Fortnightly Review & Analysis: Defence, National Security and Terrorism (Vol 1 Issue XI)

(November 16-30, 2016)


This fortnight’s FRA on Defence and National Security covers India-China Hand in Hand Exercise 2016, visit of General Dalbir Singh Suhag, COAS to China and India’s Defence Diplomatic Outreach.

India-China Joint Military Exercise 'Hand-In-Hand 2016'

The Sixth India-China Joint Training Exercise 'Hand-in-Hand 2016' was held in India in the latter half of November 2016. The aim of the joint exercise was to acquaint both the Armies with each other's operating procedures in the backdrop of a counter terrorism environment. The exercise was held over a 13-day schedule and was focused upon training on crossing of obstacles, special heli-borne operations, firing of various weapons, handling and neutralisation of improvised explosive devices and conduct of cordon & search operations in insurgency and terrorism environment.

India and China have been regularly holding 'Hand-in-Hand’ exercises over the past years. These exercises are essential for both the armies to develop a better understanding of each other and develop requisite mutual trust.

Visit of General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Chief of Army Staff to China

Indian Army chief Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag undertook a visit to China that included a visit to the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command. During the visit, Gen Suhag interacted with General Liu Yuejun, Commander of the Eastern Theatre Command and visited military installations that included an Army Command College, an Infantry Division and an Army Air Defence Brigade. The General also held talks with China's Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice Chairman General Xu Qiliang and head of PLA Ground Forces Gen Li Zuocheng.

Relations between the two militaries have improved because of visits like the recent one undertaken by the Army Chief. As a consequence of this, both sides have managed to keep up the dialogue at the highest level thereby ensuring peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India’s Defence Diplomatic Outreach

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is currently on a two-day visit to Bangladesh during which he will call on the top leadership there and firm up defence cooperation initiatives ahead of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s trip here next month. This is the first visit by an Indian Defence Minister to Bangladesh and he is being accompanied by the Vice Chiefs of the Army and the Air Force, Deputy Chief of Navy and the Coast Guard chief. Mr Parrikar is meeting the President, Prime Minister and the Security Advisor to Prime Minister. Defence Ministry officials have said the focus of the trip is to deepen security ties and firm up a defence cooperation agreement that is likely to be signed when Sheikh Hasina visits India in December 17. Meanwhile, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, is in Sri Lanka on a bilateral visit from 27 Nov to 01 Dec 16. The Navy Chief is holding bilateral discussions with the President, the Prime Minister and various senior dignitaries including the Chief of Defence Staff and the three Service Chiefs.

Defence diplomacy is an important component of any country’s outreach to other nations in the pursuit of its national interests and international commitments. The current thrust of visits of important personae of the defence establishment of India is clearly dovetailed to give meat to the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of consolidating India’s relations with its neighbours. This thrust comes at a crucial time as China seeks to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through the medium of its so-called ‘Maritime Silk Road’ and increasing arms supplies to smaller nations in this region. However, these visits and interactions may not be sufficient to blunt the Chinese influence considering our well known shortcomings in the field of defence manufacturing. The success of the ‘Make in India’ programme coupled with a proactive diplomatic outreach will therefore be crucial for generating the necessary impetus to offset the Chinese strategic thrust into the IOR.


Mosul Liberation Campaign

The ongoing military campaign to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul, made some progress during the second half of November. Between 22 and 28 November, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made limited gains in the eastern part of the city as it struggled to identify the civilians to avoid casualties. The operation in the southeast region, particularly in the Ninewa Plains was almost completed. This would give easier access to the coalition forces to intensify the operation. Despite these advancements, the ISF could not make further inroads towards the southern neighborhoods of Mosul as Daesh (Islamic State or IS) militants are using civilians as defense shields. In the eastern part of the city, civilians were earlier asked to stay inside their homes. But later, the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) requested the Iraqi government to order the civilians to leave their places so that they could intensify their offensives. The government is trying its utmost to avoid civilians from being trapped in the crossfire.

However, the concerns for a serious humanitarian crisis is on the rise as there already have been reports of increasing demands of food and ration in some of the liberated territories. According to reports, more than 56,000 people have fled Mosul and surrounding areas since the beginning of the military campaign. Iraqi prime minister announced on 23 November that Iraqi army and other security forces would recapture the Turkmen city of Tel Afar, which also used to be a hotspot for Al Qaeda. The inclusion of Shiite militias for the liberation of Tel Afar has raised concerns of a possible sectarian clash getting triggered in this city. On the other hand, its successful recapture would be a major blow to ISIS. As it is, the outfit’s major transit or supply route to Syria, that is, Tel Afar-Sinjar road, has been cut off. Reportedly, there is no escape or reinforcement route for the ISIS militants who are now trapped inside Mosul. Despite these progresses, the ISF still needs to show restraint as the ISIS fighters are apparently defending the city vigorously, and it is still carrying out bomb blasts in other cities amidst the crackdown.

