Last month an 11-member hit team dispatched by Israel’s Mossad travelled to Dubai and assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander and number one on Israel’s list of most wanted terrorists.
Al-Mabhouh was clearly an unsavoury character, one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing, an abductor and murderer of Israeli soldiers and an organiser of terrorist attacks on civilians.
Few tears were shed in Israel over his death but there has been a minor uproar in England over the use of cloned British passports by the Israeli hit team. Normally, the Israelis just fake passports. But on this occasion, they cloned the real passports of Britons who have settled in Israel. The Brits say this is unacceptable. Why couldn’t Mossad have just faked the passports as usual?
What’s interesting is that very little of the outrage focuses on the assassination itself. By now, the West has accepted that Israelis will track down and assassinate terrorists no matter where in the world they hide. And, in the post 9/11 era, few people seem to mind. It is widely accepted that terrorists can rarely be brought to justice and convicted by courts of law. So, an assassination often seems like the most effective option.
All this has lessons for India. There are, broadly, four ways of fighting terrorism. The first is that you guard every likely target. This is nearly impossible to do and no matter how many men you deploy, terrorists will slip through the cracks. The second is that you use intelligence to discover terrorist plots and then foil them. This too, is hardly a fool-proof strategy.
The third is that after terrorist attacks are committed you spare no effort in going after the perpetrators so that you deter would-be terrorists. The Israelis travelled the world in the aftermath of the Munich attacks in 1972 and killed every one of the terrorist masterminds.
And the fourth is covert action: you take the battle into the enemy’s camp. You infiltrate terrorist organisations, you kill terrorists before they can strike, and you dabble in the internal affairs of your opponents, financing and arming those groups that are likely to create trouble for your enemies.
Pakistan has always shown a willingness to use covert operations against India. Even if you take the line that the 26/11 terrorists did not have official sanction, nobody can deny that the Pakistanis have used assassination as an element of State policy. In Kashmir, for instance, important leaders have been bumped off by the Pakistanis when they refused to follow Islamabad’s line.
Equally, Islamabad has traditionally funded groups that are inimical to Delhi. Till the creation of Bangladesh, East Pakistan was used to provide arms and support to the Mizos and the Nagas. Since then, Pakistan has funded Sikh separatists, local jihadis and, of course, Kashmiri militants.
India’s record on covert operations has been lacklustre. We have preferred to fight terrorism either by relying on intelligence or by heightening security. When it comes to retribution, we prefer to go through legal channels rather than take direct action. We will wait for the Pakistanis to prosecute Hafiz Sayeed rather than eliminate him ourselves. And while we have funded Pakistani separatists in the past, this assistance has been feeble and more or less dried up after Inder Gujral made Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) roll up its operations in Pakistan when he was PM.
It is now increasingly clear that Pakistan either cannot (the view of the doves) act against powerful terrorist groups or will not (the view of the hawks) prevent terrorists from attacking Indian targets. A similar lack of strength or willingness is reflected in its failure to effectively prosecute the likes of Hafiz Sayeed.
So what is India to do? Are we to rely on increased security and better intelligence? Or are we to step up our covert operations?
Till recently, many Indians would have been appalled by the idea of covert operations. We reject the idea of moral equivalence with Pakistan and cannot see ourselves financing militants who engage in violence.
I once asked Manmohan Singh why we rejected the covert option and his answer summed up the mood in government: because of the manner in which it would brutalise the Indian State and damage our moral psyche. Indians simply do not do such things.
But I am now coming around to the view that it is time to reconsider. There are two kinds of covert operations. The first is the Pakistani style, whereby jihadis travel to India and kill women and children. The other is the approach increasingly favoured by the West (and pioneered by Israel) in the aftermath of 9/11.
Western nations do not finance terrorism. But equally, they do not consider themselves restricted by the niceties of the law. America infiltrates terror groups, encourages them to fight with each other, kidnaps and whisks away important terrorists (‘rendition’) and sub-contracts the job of executing terrorists to friendly secret services.
There is a strong case for us in India to follow that example. Let’s take the instance of the three terrorists who were freed in Kandahar in exchange for the passengers on IC-814. They traveled to Pakistan where they were welcomed as heroes. Should we not have pursued them and taken them out? Would this not have served as a warning to other terrorists?
Similarly, we know who many of the 26/11 masterminds are and where they live. Should we wait for the Pakistanis to move against them — assuming that Pakistan is so inclined? Or should we just send a hit team? We know where Dawood Ibrahim, the man behind the Bombay blasts, lives. Should we mount a large-scale operation to eliminate him?
Similarly, should we not consider doing to Pakistan what it does to us? There are many Sindhis, Mohajirs, and yes, Baluchis, who have no affection for the Punjabi elite which runs Pakistan. Should we not finance them so that they can more forcefully express their discontentment? The more trouble there is for Pakistan from within, the more distracted the government in Islamabad will be.
Our answer to all these questions, so far, has been an unequivocal ‘no’. When Manmohan Singh agreed to include a reference to Baluchistan in the Sharm el-Sheikh statement, we were appalled because the thought of any Indian involvement in Baluchistan was repugnant to us. We did not object on pragmatic grounds: why surrender the Baluchistan option when we can use it to create trouble for Pakistan?
As the Poona attack demonstrates, the terrorism is not going to stop. Pakistan is going to step up its efforts to radicalise and arm Indian Muslim groups so that it can then argue that the terrorism is indigenous. Should we just sit back and wait for this to happen while placing our faith in the power of dialogue? Or should we re-think our approach to the battle against terror?
I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are. But the time has come to open the debate on covert operations.
The views expressed by the author are personal.