Thumbnail images: 

Almost a decade ago, on 10 June 2011, a Tier One United States’ Naval Special Warfare Development Group, namely DEVGRU or Seal Team Six assassinated Osama Bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan. At the time, counter terrorism apparatus around the world had geared up for what most analysts had prophesised would be Islamist reprisals for the Abbotabad incident. Indeed, the retaliation within Pakistan did not even await the conclusion of the period of customary Islamic 40 days of bereavement, and tanzeems such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked Pakistani military targets that have marked US connections. The targeting of PNS Mehran in Karachi, for instance, has been attributed to the stationing of the US manufactured P-3 series Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft, an action directed against US-Pakistan military collaboration, a controversial phraseology that had come to characterise the killing of Bin Laden.


Although much water has passed under the bridge of the Potomac and the Indus since Operation Geronimo as also the fact that Indian Special Forces, too (for the first time) crossed over into “enemy territory” and executed what has come to be known as “surgical strikes” it is yet early days to discern whether India has been able to internalise this sort of covert warfare. While the aspect that is no longer in doubt about the capability of the Indian armed forces to successfully conduct missions such as Operation Wagh Nakh inside Myanmar and the one in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, what does not seem to be very clear is the political decisiveness that commissions such action.


It is the considered opinion of the author that the cohesiveness with which the al-Qaeda and its sister organisation the ISIS operates, or for the matter the nature of their relationship with their various franchisees world-wide including ones in Bangladesh, indicates that despite setbacks after Operation Neptune Spear, there is a regaining of ground by the Islamists. Although different factions/groups in the region have surfaced in the last ten years, the al-Qaeda has always been the undisputed salar-e-allah, and it is quite possible that attacks like that on PNS Mehran attack were not unilateral TTP action, but ones that were tasked either by al-Qaeda or its virtual surrogate the Quetta Shura.


Indeed, it is the franchisee connection that would further extend al-Qaeda’s war to countries such as India via Bangladesh, albeit with motivations that have been devised by long-term implications. The most important threat, therefore, would emanate from al-Qaeda’s ability to harness and activate the social networking tools—franchisees or affiliates—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and even groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Bangladesh) (HUJI (B)) and the newly created Hifazat-e-Islam to act against the US and its interests in the region, primarily India. It would be recollected that it was a collective body that had signed a joint declaration against the United States on 23 February 1998 under the leadership of Bin Laden. It was this covenant that had facilitated the spark for the transnational spate of terrorist acts in the region. Components from North East India and Bangladesh were part of the aforementioned unholy treaty. Fazlur Rahman, leader of the “Jihad Movement in Bangladesh,” of which HUJI (B) and North East militant groups such as Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam are important affiliates had signed the joint declaration. The prognosis for India is the systematic mustering of the affiliates for initial low-intensity actions, which would preoccupy and distract security agencies, paving ground for a spectacular al-Qaeda guided attack that would follow. It must also be understood that terrorist threat to India would continue to emanate from traditional warzones like Pakistan and Bangladesh, the latter utilising the lower Assam “gateway” to enter and aid the perpetration of terror inside India. While the level of cooperation between Bangladesh based groups such HUJI (B) and LeT have been proven in the past, the intensity of the relationship would achieve a high in the changed circumstances. This would not only be driven by the al-Qaeda led Islamist strategy to push India on the path to war with Pakistan (easing thereby Pakistani military deployment in the west), but also by Islamist groups inside Bangladesh and the Rohingya dominated region of Myanmar which would not only utilise the al-Qaeda-ISIS as a rallying point for a pro-Pakistani and anti-liberationist movement inside Bangladesh, but also to act against Sheikh Hasina’s pro-India stance. It is now a known fact that Hasina’s hard stand against the Islamists would both endanger her and have a spill over effect into the North East of India.


Unfortunately, the place and time for an al-Qaeda led attack would be of its own choosing. The al-Qaeda is a highly motivated organisation, and although there is some dissonance among the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the fact of the matter is that the organisation’s hierarchy has agreed on Ayman-al-Zawahiri (an Egyptian) as its salar-e-allah, despite the fact that he is a person from outside the Arab Peninsula (an expanse that had generally been guiding world-wide al-Qaeda strategy during the leadership of Bin Laden). The immediate al-Qaeda order of duty would be to regroup and brace itself for a fresh US-NATO “drone-led” onslaught in the Af-Pak region and take rear-guard action until Biden pulls out his troops from Afghanistan: he has stated that the “pull-out” by 1 May 2021 would be tough. Al-Qaeda realises the pressure that Islamabad is facing from the US to decisively act against it and its franchisees, including the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura, and it is precisely as a result of this reason (also desperate encouragement from an influential section of Pakistan’s security establishment) that a concerted attack could be mounted in India. The strategy would rest on the premise that India would either go to war with Pakistan, or undertake an offensive deployment posture of the lines of Operation Parakram, forcing the Pakistani armed forces to shift its attention to the east.  Indeed, the present atmospherics inside India (especially as the COVID-19 situation) that have momentarily distracted the attention of the establishment from issues pertaining to national security would be opportune for such a course of action. The course of action, al-Qaeda’s stategicians would hope, could set off not only a conflict between India and a Sino-Pakistan combine, but destabilise the entire region—the result of which would be the culling of an opportunity for Islamists to reorganise themselves, even as their detractors engage the escalation of tension between nuclearised India and Pakistan.


An unstable Pakistan is not in the interest of India at this point of time. Indeed, it is precisely what the Islamists are seeking. With a weak civilian authority, an unstable army and intelligence inside Pakistan (an important section of which has become “loose cannon on deck”) and a largely anti-American public, the chances of Pakistan disintegrating is strong. On the face of it, the event might look like an Indian dream. But, short-term gains must not be allowed to override long-term repercussions. A stable neighbourhood with dispensations that are in control of its security establishment is healthy for India’s development. India cannot afford the falling apart of Pakistan at this juncture. The presence of rogue elements in Islamabad, whose sole raison d’être is anti-Indianism and cornered Islamists with franchisees even in India’s eastern seaboard are detrimental to the nation. The Islamists have already made statements that they are not in favour of targeting the nuclear installations in Pakistan as they want control of the nuclear arsenal. A social implosion in Pakistan—and were it to be aided by India—would hasten such a process with catastrophic results. India must exercise patience even in the face of a determined Islamist-Pakistani military/intelligence anti-India agenda: the long term ramifications of bravado that may be provoked by nefarious cross-border motivation would be disastrous. A mature nation while safeguarding its national security interests must work out a long-term perspective planning mechanism that has regional stability in its ambit, especially as it is all set to carve out a superpower role for itself. The ramifications have to be, therefore, carefully gauged. Indeed, even action in the periphery—such as the North East of India—by al-Qaeda-ISIS franchisees that have long embraced interchangeability and decentralisation should be responded to by India’s security apparatus in an extremely calibrated manner.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal