Counterterrorism: The Way Ahead – Analysis


By Ajai Sahni

India has experienced dramatic relief on the terrorism and insurgency fronts over the past years, if one goes by fatality statistics and other outward manifestations of these disturbances alone. From a peak of some 5,839 terrorism-insurgency1 linked fatalities across the country in 2001, this total fell to just 1,074 in 2011, and currently stands at 723 in 2012 (till November 18).2 There are, however, a wide range of troubling indices that suggest that this relief may be temporary; that the conditions, incentives and motives – both domestic and external – that gave rise to past cycles of armed violence, have not been addressed or neutralized; and, indeed, that many of these factors have seen, and some will continue to register, a measurable deterioration.3

Within most systems in chronic crisis – and India has long been one – there is a proclivity to respond only to the most urgent and proximate of challenges, and to lapse into complacence or neglect, once the emergency appears to have passed. Such an approach can only be unfortunate and would find the system quickly immersed in new problems that it remains unprepared for. The current lull in visible violence, consequently, is best viewed as an opportunity to equip and prepare the system to confront future risks and threats.

The assessment of the future threat of terrorism – and consequently the formulation of policies, strategies and tactics of response – is, however, an inexact and uncertain undertaking. This becomes more acutely the case the longer the time frame of projection. At the level of national policy and strategy, including the acquisition of capabilities, the creation of capacities, and the formulation of paradigms of response, the task is complicated even further by the conundrum that threat perceptions – at least at the popular, public, and often even political, level – decline dramatically, both if a country’s counter-terrorism (CT) policy and strategy is successful, or if extraneous factors result in any sharp decline in visible terrorist activities; either of these eventualities makes significant commitment of resources to the CT apparatus difficult to justify. However, even marginal diminutions – or even stagnation – in CT capabilities can expose the system to major future risk. As one commentator argues, “Terrorists are like sharks in water; if they stop, they do not succeed”;4 a natural corollary is that CT capabilities and capacities must, similarly, have a dynamic forward movement that matches, indeed, outstrips, the constant evolution and reinvention of terrorist capabilities.

Crucially, moreover, the task of assessment is made infinitely more difficult as a result of radical non-linearity. While the overwhelming proportion of terrorist threats tend to follow visible trends and are, consequently, in some measure, predictable, there is inevitably the occasional ‘black swan’, the unprecedented and, as a result, substantially unpredictable, occurrence that often takes the security and intelligence establishment completely by surprise.

Nonlinearity, within this context, can encompass a wide range of variables. New theatres of rapidly escalating conflict may emerge, often with apparent suddenness, or at least well before the policy establishment has had sufficient time to acknowledge the trend and prepare a response. Violent movements may crystallize around ideologies, or around new ideological hybrids, or around diverse elements of identity, which have not been associated with such manifestation, at least in the recent past. Existing terrorist formations may engineer organisational, structural or strategic-tactical shifts that take their target systems by surprise. New technologies, or fresh access to existing technologies, may result in augmentations of capacity and lethality that, in themselves, represent a paradigm shift. It is useful, in this context, to recall the observation of the Report of the 9/11 Commission: “The 9/11 attack was an event of surpassing disproportion.”5 The sheer scale of an attack, in itself, may signal a paradigm shift and constitute a variable that catches a state off guard.

