Terrorism in the 21st Century

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The first decade of the 21st century was dominated by terror and terrorists. No one man was responsible although the pre-eminent face was that of Osama bin Laden. The global jihad of terror struck from New York to New Delhi. The centre of the storm was South Asia, and the epicenter of the storm Pakistan. India was often ground zero.

The terrorists started the decade with an attack right on the eve of the millennium. Terrorists from the Pakistan-based group Harkat-ul Mujahideen hijacked an Indian airliner en route to New Delhi from Kathmandu, finally taking it to Kandahar in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. One hostage was murdered. Former foreign minister Jaswant Singh has rightly described the operation as a forerunner for the 9/11 plot because it involved the same cast of characters brewing the stew; Pakistan-based terrorists, al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the ISI. Originally the hijacking was to be part of a larger al Qaeda-orchestrated millennium plot to include attacks in Los Angeles, Amman and Aden but only the Indian plot got off the ground. The plotters had intended that the plane explode exactly on the stroke of the millennium but Singh negotiated the release of the hostages before more lives were lost.

The whole world changed dramatically on September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and tried to strike the U.S. Capitol. Masterminded by a Pakistani, Khaled Shaykh Muhammad, and Bin Laden, 9/11 would lead to two wars, the collapse of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and a global war on terror.

Briefly, the terrorists were on the run. They were caught off-guard by the agile American intervention in Afghanistan. They had underestimated how unpopular the Taliban had become with most Afghans and they overestimated the loyalty of President Pervez Musharraf to the Taliban cause. For a time Pakistan turned on its Afghan Taliban ally, withdrawing support, including expert troops, oil and volunteers. The Northern Alliance raced into Kabul and Bin Laden and his gang seemed to be cornered.

But the terrorists were saved. First, the American hammer that should have hunted them relentlessly never materialized. President George Bush was obsessed with Iraq, even though not a shred of evidence linked Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, and sent the best and brightest of America’s spies and generals to prepare to invade Iraq.

Second, the terrorists struck at the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. The attack was a joint operation of two Pakistan-based groups with close links to al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. They hoped to kill Prime Minister Vajpayee and opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, perhaps sparking war. India blamed Pakistan for harboring the terrorists’ leaders and providing them support. It mobilized and Pakistan followed suit. Thus the Pakistani anvil which should have been along the Durand line to capture fleeing al Qaeda terrorists never materialized either. Who benefited from the attack on Parliament the most? The terrorists who exploited the confrontation to find room to hide and operate in Pakistan were the big winners. This November, al Qaeda’s new leader Ayman Zawahiri publicly credited the American mistakes in late 2001 with saving Bin Laden and al Qaeda, allowing it to survive for another decade.

A Guest Editorial