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Mainstream, VOL L, No 14, March 24, 2012

Tackling the Israeli Car-bombing Case: Decode the Attack, Dump the Dilemma

Tuesday 27 March 2012

TANVI KULKARNI and J. JEGANAATHAN

Bomb blasts in Delhi may not be shocking news these days but the limpet bomb attack on the Israeli’s Defence Attaché’s vehicle close to the Prime Minister’s residence on February 13, 2012 would have definitely astonished many people. Usually, bomb blasts create a sense of panic and disorder in the locale. But this attack, which is unique in terms of the modus operandi and explosive device used, wantonly generated ripples in diplomatic circles.

Israel’s fierce reactions to the series of ‘terrorist’ attacks on its diplomatic personnel in Thailand, Georgia and India come as a foreground to the developments in West Asia with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The attack on the vehicle of the Israeli diplomatic representative generated instant controversy and debate in India. Israel wasted no time in attributing the notoriety to Iran and Hezbollah, which was met with nothing more than a nonchalant denial by Iran. The restive Indian media, especially the broadcast media waiting for sensational issues, fell into this honey-trap and prompted a big domestic debate on India’s diplomacy: will India side with Israel or Iran? While answers are expected of India to the situation at hand, given its relations with both Israel and Iran, India seems to be struggling to figure out what the riddle is.

Here is an attack that has baffled Indian intelligence and a dilemma that has been artificially concocted as a result of this bafflement.

The attack has not only dazed the world at large but also posed serious challenges to the Indian security establishment, particularly its intelligence and investigating agencies. These agencies are meant to play a crucial role after and before any kind of terror attacks in terms of prevention and prosecution. In this case both the agencies seem to have fallen short on two accounts. First, the Indian intelligence has not sufficiently monitored foreign groups apart from those in connection with Pakistan. Second, the modus operandi as in this case (limpet explosive device) had not been anticipated by the agencies.

This is largely attributed to the rigid structure and limited functions of the Indian intelligence agencies. For instance, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s premier external intelligence agency, focuses primarily on political and military developments in the neighbourhood and adjoining countries. Similarly, the domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), monitors the terrorist activities, religious extre-mists and secessionist groups inside the country. Neither of these agencies apparently had any clue about the attack nor anticipated such a modus operandi, which resulted in breeding speculations and conspiracy theories. Moreover, it also raises doubts on the cooperation and coordination between these two agencies in countering terrorism. One of the key lessons one drew from the Mumbai attack was to establish a strong and effective cooperation between these two ‘intels’ in order to foil terror attacks on Indian soil.

WHETHER this incident should be designated as a terrorist attack or an assassination attempt is a moot question but what remains elusive is the manner in which the attack has been executed. The timing and location in which the incident occurred clearly indicates that the perpetrator had expected a big impact. Why would the assailant choose to fix the limpet at that particular place, which is just opposite to the Prime Minister residence and adjacent to a petrol pump? Had the bomb exploded near the pump, what would have been the impact and consequences?

The investigating agency, which probed the attack, simply followed the standard principles of terror investigation and they are yet to disclose who has done it and what the motive behind the attack was. Despite many organisational reforms and regeneration, especially after the Mumbai attack, the agency still falls short of efficiency due to unwavering red-tapism ingrained in the criminal investigation procedures. Their track record on terror attack case investigations tells more of a dismal story of fake charges and false arrests. It seems that they work under pressure or to deflate the pressures from media than to do justice to their job. In this case, the investigating agency, whosoever is involved in the matter, is in a catch-22 situation: if they found an Iranian hand behind the attack, then disclosing this to the public would diplomatically bind India to take action against Iran; if the Israeli role is proved then it would undermine Indo-Israel relations particularly at the intelligence level, where India appears to have benefited from the latter’s intelligence inputs on sensitive national security issues in the past.

Most of what followed the attack on the Israeli diplomat’s car in Delhi overshadowed the crux of the matter for India—a crime executed on Indian soil—and turned it into a diplomatic battle announced by Israel against Iran and the Hezbollah. India, as much by choice as by default, got embroiled into the spur of events. The Israeli Permanent Representative’s call for India to co-sponsor an opportunistic UNSC resolution condemning Iran even before in-depth investigations into the attack had begun, put India in a tight-spot. On the Indian side too, the pros and cons of India siding with Israel or Iran were hotly debated. One reputed Indian news channel carried a segment in which an Indian politician and a senior journalist debated whether India should ‘ally’ with Israel or Iran? Suddenly, India has had to make a choice between its defence deals with Israel and crude oil imports from Iran. Indeed, a case of comparing apples with oranges here.

Silence is golden pending investigations; however India has to take a stand on this issue for two reasons. First, the attack took place in India; and second, muteness on issues of consequence is not expected of a responsible and powerful country. Diplomatic wisdom suggests that it is all about answering the right questions. The most logical question is: how would India deal with a crime, possibly a terrorist attack, targeted against a foreign official? The execution of the attack in India, whether as a proxy ground or not, makes India as much a victim to the crime; Indian citizens have also been hurt in the explosion. Besides, the sophistication of the act poses new challenges for Indian intelligence and security agencies. Unfortunately, analysts have been too busy answering the wrong question—who to side with, Israel or Iran? Even if the hand that planted the ‘sticky bomb’ is traced back to elements in Iran and/or Hezbollah, the stand that India would still have to take is against terrorism, more specifically in such a case, against state-backed terrorism. A clear message needs to be put out here: India abhors terrorism; such an act performed on Indian soil is an attack on India’s people, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Strong official statements, covert signalling and the threat of thinning ties can work.

Taking a position is different from taking sides, and in fact the former method is tactful because it saves India from having to take sides. The dilemma about choosing between Israel and Iran has been forced upon India and is worthy of dismissal. Moreover, as investigations into the attack proceed, the picture may become clearer as well as more complicated than adjudged already.

The authors are researchers at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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