification of the applicants. Instances of the misuse of mobile telephones for causing explosions have till now been rare in India as compared to other countries which had introduced them long before India without laying down such security precautions. As a result, they are finding themselves handicapped in dealing with terrorism.

Another problem relating to mobile phones came to the fore in London after the blasts. There were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of telephone calls, which literally paralysed the mobile services. In his press conference of July 8, the Commissioner of Police of London stated that the Police had seriously considered suspending all mobile services, but decided not to do so lest it further shake the already shaken confidence of the public.

At a regional conference attended by me last April, a retired official of the US intelligence community pointed out how globalisation, the mobile telephones and the Internet have facilitated the depredations of the terrorists and added to the difficulties of the counter-terrorism agencies in countering them. This is a problem to which no satisfactory solution would appear to have so far been found by any security agency in the world. This is a matter, which needs priority attention from policy-makers and national security managers.

In my writings, I make a distinction between the Al Qaeda's General Headquarters (GHQ), headed by bin Laden, which are located in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the national branches of the Al Qaeda in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen and the constituent units of the International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People fromed by bin Laden in February,1998. Till 2003, the activities of the IIF were being co-ordinated by the Al Qaeda's GHQ. Since the middle of 2003, the IIF's activities are being co-ordinated by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), a Pakistani jihadi organisation, from its headquarters at Muridke, near Lahore.

Five Pakistani jihadi organisations are members of the IIF---the LET, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-Al Islami (HUJI), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). The LEJ is essentially an anti-Shia terrorist organisation, whose activities are largely confined to Pakistan, but it has followers in Europe and has reportedly been in receipt of funds from anti-Shia Sunnis of Pakistani origin living in the UK and Portugal. The LET has reportedly sleeper cells in the UK and the HUM in the USA. These organisations are also active in South-East Asia, the Central Asian Republics and Chechnya.

As one might have noticed from my articles written since 1998,I have never subscribed to the view of Western experts that all Jihadi terrorist strikes were carried out by the Al Qaeda. I make a distinction between the Al Qaeda and the IIF, which is a united front of like-minded jihadi terrorist organisations of different countries.

The Al Qaeda is a largely, if not exclusively, Arab organisation. In my assessment, the GHQ of the Al Qaeda has so far carried out only three attacks on its own---the strikes in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, the attack on USS Cole in October 2000 and 9/11 in US. The plans for these attacks were centrally conceived, co-ordinated and got executed by the Al Qaeda GHQ under the supervision of bin Laden. The attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are being carried out by the local branches of the Al Qaeda, largely on their own. They are tactically autonomous, but strategically and ideologically under the control of the Al Qaeda GHQ.

All other attacks such as those in India, Bali, Mombasa, Casablanca, Istanbul and Madrid were and are being carried out by various organisations, many of them non-Arab, which intensely share the anti-US anger of bin Laden and subscribe to his dream of the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate similar to the old Ottoman Empire. Everywhere except in Iraq, these organisations consist of local Muslims enraged against the US and belonging to local or regional organisations forming part of the IIF. In Iraq, the terrorists are largely outsiders, most of whom project themselves as members of the Al Qaeda. In India, we have had no Al Qaeda strike, but we have had many terrorist strikes by Pakistani jihadi organisations, which are members of the IIF.

In my assessment on the basis of indicators available till now, the London blasts seem to have been carried out by local Muslims, associated with the IIF, trained in Pakistan and motivated by the widespread anti-US anger. The London blasts were carried out not because of the UK Govt's policies towards the local Muslims, but because of its close association with the US and its uncritical support to US policies.

What we have been witnessing since 1998 is a myriad jihadi organisations, all sharing a common anti-US anger, tactically operating autonomously in the areas to which they belong and strategically co-operating with each other as members of the IIF.

Al Qaeda and the national and regional jihadi organisations, which form part of the IIF, have two types of members. Those who are earmarked for logistical tasks and those earmarked for carrying out terrorist strikes. Those earmarked for logistical tasks are repeatedly used so long as they are alive and remain uncaptured. Those earmarked for carrying out terrorist strikes are sparingly used, in order to prevent their being identified by the security agencies of the countries in which they operate. Many of them die in their very first mission as suicide bombers. Others employed on missions not involving suicide terrorism are not given another operational role for a long time after they successfully carry out their mission. One, therefore, finds that many of the jihadis participating in terrorist strikes, either on suicide missions or on missions not involving suicide, are first-time participants. This makes identification difficult.

Osama bin Laden's present role in the Al Qaeda and the IIF is confined to target-country -indication, ideological motivation and pepping up the morale. Once a target-country is indicated, it is left to organisations having a capability for clandestine operations in that country to plan and carry out the terrorist strike in that country. bin Laden and the Al Qaeda GHQ need not necessarily be aware of the details of the planning and the progress of its implementation till the strike is actually carried out.

The UK has been figuring as a target country in his messages ever since 9/11, but the responsibility for planning and executing the terrorist strikes in the UK would have been left to whoever had the capability of doing so. It is, therefore, quite likely that bin Laden and his GHQ would not have been aware of which organisation ---Al Qaeda itself or one of the members of the IIF --- carried out the London blasts and the identities of the individuals involved.

The target-countries designated by bin Laden fall into two categories. The so-called crusader countries such as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Australia and the apostate countries, which are the Muslim countries, which are perceived as co-operating with the crusader countries. Amongst the apostate countries so far indicated by him as targets are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Many individual Muslims perceived as co-operating with the crusaders are also designated as apostate targets.

While a lot of general intelligence about likely attacks in the countries designated by bin Laden and the Al Qaeda GHQ as targets is often available before the attacks matetrialise, intelligence agencies have been facing difficulties in collecting specific intelligence as to when, where, how and through whom the attacks would materialise. Till they are able to overcome these difficulties, jihadi terrorism will continue to pose a major threat to the international peace and security as well as to the national security of the individual countries targeted.

Since inadequate preventive intelligence would continue to dog these countries, effective physical security, which would prevail even in the absence of specific intelligence, is the only way of denying success to the jihadi terrorists. The only way of operationally prevailing over jihadi terrorism is to target and eliminate the leaders one by one, effectively deny success to their foot-jihadis and take punitive action against their State sponsors. If this is achieved, jihadi terrorism will wither away. However, the process of withering away is still a long way off. 

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected].

Source: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper no. 1452, July 9, 2005

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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