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The limits of India’s terrorism problem

An Indian police officer checks the bags of motorists in Hyderabad.

Mahesh Kumar A/AP

Bomb blasts in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad on Feb. 22 killed 16 people and wounded 199 more. The simple homemade bombs were left in bags on bicycles in neighbourhoods crowded with shops and cinemas. It was a seemingly inexplicable attack – no obvious motive, no clear claim of responsibility.

In that sense, it was much like a pair of bombs in Mumbai markets in 2011 (26 dead); the 2011 bombing of the Delhi High Court (12 dead); and a 2010 blast in a Pune bakery that killed 17. And it was a reminder that India has a distinctive terrorism problem: while the number of people killed by terrorist acts here is small as a percentage of the population, there is a plethora of little-known organizations who might be responsible, and India's absurdly small intelligence apparatus has shown itself ill-equipped to respond to the threat.

Ajai Sahni is director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. The institute maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks terrorist attacks across the region, including the activities of 174 different terrorist organizations in India. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Sahni said this vast nation's "inhumane indifference" will achieve what policing won't, wearing down terrorist organizations and stifling their impact.

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Do you believe the early police assertions that the Hyderabad attack looks like the work of the Indian Mujahideen (IM)?

It's not productive to jump to conclusions. There have been several attacks in recent years that were attributed to various Islamist terrorist groupings and we later found out, although it's not yet proven in court, that Hindu organizations were responsible. We can make a projection, based on organizational activity. Over the last few years the IM has been the most active, so you can say that likely the IM was involved. Now one of the bombs was in a Muslim-majority area. What motive would a Muslim organization have to do that? On the other hand, it could be a red herring. If it is a Hindutva group, they carry out the bombing so that blame is put on Muslims – so it could be a red herring from the other side. I think we should wait for the evidence before we make definitive attributions.

Do you think the IM is a formal organization, as police allege, or just a loosely affiliated network of small Islamist cells, as some security analysts suggest?

There is a leadership that calls itself the IM, and there are clear indications that some of these attacks have been ordered by or have engaged elements of this leadership. They operate with support from the Pakistani intelligence establishment. The principals of the IM group are holed up in Pakistan; some members have been taken there and trained and brought back. And if they weren't getting that support from Pakistan, this group would not survive for more than a few months: an Islamist terrorist movement has failed to find traction in the general Indian population. Muslim communities, despite the ghettoization, are substantially integrated with non-Muslim communities. They can't close themselves into secret societies, it is not possible to sustain a movement that would have some mass acquiescence – I will not say even support. You show up in one of these Muslim-majority areas with a shady background or radical literature, and you get reported.

And yet despite the fact that they have little cover from the broader community, the intelligence failure means they can carry out attacks in the heart of India's major cities?

There is no intelligence failure. There is no capacity, so how can you say there was a failure? If I didn't go to the Olympics, how can you say I didn't win a medal? Look at the numbers: we have an intelligence bureau of 28,000 employees across a country of 1.24 billion – and that includes gardeners, sweepers, peons, the people who make tea. Of these, a tiny fraction are doing counter-terrorism intelligence gathering – a very few hundred. If they have intelligence it's not because people are reaching out and getting it. The intelligence bureau is passive, it is a recipient, not a seeker. They are not recruiting even enough to keep up with attrition, and the personnel they do recruit get three months of training. Three months, and then they're on the street gathering intelligence. And for the police, it's the same story.

Nevertheless your organization's statistics show that terrorism in India is declining.

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It's gone down dramatically – fatalities from insurgency and terrorism are down from 5,500 in 2001 to 804 last year. But I will not attribute even a percentage-point decline to any dramatic transformation of strategy or operational effectiveness. It's all from extraneous factors such as Pakistan's internal difficulties and shift in priorities to Afghanistan: they put India on the back burner. And the Maoists made certain errors: they expanded too rapidly, too far out of home ground and … they suffered significant losses of leadership. A lot of them were arrested. However, if you suspend the threat for an extended period of time it alters the geography of terrorism – one of the imperatives of terrorism is that you must constantly renew it. The survival of your group depends on occasional acts of terror, because no one is going to be recruited or write you cheques if you're not doing anything. Hyderabad appears meaningless – but these groups need to demonstrate capability from time to time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


While violence in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has declined dramatically in recent years, the disputed region continues to be home to a number of militant Islamist organizations, most with ties to Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmiri wing of the "Army of the Pure" headed by the Pakistan militant Hafiz Saeed, has carried out well-executed attacks in central India including the 2008 siege of Mumbai.

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The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, similarly, gets considerable support from Pakistan and has carried out attacks outside Kashmir in the rest of India. The Jaish-e-Mohammed (Mohammed's Army) staged a dramatic attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament buildings; the hanging in February of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was convicted of helping to plan those attacks, has been cited by the Indian intelligence bureau as a probable cause for the Hyderabad bombings two weeks ago.

The Indian Mujahideen, which the police say carried out those bombings, describes itself as distinctly Indian but some analysts believe it gets considerable operational support from Pakistan. It has at best a few hundred loosely-organized members; its operations are low-tech and low-cost, but often succeed in killing many civilians.

India's northeastern states continue to be the site of insurgencies seeking autonomy. In Mizoram, Meghalya, Assam and Nagaland, there are multiple militant groups which clash with both government forces and each other.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More


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