What does an aeronautical engineer from Kerala, a pilot from Srinagar, a doctor from Mumbai, a Muzaffarpur poultry farm employee, a Bangalore software engineer, an MP unani physician, a Mad hubani shop owner, a Guwahati University clerk, and a Jammu tea vendor have in common?
All the above are members of the Pakistan-backed terrorist modules that have in the recent past attacked IISc Bangalore, the Parliament House, Akshardham and Sankat Mochan temples, Red Fort, assassinated Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya and orchestrated the 7/11 blasts in Mumbai.
Sleeper cells are a part of the new modus operandi of terrorist outfits like Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) wherein they deliberately break up their terror network into small groups of 4-6 members each to execute a certain aspect of a planned attack (such as logistics, recruiting, spying, funding etc).
Each cell member is young, discreet, educated, practices a legitimate profession and is often married and well settled locally to ensure his cover. They get information on need to know basis and wait for coded instructions from anonymous sources via phone or the Internet.
Since these homebred terrorists work from the inside out, they do not hit and run, they simply hit and diffuse with the local population. Operating domestically, they go straight for the jugular- attacking important installations/ transport services etc that could paralyse city life. Their small size makes their operations less predictable and their detection or engagement more difficult.
These cells might exist in isolation but they do not operate in isolation. The LeT, SIMI, al Umma in Coimbatore and the Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI) and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) have been known to coordinate and help each other in logistics and weaponry.
But the mushrooming of domestic modules has not reduced the war against terror to a local battle. While Kathmandu and Dhaka have become operational hubs, Dubai and Saudi Arabia have emerged as crucial hawala channels. A case in point is the recent 7/11 blasts.
Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) interrogations reveal that a staggering Rs 1.2 crore was channelised from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and then to Mumbai for the operation over a year. The perpetrators were sent on fake passports to Pakistan via Nepal, Bangladesh and Iran for training in handling arms and ammunition.
Britain’s counter-terrorism officials warn of some 15, 000 local supporters of Al Qaida. And terrorists who carried out the 9/11 suicide attacks entered the US 18 months before the operation, lying low as sleeper agents. Similar cells have been discovered in Canada and Europe as well.
The secrecy of these cells makes intelligence gathering and analysis of information crucial for counter-terrorism operations.