Cross Border Terrorism and Response Options


Conventional wars are not the norms or strategic choice for state on state conflicts due to huge cost and collateral damages. As a result grey zone conflicts, which fall in duality of neither war nor peace, are becoming new arena of strategic competition between states. Cross border terrorism is a conflict that falls in the category of grey zone conflict. It is an undeclared war and considered to be highest form of strategy to bleed a nation for prolonged period by small efforts. It is an asymmetric war strategy employed by an adversary at a point in time when it cannot compete on a traditional battlefield, and adversary looks to where you are vulnerable.1 In this war the principle followed by an adversary is to avoid to go at the enemy blow by blow, strength against strength since it is considered un-strategic.2 India has unresolved borders with two of its nuclear neighbours and surrounded by politically, economically and militarily unstable nations. The state and non-state actors have taken advantage of such a scenario to cause military and economic friction to weaken India internally.

India has land borders with six countries, and except for Bhutan, the threat of terrorists, insurgents and criminals illegally crossing over always remain a possibility. Out of the total 29 states of India except for five states, rest all states have either maritime boundary or land border with other nations. 17 Indian States have border with other countries and 9 states have maritime boundary (Gujarat & West Bengal have both international border and maritime boundary as well). There are only five states that have no access to international border by land or by ocean/ sea. Of these five states, four of them are facing Left Wing Extremism. Such a geographical disposition is an advantage but also becomes a vulnerability especially when certain nations are not favourably disposed towards India. Major General AfsirKarim writes that, terrorism in India takes two forms: one is of domestic origin, the other is terrorism that is sponsored by external agencies. The domestic terrorist threats in India basically arise from separatist tendencies, ethnic and linguistic demands, religious radicalism, socioeconomic deprivation, and, at times, bad governance.3 Insurgency in the North East is surviving since 1950s primarily due to its external linkages. Terrorism in Punjab had its root in Pakistan when Khalistan terrorists were armed, trained and supported by ISI. The objective was to strike at the food bowl of India and to create secessionist movement across the northern states of India. Similarly, Pakistan sponsored cross border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir has become one of the major internal security threats. The Problem with such a prolonged conflict is that it has the potential to spill over to other states on the basis of religion, community and perception of just cause to pick up arms for unresolved grievances of the people. Another dimension of cross border terrorism through maritime boundary was added during 26/11 terror attack when Pakistan sponsored terrorists struck at Mumbai, the financial capital of India. Thus not only contiguous Border States with land borders with other countries are vulnerable today to the cross border terrorism but even the coastal areas are equally vulnerable that has critical infrastructure of vital importance. Asia Economic Institute study which calculated that the overall damage to India’s economy in the wake of the Mumbai attacks was about $100 billion arising from crucial institutions, such as the stock exchanges, commodities, money markets, and business and commercial establishments which remained closed.4 Such attacks also impact future investment potential and the insecure environment that gets created have enduring psychological impact on the citizenry of the state. It is assessed that Foreign Direct Investment was hit by an estimated $20 billion5 post Mumbai terror attacks. Prof Daniel L. Byman of Georgetown University wrote that, “Terror itself is often a tool of war, used to sow an atmosphere of fear and undermine governments”.6 Cross border terrorism has become a part of new wars because conventional wars have become unaffordable due to lethality and cost. In a nutshell North East, Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab have emerged as the main threat to cross border terrorism. All the three are concentrated at the outer limits of India adjoining a neighbouring country that has the desire and the ability to create problems in India’s internal security.7 Threat to maritime boundary of India is now more than ever because that gives deniability to inimical states for sponsoring terrorism.

Factors Giving Impetus to Cross Border Terrorism

Terrorist groups and insurgents do not emerge from nowhere, they emerge out of social, cultural, political, economic, communal and religious fault lines. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are products of regional wars that now aspire for political space and a Caliphate on religious grounds. These organisations got political, religious and logistic support from the nations that wanted them to be used as strategic assets to pursue their perceived vital national interests. However, some of these organisations grew in strength and became autonomous and spiraled out of control of their sponsors. The factors that give impetus to the cross border terrorism are as under:-

 Geography assists in border transgression and infiltration of terrorists. Proximity of vulnerable areas to a rogue nation ensures continuous flow of terrorists and war like support to sustain momentum of conflict.

 Identical ethnic demography gives support and sustenance to the terrorists during and post infiltration.

 Political patronage to terror movement is provided by network of unarmed terrorists, over ground workers and separatists so that they can establish linkages and identity with the larger population of a community.

 Poor and corrupt governance gives space for non-state actors to create a conducive environment on ground for making it a popular mass movement.

 Subverted government institutions give impetus by their inactions and inability to protect vital public space.

 Unsettled borders, competing strategic interests, unstable or ungoverned territories in the neighbouring countries and spillover effect of communal or religious conflict in these countries also adds to the vulnerability from cross border terrorism.

 Illegal and mass displacement of population due to communal and economic reasons also adds to the vulnerability.

 Children of war or conflict are easy cannon fodder and can be motivated to pursue the agenda of state and non-state actors.

 Lack of stability and contiguous land border with hostile nations is one of the major causes of cross border terrorism.

 Most important is the factor of availability of willing terror recruits. Ideal situation is when the terror recruits are available on both sides of the international borders. The case of J&K is an apt example where you have terror factories on both sides and they operate in tandem with each other.

 The motivation for terrorists on both sides is different, foreign terrorists join the conflict due to religion, economic reasons, identical ethnic affiliation and a perceived notion of just cause for Jihad. The domestic terrorists in addition to the factors attracting foreign terrorists is also due to political alienation, personal failure and an escape route for redemption in society and to fight for self-determination/ homeland.

 Nexus between drug cartels, gun runners and terror organisations give a source of funding and sustenance.
The motivation for involvement of a foreign power to continue with the cross border terrorism or proxy war comes from the fact that fighting wars is uneconomical, but it is always a wise course of option to make the opponent waste as much of the resources as possible.8 Cross border terrorism does give an adversary deniability and no collateral damage as a blow back impact. Thus, it is a cheap war to achieve high dividends at low risk. Cross border terrorism is considered to be part of grey zone conflict; with the passage of time these conflicts are becoming sophisticated and complex. There is a possibility that cross border terrorism if not handled with efficiency and precision could go on to become a hybrid war.

Nature of Threat from Cross Border Terrorism

Monopoly of the state over wars is reducing and non-state actors with or without support of the states are now taking control of proxy wars, or grey zone conflicts making new wars ambiguous and difficult to fight. Terror is not only state sponsored but it also manifests due to political aspirations of terror organisations based on religious or communal ideology. Islamic state and al-Qaeda are terror organisation that have long-term political objectives to create Islamic State. Cross border terrorism features unconventional tactics, from cyberattacks to propaganda and political warfare, to economic coercion and sabotage, to sponsorship of armed proxy fighters, to creeping military expansionism.9 The tactics adopted by the non-state actors or terror organisations is shrouded in misinformation and deception,10 thus making it extremely difficult for the conventional forces to defeat or eliminate it. Their objective is to create a sense of invincibility and perception of just war by prolonged engagement.

The threat of cross border terrorism is military and nonmilitary in nature. Threat is against the infrastructure, democratic institutions, economic institutions, law enforcing agencies, coercion of masses by threat to life, threat to cultural heritage, disruption of communication, threat to international community and multinational agencies. In fact the target is cognitive, physical, public and private space. The threat is not only restricted from land, it now can manifest from air (swarm drone attack), from the sea (26/11), on the high sea, cyber and psychological space. It can be composite threat consisting of cyber, perception and physical attack simultaneously or it can be sequential. Surprise is the biggest weapon for terrorists.

