Commentary on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, which brought into stark focus the dangers of terrorism…
First published by the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
The Chabad House, a Jewish cultural centre at Nariman House was one of the ten pre-determined targets of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who wreaked havoc on November 26, 2008 in Mumbai. Six Israelis lost their lives in the attack, which saw a total of 174 dead. The only surviving member of the terrorist squad, Ajmal Kasab, told investigators that they were specifically told to target Jews/Israelis and other foreigners, including Americans and the British. The Times of India dated November 3, 2009 also reported that one of the terrorists holding hostages at Nariman House had called up the Israeli Ambassador to the United States and tried to bargain for the lives of the hostages in return for the release of Kasab who had been captured by the Mumbai police.
Initial Israeli Reactions
The attacks evoked widespread condemnation around the world, especially so in Israel. Initial commentary focused on the ability or the lack of it on the part of the Indian security forces in responding to the brazen attacks. However, once the scope and manner of the strikes became evident, the efforts of the Indian agencies were better appreciated. Israeli commentators urged those criticising the Indian response to place Israel’s own difficult experiences vis-à-vis terrorists in perspective. For instance, the Haaretz editorial of December 2, 2008 brought to the attention of its readers the botched hostage rescue attempt by Israeli security forces of a school taken over by terrorists in 1974 which left 22 children dead as an example of the difficulties security agencies face in such situations. Israel’s Foreign Ministry on its part clarified that “Indian security forces did everything in order to prevent harm from coming to the hostages and civilians during the storming of Chabad House.” Analysts also acknowledged the “sophisticated” nature of the Mumbai attacks, and the inherent difficulties of securing and operating inside such soft targets like hotels.
Jews/Israelis as primary and secondary targets
While Israel is no stranger to such terrorist acts, 26/11 was the first time that its citizens were attacked by Islamist militants in the Indian sub-continent. While the Pakistani establishment has been expressing concern about the burgeoning India-Israel strategic partnership – which has blossomed since both sides established diplomatic relations in 1992 – Islamist radicals on their part have voiced apprehensions about a ‘Brahmanic-Talmudic-Crusader’ alliance and the need to counter it. Expressions of hatred towards Jews (and Christians and Hindus among others) by the chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the terror outfit which carried out the attacks, is well known. Saeed has been quoted as asserting that the LeT is “part of the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” At a meeting at Lahore in September 2009, Saeed urged the Pakistan government not to appease Hindus and Jews as it would lead to the hegemony of the United States and India in the region.
Jews/Israelis were therefore both a primary as well as a secondary target for the terrorists executing the Mumbai attacks – primary targets because of the virulent hatred of Jews/Israelis preached by Islamist radicals like Saeed, and secondary because Israelis have no direct stakes in the conflict between India and Pakistan. Israeli commentators recognise this distinction and also acknowledge the limited role that the Israeli government can play in ensuring that such Jewish targets are not attacked in the future. Greater perimeter security and other measures are advocated but the impossibility of providing government protection to cultural centres like Chabad houses (as opposed to, for instance, diplomatic missions) are noted, over 3,500 of which are present throughout the world.
The Israeli Way and Its Relevance in Indian Context
Israel has a long and chequered history of following a muscular policy towards terrorists. The rescue of Israeli hostages in a daring military operation in Entebbe in 1976 – Operation Thunderbolt, is etched in popular memory as one of the defining episodes of swift, resolute action against terrorists. Mossad’s elimination of the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics massacre is also part of the folklore, as is its botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas.
The Indian government’s response during the siege and in its aftermath brought into stark notice the ‘Israeli way’ of dealing with terrorists and the perceived ‘advantages’ of such a policy. While India’s ‘measured’ response in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks has been welcomed around the world as indicative of the maturity of the Indian leadership, there has also been a growing chorus, and criticism, of New Delhi for failing to ‘show some spine’ and pay Pakistan in kind, a la Israel, at least by a symbolic strike on terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, for instance.
The Israeli experience in dealing with terror is important and needs to be critically evaluated. However, just as all politics is local, any successful counter-terror strategy needs to take into account the specificities of a given situation or incident and appropriate responses need to be chalked out, based on available capabilities. While Israeli resolve, training, high-tech security equipment are all worthy of emulation and need to be acquired, transplanting Israeli strategies onto the South Asian context may not be efficacious. While India and Israel share similar concerns – Islamist radicals and non-state terror groups – they do not share the same threats, despite the determined attempts of radicals like Saeed.
Greater collaboration in intelligence matters among other cooperative endeavours is essential and is to be welcomed. This is because of the organic linkages that exist between terror groups and the ability of specific cells within those terror groups to fund, plan, and prosecute terror strikes halfway across the world. India also may not find it effective, even if it has the political will to execute such steps, to indulge in targeted assassinations of militant leaders, like Israel does in the Gaza Strip or West Bank or in third countries. For one thing, India’s ‘Most Wanted’ are inside Pakistan, a nuclear armed and conventionally superior entity compared with the Hamas or Islamic Jihad. This of course does not exclude various options that could be pursued to deal with such elements, including greater diplomatic pressure to bring them to justice, trade or economic sanctions of varying degrees, cultivation and impregnation of assets within enemy territory for greater monitoring, surveillance, or for undertaking possible punitive actions if required and approved by the political leadership, among other measures.
Israel being a democracy and doing what it does is also not relevant in the Indian context. The reason being, India’s secular democracy is home to the world’s second largest population of Muslims and New Delhi cannot afford to undertake actions that might radicalise sections of this huge block, which will present internal security nightmares of its own. Israel has also faced issues (knife attacks, allegations of spying, plans to assassinate military leaders like Gen. Ashkenazi, among other incidents) from among some elements of its Arab population, who make up one-fifth of the total, due to its policies towards the Palestinians. Arab Israelis are also not allowed to serve in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
It is also quite not true that Israel does not negotiate with terrorists. Instances of Tel Aviv releasing prisoners in return for captured Israeli citizens or soldiers – either dead or alive, are many. For instance, Israel released over 1,000 terrorists in return for Israeli soldiers captured during the 1982 Lebanon operation. The ongoing saga regarding the captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit – who by all accounts is being held a few kilometres from the borders of the region’s sole superpower for the past two years, is indicative of the dilemmas faced by democratic governments in such situations. Public opinion continues to be a strong word in democracies and terrorists and governments, it seems, are mindful of the same audience.
The Mumbai attacks brought into stark focus the dangers of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, not just for India but for the whole world. 22 foreign nationals belonging to over 10 countries lost their lives in the attacks. The dubious distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists was exposed. While countries need to adopt each other’s best practices to deal with the hydra-headed monster called terrorism, there cannot be a magic bullet or a single successful counter-terror tactic/strategy. For instance, Audrey Kurth Cronin’s monograph Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating Al-Qaeda indicates six different pathways along which terror groups meet their end, including decapitation strikes, use of brute force, terror groups achieving their strategic objectives, negotiated settlements, implosion, and groups moving on to other malignant forms. Effective enmeshing of multiple options is crucial to ensure that the activities of terror groups waging war against India are curtailed and beaten back. Building up all-round capacities is vital, as is a vigilant security posture.