Whether trends in terrorism are broadly linear – involving identified groups in known theatres, deploying technologies and tactics that are not unfamiliar – or non-linear, terrorism, by its very nature, does not easily lend itself to rational evaluation. Critics have described the post-9/11 global scenario as an age of paranoia, of rising and intrusive surveillance, of arbitrary arrests and detentions across the world. The threat of terrorism, it is argued, has been vastly exaggerated; the present age is, in reality, an era of unprecedented peace.6 Reactions to major terrorist attacks in the past and projections of future terrorism scenarios – including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) terrorism – have been dismissed as ‘fear mongering’ and ‘doomsday distractions’,7 with a suggestion that the manipulation of popular sentiment on these grounds has played an essential part in furthering dubious domestic or international political agendas. It has thus been argued, for instance, that President Vladimir Putin used the public revulsion, horror and sense of insecurity provoked by the Beslan Schoolhouse attack8 to justify and push through sweeping legislative transformations to impose “a unified executive power vertical” across the country, including the direct appointment, ‘ratified by local assemblies’ of regional leaders, instead of their democratic election; and the transformation of single constituency elections to Parliament, to a system based on party lists.9 Indeed, it is asserted, in a wider context, “Post-Soviet super-presidentialism in Russia begins with counterterrorism in the North Caucasus.”10 In his logic, however, “Putin is simply using the same indiscriminate discourse championed by the Bush administration after 9/11…”11 Another commentator argues, “In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush shredded the U.S. Constitution, trampled on the Bill of Rights, discarded the Geneva Conventions, and heaped scorn on the domestic torture statute…”12 Bush also launched two major wars, one – in Iraq – on manifestly specious grounds and fabricated ‘intelligence’ on terrorism and WMD capabilities. In India, public and political anxieties over the 26/11 attacks in particular, and terrorism in general, have been exploited to surreptitiously alter the Constitutional distribution of powers between the Centre and the States.13

There are undercurrents of truth in these arguments and contentions. Compared to the great wars and conflicts of the past,14 the ‘mere thousands’ presently killed by modern terrorist movements across the world each year can easily seem insignificant. Such a perspective, however, fails to accommodate the catastrophic impact of acts of terrorism on their target systems and far beyond. 9/11 was, by far, the single worst incident of terrorism the modern world has seen, with 2,973 fatalities;15 but this number would be dwarfed to insignificance by the death toll in numberless individual battles through history. Yet, few single battles in history would compare in their global geopolitical impact with the fallout of this catastrophic terror attack, executed by much less than a single military platoon16 and at an estimated cost of between USD 400,000 to USD 500,000.17 It is not the intention to go into any further examination of the rippling global impact of the 9/11 attacks, but it can safely be said that this single incident fundamentally altered almost every aspect of the prevailing geopolitical structure of power and of the global economy, and its accumulating consequences will continue to be felt across the world long into the future.

It is useful to examine 9/11 a little further to see how major escalations or transformations in terrorism take target states by surprise and find CT Forces and agencies unprepared. In its executive summary, the 9/11 Commission described the attacks as “a shock, not a surprise”18 and its final report listed a long chain of precedent events that gave ample warning of the imminence and even the possible pattern of attacks. The Commission identified at least 10 “Operational Opportunities”19 that were lost by intelligence and enforcement agencies “drowning in information” in the immediate run-up to the multiple hijackings.20In a chapter titled “The System was Blinking Red”, the Commission observed:

As 2001 began, counterterrorism officials were receiving frequent but fragmentary reports about threats. Indeed, there appeared to be possible threats almost everywhere the United States had interests – including at home.21

By June-July 2001, the Commission noted, the CIA monitoring of al Qaeda indicated that the members of the terrorist organisation believed an attack was imminent, and that “the upcoming attack would be “‘spectacular’, qualitatively different from anything they had done to date”.22 Indeed, on August 6, 2001, the Presidential Daily Brief prepared by the CIA for President George W. Bush was titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US”.23 Further,

On 9/11, the 19 hijackers were screened by a computer-assisted screening system called CAPPS. More than half were identified for further inspection, which applied only to their checked luggage.”24

Crucially, after documenting the entire range of institutional and procedural lacunae in the system, the Commission concluded that there had been a “‘failure of imagination’ and a mind-set that dismissed possibilities…”25

In the last phrase we have the key to understanding past failures, and to constructing future strategies to counter the dynamic enterprise of continuous terrorist reinvention. The adversary’s imagination is not constrained by established norms, procedures, institutional structures, laws, moral scruples – even his natural sentiment of humanity has substantially been distorted. The state and its agencies, on the other hand, are shackled by numberless chains of structure, tradition, process, and, crucially, mind-set. William S. Lind evocatively sums up the asymmetry noting that “our Fourth Generation adversaries… have ‘flat,’ cooperative organizations while we are stuck with industrial-age, bureaucratic hierarchies. In effect, they are the free market while we represent the centrally-planned Soviet economy.”26 The first and most urgent task of future CT is to develop the mindset that can effectively challenge and counter the surging and relentless energy, vigour, motivation and inventiveness of the adversary.

