Thursday, September 26, 2013

Twin Terror Strikes in J & K - A Repeat of Kaluchak?

On 26th September, at about 0645 hrs, heavily-armed four-member fedayeen group dressed in battle fatigues belonging to the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) carried out an attack on Hiranagar Police Station on Kathua, Jammu killing six persons, including four policemen and two civilians and thereafter escaped in a vehicle and struck an Indian Army base (home to 16th Cavalry) around 0715 hrs at Samba where at least three army personnel including the second-in-command Lt. Col. Bikramjeet Singh is reported to have been martyred. A Colonel-level Commanding Officer (CO) of the unit was among the three injured in the attack. At the time of this writing, fierce firefight was going on between the security personnel and the terrorists. [Update: According to Army sources the three terrorists were neutralised in or around 1630 hrs. A lesser-known militant outfit 'Shohada Brigade' today claimed responsibility for the twin attacks].

This attack is not the first time that an army installation has been attacked by Pak-based terrorists. In May 2002 about three terrorists reportedly crossed the Line of Control from Pakistan and boarded a bus at Vijaypur. When the bus neared Kaluchak, they shot the driver and the conductor and opened fire on the passengers. On hearing the shots in the bus the Indian army soldiers fired in their direction. The terrorists who were dressed in Indian army fatigues, while returning fire, attempted to escape in the direction of the Army's family quarters, located on the main road. They also threw grenades on some vehicles parked in the vicinity. Upon entering the family quarters they again fired on Army family members present in the premises. The terrorists were eventually cordoned off and killed by the Army.

There were a total of 31 killed, including 3 Army personnel, 18 Army family members and 10 civilians. There were 47 wounded including 12 Army personnel, 20 Army family members and 15 civilians. The dead included ten children. All the three terrorists killed in this incident were Pakistani nationals.

The lessons of Kaluchak probably were not learnt leading to the present attack at Samba. There have been reports that the fedayeen entered Jammu in the early hours of the morning from across the LoC and carried out the attack. This theory seems far-fetched, for the group appears to have a thorough knowledge of the topography and the exact location of its intended target: the Officers’ Mess of the 16th Cavalry. This could have been possible only with fair amount of intelligence and detailed recce of the target. There also seems to have been absolutely no communication between the police station which was attacked and the army base where the terrorists later struck. Had there been some communication, the terrorists could have been waylaid and neutralized before they got access to the base. The army and the police have a lot to answer for this lack of coordination.

The attack comes in the backdrop of a proposed meeting between the Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart set to take place in New York on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly session. Reacting to the news of the militants' attack, the main opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party dismissed the idea of a dialogue with Pakistan as a potential solution to tackle border issues.

"How can we have talks with a PM (referring to the Pakistani PM) who has no control over his Army and the ISI," BJP’s Yeshwant Sinha questioned. "If Pakistan Army doesn't want talks to be held with India, what is the point of taking to a PM who has no control over his Army?" Sinha hit out.

There is some substance in this argument. How can peace process go ahead when one of the constituents to the peace parleys is going to carry on a low-intensity conflict? Secondly, why should India take upon the responsibility of strengthening the civilian democratic institutions in Pakistan? Especially, considering the fact that a major chunk of Pakistani society considers India to be an arch enemy. It is also to be borne in mind that there have been innumerous cease fire violations after Nawaz Sharif came to power. Further what is the guarantee that Sharif truly aspires for peace with India considering the fact there is a K-Plan pursuant to which the Kashmir-cell (located in his office) would work on propaganda, raging separatist sentiments in the Valley and stage infiltration and cross-border fire across the LoC?
Pakistani establishment and its proxies have gone unpunished for all the acts of terror perpetrated against India. New Delhi has yet to answer as to the manner in which they responded to all provocations since Mumbai 26/11 to the beheadings of Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops on the LoC. New Delhi, simply put, has never mustered the courage or political will to give a fitting reply to this undeclared war waged by Pakistan.

The ruling alliance in New Delhi seems to have a penchant for talks with Pakistan, oblivious of the situation on the ground. There certainly is a disconnect between the political masters sitting in air-conditioned offices and security forces tackling the terrorists in the border areas of Kashmir. This is apparent from the statements made by the ministers and politicians. It is difficult to see the rationale of having talks between heads of states when an undeclared war is being fought between the two neighbours. 