Today even perception and cyber war should also be categorised as cross border terrorism because cyber and perception war can cause greater damage than the physical attack. The strategy adopted by Pakistan in Kashmir is to destroy culture, history, cohesion among various communities, the enshrined values of Kashmiriyat and the moderate Islam by imposing a hardlineSalafi- Wahhabi Islam that is not indigenous to the Kashmir valley. Now cross border terrorism is attacking the established order and grass root democracy. It is detrimental to the basic tenant of existence of a state. The objective is to create anarchy and uncontrolled chaos thereby demonstrating to the world that people of Kashmir or conflict area have rejected the democratic institutions or have no faith in the established order.

Military and Non Military Response Options

There is no moral taint in fighting against the adversary in a similar manner the way adversary has chosen to fight. Gijs de Vries, an expert on cross border terrorism said, “We are familiar with terrorism. But indiscriminate, cross-border, religiously motivated terrorism is new.” We need to first understand that, national security in the contemporary era is not cheap, it requires long term investment. When we talk about response it need not be military in nature, it requires a whole of nation approach. It requires theoretical understanding of the new wars that are fought in grey zones and below the threshold of conventional wars. The problem of cross border terrorism is when it is deemed to be a military problem without developing capabilities of the military to fight this new war that is highly sophisticated. This war cannot be fought with conventional capabilities and without infusion of technology and well researched perception warfare. The focus is primarily on elimination of terrorists and rarely on elimination of terrorism. If we examine it empirically, India has done very little to end the cross border terrorism because it can be eliminated when the root of terrorism is eliminated or threatened by making state and non-state actors pay the price for their culpability. Pakistan is aware that India will not retaliate and take actions against the rogue agencies or against the ideologues, as a result the fear of retribution is not there. Unless the source of energy of terrorism is attacked elimination of terrorists in Kashmir will yield little result. One surgical strike is not enough. The strike has to be through multiple channels to make the ideologues and rogue agencies unsafe and dry up their source of funding. There are following fundamental structural flaws in handling cross border terrorism in India;

 As on date the cross border terrorism is being handled by multiple agencies operating under different ministries, as a result the entire efforts of fighting cross border terrorism lacks synergy. Intelligence agencies and Central Armed Police Forces are operating under Ministry of Home Affairs, Army under Ministry of Defence and police under state government. All operations of critical nature must be handled under single operational command who has the resources and capability to influence the outcome of operations.

 The intelligence must function under the operational commander and it cannot be operating under bureaucracy or National Security Advisor through remote control. It must be first accountable to commanders on the ground and then to the rest because it is the field commander who is going to act on that intelligence. The consequences of delayed intelligence will be faced by men on the ground.

 Lack of military and strategic culture among the political leadership is leading to our lackluster approach in dealing with cross border terrorism. There is little indication that Indian leaders have even thought through the question of how they want to apply military force and to what purpose or that they have given any direction to the Indian military11in J&K or North East. The cross border terrorism cannot be classified as simple terrorism shooting with the AK 47. It is today convergence of technology, perception, cyber and raw military power. Thus a deeper understanding of conceptual aspect for fighting this war is must. The leadership must understand that it is non-military and military in character and creates a crisis on many fronts.12

 In the last 30 years not even one Pakistani terrorist has been given life or death penalty for waging war against India. In 2010 there were more than 100 Pakistani terrorists arrested over a period of time during encounters or injured in encounter. Some of them have either been repatriated back to Pakistan or are still in jails. There is no deterrence of law and as a result the recruitment continues uninterrupted.