Such a mindset cannot be created by exhortations alone. A flexibility of approach and the exploration of alternatives will have to be built into institutions and processes. The most fundamental condition for improving the work of intelligence analysis, assessment and risk projection (and of subsequent effective response) is the creation of institutional environments in which perspectives can be explicitly and fearlessly questioned, and where attitudes of openness and efforts to develop knowledge, skills and understanding are strongly encouraged. With rare exception, this is not the case within the security and intelligence establishment in India (and indeed, in most countries across the world) today. ‘Alternative analysis’ and its component techniques need to be incorporated, not only into the training of all security and intelligence professionals, but into their daily practices. These techniques “help analysts and policy makers stretch their thinking through structured techniques that challenge underlying assumptions and broaden the range of possible outcomes considered.”27 Indeed, looking at the catastrophic potential of WMD terrorism, the US WMD Commission called upon the Government to “institute a formal system for competitive—and even explicitly contrarian—analysis”.28

An essential aspect of an institutional structure committed to these tasks, and an increasingly indispensable core of the larger intelligence and enforcement systems, is the necessity of creating permanent cadres of skilled specialists. The present systems, dominated by ‘generalists’ who are shuffled about at random, even within specialized agencies, can only lead us into more and more spectacular failures. The sheer volume of background information, the quanta of experience and the grounding in strategy, tactics, and operational lore that are necessary even to make competent assessments of contemporary developments and current flows of intelligence, are simply too great to be absorbed by cadres who are moved about between unrelated responsibilities every few years. Indeed, the degrees of specialization necessary in virtually every discipline, today, make it impossible to command required levels of expertise and competence in any more than a couple of narrowly defined spheres of study or operation. It is impossible to continue to run Governments, in general, and security and intelligence operations, in particular, through institutions and processes that militate against this basic reality of contemporary knowledge systems. Manpower profiles and skill management within Government, and the security and intelligence apparatus will have to undergo a comprehensive makeover, if they are to cope with the challenges of contemporary and future terrorism.

The tasks of assessment and response to the evolving threat of terrorism, however, cannot wait on these vital transformations and, indeed, need not wait at all. A great deal of work has already been done internationally to plot and understand the “dark spiderweb”29 of terrorist organisations across the world. With the wildfire spread of ideologies, strategies, tactics, and technologies, it has been found that terrorist organisations, networks and operations have become progressively global, obliterating the distinctions between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ terrorism. Worse, in many cases, centralized and identifiable locations of terrorist command and control have progressively vaporized into innumerable, loosely organized ‘cells’ or ‘modules’, that operate with an astonishing measure of autonomy, seeking little more than ideological guidance from their ‘leaders’. Tiny groups, even individuals, download technical and technological information, training and operational manuals, from the web; acquire or concoct explosives from chemicals available in the open market; and derive inspiration and plans from the example of thousands of precedent terrorist strikes across the world.

As terrorists construct complex and innovative networks across vast areas of the world, it is crucial to understanding that each terrorist attack is not something that happens to ‘other people’ in distant places, but a model and demonstration of what can happen to us. Our understanding of terrorism has lagged far behind its evolution, and a continuous examination of the experience across the world is now necessary if we are to prepare ourselves for the challenges that are staring us in the face. A great deal of Western literature has sought to examine the experience of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, and to discover if their own systems are, or can be, better prepared to counter such an attack, as well as to specifically define the capacities, capabilities and Force profiles that would be necessary to confront such an eventuality. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of any comparable exercise being carried out in India. For all our experience in terrorism, the reality remains that we have, by and large, been spared many of the catastrophic challenges and extreme moral dilemmas that at least some other countries have confronted. Tens of thousands of lives have, of course, been lost to extremism, violence and proxy wars in the India, yet we have been spared, for instance, the necessity of tackling a Beslan – where nearly 1,128 children and adults were held hostage in a school gymnasium for 56 hours, starting September 1, 2004, in a tiny Russian town, by Chechen terrorists. Images of this terrible episode were telecast across the world, and were a harrowing viewing experience – but they disturb at an even deeper level when we try to imagine what the outcome would be in a comparable situation in India. 319 hostages, including 187 children, died in the botched Beslan operation. How would we cope with a challenge – and with a catastrophe – of such dimensions? What would we do with a Beslan?

