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Comment: Terror tactic of the times

Suicide terrorism is the flavour of season, whether in India, Sri Lanka, West Asia or Pakistan. Suicide terror attack is invariably politically motivated. It is aggressive, brutal and generally executed by an individual or a group of individuals. The latest high profile victim of suicide terrorism is Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's Army chief. His convoy was targeted inside the high security zone of Colombo's main military base.

According to reports, a woman posing to be pregnant entered the hospital compound; normally, relatives of soldiers being treated at army hospitals are allowed within the high security compound for lunchtime visits. The bomber, who slipped in with others, jumped in front of the commander's convoy as it moved past the hospital, and blew herself up.

In response, Sri Lanka launched air strikes on LTTE bases in the eastern part of the country on April 25. It is the aim of suicide terrorists to cause death through blowing themselves up along with a predetermined target. Over the past two decades, instances of suicide terrorism have increased. Such attempts are not restricted to any area or place. There are a number of organisations that use this method.

Fifteen such outfits have been identified, which resort to the use of suicide tactics against their enemies.

These are the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and in India (168 suicide bombings); Hizbullah and pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, Kuwait and Argentina (52); Hamas in Israel (22); Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey (15); Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel (8); Al Qaeda in East Africa (2); Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) in Croatia (1); Islamic Group in Pakistan (1); Babbar Khalsa International in India (1); Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria (1).

By February 2000, about 275 suicide terror incidents had occurred all over the world. India has been a target of suicide terrorism since LTTE killed former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Islamist terrorists targetted Parliament - apart from numerous and almost daily such attacks in Jammu & Kashmir.

The following figures of terrorist violence, including suicide killing, tell their story. Between the 1988 and 2001, there were 47,235 incidents in J&K, in which 15,246 terrorists, 11,377 civilians and 4,102 security personnel were killed, adding up to a total of 30,725 lives.

The objective of terrorism, irrespective of the brand or the audacity involved, is to compel the government of the day towards a particular course of action. It is true from Lebanon to Israel and from Sri Lanka to Kashmir and Chechnya.

Take, for instance, Al Qaeda: It fits this pattern. Its avowed objective has been to force the United States to leave the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia. 9/11 was the most audacious instance of suicide bombing, along with the one on Indian Parliament on December 13 in which all the terrorist who stormed it were killed.

Almost all suicide terrorist attacks are part of a coherent strategy. They are never isolated or random incidents. Democracies are uniquely susceptible to such attacks for the simple reason that they have to follow the law and meet all legal requirements before any action can be taken against a terrorist. The US, UK, France, India, Israel, Indonesia, Egypt, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have all been targets of suicide attacks in the past two decades. Interestingly, each of these countries is a democracy.

The worldwide annual total of terrorist incidents has fallen almost to half: There were 348 attacks in 2001 as opposed to 666 incidents in 1987. Yet, the number of attacks in which the terrorists intend to kill themselves along with their victims has grown from an average of three per year in the 1980s, to 10 per year in the 1990s, to more than 25 in both 2000 and 2001.

We have to face the reality that suicide terrorism has come to stay. The question is how should democracies, including our country, respond to this problem? Experience has shown that reacting with heavy military and retaliatory offensives only leads to more attacks in which innocent bystanders are often harmed. This leads to public sympathy for the terrorists, without hampering their networks.

In their frustration some countries facing terrorism change their tactics and go in for making concessions to political causes supported by terrorists. India did this in announcing unilateral ceasefire against the J&K terrorist in 2001-2002. But the policy had to be abandoned in favour of a proactive approach in dealing with terror.

Suicide terrorists were reportedly the reason why the US and French military forces were forced to abandon Lebanon in 1983. The Israeli forces left most of Lebanon in 1985 as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995, due to suicide terrorism.

Making concessions does not always work, especially since the terrorists have learned that suicide terrorism strategy usually pays. Occupying a country with the use of force to eliminate terrorism is no solution, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq under the US leadership.

It is time to urge that in the rush to treat terrorists as "our children gone astray", we need to remember what George Washington had said: "Government is not reason, nor eloquence. It is force. And like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master."

Unfortunately, discussing or granting of concession or favouring them in the ways desired by them too is not a solution. The exchange of terrorists for the former Home Minister of India's daughter, or bartering terrorists for the hijacked Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar, has only emboldened the terrorists.

It follows a common pattern. Concessions given have never satisfied the desires and purposes of suicide terrorists. In fact they send a wrong message to terrorist leaders, that the party they are dealing with is powerless and susceptible to intimidation and bullying.

There are no cut and dry solutions to this problem of suicide terrorism. The best approach for the Government would be to focus on domestic security while doing what can be done to neutralise the terrorists by effective governance.

The Government, while willing to talk to the terrorists, should never give the impression that it is weak or unwilling to use force to defend the integrity of the country. It was Mao who had said that power flows from the barrel of the gun. Terrorists have to be given the message that though they may have gun, actual power flows from the guns of the Government.


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