Legendary police officer of India and one time Director General of Police, Assam, Prakash Singh has had a long and eventful stint in service of the nation. A Padmashri awardee, Singh was also the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh as well as the Director General, Border Security Force. An IPS officer of the 1959 batch, Singh is also the author of several books including the best-selling “Kohima to Kashmir: On the Terrorist Trail.” Prakash Singh who is penning his memoirs titled “Unforgettable Chapters” where Assam reportedly finds weighty mention spoke to renowned terrorism and conflict specialist Jaideep Saikia about the drone attack on the Indian Air Force station in Jammu on 27 June 2021 and related matters.

Prakash Singh: Jaideep, the drone attack on Jammu airport is alarming? Who do you think is behind such an attack?

Jaideep Saikia: It is quite clear that Pakistan sponsored Islamist tanzeems carried out the drone attack. Although no group has claimed responsibility as yet, the finger of suspicion points to Lashkar-e-Taiba. But as you are aware the world of Islamist terror has come full circle and there is not only complete interchangeability and unity of intent and purpose among and within such tanzeems, but they are totally in the grip of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. In other words, this time around the Professor Moriarty or the “Napoleon of Crime” and “Spider at the centre of a Web” by which the fictional Sherlock Holmes had likened Moriarty to is Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed, the head of the ISI. It is the ISI and the Pakistan army that provides sophisticated armaments and weapon systems such as drones to the Islamists.

But the nexus between the ISI and the Islamist is not as simple as it seems. There has been ambivalence within the “Deep State” that makes up Pakistan. The security architecture in Rawalpindi and thereabouts waxes and wanes like irregular lunar cycles. For instance, just over 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 aircrafts, an action directed against US-Pakistan military collaboration, a controversial phraseology that had come to characterise the killing of Bin Laden. Therefore, even as the ISI provides safe havens to anti-US terror groups and arms the Islamist against India—despite US counsel to rein in such groups—it has no problem doing business with Washington in the same breath. In other words, the military establishment of Pakistan will continue to run with the hare and
hunt with the hounds. As for India, it is the ISI’s sole raison d’être. Even an undemanding of action against India endows a “ghazi” with the coveted “Hilal-i-Jurat.”

Prakash Singh: In any event, the Islamist groups that are operating from inside Pakistan seem to have been provided the UAV capability by their military. Do you think there is a need for a re-calibration exercise by India keeping in mind the latest drone threat?

Jaideep Saikia: I think the numero uno of global Islamism al-Qaeda’s motto of hitting out at the “far enemy” is being carried out to both its logical and literal conclusions. To that end, there has been a complete overhauling of the manner in which the ISI and its surrogates would be targeting India in the future. The accent would be to infiltrate each and every aspect of Indian life from the manner in which recruitment to government services take place to wedding ceremonies. Therefore, when one speaks of re-calibration it has to be an exercise that has to continually change tactics. The active entry of China into the match vis-a-vis the “duality of togetherness” has provided an altogether new dimension to the game. As for drones, there is nothing new about it. The Indians have used it as well and certain drones, especially the Chinese manufactured ones, are quite cheap and can be purchased by an Islamist tanzeem on their own. Indeed, they have been used for both surveillance and for dropping of weaponry over Indian territory. The payload factor, especially if it carries energetic polymer-bonded explosives is, however, important and the manner in which they have tried to assault the Air Traffic Control tower in the Jammu IAF base seems to be one of their newest innovations. The relative success of the operation would now witness more such action. I am a little worried because such drones do not have to be operated from across the border with Pakistan. A person sitting in the vicinity of any of the strategic locations in Delhi—and it does not have to be an airbase—can activate a drone and cause serious damage to any installation in the capital. Sir, you have not only led two state police forces in India, but also the BSF. Can you not countenance a headline in a morning’s newspaper or a breaking news on the television which cries out “A swarm of drones attack Delhi?” The
problem with our security establishment is that they do not possess or recruit specialists—by even by way of lateral entry—who have the ability to think out of the box. Also, the manner in which training is imparted to the ones that enter the establishment by way of the conventional has no novelty. As a matter of fact, novel concepts are not only not comprehended by the policy makers, but are resisted to the hilt. I cannot help resist but remind you of the daring plan that you had devised way back in 1991 when you were DGP, Assam for a very short period of time. You had planned to attack the ULFA camps in Bhutan by training a special force that would be led by the then IG (Operations), E.N. Rammohan. It was known only to EN Rammohan and you! But your plan to oust the ULFA from their safe havens in the Himalayan kingdom—and you had ensured that it had the tacit support of Thimphu—thirteen years (2003) before they were finally driven out was as short lived as your stint in Ulubari. Somehow the matter leaked out from your office and Delhi prevailed upon you to abandon the plan. I wonder how many innocent lives were lost in the thirteen years between 1991 and 2003! The ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO had robust camps in southern Bhutan—in Samdrup Jongkhar and Kalikhola—and almost 99 % o of their anti-India operations were carried out from such camps.