Again, the siege at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow where nearly 900 people were taken hostage on October 23, 2002, is another example of the appalling moral choices terrorism can inflict on responders. After a standoff that lasted two and a half days, Russian special forces used an unspecified ‘knockout gas’ to immobilize the terrorists (and hostages) before they stormed the building. All 42 terrorists were ‘neutralized’ – shot at short range inside the theatre. 129 hostages, however, also died as a result of the anaesthetic used, possibly because of their weakened condition under the siege, or because of vulnerabilities resulting from prior ailments. Do Indian enforcement agencies know what gas was used? Has a scientific assessment been made to determine which would be the best anaesthetic to use in such a situation? Have comparable scenarios been explored to discover if alternative courses of action could be more effective? And are we otherwise prepared to deal with a comparable mass hostage challenge?

9/11 is, of course, the most iconic paradigm of catastrophic terrorism yet to be witnessed by the world. The events leading up to this cataclysmic attack, the multiplicity of failures that allowed its eventual realization, its colossal costs and global impact have been examined with extraordinary candour and openness by the US, and this case study, in all its contours and complexity, should be mandatory study for every security and CT professional or analyst.

A study of these, and a long concatenation of other past terrorist incidents across the world, can help define the demands of future CT, particularly where a linear pattern is envisaged. The past alone, however, cannot prepare us adequately for the future. To understand the real threat of future terrorism, and to begin to prepare for it, we must first begin to imagine what we would do, and what we need to do, in the words of the 9/11 Commission, “if the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons.”30

These are not paranoid flights of fancy. There is an increasing realization that the world is increasingly “imperiled by a new era of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” and among these, nuclear and biological weapons “pose the greatest peril”.31 Indeed, the US Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (WMD Prevention Commission), in 2008, went so far as to warn that, unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”32 Whether or not a WMD attack occurs by or near this projected date, there is widespread consensus that such an attack may well occur in the proximate future, and the intentions of a number of terrorist groups to acquire WMD capability have been well documented. The WMD Prevention Commission, for instance, notes,

Al Qaeda began its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons–usable material in the early 1990s. While bin Laden was living in Sudan, his aides received word that a Sudanese military officer was offering to sell weapons-grade uranium. Bin Laden was willing to pay full price for the material: $1.5 million. After the purchase, however, the al Qaeda members realized that they had been scammed. This failure apparently did not discourage bin Laden—and his persistence highlights the seriousness of his interest. In the spring of 2001, bin Laden met with a Pakistani former nuclear scientist, Bashiruddin Mahmood, and discussed the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.33

The Commission notes, further, that, while at the present moment, the terrorists have the “intent but not capability”, it recognizes that “the terrorists’ ability to produce such a device could increase dramatically should they recruit just one or two individuals with access to nuclear materials or with knowledge of nuclear weapons designs.”34 Crucially for India, the Commission observes,

Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan. It has nuclear weapons and a history of unstable governments, and parts of its territory are currently a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists.35

A 2007 study by the Foreign Policy Magazine polled 117 nongovernmental terrorism experts. Of these, 74 per cent thought that Pakistan was the country most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the proximate future.36 A leakage of nuclear technologies from Pakistan to a number of rogue states has already been exposed, as have contacts between leading Pakistani nuclear scientists and the Al Qaeda-Taliban leadership. Given the degree of Islamist radicalization of its polity and armed forces, consequently, if nuclear technologies are eventually leaked to non-state (terrorist) actors, such a leakage would most probably occur in Pakistan, or would involve Pakistani institutions, individuals or sources; worse, given capacities for delivery, the virulence of hatred towards India, and the general assessments of our will and capacity to respond, this country could well be their first target.