As the situation stands, the only way in which India can respond to Pakistan is to deter Pakistan from engaging in acts of terror aimed at India. For this, there is an urgent need to draw up a policy of carrying out targeted killings of personnel belonging to Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)/Pakistani Army who are engaged in training these proxy elements. Secondly, India must have an undeclared policy to target all terror camps located in Pak-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and elsewhere in Pakistan. Any action of this nature would also be covered under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Westgate Terror Attack - A Preliminary Analysis

After much confusion the Kenyan government on Tuesday, 24th September claimed that the standoff at the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi had ended with the Kenyan security forces taking control of the entire complex. The confusion arose primarily, due to the fact that every time a Kenyan dignitary spoke of the siege having ended, the international media reported of explosions and gunfire at the site. Hence, the status of the standoff remained unclear till the evening of 24th September. 

The Kenyan President addressed the nation stating that the hostage-takers had been overcome and that 62 civilians and six security personnel had been killed; five terrorists were also killed during the course of the operation carried out by the security forces and that eleven suspects were in custody. However, there have been reports of some attackers escaping within few hours of the assault on the mall along with the shoppers. President Kenyatta said that three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation and that bodies were trapped under the rubble. The Kenyan Red Cross said that as many as 65 civilians reported to have been inside the mall were missing, suggesting that the death toll could rise sharply in the days ahead.

The attack by the al-Shabaab left Kenya and Kenyans in a state of shock and disbelief, just as the November 2008 Mumbai attacks shocked and outraged India. The government of Kenya has the onerous responsibility to find out the lapses in its security and must now dispassionately dissect the entire episode, with or without assistance from friendly foreign agencies and take steps to prevent the recurrence of a similar attack. The Kenyans cannot deny that there were shortcomings in their security, for there have been reports of warnings that the Westgate Mall was a target and in the past Kenya had suffered terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Al Qaeda.

The attack highlights the failure of Kenyan intelligence; the Kenyan National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) re-named the National Intelligence Service did not seem to have any clue about the attack. The NIS ought to have kept tabs on the terror group considering the fact that Kenyan forces have been battling the al-Shabaab in Somalia for the past three years and there was a potential threat emanating from this group.

Like in the case of other terror attacks of this magnitude, a lot of planning seems to have been done before the execution of the plot. The New York Times reports that the plot was hatched weeks or months ago on Somali soil, by the Shabab’s “external operations arm”. A team of English-speaking foreign fighters was carefully selected, along with a target: Nairobi’s gleaming Westgate mall. The building’s blueprints were studied, down to the ventilation ducts. The attack was rehearsed and the team dispatched, slipping undetected through Kenya’s porous borders, often patrolled by underpaid — and deeply corrupt — border guards. 

A day or two before the attack, powerful belt-fed machine guns were secretly stashed in a shop in the mall with the help of a colluding employee, officials say. At least one militant had even packed a change of clothes so he could slip out with fleeing civilians after the killings were done. 

The New York Times report also stated “American officials said the militants must have had a back office in Kenya, a safe house to finalize their plot and store their guns. Witnesses said several militants had toted G3 assault rifles, a bulky weapon that Kenyan security services use. Intelligence analysts say this may mean the militants acquired their weapons from corrupt Kenyan officers, who are known to sell or rent out their guns, charging as little as a few dollars an hour.” 

A thorough reconnaissance also seems to have been carried out. Or else it would have been extremely difficult for the attackers to have survived for almost four days in the mall.

It is erroneous to assume that the attackers slipped into Kenya from across the porous border. The attackers probably came on forged passports from various countries and assembled in a safe house before carrying out the attack. The attackers seemed to have also got logistical support from local Kenyan converts or from migrant Somalis. It is quite difficult for a group of foreign terrorists to enter into an alien country and execute a fedayeen-style attack without any local assistance. 

At the urging of Al-Shabaab, an increasing number of terrorist attacks in Kenya have been carried out by local Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam. Because the Kenyan insurgents have a different profile from the Somali and Arab militants that allows them to blend in with the general population of Kenya, they are also often harder to track.

According to the BBC, a huge part of Kenya’s security is handled by private contractors, which employ lowly paid workers who have limited contact with the state security system.

