Enhancing Indian Counter-Terror efforts after Mumbai

India’s internal security reforms have not matched the pace of the liberalisation of its economy. Counter-terrorism forces lack a unified command, adequate training or resources to meet domestic and cross-border threats. In order to develop a coherent counter-terror doctrine, security reforms must enhance co-ordination between security agencies and government whilst transcending party politics.

By Avnish Patel, Researcher, Strategy and Policy Programme, RUSI

Mumbai can be seen as a fitting and symbolic target for a number of reasons. First, it has been softened already by multiple terrorist attacks since 1993, initially cultivated through a nexus of gangsterism and Islamic extremism epitomised by India's most wanted criminal Dawood Ibrahim.

Secondly, the city proudly displays its linkages to the West through its imperial heritage and legacy, manifested in the targeted Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India monument. Finally, it is a leading representation of an assertive and cosmopolitan India, keen to show that the world's largest secular democracy walks hand–in-hand with rapid economic growth.

The attacks may be seen as an attempt to tear India’s secular fabric and highlight disenfranchised elements of India's Muslim community, the second largest in the world. In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the attackers were based 'outside the country' and that India would not tolerate 'neighbours' who provide a launch pad to militants targeting it. To accuse Islamabad of giving succour to terrorists may be viewed as a populist reflex, but there needs to be recognition that the attacks are a mixture of both external and internal factors.

Externally, Pakistan sought to defuse the regional tension by denying any linkages to the terrorists and agreeing to send the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha to India to share information and co-operate with the investigation. This decision was soon revoked, with claims of miscommunication which have muddied the diplomatic waters further and emboldened India's posturing towards its neighbour.

The incoming Obama administration will be unnerved by now having to conduct a diplomatic balancing act in supporting India’s investigations into the attacks while maintaining Pakistan’s crucial support for the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. President Zardari has recently rebuffed India’s key demand that Pakistan hand over twenty key suspects, arguing that they would be tried in Pakistan if there was tangible evidence against them.

Domestically, India's confidence and sabre rattling on the global stage following the attacks cannot distract from the fact that political and bureaucratic apathy has exacerbated India's vulnerability to terrorism. In 2008 alone, prior to Mumbai, India has been victim to attacks in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Guwahati.

Any investigation itself will highlight the urgent need for India to re-think and re-shape its internal counter-terrorism policy. Until now, internal security reforms have not matched the pace of the liberalisation of the economy. Prime Minister Singh alluded to this when he announced the setting up of a Federal Investigation Agency to deal with cross border terrorism in his address.

Currently, individual states manage their own anti-terrorism operations without the support of a national body. The lack of a unified command, adequate training or resources was painfully highlighted by the death of Hemant Karkare, head of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, as he led his forces at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel on Wednesday night. India's lack of preparedness has been noted by the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) of the UN Security Council. The UN CTC calls for member states to take steps to enhance their legal and institutional capacity to counter terrorist activities on a national, regional and global basis.

In a response to the Fifth Report of the Government of India to the CTC in April 2007, the CTC recommended that techniques used to investigate terrorist financing, money laundering, border patrol and security needed enhancing. The CTC also stated that it was important to ensure that charitable and non-profit organisations were adequately regulated in order to prevent them and funds provided to them being used for terrorist purposes.

Public anger over the security lapses has brought about bloodletting in the form of ministerial resignations and has also encouraged internecine warfare between security agencies. Both the external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), have stated that they issued warnings of a possible attack on Mumbai by sea in the past few months. In response, the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta stated that no ‘actionable intelligence’ was received – in effect, a warning that lacked specificity as to the nature and timing of the threat.

This episode reveals failings that must be rectified if India is to engender an effective counter-terrorist response. The porous nature of India’s coastline highlights an inadequate maritime security infrastructure. A report submitted by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in October 2008 on the status of patrolling of India’s maritime zones across eight coastal states revealed a state of neglect and apathy. In particular, Maharashtra was described as being ‘callous’ on ensuring proper maritime security and indifferent to the central government’s scheme to procure patrol boats and communication equipment. It also refused to bear the cost of maintenance and operation of patrol boats provided by the central government.

Inadequate resources can also be coupled with a lack of co-ordination between the Navy, Coast Guard, marine police and a multitude of agencies governing different marine activities. One idea would be to garner insights from the controversial US Patriot Act, which empowered the US Coast Guard as the single authority for maintaining security on the seas. The ideas include penalties for refusing to stop when ordered to do so and for transporting explosives, biological agents, chemical weapons or radioactive or nuclear materials in the knowledge that the item is intended for use in a terrorist act.

The controversy surrounding the credibility of intelligence warnings suggests that India needs a more robust intelligence capability with greater synergy between the IB and RAW. The IB has been accused of neglecting its duties on garnering information on domestic terrorist suspects and organised crime, with a focus being based on political intelligence gathering instead. In contrast, RAW requires greater terrorism and counter-terrorism expertise at senior levels.

Tools and procedures for more effective data analysis and producing credible warnings are also required. To help bring about a dynamic change in these institutional cultures and security measures overall, India could formulate an inquiry based on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the US (the 9/11 Commission). This could provide a comprehensive account of the circumstances surrounding the Mumbai attacks, including preparedness for and response to the attacks. Like the 9/11 Commission, it could also be mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.

Some of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission are relevant to the Indian scenario and intelligence capabilities in particular. The Commission recommended the creation of a National Counterterrorism Centre for joint operational planning and joint intelligence, staffed by personnel from various agencies (agents, analysts, linguists and surveillance specialists). It was also suggested that the CIA build its HUMINT capabilities and ensure a seamless relationship between source collection and signals collection at the operational level to enhance RAW.

Any proposed Indian style commission would have to avoid the criticisms that dogged the 9/11 Commission – that the investigation was too narrow in scope, that it was superficial in assessing government failures and that it lacked a mandate to investigate intelligence failures.

The absence of a coherent counter-terror doctrine is equally galling. Partisan squabbles have stymied efforts to reach a consensus as to what defines terror, who is a terrorist, and how they can be prevented from acting. These issues barely scratch the surface. Politicians urgently need to find the will to enact robust anti-terror legislation, enhance co-ordination between security agencies, state and central government and stem the politicisation of a flaccid bureaucracy. Ultimately, a comprehensive intellectual and practical approach is needed to identify comprehensive strategies and processes to counter the terrorist threat.

The atrocities reveal the soft underbelly of India’s economic progress and highlight the inherent difficulties in safeguarding former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a modern state driven by democracy, diversity, religious tolerance and secularism. India must tackle the contradictions of democratic parity and perverse economic inequality if it wishes to engineer fundamental, rather than superficial change in the country. The title of being the world’s largest secular democracy also engenders the threat of a tyranny of the religious majority. This was symbolised by the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by militant Hindus in 1992.

The politicisation of this (Islamic) terrorist threat is not a new development but it is likely to intensify, especially in the run up to the national elections scheduled for May 2009. The government will be keen to avoid accusations of being soft. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have already exploited the ruling Congress Party’s repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) – which the BJP initially enacted – as a sign of weakness. In order to remedy institutional frailties and allow India to meet the cross-border threat it is currently facing, future developments must transcend such party politics.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Avnish Patel

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