Wednesday, September 24, 2008



The twin truck bomb attacks by the Islamic Jihad against the US and French forces in Beirut on October 23, 1983, in which 241 US servicemen, 220 of them Marines, and 58 French paratroopers were killed, saw the beginning of a change in the modus operandi of terrorists all over the world. It was suspected that the Iran-supported Hizbollah had carried out the attacks under an assumed name.

2.Two suicide bombers in trucks packed with explosives were able to shake the will of a super power and another major Western power and force the withdrawal of the International Peace-Keeping Force from the Lebanon. Even dozens of terrorists with hand-held weapons could not have created the kind of devastation and impact which two bombers with explosives did. The number of fatalities per incident are more with explosives than with hand-held weapons. They demonstrate the helplessness of the State more dramatically than hand-held weapons.Since 1983, the global trend has been towards greater use of improvised explosive devices---- activated either through timers or remote-control devices or suicide bombers.

3.Terrorist organizations fall into two groups---- those which use a mix of hand-held weapons and IEDs and those which have almost completely gravitated to IEDs. To prevail over the State with only hand-held weapons, terrorists need a large number of recruits. With explosives, they need only a small number. The smaller the number of members in a terrorist organization, the more difficult for the intelligence agencies to penetrate it.

4.Examples of the first kind are the LTTE, the Taliban, the Kashmiri terrorist organizations, the Maoists and the United Liberation Front of Assam. Examples of the second kind are Al Qaeda and the jihadi terrorist organizations active in India outside Kashmir.The jihadi terrorists operating outside Kashmir continue to use hand-held weapons occasionally as they did in Bangalore in December 2005 and in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh in January,2008. But, their preference now is for IEDs.

5.Till 1993, the terrorists sought high-intensity explosives for their operations such as the RDX, the SEMTEX of Czech make which dogs found it difficult to detect etc. Physical security measures by States created difficulties in their procurement and improvement in explosive-detection technology made it difficult to use them. Since 1993, only terrorists sponsored by a foreign intelligence agency such as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) use high-intensity explosives such as RDX. Others have been shifting to material, which could be easily procured without creating suspicions and converted into explosives. They initially started with nitrogenous fertilizers, which were used in the explosion in the New York World Trade Centre in February, 1993, and since the London blasts of July 2005, they have been shifting to chemicals of common use such as women’s cosmetics for fabricating explosives and inflammable material. With liquids such as cosmetics used for cleaning, one can fabricate an explosive on the spot as in the toilet of a plane, for example.

6.State agencies have tried to counter this trend through measures such as persuading manufacturers to reduce the nitrogenous content of fertilizers, issuing permits for the sale and purchase of fertilizers, advising fertilizer sellers to report to the police all suspicious purchases and restrictions on carrying chemicals of common use on board aircraft etc. Some of the recent detection of terrorist modules in Western countries was made possible by alert fertilizer sellers informing the police about suspicious purchases.

7.State agencies are yet to find a satisfactory response to suicide terrorism. While strict access control can prevent a suicide terrorist from reaching the intended target, it cannot prevent him from triggering off the IED, when suspected and questioned. Many of the fatalities in Pakistan and Afghanistan are being caused by suicide terrorists blowing themselves up when stopped for searching by the police or private security guards.

8.An effective answer to suicide terrorism will depend on our ability to detect a person carrying an IED from a distance without having to search him and to deactivate his detonating device through remote control. Years of research in the Western countries have not resulted in appropriate technologies to achieve these objectives.

9.In India, devising measures to make it difficult for the terrorists to procure explosives or commonly available materials which can be converted into explosives and promoting research and development of technologies which can be used against suicide bombers have not received much attention so far despite the death and destruction caused by the jihadi terrorists and the ULFA through IEDs. They are increasingly using material such as ammonium nitrate procured in India and not material from the ISI. While other countries imposed identity checks during the sale and purchase of nitrogenous fertilizers years ago, we are only now thinking of them. There is hardly any research and development on appropriate technologies to counter suicide terrorism. It is time the Government pays attention to this. 24-9-08)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )