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Wanted: Assassins who find, shoot and kill

In Steven Spielberg?s Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir orders retribution for the execution of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

india Updated: Mar 29, 2006 14:13 IST

In Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir orders retribution for the execution of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Mossad agents travel across Europe hunting down the Palestinian terrorists responsible.

In Joe Sacco’s graphic novel The Fixer, a Bosnian Muslim gang of arms-smugglers makes the mistake of selling a consignment to a Palestinian group. Soon after, all gang members are found executed in Paris; word spreads it’s a Mossad operation and other Bosnians make sure not to again cross the Israeli threshold of tolerance.

After last week’s multiple blasts in India’s holiest city — several bombs fortunately did not go off — it might be time to consider why our national security strategy does not include such extra-territorial assassinations — or, more broadly, covert action — as a counter-terrorism measure.

It’s not that India hasn’t had any history of covert operations. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to train and arm the Mukti Bahini — despite American opposition — is an example of a successful secret operation undertaken by our intelligence agencies. And in the 1980s there was the Research and Analysis Wing chief G.C. Saxena, who is said to have been enthusiastic about covert action outside the nation’s borders.

More recently, the government “encouraged” four assassination attempts against Dawood Ibrahim, the underworld don who is a prime accused in Mumbai’s 1993 serial blasts. Though the attempts were unsuccessful — the closest the contract killers got was in 2002, atop a Karachi hill where Dawood went to his daughter’s grave — they’ve had the effect of keeping the don off-balance, and making his handlers at Pakistan’s ISI wonder whether keeping him is worth the trouble.

With four terrorist attacks on India in the past year — at Ayodhya, New Delhi, Bangalore and Varanasi — there could be a case for making hits on Jaish-e-Mohd’s Masood Azhar or Lashkar-e-Taiyyeba’s Mohd Hafeez Sayeed, both of whom are said to be in Pakistan. Or for taking out lower level agents in third countries like Bangladesh or Nepal, who facilitate the movement of terrorists trained or motivated by ISI, into India.

Government sources are understandably cagey on the subject, some even dismissive. But, they say, such an initiative would have to come from the highest levels of government.

“The political leadership would have to weigh the risks involved,” says a source. “If you’re caught doing something illegal, at the very least you risk looking like a banana republic. At the most, you may end up in the World Court.” There could even be repercussions within the country.

Such matters are not discussed at Cabinet or even Cabinet Committee on Security meetings, say sources. If such an option is considered, it would be done informally, in a tight circle of less than a handful, to retain plausible deniability. And if the green signal were given, it might take from six months to a year to build up a capability to carry out such a covert action.

Sources point out that the US has stepped up covert operations after the 9/11 attacks (the outrage within the country has afforded them a political blanket), but at the same time, it has immunity laws shielding their operatives from potential legal consequences. “India has no such laws in place,” a source says.

Indeed, some hardliners in the security establishment still bemoan the fact that while Western countries have enacted anti-terrorism laws that encroach on civil liberties, India has not found a replacement for Pota (which was thrown out because it was perceived to be anti-Muslim). “The absence of such a law emboldens terrorist modules to plan future attacks,” says a source.

The Home Ministry’s own figures on terrorist modules busted (modules are single-mission units) show an alarming decline. From 77 cases detected in 2001, the number dropped to 15 in 2005 (none have been busted so far in 2006). Also, in the Delhi and Bangalore attacks, the police were able to catch only peripheral figures, not the key planners (though they shot dead a key person in the Ayodhya attack).

“This could prove ominous, because once modules establish themselves, they are difficult to penetrate,” says an expert. “A consequence could be more frequent attacks.”