Andrea Malji discusses how the physical environment plays a significant role in enabling terrorist movements to persist in Northeast India. Dense forests, rugged terrain and porous international borders all serve to make counterterrorism more difficult.
India receives substantially less attention when it comes to discussions and analyses of terrorism. Despite this lack of focus, India has experienced more terror attacks than all but two countries, Iraq and Pakistan. According to the Global Terrorism Database, there have been nearly 10,000 terror attacks since 1970. Much of this terrorism is concentrated in Northeast India, however, significant campaigns are present in the Naxal Belt and Kashmir. Northeast India is home to several ethno-linguistic minorities and a decades’ long insurgency that has consistently used terrorism as a tactic.
According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, over 100 groups with ties to terrorism have operated in Northeast India since India’s independence in 1947. Most of the active terrorist groups are separatists who seek independence or autonomy. The northeast is geographically unique and connected to the mainland via the tiny Siliguri corridor. The region shares borders with China, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Despite the high number of attacks in the region, the Northeast is the most sparsely populated area of the country. Geography has substantially impacted the efficacy of counterterrorism efforts in the region. Rugged terrain, specifically forests, and international borders have effectively aided terrorist groups in the region.
Utilisation of forested terrain is a long standing offensive technique implemented by numerous groups throughout Asia, including the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, the Moro Liberation Front of the Philippines, and separatist groups in southern Thailand. Likewise, the majority of the separatist groups in Northeast India utilise the terrain to their advantage. Many of the groups using the land in their campaign are indigenous to the territory and have the distinctive advantageous of familiarity with the land. The state, in contrast, must learn the lay of the land while operating in hostile territory without the advantage of aerial surveillance. Densely forested areas are difficult to inhabit for the state and have an overall decreased police and military presence. Manoeuvring through jungles and forested terrain benefits small groups of militants and disadvantages the state. The state must abandon traditional military equipment and tanks and ‘fight the guerrilla like a guerilla’, which is literally the motto of the Jungle Warfare School in India, a military institute established to fight guerrilla warfare in the Indian jungles.
Forests make counterterrorism difficult in several distinct ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, visibility is poor and concealment is excellent. The military cannot obtain dependable visuals on the territory either above or on ground. This gives militants an advantage because they are not only more familiar with the territory, but their base is more difficult to unveil. Second, trees and limbs act as physical barriers and block weapons and machinery that are commonly utilised by the military, including mortars, grenade, tanks. This also makes it difficult for counterterrorism forces to obtain reliable communications and signals. The state must utilise counterterrorism techniques similar to the militants, which disadvantages the state since their primary advantage is superior weaponry. Third, limited visibility makes it difficult for the state to discern friendly vs. enemy fire. Mistaking friendly fire can lead to increased accidents resulting in casualties. Fourth, the physical environment of forests changes the acoustic environment. Noises from wildlife may be mistaken for enemies or conceal enemy movement. It can also make sound appear closer than actuality. Fifth, movement is difficult in numerous ways. The environment is usually humid, dense, and often filled with dangerous predators. Traversing the territory is difficult and tiring. Evacuation is substantially hindered due to lack of roads and limited landing places for helicopters.
Since independence, numerous groups have had multiple grievances with the state and consequently sought autonomy or independence. In response to numerous indigenous uprisings, the state implemented many controversial techniques in an attempt to quell the movement. One of the most draconian methods was the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The AFSPA allows the military to shoot to kill, detain individuals without court orders, search and seize any location without a warrant, stop and search any person or vehicle, and gave army officers legal immunity for their actions. The AFSPA extends to India’s borders, but unfortunately for India, many of the militant groups operate outside Indian territory.
Northeast India shares borders with three weak states, all of which have provided sanctuary to Indian terrorist groups. Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan share over 4,500 miles of border territory with varying levels of security. Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India also shares a 1,200-mile border with China. Many borders lack clear demarcation and are culturally porous, with similar ethnic groups occupying both sides of the boundary, making it easy for cross border absorption and assimilation. Nearly all of the Indian terror groups operating in the Northeast have international camps that provide sanctuary, training, and external support. Many groups commit attacks then cross the border into their international safe haven. India has worked on strengthening relationships with these border states in an attempt to combat terrorism, however, the states are relatively weak and not fully able to patrol and eliminate groups in the rugged periphery of their countries.
Indian intelligence agencies and court records also report that foreign rivals, particularly Pakistan, take advantage of porous borders to provide training to separatist groups. By assisting separatist groups, Pakistan helps divert attention away from the terrorism prone region of Kashmir, where it has substantial interests, while also weakening India’s security resources. India’s relationship with its eastern neighbours of Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh has improved substantially in the past few years. Myanmar and India have established border agreements to address drug trafficking. In 2015, India and Bhutan announced an agreement to increase the Bhutanese military presence on the border in exchange for a hydroelectric project in the region. India’s recent border cooperation with Bangladesh helped deliver a substantial blow to one of India’s strongest terrorist groups, the ULFA. Tensions between India and Pakistan remain elevated. Nonetheless, these recent agreements have helped decrease the total number of attacks in northeast India.
The physical environment plays a significant role in nurturing terrorist movements in Northeast India and around the world. Forested regions make counterterrorism difficult, and rugged terrain on international borders makes it nearly impossible for even the strongest militaries.
This article originally appeared on IAPS Dialogue and is cross-posted with the Editor’s permission. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Andrea Malji received a PhD in Political Science from the University of Kentucky in 2015. Her dissertation focused on the geography of terrorism and how geography affects grievances, terrorism, and counterterrorism in South Asia.