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India: A Dangerous Wake-Up Call Ahead of the Commonwealth Games

Commentary, 27 September 2010
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
There are growing fears of a renewed terrorist threat to the controversial Commonwealth Games in India. The tournament presents a prize for an assortment of terrorist groups, chief amongst them the Indian Mujahadeen.

There are growing fears of a renewed terrorist threat to the controversial Commonwealth Games in India. The tournament presents a prize for an assortment of terrorist groups, chief amongst them the Indian Mujahadeen.

By Brijesh Khemlani for RUSI.org.

Athletes and business leaders planning to attend the Commonwealth Games in Delhi have been warned to expect terrorist attacks on tourist sites and public spaces across India. The Observer revealed that a world leading security firm, Control Risks, believes that India simply does not have the capability to provide security for the games and for other 'soft targets'.[1]

The warning comes after two suspected terrorist attacks claimed by the Indian Mujahadeen (IM) on the eve of the 2010 Commonwealth Games indicate a departure from the terrorist organisation's original tactics. The evolving attacks by the IM threaten to undermine the Games' ability to showcase India's emerging global stature, and will further humiliate the Indian government.

On 19 September, two unidentified motorcycle-borne gunmen sprayed bullets at a tourist bus outside the gates of the historic Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi, injuring two Taiwanese nationals. Just a few hours later, a car erupted in flames after a crudely assembled pressure cooker bomb exploded near the site of the previous attack. However, no one was injured in the blast. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the IM, a shadowy outfit of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India and purportedly linked to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba, claimed responsibility for the attack in a mail sent to the Hindi radio service of the British Broadcasting Corporation.[2] Bearing the classic propaganda tactics of the media-savvy outfit, the letter justified the attacks to avenge the deaths of two alleged IM militants killed in a police encounter two years ago in Batla House on the same day. It also blamed the government for the increasing 'atrocities' in Jammu and Kashmir warning of further attacks during the games. As investigative agencies probe the suspected terror attacks, a series of intriguing questions about the conduct of the attacks and the ripple effects on the games has dogged the Indian establishment.

A Chilling Message

While the IM claims to have carried out the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks, certain questions have been raised that point to a departure from the traditional hallmarks and conduct of the terror outfit. Firstly, the IM is notorious for its reliance on coordinated multiple bombings that targeted public places in major metropolises such as Jaipur, Ahmadabad, Bangalore, and Delhi in 2008 creating a large number of casualties. The car bomb at the Jama Masjid contained a sophisticated circuit, a timer and potassium nitrate without a detonator, which is necessary to trigger the explosion. Critically, the bomb was also not packed with pellets, ball bearings, screws ‑ the shrapnel which causes maximum damage on explosion.[3] Secondly, the use of armed gunmen is a complete departure from the traditional tactics of the IM, which has solely relied on synchronised bombings in the past. Such developments raise pertinent questions: Has the IM evolved its tactics as a result of the loss of its experienced leaders and cadre at the hands of security forces in recent years? Or are the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks a deliberate attempt to avoid heavy casualties in order to indicate that an impending bigger terror attack is next?

Regardless of the nature of the attacks, it cannot be denied that the crosshairs of security forces are firmly on the IM and its terror-cells. Even though the Delhi Police claimed that the attacks were the work of 'disgruntled youth and local criminals', the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India's federal anti-terror body, has been roped in to assist with the investigation. Despite the lack of sophistication and lethality, the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks show the capability and willingness of the IM to mount attacks on urban targets in major metropolises through its sleeper cells. By making its disturbing presence felt on the twilight of the Commonwealth Games, the outfit has also sent a chilling message to all the participating foreign countries and spectators to stay out of Delhi.

A Tempting Target

With its sheer scale and international media coverage, the Commonwealth Games is an attractive target for various regional and local militant organisations including Al-Qa'ida. In February 2010, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, the operational commander of Al-Qa'ida's new branch in Kashmir, issued a message warning the international community not to participate in major sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games or else be 'responsible for the consequences'.[4] Under heavy pressure from sustained American drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the Al-Qa'ida senior leadership has much propaganda value and recruits to gain from a major terrorist attack at an international event such as the Commonwealth Games. The staging of the games also represents a critical opportunity for Kashmiri to mark the fledgling Al-Qa'ida in Kashmir as a major terror force in the region.

Then there is the protracted issue of Kashmir. The ongoing unrest in Kashmir has failed to grab international headlines, and a successful terror strike by Kashmir-affiliated groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba or Hizbul Mujahideen would propel the issue back on the global agenda - much to the chagrin of India. Unsurprisingly, the suspected IM letter sent out to the BBC in the aftermath of the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks explicitly raised the disturbances in Kashmir as a justification for the attacks.