 Former Defense Secretary of US, Leon E. Panetta warned that state and non-state actors are capable of creating “cyber-Pearl Harbor”.13 The loss and destruction can be unimaginable. Therefore, cross border terrorism through cyber threat has huge potential. Exploitation of cyber, perception and social media space by and large has remained uncontested. Pakistan and its proxies have been able to completely dominate this space and have used it to create anti India sentiment among the people. More cyber and social media platforms have been exploited by proxies of Pakistan to radicalise youth woman and children. There is no political direction or long term policy for dealing with cross border terrorism and as a consequence the Indian approach can at best be called fragmented.
Military Options

 Doctrine for Cross Border Terrorism (Grey Zone Conflict): All complex operations are required to have doctrines and concept of operations. Our approach more often is adhoc and without getting into theoretical understanding of the conflict. Doctrines act as guiding principle and assist a nation in forecasting and working out future course of actions so that a nation is not surprised by the adversary and there is no capability gap that may arise due to inability to visualise. Doctrine of punitive deterrence or proactive defence for waging undeclared war must be formalised.

 Border Surveillance: It is not possible to monitor and keep entire borders under surveillance through human intelligence. It is time for India to keep vulnerable areas on land, sea and air under electronic and digital surveillance. It would require military grade satellite, aerial drones, radars and even hand held devices such as Long-Range Observation Systems (LOROS) or Hand Held Thermal Imagers (HHTIs).

 Counter Infiltration Grid: Counter infiltration grid in J&K and North East must have accountability and unity of command. With non-state actors becoming more and more sophisticated in their operations, the response mechanism has become complex and require sophistication in intelligence gathering and speedy response. Reactive and smart fence concept must be brought in phases. Sooner or later we will have to bring in the concept of air cavalry to improve reaction time along the borders and in depth areas. The current night fighting capabilities of troops engaged in cross border terrorism are inadequate and thus it needs improvement.

 Capability Development to Fight Cross Border Terrorism: Cross border terrorism is an act of war and fall in the category of military operational domain. Future wars will be willy-nilly in the domain of grey zone conflict that could get upgraded to hybrid threat. India must move in the direction of specialisation of military to fight this new emerging threat. So far we have been fighting irregulars with regular and conventional capabilities which is a flawed and fatigued strategy. Such capabilities require long term vision and investment. Endeavour should be to prevent cross border terrorism becoming a hybrid war.

 Precision Engagement Capabilities: Precision engagement can only come when the ground forces have the wherewithal to identify and then engage the target with accuracy. With increase in intensity of trans-border terrorism, precision engagement is an ideal tool to strike, because surgical strikes can be used only as an exception and not as routine. Military should also look at alternative means to strike at the terror camps across the Line of Control.

 Niche technology Infusion Is Imperative: The level of threat will increase with terrorists getting access to the technology such as drones, and radiation or dirty bombs. It would require surveillance, detection and neutralisation. Artificial Intelligence modules for intelligence, logistics, perception war and counter radicalisation is becoming a must now.

 Cyber and Information War is here to Stay: Leon E. Panetta had said that there is a threat of hacking of vital systems including critical switches, which could derail trains, disorient air traffic, paralyse banking systems, interference in air defence, radars and marine navigation system. Thus this field require urgent attention so that adequate offensive and defensive capabilities can be developed. It will require military and nonmilitary efforts to develop a robust system.

Non Military Options.

 Enunciation of Clear Foreign Policy: The foreign policy doctrine with respect to cross-border terrorism must be enunciated by the Prime Minister as the executive head of the state.14 Mere criticism is not enough. There is a need to define and declare fall outs of continuation of cross border terrorism. It must be made clear that it will be deemed an undeclared war by inimical forces. Though we may be late in doing so but there should be no hesitation in declaring it.

 War of Perception - A Highly Specialised Field: War of perception is a potent tool and terrorists and ideologues have been able to exploit it in Kashmir. It has been one of the main source of radicalisation and mobilisation of civil population for Intifada. The government policy to deal with war of perception has been incoherent and inconsistent as a result, ISI and separatist have been able to take advantage of this vacuum. To plan and execute perception war there are certain fundamental principles such as credible information, continuous and sustained flow of perception management contents, mass engagement and creation of positive narrative. It would require research, confidentiality and credible agencies for wider acceptability.