Terror Threats in the United States and Europe

Despite the ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq, the threats from IS and Al-Qaeda to the United States and Europe, have come into sharper focus. US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during the second half of November, sent out a strong warning about impending attacks in the US during national holidays, including the New York City’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and Washington’s Inauguration Day. FBI has alerted police authorities in different states to be prepared for a ‘multitude of attacks’ that could range from explosive laden-drone attacks to bombings in crowded places. It may be mentioned that the online propaganda magazines—Inspire and Rumiyah—of Al-Qaeda and Daesh (or IS), respectively, have mentioned about these threats in their latest editions. In the Washington area, the risk is reportedly higher during the Inauguration ceremony of the president-elect Donald Trump on the 20th January next year. Rumiyah, in its latest issue specifically mentioned about the Nice attack in France on 16 July this year that killed 86 people and injuring more than 400 others after an explosive-laden truck ploughed through a crowd celebrating the country’s Bastille Day. This was identified as a “prime example” by the ISIS’s magazine of what would likely be faced by New Yorkers. It even considered the Thanksgiving Day as an “excellent target”.

Similarly, in Europe too, warnings were issued for possible strikes by both these terror outfits during the holiday season. Now, with threats from foreign fighters returning home due to retreats in Syria and Iraq, the United Nations chemical weapons watchdog has warned that the fleeing terrorists could carry out attacks using mustard gas. Some of these returnees are believed to have learned the techniques to prepare such chemical bombs. Moreover, the IS-related intelligence gathered from the town of Manbij in Syria during late November, also mentioned of “external operations” and threats in Europe and “elsewhere”. At the present juncture, these threat warnings should not be underplayed, particularly considering the presence of Daesh/AL-Qaeda fighters/supporters/sympathizers in both the regions (US & Europe).

However, as Daesh is losing its leaderships and control over territories in Syria and Iraq, high profile terror incidents at par with that of Paris or Brussels, is being considered unlikely, though attacks of smaller magnitude are likely to continue. But even in the absence of strong Daesh leaderships to plot large-scale attacks, the presence of small/sleeper cells carries significant threats.

Clash between Daesh and Israel Defense Forces (IDF)

Despite the deteriorating security and political orders in neighboring states of Syria and Iraq, Israel is maintaining a commendable level of peace and stability, except for sporadic incidents of skirmishes along the Gaza Strip border, Jerusalem and other West Bank areas. Israeli security forces are, however, closely monitoring the activities of jihadists in the region, particularly in the Sinai area. Although Israel does not take Daesh as constituting a very serious threat, it seems concerned over the recent clashes between Daesh and IDF soldiers on 27 November, 2016 in southern Golan Heights. After they opened fire on IDF personnel, Israeli airstrike killed four militants belonging to the Shuhada al-Yarmouk (now Known as Jish Khaled Ibn al- Walid), an organization (established in 2012) that pledged allegiance to ISIS. On 28 November, Israeli Air Force (IAF) again responded to anDaesh attack by dropping 10 tons of explosives.

The US has designated Shuhada al-Yarmouk as a terrorist organization. It consists of approximately 600 fighters, mainly operating along Syria’s borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights for the last three years. The group gained notoriety after it kidnapped United Nations observers (from Philippines) in 2013. Although they refrained from cross-border attacks “so as not to provoke Israel or Jordan”, over the last couple of months, a few attempted attacks against Israel were made from the Syrian side. Iron Dome anti-missile system shot down two mortar rounds on the Golan Heights. Israeli citizens abroad, however, need to be vigilant, particularly after an attack on its national football team by ISIS was foiled in Albania in early November.

Related to this incident, 19 Daesh-linked people were arrested by police in Kosovo. The recent gunfire was unlikely to signal a new wave of ISIS-directed activities along the borders but was being viewed as “an attempt to get Israel actively involved in Syrian territory, shuffle the deck, and perhaps change the situation”. The military and security establishments are taking necessary precautionary measures to thwart any such attack by jihadist organizations operating in Israel’s vicinity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly said, “Israel would have a zero tolerance policy for attacks across its borders”.