I am afraid, I am digressing. But as far as drones are concerned, I am aware that the Indian security agencies have been testing anti-drone jammer technology, especially in the India-Pakistan border, but the possibility of new variants emerging—with Chinese characteristics—are a live issue, especially as there are enemies who are hell bent on “bleeding India with a thousand cuts.” Therefore, although there would have to be a continual process of re-calibration as I said before and the hydra-headed threats have to be successfully countered, the most important aspect is to understand not just the methodologies that are being adopted to pester India but the end objective of such acts. After all, the question that has hardly ever been asked is as to why Pakistan continues to do what it does. The answer lies somewhere in the two-nation theory and aspects such as Pakistan army and the ISI’s inability to come to terms with the fact that India severed it in 1971! You see I was a state guest to Pakistan on the invitation of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq when I was still a student in St. Stephen’s College and one of the aspects that have remained with me is that an ordinary Pakistan is extremely friendly. In fact, I would say that they are the friendliest of people in India’s entire neighbourhood and I have been to each and every country that abuts India. But the state of Pakistan is a different ball-game altogether and our planners have to comprehend this important characteristic. What comes over Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa when he is wearing the uniform?

Prakash Singh: Strategic locations in the North East, too, seem to be vulnerable to such attacks. What is your threat assessment in this regard?

Jaideep Saikia: Yes, there is a clear cut ISI blueprint for Assam and the North East, the most important of which is to pin down the Indian army to the region in CI-CT duties and from their primary duty elsewhere where they are needed, in places such as the borders with China and Pakistan as also in the Kashmir Valley. Moreover, there are important air bases and LAC proximate ALGs in the North East many of which have been operationalised during Op Gagan Shakti. I have already referred to the “duality of togetherness” and the possibility of such drone strikes on strategic installations in the North East cannot be ruled out. Not only do the ISI continue to have assets inside the erstwhile East Pakistan, but there are—at this time—a number of Islamist tanzeems operating inside the North East including groups such as the Popular Front of India and the Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) who would—when activated—do the ISI’s bidding. I hope the authorities in the region are seized
of the threat and are not keeping smug about the fact that the air base in Jorhat is 2,747 Kms away from Jammu.

Prakash Singh: The Indian state has successfully carried out “surgical strikes” against terror camps in both Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Myanmar. Do you think the latest attack merits similar actions against terror groups inside enemy territory?

Jaideep Saikia: I don’t really know. It is for the policy makers in New Delhi to decide on what course of action should be taken from an array that can be taken. It is quite evident that that US-style Op Geronimo can also be undertaken by India and indeed Indian Special Forces, too, have crossed over into “enemy territory” and executed what has come to be known as “surgical strikes.” But 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 Op Wagh Nakh inside Myanmar and the one in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, what does not seem to be clear is the political decisiveness that decrees such action.

Saikia undergoing a sub-conventional warfare course in CIJWS, Vairegte

Prakash Singh: Your best-selling book “Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India” (2004) was perhaps the first document that announced the presence of al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. How is the group that perpetrated 9/11 spreading its tentacles in the Indian subcontinent, especially in eastern India?

