The arrest of Yasin Bhatkal aka Mohammad Ahmed Siddibappa, the ‘operations chief’ of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), wanted in connection with terrorist attacks across the country, is a major success for India’s intelligence and security agencies.
The operation led by the Intelligence Bureau, rightly remains shrouded in secrecy, though a great deal of information, as well as significant and intentional disinformation, is circulating in the media. The contours of the operation that led to this arrest are unlikely to find their way into the public discourse.
Bhatkal’s arrest will impact the IM’s operational capabilities. Top leadership elements within terrorist organisations are not easily replaceable. Operational and structural information that Bhatkal will disclose under interrogation will help further target and dismantle the surviving and substantial IM networks and support structures across the country, and in many safe havens and transit locations abroad.
Given the nature of these networks and the degree to which their management and control is based on secret and personal contact, and on personal loyalties, at least a proportion of these would be abruptly degraded with the arrest of a pivotal coordinating agent. Crucially, the arrest of the operational chief — and among the principal IM mobilisers on Indian soil — will have an immediate dampening impact on the morale of other cadres and potential recruits.
Bhatkal’s arrest is not an isolated success. Despite the degree to which intelligence and enforcement agencies are hamstrung by crippling manpower shortages, as well as a range of technical and technological deficits, and notwithstanding the political and media clamour about ‘intelligence failures’ and ‘coordination failures’ that follows every significant terrorist attack, Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist formations across India have suffered tremendous attrition over the past years.
Partial data compiled by the ‘South Asia Terrorism Portal’ indicates that at least 876 persons connected with Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists and subversive activities across India, outside Jammu & Kashmir — this includes Lashkar-e-Taiba, IM and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) cadres, as well as a number of agents of the Inter Services Intelligence, Bangladeshi, Nepali and Pakistani nationals — have been arrested since the 26/11 attack.
Ordinarily, such arrests go unnoticed — except in the case of a high-profile catch — but their preventive and deterrent impact can hardly be overestimated.
Despite the enormity of some of the terrorist ‘successes’ over the past years, an oft-unnoticed reality is that no Islamist terrorist attack has successfully been mounted against a ‘hard’ or protected target since the December 2001 assault on Parliament.
The best that Pakistan’s proxies have been able to achieve over the past nearly 12 years has been a range of soft-target attacks on crowded and unprotected public spaces.
Significantly, Bhatkal’s arrest came quick on the heels of a succession of other high-profile arrests, including LeT’s Abdul Karim Tunda — responsible for a series of terrorist attacks across India — just a fortnight earlier; Fasih Mohammad of the IM (shortly after the arrest of at least five other prominent cadres) and 26/11 handler Abu Jundal, were arrested in October and June, respectively, last year.
Particularly encouraging in many of the arrests over the past years has been the increasing cooperation of other countries in identifying, apprehending and, in some cases, ‘handing over’ wanted terrorists to the Indian authorities. This is in sharp contrast to the virtual carte blanche at least some of these countries had provided to the ISI and its proxies to mount their subversive activities from their soil in earlier years.
While American pressure has had some significance in this shift, it is also increasingly clear that a progressive loss of faith in Pakistan and an awareness of the tremendous harm it is engineering across the region have also played their part.
Despite all this, however, there is little scope for any complacency. India remains wide open to politically and psychologically unsettling soft-target attacks across its length and breadth; and while some Islamist terrorist networks in India have suffered significant degradation, visible in the sustained decline in terrorism-related fatalities, their command centres and reserves remain intact and heavily protected by Pakistan.
Bhatkal has, for instance, reconfirmed what has long been known — that the top leadership of the IM, including its founders Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, continues to be protected in and backed by Pakistan, as are a range of other Islamist terrorist formations, most prominently the LeT.
The specific trajectory of particular Islamist terrorist groups, moreover, is not decisive in the broader trajectory of Islamist terrorism in India. The IM itself may be weakened — and eventually neutralised; other networks may be dismantled; but each of these will be replaced as long as the source and the most lethal terrorist organisation in South Asia, the Pakistan Army’s ISI, continues to pursue its ideological and strategic agenda, creating and supporting terrorist proxies as instruments of purported ‘state policy’.
Pakistan is embroiled in its own internal difficulties, and has temporarily reoriented its strategic priorities to the more urgent challenge of dominating Afghanistan in the wake of the US withdrawal. These considerations have led it to calibrate its India-directed terrorist campaign at a much lower level than was earlier the case.
There is no reason to believe that the ISI cannot escalate its campaigns in the future if its strategic priorities shift or the regional context is transformed.
With little to go on, India’s intelligence and enforcement agencies have demonstrated their will and capability to secure extraordinary counter-terrorism successes. What is urgently needed — before Pakistan unleashes its next wave of terror — is that these capacities and capabilities be dramatically augmented and refocused. The political incoherence and paralysis of the past years on the issue of terrorism must end.
Ajai Sahni is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal. The views expressed by the author are personal.