IS-related Activities in the Af-Pak Region

The developments in the Af-Pak region over the last few months have signaled that the IS is trying hard to expand its footprints in the area. With Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s dream of the “Caliphate” almost on the verge of collapse—at least territorially in its strong hold—the outfit’s supporters and sympathizers in Pakistan and Afghanistan are gradually stepping up their terror operations. IS claimed responsibility for the November 21 attack in Shuhada al-Yarmouk in which more than 30 people were killed and several others wounded. This was the third attack on minority Shiite community since July this year. The attack bore the hallmark of IS which is extremely sectarian in its ideology and can be considered as an attempt to divide this war-torn country on ethno-sectarian lines. While Afghanistan has not seriously suffered sectarian violence as compared to those in a few West Asian countries, the gradually rising attacks on Shiite establishments and community congregations reflect a new phase in their sectarian campaign. This is a worrisome development as fighters loyal to IS in Afghanistan are mostly Pakistanis from the tribal regions. It is believed that disgruntled Pakistani and Afghan Taliban fighters are cooperating with Central Asia-origin foreign fighters. Despite IS operatives being pummeled by US airstrikes inside Afghanistan and insignificant support from the locals, the outfit still maintains “a small – and seemingly resilient – stronghold in eastern Afghanistan”. Although IS is still not an existential threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is, undoubtedly, looking at these two countries to establish a presence. The fleeing fighters from Syria and Iraq will likely take up this task.


Suicide Attack at Nagrota Army camp

The 166 Artillery unit of Indian Army based at Nagrota (hqrs. 16 Corps) was attacked by three Fedayeen terrorists on November 29th, 2016. The terrorists forced their entry into the camp by throwing grenades and heavy firing through automatic weapons. During the intense encounter that continued throughout the day, two officers and five soldiers were martyred. The forces did however, foiled a possible hostage like situation, killed the terrorists and sanitised the area.This was the seventh terrorist attack since September 29th, when Indian Army carried out the high profile surgical strikes across the Line of Control in response to the Pak army backed terror attack on the Uri brigade hqrs. Nearly 84 security force fatalities have been recorded in such terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir in 2016; the highest since 2008.

As in the earlier attacks at Pathankot, Uri or Gurudaspur, according to media reports, even in the Nagrota incident, advance intelligence was available, although, even if true, its content and accuracy cannot be verified and commented upon. It is highly unlikely that in the backdrop of the earlier incidents, the intelligence available would not have been acted upon. Yet, the larger question of providing due protection to the critical defense establishments and installations, needs to be addressed. Post-Pathankot, the Government had depute a former Vice Chief of the Army to undertake a comprehensive review of security at all military establishments. There is urgent requirement to implement the security measures for the vulnerable establishments in quick time. Frequent attacks on military establishments and growing intensity and brazenness of these emphasise the need for evolving a more robust counter-terror framework accompanied by an effective on-ground implementation mechanism of counter-terrorism strategy.

Five Al Qaeda Sympathisers Arrested by the National Investigating Agency (NIA)

In the course of NIA’s investigations into incidents of bomb blasts outside the court premises in the states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka since April, 2016, based on the specific information that suspected Al Qaeda activists were operating from South Tamil Nadu in and around Madurai, the NIA conducted raids and arrested three persons on November 28th - 29th, 2016. During this joint operation between NIA, Tamil Nadu Police and Telangana Police seized several arms and explosives. NIA spokesman claimed that the arrested accused had confessed their involvement in the blasts and that the group was also planning to carry out attacks on 22 top political leaders in the country including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The group was led by one Suleiman who was working in a software firm and was highly influenced by the ideology of the Osama bin Laden. Further, they have also confessed about their involvement in circulation of ideological pamphlets, pen drives and CDs. They were operating under the name of “The Base Movement” which is literal translation of word Al Qaeda. The Base Movement was earlier involved in threatening the embassies of various countries in recent past.

Annual Conference of DGPs/IGPs 2016 in Hyderabad

The 51st Annual Conference of Directors General / Inspectors General of Police of States and UTs and Heads of Central Police Organisations was held on November 25-27, 2016 at the SVP National Police Academy, Hyderabad. This is the third time that the conference was organized outside Delhi; an idea mooted by Prime Minister Modi in 2014.

The deliberations were focused on cross-border terrorism, infiltration and radicalisation of youth under the influence of Middle East terrorist groups like the IS, andissues related to police reforms, filling up vacant posts in various police forces and tackling of menace of narcotics.

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