Fighting LTSNs in Punjab
The suicide attack in Capital City District Lahore on February 14, 2017 – in which nearly fifteen persons including high ranking police officials lost their lives – was a classic case of Local Terror Support Network. The suicide attacker and his handler waited till they spotted an opportunity and struck their target when it was least protected. The fidayee was transported from Peshawar with the assistance of the local facilitator. The suicide attacker remained with the facilitator in Lahore without detection for days. The suicide vest was provided through a truck driver who was probably not aware of it but the financial benefit was so high that he could not resist the temptation of transporting it from the tribal areas and delivered it at Lahore. This exemplifies the efficacy of a small terror network and there might be many such local networks in the province to facilitate, support, assist and help in the commission of a terror incident.
These Local Terror Support Networks (LTSNs) play a critical role in accomplishing the tasks of terrorists. Since they do not have the strength to confront a concerted force like the army, they rely heavily on a loosely connected system of human capital for financial, logistical and technical support. LTSNs have a tenacity spectrum stretching from temporary support structures – which activate just before the tactical operation – to sleeper cells, which ossify with passage of time, in terms of reliability, accuracy and constancy. These cells have the capacity to stage an attack at a public place, or to target Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) to achieve their objectives.
Usually, a terror incident highlights nine characters of the network including a technical trainer, religious/psychological motivator, local facilitator, target finder, activity synchroniser, logistical supplier, explosives maker and suicide attacker(s).
The religious/psychological instructor forms a major node of the network and is linked with at least seven persons. The technical trainer is an elusive character – being directly affiliated with religious motivator and remaining isolated from rest of the members of the network. The network must have a spiritual guide (an Ameer) who has rarely been disclosed by the suicide attacker due to his ignorance about the presence of said Ameer.
This is, in essence, a typically decentralised-hierarchical network where different persons and characters play their part in an invisible manner. The task is usually assigned by the Ameer to his subordinates – who either establish their own connection through socialisation or reactivate the existing social infrastructures using all available means at their disposal. The Ameer of a network has undisputed powers in decision making and tasking operatives. Usually, he opts for an assignment on the basis of financial and human resource dividends involved in it. The foot soldiers and field operators of the network have no connection with the Ameer. They are exclusively at the beck and call of one of the nodal members of the network. It is also possible that an Ameer gives multiple tasks to his immediate affiliates who establish their own connections for mission accomplishment in an extended-star type network.
Not as it once was
Over the years, the effectiveness of LTSNs for deadly terrorist activities has increased; the better the LTSNs, the more improved and robust the activity’s execution. Looking at major terror related incidents, it becomes clear that a close-ended, centralised structure existed for LTSNs during the initial years of war on terror.
With the arrest of key Al-Qaeda leaders, the structure disintegrated into small, compact, local quasi-autonomous networks which operated with greater independence and authority. They occasionally sought guidance from Al-Qaeda core members for terrorist activity implementation. A loose contact remained present between the planner of the terrorist activity and its core executioner.
As these networks were smashed through the intelligence agencies’ operations, an open-ended, decentralised structure emerged for the operationalisation mechanism of terrorism. This structural transformation of LTSNs has made the job of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) more difficult and complex. The current Unban CT Operation – Radd ul Fasaad – is basically aimed at dismantling these structures through a highly coordinated and selective information sharing system.
However, these terror webs have the ability to disappear among human activity and high density in urban centers.
The elusiveness of these networks reduces chances of their detection. Usually foot operators are arrested who are involved in facilitation only. They are ignorant about strategic thinkers of terrorism and know nothing about their handlers except flimsy information during their occasional contact with them. Furthermore, the open-endedness of these networks has enhanced the chances of their utilisation by multiple operators for strategic objectives.
These networks cannot operate without hefty financial assistance.
Many members of these LTSNs usually resort to criminal activities especially kidnapping for ransom (KFR) to finance the terrorist operations. Interestingly, the field operators are normally those who have either experienced a Jihadi activity or associated with a particular madrassa or sect. Currently, an individual LTSN does not necessarily draw its lifeline from an Ameer and works on the basis of readily available finances which hold the key to its operational activities. A leaderless, fluid, open-ended LTSN can be utilised by anyone (local or foreign) for tactical and strategic gains which is currently posing the greatest challenge for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) in Punjab.