There is a curious quality to the report in the newspapers today declaring the arrest of 14 men allegedly linked to the Islamic State. A breathless headline in a national daily claims that the men were planning a “Paris-style hit” and that a CIA tip off led to their arrest.
However, the report by a journalist, who has long experience with the Union Home Ministry, also cites an official of the ministry to say that “our information is that the 14 members may not be really planning to get together for a big strike but could have undertaken attacks in and around their areas of residence,” whatever that may mean.
The group, already christened as the Haridwar-Roorkee Islamic State module, lacked the wherewithal to carry out a large attack, and one report claims they were grinding the heads of match sticks to make explosives.
The fact this comes on the eve of Republic Day makes you wary of the report. Almost all such anniversaries, including Independence Day on August 15, feature a string of reports about possible terror strikes. While the bad guys would certainly like to conduct a strike on a day of great symbolism for Indians, they cannot but be unaware that these are the very days on which security is very, very tight.
In recent history, this writer can recall just two such incidents, both undertaken by high-quality ISI agents. One attack targeted the R-Day function at a stadium in Jammu in 1995 and the other was at a similar function at Jaipur, a year later, in 1996. Major Irfan Mohammed of the ISI was arrested for the Jaipur attack and sentenced to jail, but managed to escape from Kot Bhalwal prison and return to Pakistan. Other Pakistani nationals were convicted and are probably still doing jail time. The secret of their attack was to use sophisticated long duration timers to bury the explosives well before the security drill kicks in.
In matters relating to the safety of the citizens, you can never be too careful. So, we will not criticise the National Investigating Agency for effecting the arrests. Perhaps they have more information than they have revealed till now.
Legal case must be made
However, this strategy of pre-emptive arrest will gain credibility only if they can marshal the evidence to make their case before a court of law. There have been too many instances in which young Muslims have been detained on suspicion of having carried out a terrorist attack, only to be released years later when it becomes clear that there was no real evidence in the hands of the authorities. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, they could face imprisonment, but their alleged organisation, the Janood-ul-khalifa-e-Hind, has yet to be notified as a banned organization under the Act.
Fighting terrorism through the use of the law is not easy. India does not have any law on its books through which you can detain people for what they may do in the future. The general principle of law is that you are not guilty for your intentions, but only your actions. However, the authorities may stumble on a conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, and it is obviously important to arrest the conspirators before they strike. Even so, a careful distinction needs to be made about a conspiracy to commit a specific terrorist act, and a group of young men bitching in general about life, their community and even the country. There are countries like the UK which have managed to prosecute and convict several conspirators through good intelligence and prosecutorial work. Fighting terrorism through the use of legal instruments is an important part of countering the lure of internet radicalization. Arresting people, keeping them in jail under flimsy charges and then having to let them go eventually because of lack of evidence only hardens those arrested and embitters their community and is, in that sense, self-defeating.
Almost everyone is agreed that Islamic State seeks to self-radicalise people using the internet. It is not by simply reading Islamist propaganda that a young man or woman gets radicalized. There are other factors, such as personal crises and difficulties that push young people over the edge, or an older mentor who deliberately grooms the youth.
This writer has repeatedly noted that the Muslim community in this country is remarkably peaceable. In comparison to what is happening in countries like Pakistan, UK or France, where hundreds and thousands of young men are not merely being radicalized, but actually taking up guns, in India we get a handful of what appears to be confused and misguided young men.
There is no doubt that there are terrorist mentors in Pakistan and in the IS who are seeking recruits from India. For this reason, it is important to organize the community itself to keep a keen watch on their wards. At the same time, the authorities must play the role of counsellors and mentors and nip any tendencies of radicalization in the bud. And where needed, disrupt terrorist conspiracies before they are acted upon.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi