Blood, bullets and beyond: bitter 26/11 lessons
IBN Live Three years have passed since the horrific events of 26/11 held us hostage for 62 hours, from the night of November 26 to the morning of November 29, 2008. A significant element in those attacks was the visible engagement of Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists in a frontal gun battle with Indian security forces. Earlier terror attacks had generally involved simultaneous bomb blasts in crowded market places, religious sites and office complexes.
The intensity and meticulous planning that went into the Mumbai attacks were of an unprecedented nature. National Security Guard (NSG) commandos expressed surprise at the training level of the LeT terrorists and the quantity of weapons carried by them. The involvement of the LeT in terrorist activities inside India is a critical security concern for India.
The stated objective of the LeT is to wage violent jihad in India in order to establish an Islamic rule amongst India's Muslim population. It also aspires to form a Union of Muslim majority areas surrounding Pakistan through violent means. Towards achieving this goal, the countries that have been listed as enemies of the LeT are India, Israel and the United States. Besides the LeT, there exists the menace of homegrown terror outfits like the Indian Mujahideen (IM). However, unlike the LeT, the IM is not a well-knit organisation devoid of any clear hierarchical structure.
Despite this knowledge on the LeT's objectives much before 2008 vis- -vis India, Mumbai succumbed to its terror plan. Added to intelligence assessment failure on the LeT's terror plans was the fact that the Mumbai attacks were preceded by terror attacks on Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Assam that year, which should have alerted the security agencies on the possibility of future terror attacks on major Indian cities.
Significantly, the US State Department 'Country Reports on Terrorism 2008' identified India as one of the world's most terrorism-afflicted countries. Sadly, after a lull of three years, Mumbai has again fallen prey to terror attacks in July this year. Given this, the obvious question that comes to mind is: Why has Mumbai been a recurring target of terror attacks since 1993? There are three plausible answers to this question.
First, attacking Mumbai increases the credibility and visibility of the terror outfit concerned. By definition, terrorism is "the use of violence against civilians for political ends". Terrorists engage in "costly signaling" (violent attacks) in order to spread terror, sabotage the institutions of a state and establish their own deadly credibility to a target audience: their own recruit base, ideologues and terror financiers. Second, it exposes the inability and weaknesses of Indian security agencies. Third, attacking Mumbai, India's financial capital brings global attention on India as an unsafe place for investment and tourism.
Recurring terror attacks inside India raises serious doubts about India's counter-terror mechanism. The common fear prevalent in India is the ability of terror outfits to repeatedly target Indian cities despite security measures being strengthened in recent years.
There is a deep-seated belief that the country lacks effective and well-trained counter-terror forces. In fact, counter-terrorism mechanisms in India suffer from more than just a lack of 'effective' counter-terror forces. There are existing structural problems that afflict the entire police force across states. For instance, in cities like Delhi and Mumbai today, most of the best trained police personnel are utilised for VIP security.
For instance, nearly 60 per cent of the 83,740 or more police personnel in Delhi are employed for securing VIPs and their movements. The living conditions of most police personnel are sub-optimal; they are made to work in conditions where even basic amenities are absent. Out of 76,613 Assistant Sub-Inspectors (ASIs) in Delhi, nearly 63,103 are yet to get housing promised to them.
Also, the ratio of police personnel at the level of constables in Delhi is much lower than the mid level ASIs, thereby coming in the way of a visible police presence on the ground. While special units to fight terror have been raised in cities like Mumbai, these have so far proved inadequate. What further affects the effectiveness of the police force in cities like Mumbai is that sub-inspectors and constables are over-stretched and do not have time to attend refresher courses to update their skills in terms of proficiency in the latest technology or concepts in counter terrorism.
For instance, the lack of expertise on the use of cyber space and technology by terrorist groups in India is another key area of concern. The emails sent by the IM after the terror attacks in Ahmedabad and Delhi in 2008 were through hacked wi-fi connections in Mumbai. Incidentally, the IM's top leader Abdul Subhan Qureshi is a highly trained computer specialist.
The use of satellite phones by the 10 LeT terrorist in the Mumbai attacks was visible. Cyber-terrorism could target critical infrastructure like financial sectors, telecommunications, banking and finance, gas and oil storage facilities and government operations within India.
