In what was widely reported as a “high-level discussion on the IS threat,” India’s Union Home Secretary LC Goyal recently chaired a meeting with the director-generals of police and the home secretaries of a dozen states that were seen as vulnerable to terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. Two fairly predictable solutions seem to have been proposed at the meeting: strengthening law enforcement mechanisms by sharing information, centralizing intelligence and providing police officers with specialized training; and offering a counter-narrative to the Islamic State by engaging with community elders and religious groups who can help stem the tide of radicalization.
The meeting came in the wake of a grizzly “fidayeen” attack in Gurdaspur, a modest city in the state of Punjab. The armed assault was carried out by three gunmen and ultimately resulted in seven fatalities, including four policemen. The terrorists had first opened fire on a bus coming through from Jammu and Kashmir, after which they hijacked a car and staged a brazen assault on a police station and an adjacent community health center, grievously wounding five policemen and three civilians. After a firefight that ended nearly 11 hours since the attack first began, a 28-man group from the Punjab SWAT Team killed all three assailants. About three months before the attack, the Intelligence Bureau had warned the Delhi Police that a fidayeen attack was being plotted by the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed against the capital city.
Indian law enforcement is no stranger to this trend. But what exactly is a fidayeen attack? The Lashkar-ei-Toiba pioneered this style against India, frequently using armed gunmen to launch devastating assaults on military targets. Sometimes misconstrued as suicide terrorism, it is a model of assault in which a small cluster of well-trained commandos engage in fierce combat with a selected target, wreaking as much havoc as possible. It is not a suicide attack per se, as the goal of the assailant is not to die but to inflict as many casualties as possible before succumbing to injuries or escaping. While far more difficult to execute than a bomb blast or rural ambush, it attracts unprecedented media attention and strikes a more critical blow against the psyche of the nation and its population.
Though such attacks have been common for more than a decade, it was not until the 26/11 slaughter in Mumbai that the potential for using this model to hold an entire city under siege came to the fore. Jihadist groups all over the world have emulated it since then, most notably in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Urban terrorism has become a vital emerging trend in global security, and there are strong indicators to suggest that the dominant form of terrorism in the decades to come will play out in prominent cities in the developing world. As a particularly juicy target for fidayeen assaults in the foreseeable future, Indian policymakers are grappling with the frustrating task of preparing the Indian security apparatus for this looming storm. With the increasing sophistication of jihadist fighters, every state (or even city) in the country might eventually find itself requiring an effective first-response team that is trained and armed to deal with fidayeen attacks, in order to minimize casualties and neutralize the threat as swiftly as possible.
The public discourse is not making things any easier. The heated national debate surrounding the execution of Yakub Memon has demonstrated that there is still a strong divide in the country (at least amongst those who are politically vocal) regarding the overall question of how terrorism must be dealt with by the government. With a self-proclaimed nationalist party like the BJP in power, with the third largest Muslim population (mostly Sunni) in the world, and with media powerhouses that have been criticized for irresponsible reporting on security issues, any news story has the potential to polarize communities. Despite the high-level meeting’s emphasis on engaging with Muslim leaders to prevent radicalization, the propaganda might of a transnational outfit like the Islamic State will still be formidable. Over 800 people have been arrested by law enforcement in connection with Islamic extremism since the 26/11 attacks, revealing a disturbing picture.
The Indian establishment’s long-standing claim that Pakistan is the patron of fidayeen attacks complicates its foreign-policy ambitions as well. It is no secret that Prime Minster Narendra Modi is keen on establishing India as a robust player in world affairs; a proud nation not to be trifled with. To achieve this, the new government has flexed its muscles extraterritorially on two occasions – a “hot pursuit” operation where strikes were conducted against Marxist terrorists on Myanmar’s territory, and Operation Safe Homecoming, India’s high-profile evacuation of over 15,000 nationals in the midst of Libya’s civil war. While both operations brought positive and negative facets of Indian foreign policy to the fore, the government has been unable to act as decisively against Pakistan.
As recently as August 5, a terrorist combatant allegedly from Faisalabad, Pakistan was captured alive by security forces after a fidayeen attack on a Border Security Force convoy that killed two soldiers. So far, there is no indication from the Indian government that a robust response is even being considered. While it is in the interests of both nations to avoid a full blown war, the fact that India must restrain itself against Pakistan to a larger extent than with other nations is a thorn in the establishment and erodes its credibility as a superpower whose foreign policy is vital to regional geopolitics, like China or Russia. If the spate of fidayeen attacks sponsored by elements in Pakistan increases as some predict, India will have to act more decisively.
Be it foreign or security policy, India’s fidayeen woes thus seem to be spiraling alarmingly. While such attacks are being plotted and repelled on a regular basis, it only needs one grand Mumbai-style assault to transform the discourse entirely. More than any of the other issues that are widely reported and debated, how India deals with this specific avatar of terrorism will determine how committed the Narendra Modi government is to establishing an effective national security regime and projecting India as a regional power to be respected by its neighbors.
Nilanthan Niruthan is a security analyst and researcher currently involved with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. He is the co-editor of two upcoming publications on counterinsurgency and security in South Asia.