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Countering Terrorism: The Way Forward

Brig. (Retd.) V. Mahalingam is a security affairs analyst.
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  • March 03, 2013

    Could we have avoided the Hyderabad blasts? The systems and the infrastructure are either faulty or not in place. We have not considered it necessary to train our policemen. If we had prevented it, that would have been a miracle. Four years have been wasted. Lack of political will, determination and clarity are clearly visible. Every time there is a bomb attack, our leaders talk of CC TVs as if that is the solitary solution to the problem. The political leaders and the bureaucracy handling this very sensitive issue seem to lack the vision and the practical acumen needed for the job. We went about creating organisations without a well-defined counter-terrorism (CT) strategy, resulting in faulty architecture models and controversy all around. We keep blaming some foreign sponsored terrorist outfit or the so called indigenous variety to politicize the matter and thus divert attention from the fundamental issue. What difference would that make if our own counter measures are effective and in place?


    Boundaries do not restrict terrorism and it will have to be tackled at the national level. That requires a body to do the strategic planning, coordination and application of all instruments of national power to thwart terrorism. It will involve collection, collation and analysis of intelligence from all the sources within and outside the country. The assessed threat perception will have to be shared with all the stake holders through a medium that is instantaneous to be of any value. The National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) can be an ideal intelligence agency for handling all CT related intelligence. We, however, need a strategic planning body, investigations and execution arm besides the intelligence outfit. A planning body needs to be separated from the execution agencies and each of them must be placed under appropriate professional heads.

    See the present architecture of the NCTC. It has been placed as an adjunct to the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). MHA is a busy body dealing with multifarious issues from Telengana to North East to Honours and Awards. It has neither the time nor the professional competence to do any worthwhile strategic planning relating to counter terrorism.

    Counter terrorism is not the only item on the IB’s menu. Going by its past, the IB is viewed with suspicion and is considered a political tool of the Government in power. Used to the culture of running to the power centres with information to score brownie points rather than alerting the security agencies for prompt action, will anyone provide the IB with any vital intelligence input first hand rather than scoring a point themselves? The IB lacks the status and the authority to be able to demand information from the states, other agencies and departments within the country. Won’t such a design promote turf war between intelligence agencies? Does anyone expect the other departments and State Governments to act on the IB’s directions if it were to coordinate the national effort to combat terrorism?

    Perils of Ignoring State Police

    As per the constitutional provisions, law and order happens to be a state subject. The powers conferred on the NCTC to search, arrest individuals and carry out independent investigations without involving the State Governments is viewed as an infringement on the states’ powers and has accordingly raised a political storm. The principle of not granting arrest powers to intelligence agencies has also been violated.

    Be these as they may, can an intelligence agency sitting in Delhi probably with an intelligence outfit and few intelligence operatives in one part of the state have access to everything that is happening in every corner of the state? Can the state police or the beat constable, the very source of Human Intelligence, be ignored? Can any amount of technical information replace his contribution? The solution lies in effectively training the beat constable and coordinating his efforts besides linking him to a network for instantaneous intelligence inputs for prompt action.

    Where an operation is required to be launched to search, apprehend or arrest a militant, wouldn’t it be prudent to incorporate the state police to get local help including for navigation, translators, medical aid and handling of dead, wounded and other legal issues? Does anyone think sustained investigations including surveillance in a case can be carried out without the help of the local police?

    Role of State Police in Prevention, Containment and Investigations

    Prevention, containment and investigations leading to punishment are three distinct stages of counter terrorism. Prompt and actionable intelligence alone cannot prevent a terrorist attack. Effective policing, reliable technical infrastructure to monitor and counter a threat instantaneously and people’s efforts are the other sides of the same coin. Who is going to do the policing or monitor the inputs from technical infrastructure installed in an area? Who would be integrating the efforts of the public? How would these be accomplished without the involvement of the local police and the State Governments?

    The first person to reach the site of a terrorist attack would invariably be the local beat constable. Once a terrorist attack happens, the resources needed to contain violence, manage the crowd and traffic besides preventing follow-up terrorist acts yet to be executed are beyond the capability of a central agency. Preservation of evidence, securing witnesses, managing the media and the relatives and friends of the deceased, etc. are other dimensions of the problem which can only be handled by the state police. Why do we then want to keep the states in the dark? Yes, we need to train the beat constable. This cannot be achieved by sitting inside comfortable offices. The leaders will have to be on ground and be prepared to soil their feet and hands. If the old habits and culture of the existing police forces in the states is coming in the way of this process, we may have to go in for replacing the existing lot with better qualified, trained and motivated personnel over a period of time.

    Information about surveillance being mounted on individuals and intentions of intended operations being leaked out by vested interests for various political and other extraneous considerations are indeed genuine and real. These issues will have to be resolved through dialogue and by drawing elaborate Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and subsequently refining them based on experience.

    People’s participation in preventing terrorist attacks is a vital area which needs very careful thought and handling. A system to enable individuals of all age groups and sex to report information including suspicions irrespective of how trivial they may be without any fear of harassment needs to be put in place. The police needs to be trained to act as partners rather than as bullies. There is a need for a sustained campaign to educate people in this regard.

