Indian leaders, media, stoking fears with attack drone hysteria

A friendly word of advice to officials and media in India still going bat do-do over an alleged terrorist drone attack on one of the nation’s air force bases: Don’t do the work of extremists for them. That’s a reminder that anyone responding to suspected terror action should remember, but one particularly worth shouting above the hysterical din still raging in India more than a week after the June 27 incident.

Little known about alleged drone attack on air base

This DroneDJ piece provides the crux of what is known about the attack – and what various actors claim to be true. The one-line summary is two apparently commercial-size drones dropped explosives on an air force base building in Jammu’s Srinigar district – about 8.7 miles from the Pakistani border – blowing a hole in it and slightly injuring two people. From there, allegations and counter-charges veer wildly, with the only constant thread in official comment and media coverage being hype, fear mongering, and almost surreal over-reaction. 

Some authorities have called for nationwide anti-drone systems to be deployed. Others have blamed Pakistan or religious extremists acting as its proxies ­­– going so far as to claim targeting the roof rather than bountiful aircraft nearby was Islamabad’s crafty way of demonstrating its evil capacities without inflicting mass destruction that would have provoked certain retribution. Army leaders have cited the attack as proof of the urgency to impose an integrated theater defense command with navy and air forces (under army control, of course). And a rising number of regions have banned drone use ­– thereby crippling scores of small service businesses that use the craft to stay afloat. 

It’s all fed a giant fire of public concern, crimped freedoms amid heightened alarm, and a feeling the nation is under siege – all of which is exactly what extremists battling free, open, democratic societies are after in the first place.

“You always have to be sure your defensive reaction to attacks doesn’t wind up reducing the very liberties radicals want to eliminate,” a senior French anti-terrorist official once told us in an earlier, unrelated reporting. “Imposing uncertainty, instability, and indeed terror are the objectives of terrorism itself.”

Often governments fail to heed that warning – including France, which responded to the 2015 attacks in Paris with emergency laws allowing thousands of home raids without warrants, and arrest and detention of hundreds of people that ultimately led to but a handful of charges. 

Avoiding extreme reactions that extremists seek

Usually, however, authorities maintain perspective in ways India has not. Which is why neither Barcelona nor Nice banned trucks after those vehicles were used by militants to mow innocent victims down. Ditto global airlines refusing to prohibit underwear on flights in response to a radical’s failed 2009 attempt to detonate explosives in his briefs. Even France controlled any urges it might have had to outlaw cutlery after a self-radicalized extremist decapitated a school teacher with a kitchen knife last year.

Meanwhile, though increased use of drones in planned attacks has indisputably risen around the world, authorities mindful of those threats also need to remember their lousy results thus far.

The casualty in Jammu was a section of roof. An attempted drone strike of the US Embassy in Baghdad this week was blown out of the air before it could get near, while a successful detonation yesterday in Erbil inflicted “no injuries, casualties or damage.”  A 2018 drone assassination bid of Venezuelan President Nicólas Maduro spectacularly failed. And repeated efforts by Mexican drug cartels to use the craft to attack rival gangs and police have inflicted very little pain. 

The reasons for that are the same: Most smaller drones can’t hold large enough explosive payloads to do extensive damage; they make enough noise to tip forces off as they approach; and professional military forces have the tech to detect and atomize those artisanal drone attack modes without much bother.

In India, meanwhile, abundant confusion, limited factual evidence, and clashing allegations make it difficult to know exactly what happened in Jammu. Indeed, some critics say the still hazy incident is being used by the government and military to justify various, over-reaching power plays. Whatever the case, while authorities and national media are justified in taking the apparent drone attack threat seriously, they’re making a terrible error in blowing it up in a way only real terrorists could love.

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