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#2682, 15 September 2008
Emerging Trends of Urban Terrorism
Devyani Srivastava
Research Officer, IPCS
e-mail: devyani@ipcs.org

With each terrorist blast in India, the challenges facing India get further compounded even as the understanding of the threat posed by terrorism slips deeper into ambivalence. While the investigative agencies were unraveling the puzzle of the Ahmedabad bomb blast, the Delhi blasts on 13 September - five serial blasts in three central markets of Karol Bagh, Connaught Place and Greater Kailash 1-M block that killed 26 people and injured 90 others - confirmed that the real culprits are far from being identified, let alone caught. Since the blasts in three UP courts in November 2007, the bomb blasts in Indian cities have exhibited a similar pattern in their modus operandi and strategies, be it the use of media as a weapon to attack the Indian state, increasing use of low-intensity explosives, retaliation against the increasing arrests of terror suspects as a possible objective, and the preparatory acts committed by the suspects. A closer study of these trends throws up several questions while shedding light on the nature of urban terrorism pervading India.

First, the use of the internet to attack the Indian state has emerged as a new tactic by the perpetrators. The Delhi blasts were the fifth in a series of blasts (UP court blasts, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore) in which a group that calls itself the 'Indian Mujahideen' claimed responsibility through an email sent to media organizations. The tenor of the messages suggests that the group seeks to present the Indian state as essentially confrontationist against Islam and thereby prepare the ground for jihad. This is akin to the strategy of al Qaeda that has used the media extensively, particularly in the Arab world, by way of broadcasting video tapes of training camps, speeches of its leaders and debates within the outfit to sharpen the confrontation between the Islamic identity and the western world. Does this imply that the email messages by the Indian Mujahideen are part of a bigger strategy to invest in media heavily?

Second, the increasing frequency of blasts in recent months is found to correspond with the increasing arrests of suspected SIMI members, from Safdar Nagouri, former general secretary of SIMI to the recent arrests in Gujarat, made since the beginning of the year. Can the blasts then be understood as being retaliatory against the arrests? Significantly, the email messages have attacked the Anti-Terrorism squads of the Hyderabad and Maharashtra police for arresting several Muslim youths and conducting raids in Muslim colonies. While this seems to imply that the real masterminds have indeed been arrested, instigating thereby a reaction, an increase in the frequency of blasts can also alternatively imply that all the wrong people have been arrested while the real culprits continue to lurk in the dark. The zero conviction rate of terror suspects and the recent Delhi court tribunal order questioning the ban on SIMI lends credence to this fact. It is evident, nonetheless, that the terror network across India is much stronger than that factored in by the government agencies.

Third, the blasts carried out in the past few months have mostly been low intensity, maintaining an average death toll of 40-60 as opposed to 160 in the Mumbai blasts in 2006. This is largely owing to the use of ingredients such as ammonium nitrate instead of the powerful RDX that had become the hallmark of ISI-perpetrated blasts since the Mumbai train blasts in July 2006. Does this reflect a calibrated decision on part of the perpetrators to observe a certain threshold of violence while attacking India? Some analysts contend that the reaction of the Indian state following the parliament attack in 2001 acts as a deterrent against provoking the Indian state beyond a point. Alternatively, others claim this to be an attempt by the ISI to deflect attention and rest the responsibility squarely on the Indian state by encouraging the use of local explosives. Either way, it drives home the pressing need to regulate the sale of explosives readily available in the domestic market.

Lastly, research on terrorism worldwide has revealed that the preparatory acts conducted by terrorists such as theft, bomb manufacturing, and training camps are carried out in places far away from the target areas. This fact is borne out by several reports in India. Training camps were found to be conducted in Kerala; explosives used in the Ahmedabad and Bangalore blasts had the markings of Andhra Pradesh Explosives Limited. This pattern is significant to bear in mind for, one, to monitor any criminal activity noted anywhere in India particularly theft of explosives, and second, to compel the security officials in every state to remain vigilant at all times.

Many key questions on the blasts remain a mystery. Among these include the chief motivations of the group, the structure and leadership of the group, and its support base within India. Their modus operandi, however, reflects a growing sophistication with every blast while their message is becoming crystal clear, that of rupturing the 'heartbeat' of India and destroying its secular, democratic structures and ethos.

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