Turning a conflict zone

| by B Raman

( February 16, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) One has to take seriously the Israeli suspicion that Iran and Hezbollah - the terrorist organisation supported by it - had a hand in the terrorist attack with a magnetised improvised explosive device (IED) on an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in New Delhi on February 13. However, it is going to be difficult to establish the veracity of the Israeli suspicion unless the terrorist responsible for the attack or any of his accomplices is arrested. There is so far no smoking gun pointing in any definitive direction.

The Israeli suspicion is strengthened by the fact that there was a similar - but unsuccessful - attempt in Tbilisi in Georgia the same day, and other attempts in Bangkok the next day. It is not yet clear whether Israeli nationals were the targets in the Bangkok attacks. Assuming they were, the series of attempted attacks on Israeli targets in three different cities indicates state-sponsored planning and execution.

Iran has been having a war of nerves with Israel over its nuclear programme and has been the suspected target of Israeli covert action - aimed at disrupting its nuclear programme - for over a year now. It has the required motive and the covert capabilities to make Israel pay for its actions. It would look upon attacks directed against Israeli nationals and interests as justified acts of reprisal to protect its nuclear programme. As a result, the world is likely to see a covert war with no holds barred bet-ween the two countries.

While Israel has been able to wage its covert war against Iran in Iranian territory, Israeli security agencies' effectiveness will make it difficult for Iran to execute reprisal attacks in Israel. It will, therefore, try to extend its attacks on Israeli targets to other countries with an Israeli presence. Countries with a weak preventive security set-up will be its battlefields of choice for hitting back at Israel.

If it is established that Iran was behind the New Delhi attack, it would indicate that India has been chosen as suitable territory for the Iranian reprisal attacks even at the risk of such attacks having an adverse impact on Iran's hitherto friendly relations with India. In the eventuality of the Iranian hand being proved, Indian security agencies will face a difficult question: Is this a one-off with no follow-up attempts or are more attacks likely?

The February 13 attack was well planned and well executed. This would have been possible only with painstaking collection of information regarding the movements and activities of Israeli diplomats and a capability for undetected clandestine acti-vity in Indian territory for the procurement of explosive material and the fabrication of the IED.

The fact that all such preparatory activities went unnoticed and undetected by the Indian agencies would indicate that Iran already has a strong intelligence presence in Indian territory - in the form of intelligence officers working undercover, sleeper cells in the Indian Shia community and among the large numbers of Iranians studying in India. Detecting and neutralising the Iranian network in India is going to be a difficult task. Till now, the focus of our agencies has been on detecting and neutralising the pro-Pakistan networks, which operated mainly through sympathisers in the Sunni community.

The Iranian networks, if they are found to be already operating in Indian territory, would most probably consist of Shias - Indians as well as Iranians. The Indian Shia community has until now been peace-loving and stayed away from jihadi terrorism of Pakistani inspiration. Even if Iran looks upon its recruitment of persons from the Indian Shia community as directed against Israel and not India, the involvement of some Shias in acts of terrorism could sow the seeds of a radicalisation of sections of the community.

Moreover, the involvement of the Shias - recruited by Iran either directly or through the Hezbollah - could make expertise in matters such as fabrication of IEDs available in the community. This could add to the problems already faced by our agencies due to the availability of such expertise among elements in the Sunni community.

If Iran continues to use India as a clandestine base for its anti-Israel covert actions, the difficulties faced by our counter-terrorism agencies will acquire a new dimension. There is practically no Pakistani student community in India. Pakistan and its ISI, therefore, have to depend on sympathetic members of the Indian Muslim community and Pakistanis clandestinely infiltrated into India for their acts of terrorism.

Iran will enjoy an advantage over Pakistan due to the presence of a large number of Iranian students in different Indian cities. Recruitment from their ranks would enable it to operate with ease from Indian territory.

If the Iranian hand is finally established, Indian intelligence agencies will have to pay greater attention and devote greater resources for coverage of Iranian intelligence activities, as well as its links with Hezbollah and the Iranian student community in India.

We should make it clear to Iran that any use of Indian territory for terrorism against Israel could affect bilateral relations. As of now, suspicion and distrust do not contaminate our relations. But if Iran uses Indian territory for attacks against Israel, such contamination could be an unfortunate outcome.

The writer is former additional secretary, cabinet secretariat, government of India. This article originally appeared on the Times of India, India's best selling national news paper.