The attack on Jammu Air Force Station on June 27, 2021 has raised a lot of eyebrows over the methodology of its conduct. Given that a commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) aerial drone was used to deliver equally crude ‘bombs’ on such a sensitive establishment, without being detected or identified, points to two facts: A major lack of deterrence against non-state actors and increasingly diffusible technologies changing the character of warfare, especially in counterterror operations.
This seems to be par for the course. The battleground in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has generally been a derivative one. For years, the techniques and technologies used against Indian security forces have been emulated and copied from terror groups in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region. As a result, the trends have generally been predictable, if not the timelines.
Technologies such as unmanned systems put a nation-state and an individual on the same pedestal when it relates to the use of calibrated violence to achieve certain political aims. In fact, it gives non-state actors certain advantages as the factor of attributability, important for punitive responses, is hazy at best. After the Jammu attack, fingers have been pointed towards a neighbouring country which may have imparted the necessary expertise, intelligence and even material to carry out the attack.
West Asia and North Africa Influence
Over a period of more than two decades, since the start of militancy and then terrorism in the embattled state, there has always been a diffusion of specific techniques and technologies from WANA. This provides analysts and experts certain clues to predict and portent emerging trends in the Valley and recommend defensive or offensive measures to offset them. The use of suicide bombings, vehicle-based improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), funerals as recruitment tools and now unmanned aerial platforms — all have been tried, tested, and executed in the battlefields of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Palestine and then imported wholesale into Kashmir, initially through the fighters themselves and now via encrypted apps and do-it-yourself manuals on the internet. Now only willpower and intent separates an individual from a terrorist, as the tools are available on the open market.
Rapidly proliferating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have become such a threat for American forces operating in Iraq that counter-UAS (C-UAS) has become the top priority for US Central Command (CENTCOM). Small- and medium-sized UAS have been termed as a “persistent and dangerous” threat to American troops in the Middle East. In fact, the US forces face a loss of air supremacy for the first time since the Korean war. This is despite aerial drones being first used in the Battle for Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), both for dropping crude munitions and acting as forward observers for indirect fire such as artillery and mortars. Since then, the greater Middle East region has been awash with drones, terror and militant groups using them as a cost-effective method to challenge American dominance of airspace in the region.
Iran has been the go-to ‘incubator’ for a majority of ‘small war’ technologies being used in the Middle East. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has built up a domestic drone production industry, using ships, land routes and cargo planes to smuggle various types of drones to the battlefields of Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and even Palestine. Another supplier has been China, whose drones can be rigged to be fitted with explosives and used as cheap kamikaze aerial bombs.
The Houthis have been the biggest innovators when it comes to targeting state actors with drones. Hamas used a number of drones, suspected to be Iranian tech, against the Israelis, most of which were shot down. After the successful use of armed and sophisticated drones by the Azeris against the Armenians in their re-capture of critical parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, it was clear that drones had become a part of a paradigm shift in warfare. It was just a question of “when” and not “if” for drones to herald their arrival in the Indian subcontinent as adversarial actors. The last couple of years had seen the use of drones by India’s Western neighbour to smuggle drugs, currency notes and, at times, arms and ammunition across the Line of Control (LC) and the International Boundary (IB). The Jammu attack has presaged a model that deepens and exploits asymmetries between two uneven actors and where the weaker side tries to balance the scales using non-state actors.
Patterns in Methods Used by Terrorists
Suicide bombings, long considered to be the product of unhinged and lunatic fringe groups, have been used in a strategic manner by a number of terror groups such as Hezbollah and the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE). Hezbollah used suicide bombings to target American and French troops in Lebanon in 1983, bringing an early end to American aspirations of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the region. After that, the technique leap-frogged to Sri Lanka where the LTTE used it effectively against the Sri Lankan state from 1987 to 2003 (273 attacks). It then ricocheted back to the Middle East where al-Qaeda and ISIS used it in devastating attacks against Iraqi forces, civilians, and later American and NATO troops.
Kashmir saw its first suicide bombing on 19 April 2000 when Afaq Ahmed Shah became Kashmir’s first suicide bomber. He blew himself attempting to ram a car filled with explosives into the Indian Army’s 15 Corps headquarters in Badami Bagh cantonment. He was followed by Mohammad Bilal, a 24-year old British citizen recruited by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), who blew himself and the car he was in, outside an Indian Army barracks in Srinagar, killing six Indian soldiers and three civilians on December 25, 2000. The South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) counts a total of 87 such suicide attacks from 2000-2019 in the erstwhile state, in which 130 civilians and 239 security forces have been killed.
Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), initially used by al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in a number of bombing attacks, have become the weapon of choice for a number of terror groups in WANA and Afghanistan. They were used most effectively against the American forces in Iraq to embroil them in urban warfare and negate their advantages of armour. The US military created a new organisation called the Joint IED Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO) to deal with these attacks. These crude devices ensured that the American military spent close to US $75 billion in research and canalised US troops to designated air-corridors, deepening their dependency on air support. ISIS used a combination of drones, suicide bombers, and VBIEDs in Mosul and other cities in Iraq to capture and later defend them in 2018.
The Indian forces have faced intermittent yet deadly VBIED attacks, generally in combination with suicide bombing, the most recent being the Pulwama attack in 2018. Since 2018, there has been an uptick in the number of VBIEDs in Kashmir, a significant number of which have been defused by security forces, pushed especially by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). It is to be noted that JeM’s major expertise in suicide bombing and car bombs has been amply exploited by Pakistan in Kashmir. However, the security forces have gained major breakthroughs in the Valley, especially with the killing of Waleed Bhai, a JeM IED expert, in 2020.
The nature of the Palestinian struggle against Israel has given birth to a unique culture that glorifies the suicide bomber, making him a martyr — also known as Istishhady. From a purely strategic point of view, it serves number of causes. It aims to enlist similar martyrs for the cause ensuring an almost endless supply of recruits. By branding an insurgent as a martyr, the aim of the organisation is to elicit overt support of parents by pointing to a common cause — liberation of Palestine. For the international media, it highlights the atrocities of the Israeli military by focusing on the age and supposed ‘innocence’ of the bomber. Taken together, the martyrdom ceremonies, processions, and songs serve as a powerful propaganda tool to recruit cadres. ‘Martyrdom operations’ have been used by Palestinian groups both for tactical and propaganda purposes since 1993.
The same technique was attempted in Kashmir where funerals of slain militants were frequented both by terrorists and Over Ground Workers (OGW) recruiters. There is also an attempt to create an imaginary link between the Palestinians and the Kashmiris by pointing to a likely common cause. This proved successful in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killings but has now subsided to a great degree. In fact, now the ‘janazas’ of policemen and soldiers draw large crowds.
The above paragraphs present a pattern — that a number of techniques and technologies have found fertile testing grounds in WANA and have then been imported into the Kashmir valley. Some have been successful while some have fizzled out, due to extraneous factors. While the success or failure of a particular technique is difficult to be predicted, one can always look towards trends in the WANA region, to prognosticate on what the next big thing will be in the Valley. After drone attacks, the next big thing which has already been test-bedded in the recent Israel-Palestinian conflict is the use of loitering munition and drone swarms (crude form), both by the Israelis against Hamas. Though the prohibitive cost of loitering munition and the need for a suitable delivery platform precludes a terror group from procuring it in the near future, drone swarms in their crudest and manually controlled form can be used against static security installations. This needs to be kept in mind by the Indian security forces when looking out for the next big threat in the Valley.
This article was first published on ORF.