While there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the possibility, even imminence, of nuclear terrorism – especially of the ‘dirty bomb’ variety using nuclear waste with conventional explosives to disperse radiation – it must be clear that no country has, at the present stage, established capabilities for effective containment and response to such an attack. Preventive capabilities are fragmented, and would, in their present state, eventually prove ineffectual.

Nevertheless, significant current obstacles remain to the acquisition of nuclear technologies and materials by terrorists. However, the barriers to what experts fear is a far more lethal threat – bio-terrorism – appear comparatively easy to surmount. The WMD Prevention Commission, thus, noted that “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.”37 Biological weapons, moreover, “have the capability to kill many more people than a nuclear attack.”38

One study, Dark Winter, conducted in 2001, for instance, simulated a smallpox attack on three U.S. cities. In a period of 13 days, smallpox was projected to spread to 25 states and 15 countries in several epidemiological waves, after which one-third of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contracted the disease would die. It was estimated that a fourth generation of the disease would leave three million infected and one million dead. The exercise was terminated at that time.39

There are some, of course, who have argued that bioterrorism is being “hyped” beyond any rational assessment of risk by a “fear industry” that “begins by hiring lobbyists and subsidizing academics, who, in turn, persuade journalists to write scary stories about hypothetical weapons”; that “terrorists throughout the world have only managed to kill five people with anthrax, one with ricin and zero with botulism or aflatoxin…”; and that “killing is easier to accomplish with bombs, guns and crashing airplanes”.40

Such a critique should not be dismissed out of hand. It must not, however, become an alibi for complacence or neglect. Once again, there is clear evidence of terrorist intent to use bioweapons, though the capability remains lacking. Given the potential devastation that such substances could bring about, and, more significantly, the expanding ripple effects of panic, disorder and possible collapse of services and systems that the use of a genetically engineered pathogen could provoke, it would be nothing less than foolish to ignore such risks. It is useful, in this context, to recall the incidents of anthrax dissemination through the mail in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.41 Though the death toll was small, the panic these cases provoked was tremendous. It is not just the projected scale of killing, but the deeply disruptive psychological impact even a limited attack of this nature could have on the larger system and society that makes it attractive to terrorists. Moreover, the fact that they are attracted is no longer in the realm of speculation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thus observed,

Terrorist groups have made it known they would want to acquire and use these weapons. And in the 1990s, the apocalyptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo unleashed two attacks in Tokyo by spraying a liquid containing anthrax spores into the air and unleashing sarin gas into the subway. In 2001, we found evidence in Afghanistan that al-Qaida was seeking the ability to conduct bioweapons attacks. And less than a year ago, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula made a call to arms for – and I quote – “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.”42

Significantly, Clinton added, further,

A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology. Even as it becomes easier to develop these weapons, it remains extremely difficult… to detect them…43

Whatever the objective threat of the use of biological agents by terrorists, it must be studied, evaluated and prepared for. As with any other technological development, advances in biotechnology will result in new vulnerabilities. Brian Jackson rightly notes, in a broader context of technological evolution, “For every advance that improves the quality of life there is a corresponding new vulnerability.”44 I have noted, elsewhere,

Terrorists and the agencies charged with counter-terrorism are engaged in an unending contestation, a race to get ahead in strategies and tactics, weapons and technologies. The introduction of a new technology is only another blip on the radar… It is only a question of time before the terrorists will wrap their heads around this obstacle and find a way to get around it; and a little more time before some new device promises to ‘ensure’ our safety again.45

Bruce Hoffman refers to this exhausting process as the “technological treadmill”46, and it is an ‘exercise programme’ India’s security professionals will have to embrace with far greater enthusiasm than is presently visible. It is not only the visible technologies of destruction that are relevant, here; a wide range of dual use, and even apparently benign, technologies could take us by surprise, acting as dramatic force multipliers, or even as weapons, in terrorist operations – the use of commercial planes in the 9/11 attacks is a dramatic case in point. It is necessary, consequently, to continuously scour all instrumentalities to see which of these can be weaponized, and how we are to be secured against such risks.

Structural and strategic non-linearities also present a grave future risk. While the asymmetries of what has been conceived of as ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ have already “defeated a superpower”47, there is growing evidence of the emergence of what is being conceived of as a ‘Fifth Generation’ of warfare (5GW), the essence of which is the reliance on “small groups of like-minded people with no formal organization who simply choose to fight”.48 The intricate and global interconnectedness of the new world order makes it highly susceptible to disruptive action by such small groups of ‘super-empowered’ individuals, who tap into modern technologies to secure unprecedented impact. The most coherent strategic tract by a terrorist on the subject has been a 1,600 page document authored by Mustafa Sethmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri aka Abu Hakim, “one of the jihad movement’s prime theorists”,49 who was subsequently captured in October 2005 at Quetta in Pakistan. The thrust of Nasar’s “Call for a Global Islamic Resistance” proposed:50

  • A strategy for a truly global conflict on as many fronts as possible and in the form of resistance by super-empowered small cells or individuals, rather than traditional guerrilla warfare. To avoid penetration and defeat by security services, this ‘leaderless jihad’ would keep organizational links to an absolute minimum.
  • The necessity of delinking the global movement from any single group or set of leaders, such as al Qaeda.
  • The use of the most deadly weapons possible, and the creation of a new model of delivery, based on individuals and small groups drawn into a global jihad. Significantly, Nasar is known to have been involved in efforts in Afghanistan, during the Taliban regime, to train fighters in the use of “poisons and chemicals”.
  • Some commentators argue that Nasar’s theories were put into operation in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In each case, the perpetrators organized themselves into local, self-sustaining cells that acted on their own but also likely accepted guidance from visiting emissaries of the global movement.

Thomas Hammes notes that political, economic, and social trends point to the emergence of progressively ‘super-empowered’ individuals or small groups, bound together by love for a cause, and employing emerging technol­ogies, to generate unprecedented destructive powers.51 While the technological reach of such groups remains limited at present, a number of projections paint a grim picture of the possible potential of such a combination of decentralized operation and technology.

The challenge of terrorism confronts us with a wide range of what are described as ‘wicked problems’, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.52 We are threatened in at least some cases, by terrorist formations and leaders whose motivation goes far beyond the strategic, to embrace the millennial, and consequently by an “adversary that prefers escalation regardless of the consequences”; an adversary, therefore, who “cannot be deterred”,53 and will have to be identified, located and neutralized. A medieval mindset is combining progressively with hyper-modern technologies of mobilization, communication and destruction. There can be no permanent strategy of defence against such an adversary – and, indeed, against any enemy with sufficient determination and resources; our capabilities, accordingly, must comprehend offensive and punitive operations as well. It is useful to remember that,

Offensive action against terrorists is needed to eliminate them as threats. But even unsuccessful offensive actions, which force terrorist units or terrorist cells to stay perpetually on the move to avoid destruction, will help to reduce their capability. Constant surveillance makes it difficult for them to plan and organize. Constant pursuit makes it dangerous for them to rest. The threat of offensive action is critical to exhausting the terrorists…54

We are presently engaged in what has accurately been described as a “protracted, attritional, global struggle.”55 It is crucial, within this context, to make hard, continuous, reality-based assessments of the evolving risks, and define clearly the security apparatus, capabilities and resources we need for adequate and effective response. Whatever the instrumentalities or tactics employed, at the heart of the power and efficacy of terrorism is the terrorists’ capacity for deception, concealment and evasion. This single factor places the state’s intelligence capabilities – including exponentially augmented intelligence capabilities abroad – at the very heart of the response. Rather than the constant clamour for legislative, structural and architectural transformations and imitative institutional ‘solutions’,56 there must be a relentless focus on the specifics of existing and emerging challenges and the capacities, capabilities and resources required to meet these. The Indian system has, in the past, displayed extremely poor capacities to define priorities and secure and allocate resources. At the core of any effective response to present and future terrorism is the absolute necessity of balancing the “the ends-ways-means triad”57 including an “examination of the degree of risk involved in various potential approaches; as well as the differing impact of both success and failure in each approach.”58

