The most predictable of all the reactions to the standoff in Mumbai, now into its third, and seemingly final day now is the “Let’s go get those responsible for this” refrain.
This is an approach that has neither worked in the past nor has a chance of working in the future.
Counter-terrorism studies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks have come to one conclusion – that traditional methods of fighting terrorists are ineffective, because of the way terrorists are organized these days. The much-maligned Al Qaeda, at the center of world terrorism, is also at the center of research in organizational strategy.
To understand this, let us consider an example. The United States declared war on Iraq in early 2003. The Armed Forces were able to capture Baghdad fairly quickly. But almost six years down the line, the US is not fully in control of Iraq. Why?
When the Americans stormed into Iraq, they knew what they were taking on. It was a Government and a military that was organized in a top-down manner. In such cases, if you take out the central leadership, the organization crumbles. So Baghdad and Saddam Hussein were not mere symbols; they represented the core of the power structure. Hit right where it hurts, and watch them crumble.
In their book, “The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations” (thoroughly recommended), the authors, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom argue that like armies the world over, as well as businesses, know how to tackle such structures. What they are not trained at is how to compete with groups that are decentralized. The lack of central leadership means that everyone is a leader and when opposing armies take out one such leader, the group reconvenes with another leader. The analogy that the authors use for this is of the starfish, of which if you cut one arm (also a head), you don’t kill it. On the other hand, to kill a spider (a centralized organization) you strike it in the head.
In our US Army in Iraq example, the army took out the spider with ease, but initially it followed the same approach it used to tackle the starfish (armed insurgents), which only resulted in failure. The same holds true for the approach in countering Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and Ayman-al-Zawahiri might be Al Qaeda’s central leadership, but the group is constituted in such a way as to not be dependent on these leaders. They have instead been elevated to the level of spiritual leaders, which the more operational ground organization is largely decentralized.
The issue of terrorism in India is very similar. Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, Al-Badr, Harkut-ul-Ansar, and now, the Deccan Mujahideen. These are all the various forms that the terrorists have taken. If you try to hit one, another rises. And with more might as well.
Yes, we must “go get them” no doubt. But while I do not know of the right approach in dealing with terrorism, I am of the view that goading the Government to go get them using the same old approach is avoidable in the light of the findings of counter-terrorism experts.
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