December 08, 2008
A bold terrorist attack on a peaceful city strikes fear, then horror among bystanders, then an entire nation. Gunmen barely out of their teens, sent on a clandestine one-way mission against a hated foe, create a bloody international incident with huge implications. Two neighboring states, long at loggerheads over issues of borders and identity, lurch towards war as a nervous world watches. Tension mounts when it emerges that the killers appear to possess ties to the intelligence service of one of the states, known to be a state sponsor of terrorism. The passions of the victim nation cannot be easily contained.
Mumbai 2008. And Sarajevo 1914.
For any historian of terrorism, the parallels between the recent tragedy in India and the events that led directly to World War One are eerily and disturbingly similar.
Austria-Hungary and Serbia, like Pakistan and India, were on a military and diplomatic course of mutual destruction for decades leading up to the terrorist attack that sent the region, and eventually all Europe, over the precipice. In the Balkans, the issues were ethnicity and religion, borders and sovereignty: as between India and Pakistan since 1947. More Muslims live in India than in Pakistan, just as more Serbs lived under the Habsburg Empire than actually in Serbia before 1914.
Particularly worrisome were the secret actions of Serbia’s intelligence service, a hotbed of conspiratorial violence, which for years plotted sedition, espionage, and terrorism against Austria-Hungary. Eager to change borders and destabilize the Habsburg realm, Serbian military intelligence regularly dispatched agents into Bosnia and beyond to spy and, eventually, murder; the role of rogue intelligencers in Serbia’s domestic politics was just as distasteful and destabilizing. Like Pakistan’s infamous ISI, which for years has fomented and supported covert campaigns against India in Kashmir and elsewhere, Serbia’s spies weren”t really subject to the rules of law or cabinet, and enacted their own radical agendas without much oversight. And like the ISI, Serbian military intelligence was led by true believers in the national cause, hard men possessed with a messianic vision and convinced of the need for violence to achieve those ends by employing terrorists to do deniable dirty work. Both secret services relied on fronts such as the Black Hand and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The result is deservedly infamous. Belgrade’s conspirators, led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, a clever and ruthless man of the sword, hoped to provoke a reaction. The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, did much more than that. Immediately Vienna suspected that Dimitrijevic’s firm hand had directed Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who had fired the fatal shots.
While there has never been any convincing evidence that the Serbian government, per se, was behind the terrorism that killed the heir to the Habsburg throne, neither has there been any real doubt about the role of Dimitrijevic and his intelligence service behind the crime; indeed, Dimitrijevic shortly before his death would proudly enumerate his vital part in the conspiracy.
Three weeks after the murders at Sarajevo, Vienna issued Belgrade an ultimatum which included ten demands. Eager to avoid war, the Serbian government agreed to nine demands, refusing only the one which stipulated that the Austrian could send investigators into Serbia to unravel the conspiracy. That Belgrade sensibly would not countenance. The result was the July Crisis and, of course, a global conflagration from which Europe has never quite recovered.
Today all eyes on are South Asia as that volatile region faces its own transformative crisis caused by terrorism. While Pakistan’s exact role in the outrage in Mumbai remains unclear, it is painfully evident that the ISI for years has supported radicals and terrorists against India. It is difficult to imagine that any Pakistani cabinet would back such crimes, but it is only too believable that Pakistani
spies may have had some sort of hand in the mass killing.
While it seems unlikely that states other than India or Pakistan could be drawn directly into the mounting crisis, as in 1914, the stakes are far higher today as the rival powers possess nuclear weapons capable of inflicting destruction on a scale unimaginable in the days of the Habsburgs. It can only be hoped that cooler heads will prevail in South Asia in the days ahead, as they signally failed to do in the Balkans in Europe’s last summer of peace.
John R. Schindler is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.