Finally, assessments of threat and risk will vary across cases and, indeed, across individuals and institutions, with attitudes and ideologies playing a significant role. Divergent assessments are often dismissed as representing different points along a sentimental spectrum between ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’. Accusations of scaremongering and paranoia will tend to paralyse the security establishment from engaging with a wide range of potential threats, forging mindsets that ‘dismiss possibilities’. Within such an environment it is useful to remind ourselves that the task of security professionals is not to look at the world through rose tinted glasses; it is, rather, to define the worst case scenario, and prepare to respond with full force, resources, efficiency and effectiveness. Only to the extent that they succeed in doing this, will the optimistic and ‘best case’ scenarios prevail.

Dr. Ajai Sahni is Executive Director of the INSTITUTE FOR CONFLICT MANAGEMENT and SOUTH ASIA TERRORISM PORTAL; Editor, SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW; Executive Editor, FAULTLINES: WRITINGS ON CONFLICT & RESOLUTION. He has researched and written extensively on issues relating to conflict, politics and development in South Asia, and has participated in advisory projects undertaken for various National and State Governments.

1. While definitional debates occupy many, and will retain importance within legal frameworks, operationally it is neither possible nor useful to attempt to draw too sharp a distinction between contemporary terrorism and insurgency. Most terrorist groups today do have some insurgent base; most insurgent groups do, at least on occasion, employ terrorism as a method. The best we can possibly do is, try to distinguish between groups that overwhelmingly employ terrorism, and others that base their insurrection principally on their underpinnings of support among the people.

2. All data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal,, unless otherwise specified. See,

3. See, for instance, Ajai Sahni, “India’s Internal Security Challenges”, in India’s Security Challenges at Home and Abroad, The National Bureau of Asian Research, Special Report #39, May 2012.

4. Bruce Hoffman, “Foreword: Twenty-First Century Terrorism”, in James M. Smith and William C. Thomas (Ed.), The Terrorism Threat and US Government Response, INSS Book Series, 2001, p. v.

5. The 9/11 Commission Report,, p. 339.

6. See, for instance, Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Viking, 2011; John Mueller, “War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment”, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 124, No. 2, 2009, pp. 297-321.

7. Alan Reynolds, “WMD Doomsday Distractions”, Washington Times, April 10, 2005.

8. 1,128 children and adults were held hostage in the Beslan School No. 1 gymnasium for 56 hours, starting September 1, 2004, in a tiny Russian town in North Ossetia, by Chechen terrorists. 319 hostages, including 187 children, died in the botched operation to break the siege.

9. Gearoid O. Tuathail, “Placing Blame: Making Sense of Beslan”, Political Geography, 28, 2009, pp. 4-15, esp. p. 11.

10. Ibid. p. 4.

11. Ibid. p. 10.

12. Vince Warren, “The 9/11 Decade and the Decline of US Democracy”, Centre for Constitutional Rights,

13. Ajai Sahni, “NCTC: National Confusion on Terror by Centre”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 10, No. 34, February 27, 2012,

14. For instance, the Communist regime in China, over the period 1949 to 1976, is estimated to have killed nearly 40 million people; in Soviet Russia, 10 million lives are believed to have been lost to Stalinism and post-Stalinist purges; between 1962 and 1992, violence by the Communists, genocide and manmade famines killed four million in Ethiopia; three million were killed in the Pakistani genocide in what was then East Pakistan, before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

15. The 9/11 Commission Report, p.311.

16. Just 19 hijackers were involved in the actual execution of the attack.

17. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 169.

18. The 9/11 Commission Report, “Executive Summary,

19. The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 355-56.

20. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 355.

21. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 254.

22. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 259.

23. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 261.

24. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 392.

25. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 336. Emphasis added.

