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Averting Terror Attacks

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • September 25, 2008

    On September 13, five serial bombs shattered the weekend peace across several popular market complexes in New Delhi, killing 30 innocent civilians and injuring nearly 90. An elusive outfit calling itself “Indian Mujahideen” (IM) claimed responsibility for the bombings via an email sent to national media houses 10 minutes after the first blast at Karol Bagh. In that email, titled “The Message of Death”, the IM asserted that the reasons for the Delhi blasts included: the atrocities against innocent Muslims by the Anti-Terrorism Squads (ATS) after the Ahmedabad bombings, the Amarnath land dispute in Jammu and Kashmir, the killings of Christians in Orissa, the arrests of Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists on suspicion of alleged terror activities, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots. This group had also claimed responsibility for the Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad bombings of May 13, July 25 and July 26, respectively. On closer scrutiny, the stated reasons for the Delhi blasts by the IM, however, appear to be a well rehearsed rhetorical posturing for a target audience that includes not only its social base and funders in India but also possible sponsors abroad. This explains the recurring acts of terror by a hitherto unknown outfit, which is seeking to establish its credibility as an effective actor. That is why in the email sent after the Ahmedabad bombings, the IM categorically demanded of the Lashker-e-Taiyabba (LeT) not to claim responsibility for the blast for it would have minimised its own impact as an emerging India-based terror outfit.

    The subtext of the Delhi blasts also reveals that the main objective of the IM was perhaps to create social panic by using low intensity bombs across the geographical spread of Delhi: Ghaffar market, Karol Bagh in West Delhi, M-block market-Greater Kailash-I in South Delhi, and Connaught Place (CP) in Central Delhi. This is surely an act of “costly signalling” to showcase to Indian society and the outfit’s own recruits its prowess at social control in the capital of India. Its email refers to this perspective of the outfit, “it’s your own capital—Delhi --with nine most powerful serial bomb blasts -- that are almost going to stop the heart of India from beating.” The bombings were also meant to indicate the inability of the security agencies to thwart such terrorist activities. The email again states “Indian Mujahideen strikes back once more… Do whatever you can. Stop us if you can.” Such language is hardly surprising coming from a terror outfit, but what is perhaps alarming is its ability to carry out repeated attacks. This raises the vital question of how could such terror outfits be deterred from engaging in violent activities with such frequency across cities in India?

    The post-facto evidence weaved together by the police after the Delhi blasts indicate that these terror attacks could have been averted had the police acted on intelligence inputs already available prior. Indeed, the Gujarat police was in possession of intelligence on plausible target areas after it arrested an IM cadre Abul Bashar Qasmi after the Ahmedabad blasts of July 26. In fact, it was Qasmi who helped the police in locating the L-18 Batla House address on the night of September 18 where the IM cadres responsible for the Delhi blasts were staying. Qasmi also told the police that the three IM cadres, Mohammad Bashir, Mohammad Fakruddin and Saif Ahmad met three times in August to plan the Delhi blasts after Bashir’s return from Ahmedabad to Delhi on July 26 afternoon. This is damning evidence about police complacency. In fact, intelligence about IM terror activities goes as far back as 2006 after the Hyderabad serial blasts when the then arrested militant, Mohtasin Billa, provided evidence to the police on Qasmi’s involvement in terror activities. Had the police acted on that intelligence promptly, perhaps the chain of terror engineered by Qasmi and his fellow militants in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi could have been averted. And as stated earlier, it was Qasmi’s co-operation that enabled the encounter between a Delhi police team led by Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma and the IM militants on September 19. Inspector Sharma died after he was shot by the militants. IM militants Muhammad Bashir (leader of the IM unit responsible for the Delhi blasts) and Muhammad Fakruddin were killed in the encounter. All this could have been avoided if action had been taken in August and early September.

    Averting terror activities requires a dedicated, adequately staffed, well-coordinated and motivated police force. Perhaps, the inability of the police to act on available intelligence could be attributed to the fact that half the police force in any given city in India is utilised for providing security to VIPs and another significant proportion is involved in administrative duties. In Delhi, for instance, there is a huge shortage of police staff even for purely law and order duties, since half the 65,000 personnel are engaged in for VIP security. Moreover, for a population of 1.5 crores in Delhi, there are only 130 police stations, which is highly inadequate. What further affects the effectiveness of the police force 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.

    Installing Closed Circuit Television cameras (CCTV), which provide images on suspicious activities in crowded areas, is a good idea as most terror outfits carry out reconnaissance of a likely target area before the actual attack. Significantly, the IM also carried out reconnaissance on September 11 in its target areas in Delhi. This should have been caught on camera and assessed in areas like M-Block market, Ghaffar Market, and CP which had CCTVs functioning on September 13 and before. Yet not much advantage could be taken of this available technology as vital HUMINT abilities required to assess pictorial data were either lacking or the police forces were lethargic. What is worse is that the bomb that went off near the Prince Pan Shop in M-Block market was placed just below the CCTV at an angle of 25 degrees. The CCTV camera at M-Block market could only capture images at an 80 degrees angle range, whereas higher quality CCTVs are capable of capturing images at angles as low as 5 to 10 degrees range in vertical viewing and 6 to 11 degrees range in horizontal viewing depending on the lens type. This further substantiates the fact that the IM unit had carried out an extensive survey of the area and was also aware of the type of CCTV installed there. Significantly, CCTVs captured the image of the auto-rickshaw in which the suspected IM militant, who planted the bomb at Ghaffar market, travelled from Paharganj area to Karol Bagh.

    The use of cyber space by the IM is another area of concern. The emails after the Ahmedabad and Delhi attacks were sent through hacked wi-fi connections in Mumbai. Incidentally, the IM’s top leader Mohammad Subhan Qureshi is a highly trained computer specialist and is behind the email manifestos of the IM sent to media houses attached with the latest version of PDF 9 Pro Extended files. 9 Pro Extended is mostly utilised by business and technical professionals and includes features like unifying the widest range of content in a PDF portfolio, creating interactive presentations with Adobe presenter software, and converting virtually any 2D and 3D designs to PDF. This version also helps protect sensitive information, which means that the author alone can tinker with matter existing on the file. To deter this, law enforcement agencies would require expertise in cyber technology if they are to keep pace with the terror outfits’ adeptness in using technology.

    Finally, terror acts can be deterred with better implementation of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act instead of enacting newer anti-terror legislations and the attendant risk of human rights violations. The need of the hour is to also think in terms of a well-coordinated anti-terror force at the national level, perhaps something similar to the National Security Guards since the terrorists are well coordinated and spread out across the country in small cellular units. Terror prevention by security forces is, however, not enough. Civil society organisations especially representing the minority communities also need to be tapped into in order to assuage the insecurities felt by these communities. The example of Azamgarh in UP is a case in point. The two IM cadres killed on September 19 and the one arrested belong to Azamgarh. Raids by security forces in Azamgarh thereafter have resulted in a tense situation in the area. This is where local minority leaders and organisations could be utilised to explain to local people the underlying reasons for the raids and how they could co-operate without feeling victimised. The media also needs to be more objective in news reporting and refrain from jumping to conclusions about who is a terrorist unless guilt is proved in a court of law. It is in the interest of India’s national security that terror prevention mechanisms are strengthened and that the nation is not held hostage to the kind of serial bombings that have been witnessed in the past few months.