Those Tiny Footprints

Strategic perspectives to confront terror groups having access to disproportionate destructive power


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Disproportional destructive power, Strategy for Coastal Security, Mumbai 26/11, Nuclear terror threats, “Footprint Matrix” tool

Download full article here: Shankar, Those Tiny Footprints


The Gift of Disproportionality

Globalization and its hand-maidens, the free flow of ideas, material and personnel, has in addition to releasing individual creativity, conferred upon small groups disproportionate destructive and disruptive power. Access to this power and its illicit use involves a process which leaves frustratingly tiny footprints. The narrative of 26/11 and its chronology (See Table in Annexure) are well documented. What is not so well known is the evolution of the operational plan and the tell-tales that this process may have left for a discerning establishment to perceive and act upon. My case is to emphasize that our campaign against terror essentially involves the cognizance of these tiny footprints, tracking them and assuring the failure of inimical acts before they are committed. The 26/11 episode and the maritime domain provide the canvas for this enquiry.


Our review of the current state of the coastal defence scheme would appear to project a disjointed image of a contrivance that depends more on a massed approach to security through the induction of numbers (in terms of human resources as well as surveillance means). While it is true that there is logic in numbers, yet the adversary is one who has perfected the art of visualising the cracks in the system. Obviously with more disparate elements involved, more cracks are there to slip in between. On 26/11, ten men with small arms came in two inflatable boats and held our financial capital to ransom for sixty hours.  The mayhem in terms of loss of lives apart, the Bombay Stock Exchange closed down for the same period resulting in trading disruption of close to USD 9 billion per day. And this is the essence of the disproportionality that has been conferred. ‘Mass’ pitted against ‘Knowledge’ invariably results in victory to the latter.

The covenant between religion and the terrorist is a volatile one. It is neither appeased by bargains nor is it broken by modernity. Indeed it has fused the ideology that drives them with the source of their being (this may explain the suicide bomber). Under these conditions the only route that can succeed is the promise of failure for which, the answer lies in adopting a unified strategy both in form and content. The Footprint Matrix provides an instrument to channelize national effort. We concentrate on any one Zone at the peril of missing out on the others. Persistence is the key not only to the assailant but also to the defender, the adoption of large scale electronic means for profiling, surveilling, collating and analyses is a necessity.

The nuclear dimension is the clear and potentially, the most destructive present danger. While a nuclear strike may present a very complex planning task, our adversaries have shown themselves to be up to the most challenging, the most improbable and yes, the most diabolic. The establishments’ facility to deter, defend and respond will test its will to coalesce to the extreme.

There appears to be an absence of a guiding national strategy which seeks to marshal all resources towards one aim. If our primary strategic goal is to protect against dangerous people and the ingress of illicit hazardous material then this goal must serve to transform the existing organizational and material structures. The litmus test to ascertain progress lies in the extent to which we have a unified strategy in place and develop a joint surveillance and pre-emption capability; clearly the waters on both these counts remain murky.

Download full article here: Shankar, Those Tiny Footprints

[1] The Sicarii were a secret society of Jewish contract assassins in the 1st century AD during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.

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