26. William S. Lind, “The Sling and the Stone”, On War # 90,

27. Warren Fishbein and Gregory Trevorton, , Occasional Papers: Volume 3, Number 2, The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, 2004, This paper provides an excellent introduction to both the significance of these methods, and their essential content. The various techniques and processes of alternative analysis include, Key Assumptions Checks, Devil’s Advocacy, Red Cell exercises, Contingency (What If) Analysis, High Impact/Low Probability Analysis, and Scenario Development. See, Roger Z. George, “Fixing the Problem of Analytical Mindsets”, in Intelligence and the National Security Strategist, by Roger Z. George and Robert D. Kline. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, p. 318.

28. The WMD Commission Report: Final Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, March 2005,, p. 170.

29. A.C. Grayling, Liberty in the Age of Terror, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009, p. 90.

30. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 380.

31. World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, Vintage Books, 2008, p. xi.

32. World at Risk, p. xvi. Emphasis added.

33. World at Risk, p. 20.

34. World at Risk, p. 20.

35. World at Risk, p. xxiii.

36. World at Risk, p. 67.

37. World at Risk, p. xvi.

38. Col. T.X. Hammes, “Fourth Generation Warfare Evolves, Fifth Emerges”, Military Review, May-June, 2007, p. 22.

39. Ibid.

40. Alan Reynolds, “The Fear Industry”,, May 3, 2007, .

41. Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened in what became the worst biological attacks in U.S. history. See, “Amerithrax or Anthrax Investigation”, The Federal Bureau of Investigation,

42. Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, “Remarks at the 7th Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference”, Geneva, December 7, 2011.

43. Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, “Remarks at the 7th Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference”, Geneva, December 7, 2011.

44. Brian A. Jackson, “Technology Acquisition by Terrorist Groups: Threat Assessment Informed by Lessons from Private Sector Technology Adoption”, The RAND Corporation, p. 3.

45. Ajai Sahni, “Full-body Scanners: Between Hysteria and Denial”,

46. Brian A. Jackson, “Technology Acquisition by Terrorist Groups: Threat Assessment Informed by Lessons from Private Sector Technology Adoption”, The RAND Corporation, p. 4.

47. Graviora Manent, “The architect and 5th Generation Warfare”, The Strategist, June 4, 2006,

48. Colonel Thomax X. Hammes, op. cit., p. 20.

49. Craig Whitlock, “Architect of New War on the West,” Washington Post, May 23, 2006.

50. Ibid.

51. Thomas X. Hammes, op. cit., p. 21.

52. C. West Churchman, “Editorial”, Management Science, Vol. 14, No. 4, December 1967; Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber; “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, 1973, pp. 155-169.

53. Daniel Whiteneck, “Deterring Terrorists: Thoughts on a framework”, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2005, p. 187.

54. Barry R. Posen, “Grand Strategy, Strategy and Tactics”, International Security, Vol. 26, No. 3, Winter 2001-02, p. 47.

55. Earl Tilford, “The Short War Delusion”, Vision and Values, December 10, 2004.

56. See, for instance, Ajai Sahni, “The Architecture of Failure”, Paper circulated at the National Seminar on Counter-terrorism Organised by Force 1, Mumbai Police; BPR&D; and the Strategic Foresight Group On November 24, 2011 at Mumbai,; Ajai Sahni, “Weakness Compounding Weakness: The Centre and the States in India’s Internal Security”, Paper presented at the Nehru Centre Seminar on Internal Security held at Nehru Centre, Mumbai, June 8,2012; Ajai Sahni, “Intelligence Agencies in India’s Democracy”, 2012, forthcoming.

57. T.X Hammes, “Limited means strategy: What to do when the cupboard is bare”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 3, Summer 2011, p. 8.

58. T.X Hammes, “Limited means strategy: What to do when the cupboard is bare”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 3, Summer 2011, p. 9.

(Paper circulated at the 2nd National Seminar on Counter-terrorism, November 29-30, 2012, Mumbai, organized by Force One and BPR&D)

About the author:


SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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