Jaideep Saikia: It is my considered opinion 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 the territorial ouster in Iraq and Syria 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 with, of course, definite ISI blessings. In fact, it is quite possible that even the drone attack on the IAF station in Jammu action could have been planned by the al-Qaeda-ISIS.

Prakash Singh: In what manner is the unholy nexus between the Islamist groups panning out?

Jaideep Saikia: The most important threat would emanate from al-Qaeda-ISIS’s ability to harness and activate the social networking tools—franchisees or affiliates—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and even groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and JMB as also the emergence of over ground Islamist groups such as Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh to act against 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, and Fazlul 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-ISIS guided attack that would follow. It must also be understood that terrorist threat to India would continue to emanate from traditional Islamist 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 Neo-JMB and the al-Qaeda-ISIS 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-ISIS 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 Sheikh Hasina’s hard stand against the Islamists would both endanger her and have a spill over effect into the North East of India. The last point about Sheikh Hasina is important: India must support her. I am stating this despite the fact that there is both the “Shadow of Zawahiri” and Beijing over Dhaka.

Incidentally, have you ever given a thought as to why India did not protest the procurement of two Ming class diesel submarines by Bangladesh—BNS Nobojatro and BNS Joyjatro—from China? They are currently moored in the Kutubdia channel in Chittagong which is 800 nautical miles from India’s Eastern Naval Command HQs in Vishakhapatnam. I know Sheikh Hasina to be a friend and an ally of India, but why this acquisition? What maritime concerns does Bangladesh have? Besides, when you acquire submarines there would certainly be Chinese PLAN observers and trainers aboard the submarines when they are undergoing sea trials in the Bay of Bengal. And, as I said, they are almost cheek-by-jowl to our Eastern Naval Command. What stops the PLAN from monitoring our naval movements in the area? I wonder whether our policy makers were even aware about the

Prakash Singh: Do you see a time frame by when a spectacular attack could be mounted?

Jaideep Saikia: Unfortunately, the place and time for an al-Qaeda-ISIS led attack would be of its own choosing. This is despite the fact that “staging grounds” have already been identified. The al-Qaeda-ISIS is a highly motivated organisation, and although there was some dissonance last year 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 leader, despite the fact that he is a person from outside the Arab Peninsula, an expanse that has 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 last “drone-led” onslaught in the Af-Pak region and take rear-guard action until Biden pulls out his troops from Afghanistan. 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 as 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 Op 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 in India 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-ISIS’s strategicians 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. But I must state this, and I am doing so despite the fact that I am taking an unpopular line of
thinking. 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 repercussion. A stable neighbourhood with dispensations that are in control of its security establishment is healthy for India’s development. India cannot afford the failing 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 both caution and 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 interchange-ability and decentralisation should be responded to by India’s security apparatus in an extremely calibrated manner.

Prakash Singh: Are we, therefore, running against time, Jaideep?

Jaideep Saikia: I have always been warning the policy makers about the “Third Wave of Radicalisation.” The drone attack in Jammu must not be seen in isolation. I have read the entrails and the student in me senses a clear augury in the attack. I don’t want to leave you with a doomsday prophecy, but years of apprenticeship in matters of terrorism and conflict inform me that the signs are not right and something is afoot in both ends of India. Of course, as I said earlier, the time would be of their choosing. We can only keep ourselves alert and not let inane aspects such as “boundary disputes between North East states” sway us from comprehending the bigger picture. You would call to mind what Sun Tzu said in his inimitable “The Art of War.” In the seventh chapter [Maneuvring] the military strategist, general and philosopher who is believed to have lived between 544-496 B.C. says “Let your
plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” It is also important to recall the old Afghan proverb which the Taliban had once boasted about during its war with the US-led coalition forces. It almost appeals to the composer of awful poems in me. The Taliban had rather lyrically, but with all the sinister intent that they were able to muster, said, “You have the watches, We have the time.”

Jaideep Saikia

Jaideep Saikia is a well-known terrorism and conflict analyst. He can be reached at jdpsaikia@gmail.com.