Such attacks could undermine national security, erode confidence in government, and damage the economic system of a state. Malicious software is widely available and does not require special technical skills to disseminate and create terror. To deter this, law enforcement agencies in India would require expertise in cyber and other technologies if they are to keep pace with the terror outfits' growing prowess in using technology.
Be that as it may, the Union government did take some measures to strengthen its counter-terrorism mechanism immediately after 26/11. First of all, learning a bitter lesson from the slow movement of the then elite NSG personnel to Mumbai to counter the 26/11 terrorists, a number of NSG regional hubs have been set up in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Also, India's coastal security has been beefed up by developing an integrated approach between the Indian Navy and the Indian coast guards to secure India's long coastline of 7, 517 km. This integration has been set up under the command of the Naval Chief to bring about effective coordination. The most significant institutional counter-terrorism measure was the setting up of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2009.
The NIA is India's first federal agency to deal with cases pertaining to terrorism, investigating terror links, and linking up different intelligence agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and other state intelligence agencies.The integration of intelligence inputs is a much-needed change as the biggest state failure in India while fighting terror has been its inability to assess intelligence inputs.
This shortcoming has come in the way of providing clear guidelines to implementing bodies in order to prevent terror attacks from occurring on Indian soil. Counter-terror mechanisms like the intelligence agencies and security personnel have also been routinely plagued by lack of intelligence sharing, trust, inter-agency coordination and turf wars. While an important step in counter-terrorism, the NIA is not an appropriate agency for enabling such seamless intelligence flow, assessment as well as coordination as it is more a reactive than a preventive body. The NIA' s chief task is to investigate terror cases once the act has already been carried out.
The critical question that arises in this regard is: how has the US been successful in averting terror attacks on its soil since 9/11? The answer is not too far to seek. Immediately after 9/11, the Bush administration engaged in a massive reform of institutional mechanisms to avert and respond to future terror attacks on US soil.
A 'Department of Homeland Security' headed by a 'Director of Homeland Security' was set up with a massive staff of 170, 000, making it the second largest US federal body after the Department of Defense (DoD). The overall working of the department is guided by the policy document titled "National Strategy for Homeland Security" with a three words punch line: prevent, protect and respond. The main philosophy behind the Homeland Security Department is to not only prevent terror attacks but also enable a rapid response in case there is a terror attack.
The Department of Homeland Security also brings together different intelligence agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to share intelligence. This has mitigated turf wars to a large extent as well as addressed the tendency of intelligence agencies not to share secret information. Integration of intelligence has enabled forming a holistic map of terror networks, financing and source.
Further on, the Department of Homeland Security also pools in several other organisations like the US Coast Guard, the US Customs Service, the Nuclear Incident Response Team, the Federal Computer Incident Response Team, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and many others, making information flows an inter-agency matter. This massive need for coordination has necessitated a change in US bureaucratic attitudes in order to tide over different cultures and histories of each department, and guard against the powerful incentive to protect one's turf. The end result is however an effective counter-terror mechanism.
This kind of inter-agency coordination is sadly missing in India rendering Indian cities like Mumbai vulnerable to terror attacks. One can realistically imagine a scenario where a coordinated cyber or bio-terror attack will succeed in disrupting life in India given the absence of a coordinated cyber or public health response system to counter such attacks.
The need of the hour in India is to establish a Federal Counter-Terrorism Mechanism, which will integrate the various intelligence agencies, state police, customs, border security, cyber and public health departments to counter terror attacks. India should devise a counter-terrorism strategy which is well-coordinated and led by specialized units with superior intelligence-gathering and assessment skills. The government must immediately activate effective countermeasures including covert operations against terror networks based on sound intelligence and efficient bureaucratic coordination.
Visible policing is another critical component in fighting terrorism and must be conducted by personnel who are well trained, well paid and motivated enough to get the job done. Unless such a change occurs at the ground level, major Indian cities like Mumbai are likely to suffer from repeated terrorist attacks. At the same time, given that the terror group which targeted Mumbai on 26/11 was just one small cell of a larger terror network spread across South Asia, defeating the network would require the concentrated efforts of all countries in the region.
It is time a common counter-terror framework under the mechanism of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is also created.