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Learning from the American Experience in Counter Terrorism

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 30, 2009

    It has been widely noted that the US has not suffered a terrorist attack since 9/11. This is because it undertook major reform of its homeland security structures following the 9/11 attacks. India could learn from the wide ranging CT reform in the US after 9/11 and adopt measures suitable in the Indian context.

    Legal measures

    The first step taken by the US president and the Congress after 9/11 was to pass a wide ranging tough anti-terrorism law, the USA PATRIOT (Providing All the Tools Required for Intercepting and Obstructing Terrorism) Act 2001, which vastly increased the powers of the law enforcement agencies in the areas of surveillance, detention, regulation of financial transactions, detention and deportation of immigrants, collection of intelligence etc. It also expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism. The act has a number of provisions to prevent money laundering and to disrupt the financing of terrorism. The Act particularly focuses on foreign entities, individuals and jurisdictions. The law has been criticized in the US for curtailing civil liberties but the Congress went ahead and approved it. The Patriot Act provides the basis of counter terrorism activities of the law enforcement agencies.

    The PATRIOT Act increases the ability of law enforcement agencies to listen to telephonic conversations, search e-mail communications, medical, financial and other records. It eases restrictions on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States; expands the authority of the Treasury Secretary to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities; and enhances the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts.

    Department of Homeland security

    The US effort has been directed towards integrating the activities of the multiple scattered agencies having any connection with internal security. Thus, in 2002, the US created a separate Department of Homeland Security by an Act which created an overarching federal entity responsible for the country’s internal security. The department was created by merging 22 different agencies having 166, 234 personnel and a budget of $40.7 billion. The department of homeland security is responsible for protecting the nation not just from terror attacks but also from natural and manmade emergencies. It is responsible for protecting the country from nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological attacks.

    The department oversees and coordinates the activities of nearly 87,000 state and local level agencies or “jurisdictions” having security responsibilities.

    The Homeland security department is necessarily large, given its ambitious mission. It has an annual budget of about $50.5 billion (year 2009). It brings under its umbrella the US Coast Guard, the US Transportation Security Administration, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the domestic nuclear detection office, the US Customs and Border Protection Service, the Federal Law Enforcement training centre, the US Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a host of other services. A large number of offices, directorates, advisory committess and councils have been created in the department for carrying out the coordination, planning work and to oversee implementation of plans.

    Despite criticism that the Homeland Security Department is too large and unwieldy, it has achieved a lot since its creation. For instance, a Transport Security Administration has been created and equipped to do 100 per cent screening of airline passengers and check baggage. Maritime transportation system and cargo supply chain security has been enhanced through a number of initiatives like Containing Security Initiative. A domestic Nuclear Detection Centre has been created. Homeland Security Department’s various components have huge budgets. For instance, in 2007, $6 billion were spent on Transport and Security administration, $6.3 billion on Customs and Border Protection, $7 billion on US Coast Guard and $5.9 billion on Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    The Department of Homeland Security has undertaken a number of critical projects to improve the safety and security of the nation. The specific ongoing projects of the Homeland Security Department include increasing the number of Border Patrol Agents, erecting a state-of-the-art fence on the border, improving the background check process for immigrants, improving the technologies for passenger and baggage screening, enhancing security assessments in respect of personnel working at the airports and ports, reinforcing maritime safety and security, enhancing the capabilities of US Computer Emergency Readiness Teams.


    Following 9/11 attacks, the US undertook major reform of the intelligence community. It created a Directorate of National Intelligence which brings together all the 17 intelligence agencies under one umbrella – under the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI). The objective of the DNI is to create a seamless web of information out of the data-bases of various agencies and provide it to users, including those in the private sector, on the basis of need and utility and breaking the barriers between agencies. The DNI’s vision is a bold one but achievable. The main idea behind the DNI’s vision is to ensure that information is shared rapidly across the intelligence community and also with relevant agencies outside the intelligence community so that the active agencies have an edge over the terrorists. The DNI’s aim is to create a seamless integration of people, processes and technologies to achieve the sharing of information.

    Counter Terrorism

    The US has created a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) which analyses the terrorist threats and shares this information with all the concerned agencies. The NCTC is the most important source of analysis as well as strategic operation plan for counter-terrorism. It coordinates its CT efforts with the CIA, FBI, Departments of State Defence and Homeland Security as well as specialist departments such as those of Energy, Treasury, Agriculture, Transportation, Health, Nuclear Regulatory Commission etc. NCTC officials chair inter-agency meetings to discuss emerging threats to US interests at home and abroad. Some of the specific things done by the NCTC are:

    • It fuses all-source intelligence and makes it available to all agencies for their operations.
    • It fuses federal, state, and local information and makes it available to all concerned.
    • It has created threat assessment centres which make a picture of current threats to homeland security.
    • It promotes the concept of joint-ness in the intelligence community.
    • It has created infrastructure protection centres.
    • It assigns responsibilities to different agencies for counter-terrorism (CT) operations.
    • It carries out joint CT operations.
    • It has the primary agency responsible for analysis and integration of information.
    • It combines all instruments available for CT: diplomatic, military, financial, intelligence, homeland security, law enforcement etc.
    • It produces warnings, alerts and advisories as well as analytic assessments on terrorism.
    • It maintains a national data-base on terrorists.
    • It manages a joint operations centre which provides situational awareness of terrorism-related issues developing worldwide.
    • It provides information on terrorism to international partners.
    • It develops, integrates implements strategic operational plans needed for the country’s counterterrorism activities.

    India has been a victim of terrorism for a long time. India also has considerable experience in counterterrorism. A large number of agencies at the central and state level are engaged in counterterrorism activities of different kinds. Indian agencies routinely foil potential terrorism-related incidents. This is reflected in media reports about interception of RDX, busting of terrorist modules and encounters between the police and the terrorists. Unfortunately, as the Mumbai terrorist attacks have shown, Indian counterterrorism efforts are not sufficient to deter the highly motivated and innovative terrorists. The weakness in the Indian effort appears to be the relative lack of coordination amongst Indian intelligence, law enforcement and legal agencies. While the government has taken some steps to strengthen law enforcement by creating a National Investigation Agency (NIA), the coordination amongst multiple agencies is a serious problem which remains to be addressed. In the government departments the culture of information sharing does not exist.

    The government needs to promote the culture of information sharing not only amongst the various agencies but also between the Central and the State agencies. The necessary infrastructure, using the latest information and communication technologies linking the different agencies at various levels needs to be created urgently. Information sharing, threat assessment and a risk-based approach to deal with these threats should become a norm rather than an exception. The government should be in a position to continuously indicate the level of threat that the country faces at any given point of time so that action can be taken by the concerned agencies without having to wait for any specific order from any agency.

    The lack of political consensus on how to deal with terrorism hampers counter terrorism efforts. The government can learn from the experience of the US and other countries which have created effective counterterrorism agencies through unification and integration of CT efforts.