Some members of the National Assembly have called for the overhaul of intelligence and immigration departments blaming their laxity for allowing militants to enter the country.
The key to preventing terror strikes like the Westgate attack is the collection and dissemination of timely and accurate intelligence and pre-emptive strikes on terror camps run by al-Shabaab or Al Qaeda. It is also necessary for Kenyan intelligence to foster closer ties and cooperation with Western intelligence agencies and sharing of intelligence information.

A major fall-out of the recent terror attack could be tourism which is an important source of revenue for Kenya. The fact remains that Kenya's services sector, which contributes about 61 percent of GDP, is dominated by tourism. Terrorist attacks and apprehension of insecurity is likely to undermine the tourism industry and adversely affect the economy. Further attacks could also affect the flow of foreign investment into the country.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Westgate Terror Attack – Nairobi’s 26/11

On 21st September around noon about ten to fifteen gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Westlands District of Nairobi, Kenya shooting and killing scores of shoppers and wounding nearly 180 people. Last reports put the fatalities at 63, a figure that was expected to rise. At the time of writing this article, the standoff between the security forces and the terrorists were continuing. The Islamist group based in Somalia, the al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack and characterised it as retribution for the Kenyan military action in Somalia. It must be noted that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations in Somalia. It is mandated to support transitional governmental structures, implement a national security plan, train the Somali security forces, and to assist in creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. As part of its duties AMISOM assists Somalian government forces in its fight against al-Shabaab militants. 

When the attack started, Westgate was packed with shoppers (some witnesses put the figure at 1000) and people sitting down to lunch on Saturday. On the second floor of the three-story building, near the roof car park, a cooking competition for about 50 preschool-aged children was also under way. Witnesses sitting outside ArtCaffe on the ground floor said that a group of people armed with assault weapons and dressed in black drove up by the main entrance at about noon (09:00 GMT).

The Attackers

The group responsible for the Nairobi attack Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) is also known as Mujahideen Youth Movement or Movement for Striving Youth, commonly known as al-Shabaab (“the youth” or “the boys”)

Al-Shabaab is also known as Ash-Shabaab, Hizbul Shabaab (Arabic: "Party of the Youth"), and the Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations (PRM). For short, the organization is referred to as HSM, which stands for "Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen". The term Shabaab means "youth" in Arabic.

HSM is an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which disintegrated into several smaller factions after its defeat in 2006 by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian military allies. Islamic Courts Union was a group of Sharia Courts that united themselves to form an administration opposed to TFG. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was the head of the ICU. 

Till the end of 2006 ICU controlled much of Southern Somalia and major cities including the capital Mogadishu. In December 2006 ICU lost much of the territory controlled by it after suffering defeats in the battles of Baidoa, Bandiradley and Beledweyne. On 28th December 2006 they were forced out of Mogadishu and had to abandon the port city of Kismayo on 1st January 2007.

After the reverses on the battlefield, the hard-line Islamist elements broke ranks with the ICU to form groups like the al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam and continued to wage war against the TFG.

The al-Shabaab has declared that it was waging a jihad (holy war) against enemies of Islam and has been combating TFG and the AMISOM. The outfit is suspected of having links with the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. 

While the identity of the individual attackers has not been clear, the terror outfit has tweeted that out of some 15 gunmen two were British men from London - Liban Adam and Ahmed Nasir Shirdoon. It is alleged that three Americans, a Canadian and a Finn were among the hostage takers. And it is also suspected that the attack was being led by Samantha Lewthwaite - the "white widow" of a 7/7 bomber. However, an al Shabab military commander named Abu Omar, who claims to be in contact with the gunmen inside the mall, claimed that no women or Westerners were involved in the attack. Speaking to the BBC radio, he said the reports of Britons or Americans being involved were "baseless rumours". "To verify, we do not employ our sisters to carry out military attacks of this type," he added.

