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The Need to Refine India’s Response to Terrorist Incidents

Colonel Satinder K. Saini was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 03, 2008

    The November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai which left more than 170 people killed and close to 300 injured did not conform to the pattern to which Indian security agencies have got accustomed to over a period of time. Except for the suicide attack on the CRPF Group Centre, Rampur (UP) at the beginning of 2008, terrorists had generally resorted to detonating improvised explosive devices in crowded places to cause maximum casualties. While much has been written about prevention and preparedness in the aftermath of the Mumbai tragedy, it is equally vital to have detailed plans to respond to such acts and deal with the consequences in order to minimize loss of life. Such important guidelines should be contained in a National Counter Terrorism Plan that outlines responsibilities, authorities and the mechanisms to prevent such incidents, or if they occur manage acts of terrorism and their consequences. This plan should be updated and reviewed periodically to keep pace with the changing dynamics of terrorism. Moreover, it should be supported by further amplification in terms of detailed procedures to be adopted by the government and its various agencies.

    If India already has such a plan, its existence and implementation was not evident during the response to the tragedy in Mumbai. The scenes of terrorist incident sites presented a dismal picture of chaos and confusion rather than well organized locations where someone was in control and responding in a calm and determined manner. This is borne out by curious onlookers milling around the incident sites with utter disregard to their safety, media personnel almost running berserk to provide live coverage of ongoing combat while jeopardizing tactical success of the operation and contradictory statements being made by various agencies dealing with the situation including the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi and its intelligence agencies, the Maharashtra Government, police, army, NSG, and fire department.

    The nature of terrorism per se dictates that its implications may overlap responsibilities between the central government and the states, and various departments and agencies under their respective control as counter terrorism capabilities are maintained at both levels. The ramifications of any terrorist attack will necessitate high level decision making at the Centre and the States. The response will need to take into account public anxiety and any international dimensions. The scale of the situation may also dictate forces under the Centre like the NSG, army, navy, etc. being deployed. Throughout the response, minimizing loss of life, preventing further attacks and early return to normalcy are primary goals.

    Evidently, state police supported by other emergency services is the first responder to an incident which may be identified subsequently as a result of a terrorist action as it played out in Mumbai. A Police Forward Command Post should have been established immediately at the incident site(s). This command post should have real time communication with the police control room. Other emergency services, like the fire department and health services need to work closely with the police officer in charge of this command post. The police should isolate, contain and evacuate the site depending on the situation and, in conjunction with emergency services, seek to minimize loss of life. In case the situation is beyond the capability of the local police, forces under the control of the central government may also get deployed. Their command and control headquarters at each level should co-locate with the police set up already established to deal with the situation. Simultaneously, Crisis Management Groups at the centre and state levels should be activated.

    The Mumbai attacks were a fit case to be declared as a national terrorist situation. Declaration of an incident as a national terrorist situation depends on a number of factors such as the scale and nature of the incident, use of weapons of mass destruction by the terrorists, threats to critical infrastructure like atomic centres, aviation and maritime operations, and threat to foreign nationals. If a national terrorist situation is declared, overall responsibility for policy and broad strategy in relation to the situation should rest with the Centre. However, its role does not include operational management and deployment of emergency services.

    The management of the media left a lot to be desired during the Mumbai operations. The primary goals of media management are to ensure that it does not prejudice the conduct of operations, build and hold public confidence and minimize the broadcast of terrorist propaganda. It is best done by establishing a media centre close to the location of the incident, depending on the security considerations and conducting regular briefings for them. The police should be overall responsible for managing the media according to their standing arrangements, in consultation with the affected agencies or organizations. Once the State Crisis Management Group has been activated, media comments/releases should be coordinated between the police, the state and the central government.

    It is not merely sufficient to have plans to deal with terrorist incidents but these should be rehearsed regularly so that the myriad agencies involved in responding to these acts and managing them get adequately trained.