The games also represent a tempting target for the growing Naxalite armed movement. While the Naxalites have largely contained their activities to the rural eastern heartland of the country, described as the 'Red Corridor', there are growing concerns that a move towards urban terrorism may not be far off. In a startling development, the Bihar Police on 23 September seized 150,000 detonators and 1,500 kg of powergels from the residence of an arms dealer suspected of dealing with Naxalites at Jamuar village in Bihar's Rohtas district.[5] Armed with such formidable firepower, the Naxalites are a clear and present danger. And what would be a more appropriate platform to air their grievances against the Indian state on an international level than the Commonwealth Games. The Indian government is not oblivious to the multitude of threats facing the games and has prepared a stringent four-tier security cordon for the games venue, with special arrangements for the transport of athletes to and from the Games Village.

Impact on the Games

The timing of the attacks has increased concerns about the security of the Commonwealth Games. The warning issued by Control Risks to its clients follows similar alerts from foreign governments. The US issued an advisory to its citizens in India asking them to 'maintain a heightened situational awareness'. Soon after, the Australian government warned of a 'high risk of terrorist attack in New Delhi', as it updated its travel advice for its nationals in the wake of the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks. The attacks have already begun to have the intended fall-out. Australian world discus champion Dani Samuels became one of the first international athletes to pull out of the Commonwealth Games citing security and health fears.[6] The next to back out on security grounds was English world triple jump champion Phillips Idowu, only adding to the list of long star pull-outs plaguing the Commonwealth Games. At the time of writing, several teams from smaller countries have expressed their intention to withdraw from the games.

Clearly, the intention of the suspected militants was to create panic on a major-scale without claiming a large number of lives. The dual aims of such a calculated strike would be to embarrass the government and security forces, highlighting their inability to protect foreigners, and to portray India as an unsafe destination for major international events. The stated goal of the IM, as per its released manifestos, is to 'liberate India' from the influence of Western materialistic culture and further its conversion into an Islamic society.[7] However, if allegations made by Indian intelligence sources about the increasing collaboration between the IM and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence as part of the 'Karachi Project' are true, then the joint gameplan would be to wreak havoc on India's political, economic and social fabric by provoking tougher anti-terror laws, undermining foreign direct investment in the Indian economy and stoking communal tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities without raising suspicions of direct Pakistani involvement.[8] The targeting of the Commonwealth Games is primarily a component of the economic strategy, aimed at scaring off Western investors and reducing the flow of foreign capital in the country.

While the impact of a single incident can be contained through public scrutiny and adequate security cover, a series of smaller attacks like the one perpetrated on 19 September is likely to further jeopardise the conduct of the CWG. The Indian government's claims of staging a safe games was recently put to the test with embarrassing results. On 22 September, Australia's Channel 7 claimed to have breached the security parameter of the main CWG venue, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, with crude explosives undetected by security forces.[9] The reporter was able to source the explosives without regulation at a mining area where the black market for such explosives is rife. On the twilight of the games, such chinks in India's security will do little to reassure international participants who are already disconcerted by the Jama Masjid Mosque attacks.

Considering the grim memory of the 1972 Munich Olympics, international delegations and observers are willing to take no chances to risk their safety. In such a scenario, another major terrorist incident is likely to lead to an outright cancellation of the games in Delhi with humiliating consequences for the Indian establishment.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.

Notes:

[1] Gethin Chamberlain, 'Commonwealth Games 2010: Athletes warned of rising terrorism threat', The Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2010/sep/25/commonwealth-games-athletes-terrorism-threat, accessed 27/09/2010

[2] Daily News and Analysis, [2010], 'Indian Mujahideen suspected to be behind Jama Masjid attack', http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_indian-mujahideen-suspected-to-be-behind-jama-masjid-attack_1440186, Accessed on 24th September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[3] Vishwa Mohan and Rahul Tripathi, [2010], 'Attackers chose to avoid heavy casualties', Times of India, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Attackers-chose-to-avoid-heavy-casualties/articleshow/6595768.cms, Accessed on 22nd September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[4] Matt Wade, [2010], 'Fears of al-Qaeda attack on athletes', The Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/world/fears-of-alqaeda-attack-on-athletes-20100216-o8yu.html, Accessed on 24th September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[5] Yahoo India News, [2010], '1.5 lakh detonators, 1,500 kg explosives seized in Bihar', http://in.news.yahoo.com/20/20100923/1416/tnl-1-5-lakh-detonators-1-500-kg-explosi_1.html, Accessed on 24th September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[6] Nick Walshaw, [2010], 'Dani Samuels pulls out of Commonwealth Games over security fears', The Daily Telegraph,http://www.news.com.au/national/world-champ-dani-samuels-pulls-out-of-commonwealth-games-in-tears-over-security-fears/story-e6frfkvr-1225927531659, Accessed on 22nd September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[7] Rohit Singh, [2010], Understanding the Indian Mujahideen, Centre For Land Warfare Studies, Manekshaw Paper No. 19. Accessed on 27th September, 2010.

[8] Sandeep Unnithan [2010] 'The Karachi Project' India Today, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/84662/Cover%20Story/The+Karachi+project.html, Accessed on 24th September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

[9] Parikshit Luthra, [2010], 'Aussie TV sting exposes chinks in Games security', CNN IBN, http://ibnlive.in.com/news/aussie-tv-sting-exposes-chinks-in-games-security/131466-3.html, Accessed on 24th September, 2010 from the World Wide Web.

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