Links to Piracy and Financing

Al Shabaab has long been thought to be connected with Somali pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but it had been difficult to establish a direct connection between the Islamists and pirates. In December 2010, al Shabaab took control of a pirate base called Harardheere from Hizbul Islam, another Islamist group in Somalia, and reportedly reached a compromise with the local pirate gangs that would give the militants a 20 percent share of all ransoms received from the hijacking of ships. While there is no documentation to confirm such a deal, its share of the ransom money certainly has been lucrative for al Shabaab. Revenues from piracy also have boosted development in parts of Somalia, making it politically even more difficult to put a stop to pirate activity.[1]

Target Kenya

Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) was the codename for a coordinated military operation launched by the armed forces of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, France and the United States on 16th October 2011 when troops from Kenya crossed the border into the battle zones of Southern Somalia. The operation was aimed at al-Shabaab militant group which was responsible for abducting foreign tourists and aid workers from Kenya.

Al-Shabaab officially denied involvement in any of the kidnappings.  Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the group, said that its fighters would attack Kenya unless the Kenyan troops are withdrawn. He also claimed that bombardment by Kenyan aircraft had caused damage to infrastructure and civilian casualties. According to the news channel Al Jazeera, al-Shabaab have attempted to capitalize on the incursion by depicting itself as a resistance force fighting foreign occupiers and urged local residents to take up arms against the Kenyan soldiers.

Kenya’s involvement in the operation mentioned above and in AMISOM and its geographical proximity to Somalia made it an attractive target. Also, there have been warnings in the past of an impending attack inside Kenya. The Sunday Telegraph claimed that it had seen United Nations documents that warned last month of an "attempted large-scale [terror] attack" as "elevated."

Striking similarities to Mumbai 26/11

The attack on Westgate brought back memories of the 26th November 2008 attack on Mumbai when about ten well-armed terrorists belonging to the Pak-based Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a military-style commando attack on multiple targets in South Mumbai including the Taj and Oberoi-Trident Hotels, the Chhabad House in Colaba and the CST Railway Station. The siege lasted for nearly 60 hours before all the terrorists were neutralized. The attackers of the Nairobi Mall seem to have copied the Mumbai attack with one difference, namely, that the attackers in Nairobi have chosen a single target (the shopping mall) instead of multiple targets as in the case of Mumbai. Also a similar pattern seems to be emerging in Nairobi with the standoff entering the third day and the security forces having little or no clue on the number of attackers and the fate of the hostages, if any, in the custody of the terrorists. The Mumbai attackers’ targets were Westerners apart from the local populace. Hence the Taj and Oberoi-Trident frequented by Westerners were targeted. In the Westgate attack, the mall in question was popular with the expats. 

Another similarity between the two attacks is that the attackers were executing hostages after determining their religion – it has been reported by eyewitnesses that the attackers lined up hostages and asked them to either recite verses from the Quran or the name of the Prophet’s mother. If the hostages were unable to do so they were shot. In the Mumbai attack, one of the targets was Jewish – the Chhabad House; in the Nairobi attack, the mall is owned by an Israeli businessman. However the spokeswoman Ilana Stein of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the attack took place near but not inside the Israeli-owned ArtCaffe. She added that one Israeli was slightly injured and three others escaped unharmed, and that the Kenyan interior minister Joe Lenku said Israelis were not targeted. "This time, the story is not about Israel. The minister is saying that this is an internal Kenyan issue. His security forces tell him that this terror organisation was not targeting Israelis."

Though there is no known nexus between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the al-Shabaab, both being affiliated to Al Qaeda, there is a strong possibility of the al-Shabaab cadres being trained by the LeT in its camps.

Lessons for India

According to Praveen Swami, the Nairobi attacks should be bringing home one lesson to New Delhi policy makers: in a globalised world, Indian nationals and interests are at threat far from the country’s frontiers. In Kenya alone, there are more than 11,000 Indian citizens. With the United States no longer willing to lead the war on terror single-handed, it’s imperative for India to play a greater role in global counter-terrorism efforts, committing wealth—and yes, lives—to defend its citizens.[2]


It is difficult, at this stage, to make any assessment of the tactics adopted by the Kenyan security forces in tackling the terrorist attack. There have been reports of involvement and assistance by the Israeli Special Forces and personnel from the US and Great Britain. The exact role being played by the foreign forces' personnel is not yet known. A full-fledged assessment on the role of the security agencies is possible only after the episode ends. In conclusion, it must be said that no state can afford to under-estimate the capabilities of so-called regional or localized terror groups in carrying out attacks beyond their borders or region. The United States and the United Kingdom must take note of this fact or else a group like Boko Haram or al-Shabaab may carry out the next attack on their soils.