    Information and vital inputs like financial transactions, passport and visa related crimes, cross border infiltration, information relating to recovery of fake currencies, etc. from other government departments and non-government agencies will have to be sought, co-opted and factored in to facilitate the dots being connected in a larger terror plot.


    Our legal process is very open and infallible. A terrorist on the other hand is an individual waging war against the nation. He has no remorse killing innocents or compassion for their wives, parents and children who lose their bread winners. He gives no warning time or prior information to their families. He gives them no chance to meet their near and dear ones prior to death. Widows within our society cannot remarry as easily as in the case of other developed countries. Children are deprived of someone very essential for their future and development. Their education and career comes to an abrupt end. The aspirations and hopes of the parents about being cared for by their children in their old age are shattered with no warning. The terrorist does not even have any concern for his own family and children. What happens to the “right to life” of those massacred, the very basis of all human rights? When an individual loses sight of all his social responsibilities in pursuit of his thirst for blood there is no reason why a terrorist should be given such a long process of judicial scrutiny and a number of review and mercy options. Just picture the number of people who are affected by a single terrorist strike and their agony.

    We need to evolve a process of criminal justice system by which a terrorist can be punished and sent to the gallows within a matter of three to four months when the memory is fresh in the minds of the people. Apart from financial gains, delayed justice system loopholes and options available to a terrorist for escaping the gallows are some of the other reasons why terrorists indulge in violence. With stringent laws sealing all escape and delay options enacted, even the families of individuals may serve as a restraining factor to prevent individuals from indulging in acts of terrorism.

    The Solution

    The answer lies in creating a separate Counter Terrorism Ministry directly under the Prime Minister. A National Counter Terrorism Head (NCTH) will head the CT body in the country. The NCTH will be the single point authority in the country for all CT activity with authorization to muster all resources within the country. The authority vested in him will be matched by his accountability to every terrorist strike. He should be made accountable and answerable to the Parliament either directly or through a body nominated by the parliament. A Strategic Planning body with specialists from various fields will be placed directly under him.

    He will have an independent strategic planning body besides the intelligence, operational and investigation arms under him. The NCTC will be the intelligence body under an intelligence professional. The NTRO and NATGRID, which primarily deal with intelligence collection and dissemination, will be a part of NCTC.

    Intelligence, military operations and investigations cannot be combined and they need to be kept separated under different heads under the NCTH. The operational arm will be the Operations Command (Ops Comd) headed by a military professional, with the National Security Guard less the VIP Security elements (NSG) under him. He will have the authority to muster resources from any of the security forces within the country and task them for any specific CT task at short notice. With this authority, situations such as the need to rush Naval Commandos as in the case of the Mumbai attack can be handled much more efficiently instead of resorting to inter-ministerial requisitioning and related communication and delay issues. Requisitioning of aircraft or helicopters from the Air Force or from the Research and Analysis wing of the Cabinet Secretariat could be easier without the usual bureaucratic hassles. The mess that was created around the Taj Hotel during the Mumbai attack due to lack of a proper cordon could be avoided. The other security forces within the country can be guided by the Ops Comd with regard to their terrorism-related training through an operational strategy, training doctrine and if need be through Training Notes specific to each security force. The conduct of essential training and exercises to various security forces likely to be involved in CT operations will be his responsibility.

    The NSG, which is presently under the MHA and paid from the MHA budget, will be brought under the Counter Terrorism Ministry and under their budget. They will continue to carry out CT tasks as at present, but with terrorism-related intelligence support from the NCTC which they lack currently. The headquarters of the present NSG could be offset while creating the NCTH. The VIP security and its portion of the training centre could be brought under a DIG from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and handled as a specific VIP security outfit directly under the MHA. The Bomb Disposal Units under the NSG, which are at present requisitioned by the other organizations, can now be put to use directly by the NCTH.

    The National Investigation Agency (NIA) will be the investigative arm with authority to seek investigative and forensic resources from any of the agencies within the country and may even seek assistance from abroad.

    The State Governments need to have an intelligence coordination body to act as a one point contact for all matters pertaining to intelligence and CT efforts. Important intelligence inputs need to be transmitted through NATGRID down to the district level even without processing when immediate preventive action is desired.

    The security forces acting in counter insurgency areas need to be brought under this organisation for intelligence sharing. Presently, the security forces operating in counter insurgency areas collect a plethora of information of intelligence value. They get buried in the files of the security forces or die down after the interrogation of the militant or other informers for want of a proper mechanism to share, evaluate and corroborate information. These inputs could be of immense value in assessing terrorist threats in the hinterland. Detailed modalities for intelligence acquisition and sharing, down to the unit level, will have to be worked out.


    Irrespective of the strategy, the system will fail if we do not have an efficient, well trained and motivated counter terrorism force in the country. This work cannot be done on paper and it will have to be on ground by leaders and not managers. While creating organisations we need to think through their actions under different circumstances to work out a practical and a “good for the job” outfit rather than succumbing to quick fix or turf issues. Hopefully, the National Security Advisor (NSA) will not be assigned the role of NCTH.

    Brigadier V Mahalingam is a former Force Commander of the National Security Guard and a Defence Analyst.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.