 Security of Human Resource Assets: The State has to ensure that the own constituency is protected and not allowed to be targeted by the terrorists. One of the main mission of the cross border terrorism is to disrupt and erode the established order and eliminate those who are seen to be working to undermine the efforts of proxies and terrorists. Killing of prominent citizens and grass-root politicians is detrimental to strengthen the established order. Terrorists cannot be allowed to force rejection of democratic process by violence and coercion.

 Legal Provisions: Cross border terrorism is a war being waged against the nation. The government must create separate court for war crimes and take all such cases out of the state for speedy trial. If need be, government could bring appropriate Ordinance or Act to try all foreigners by special courts, especially when they are engaged in waging war against India. Terrorism is not an adventure game. The deterrence has to be imposed or else it cements the perception that you can attack India without any exemplary punishment for the crime.
 Fighting through Global Institutions & Co-operations: The history of counter-terrorism suggests that all states, regardless of public pronouncements to the contrary, will strike deals with foreign terrorists in order to keep their own citizens safe from attack.15 Not with standing, inimical state and rogue agencies should be kept under pressure diplomatically. The diplomatic initiative and cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar has yielded results and large number of terrorists were handed over to the Government of India and the safe havens have been denied to the prominent secessionist and insurgent leaders. This can be considered a huge success and pressure on Pakistan must be maintained.

The unique nature of India’s terrorist problem, which is both of a cross-border and state-sponsored variety and its closest fellow-victim is Israel.16There is no alternative to building capabilities of the armed forces to fight sophisticated cross border terrorism and grey zone conflict. It will be a cardinal mistake if the government keeps military out of the loop of decision making. They must respect and value military advice in a structured manner.
The biggest failure in Kashmir to manage conflict has been political because they failed to take advantage of negative peace (a period immediately after the conflict where violence may have ended but the conflict resolution is yet to take place) between 2006 to 2010. Management of negative peace is vital since it is fragile and has the potential of reversal. India has been a reluctant power and New Delhi is still concerned of escalation. As long as India continues to fear escalation, it has little chance of deterring Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism.17 India needs to evolve an integrated approach to deal with this complex problem. The conflict should be dealt with through an integrated approach and debated academically.


1 AnjaKaspersen, Espen Barth Eide& Philip Shetler-Jones, 10 trends for the future of warfare, World Economic Forum, Nov 03, 2016.
2 Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War, Viva Books, 2006, p 103.
3 Major General (Retired) AfsirKarim, Terrorist Threats in India, Science and Technology to Counter Terrorism: Proceedings of an Indo-U.S. Workshop, Published by The National Academies Press, 2007.
4 DilipBobb, The fast lane: Economic cost of terror, Financial Express, January 25, 2015.
5 Ibid
6 Daniel L. Byman, How war drives terrorism, Brookings, June 23, 2016.
7 Harshit Singh Jadoun, Cross Border Terrorism And Home Grown Militancy, Published on November 14, 2015, Accessed from on June 17, 2018.
8 Greene N 2
9 Hal Brands, Paradoxes of the Grey Zone, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Feb 05, 2016.
10 Ibid.
11 Rajesh Rajagopalan, India’s clueless deterrence “strategy”, Observer Research Foundation, Mar 09 2018.
12 Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted War, Beijing, 1998.
13 Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, Panetta Warns of Dire Threat of Cyberattack on US, New York Times, Oct 11, 2012
14 Dhruv C Katoch, Combatting Cross-Border Terrorism: Need for a Doctrinal Approach, CLAWS Journal Winter 2013, p 9.
15 PremMahadevan, India and the global discourse on state-sponsored terrorism, Observer Research Foundation, Dec 20, 2017.
16 Ibid.
17 Rajgopalan, N 11.

(Brig. Narender Kumar (Retd) is a former Infantry officer and currently a Distinguished Fellow at The United Service Institution of India.

(This article is carried in the print edition of July-August 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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