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India’s Confrontation with Terror: Need for Bold Initiatives

Dr. Thomas Mathew was Deputy Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi from 2007-10. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 25, 2009

    Since 2001, Islamic terrorists have struck India with frightening frequency and ferocity. The most disturbing aspect of these attacks is that they have spread into the hinterland from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) which was the main focus of the terrorists in the late 80s and the following decade. The statistics are startling. Since 2001, deaths and injuries on account of terror attacks outside J&K attributable to Islamic terrorists or suspected to involve them, increased at an annual average rate of over 628 and 1444 per cent respectively.1 These attacks besides being costly in terms of human lives and injuries, can result in the hardening of communal feeling between religious communities, and wreak havoc with the nation’s dream of becoming a great power in the 21st century. India has to counter the threat, but the nation is a frustratingly slow learner. That would have to change. India can no longer afford the luxury of time to counter the threats emanating from the epicentre of terror, Pakistan. The task ahead is not easy.

    In the aftermath of the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, there was of course the usual flurry of activity. There was the animated review of the internal security system in the country and solemn assurances to strengthen its counter-terrorist forces. From without, words of sympathy poured in, in part because 26 foreigners died in the attack. Pakistan, the world’s chief terror promoter, was urged to cooperate with India in the investigations.

    But would all these soothing words of solidarity from the international community and assurances of Indian leaders to strengthen the internal security apparatus lend hope to anything tangible? If the past can offer us any lesson, we can be almost sure that terrorists who operate freely from Pakistani soil would strike again. If we have to counter the threat, India would have to revisit its counter terror strategies.

    India has to face the terror challenge squarely. Reality does not always square with hope. It can neither rely on the duplicitous assurances from Pakistan nor mere words of condemnation from the world community. The stark reality is that India would continue to be vulnerable until Pakistan ceases to be a safe haven for terrorists, and this situation is not likely to change in a hurry. So what can India do? There are two main strategies that India would do well to adopt. First would be to overhaul our security apparatus and the second would be to wrench tangible cooperation from the international community and in particular, the United States, our “strategic partner”.

    Inadequacy of Indian Counter-terror Measures

    As the increasing terror attacks have evidenced, Indian security establishments are not imaginatively organised and equipped to counter the tactics that terrorists have adopted with startling success. Compounding the problem has been our inexplicable failure to read the signs. Let us look at the statistics. In 2006, there were 4 instances of terror attacks outside J&K, including the attack in Mumbai in the local trains that resulted in 209 deaths and 714 injuries. In 2008, even before the Mumbai carnage, there were 9 attacks including the one in the capital of the country, barely two months prior, where 5 separate blasts in three different places led to 24 deaths and 90 injuries. It was followed by three more attacks in quick succession, the last being in Guwahati on 30 October which led to 75 deaths and 308 injuries. But when Mumbai was held hostage, we looked shell-shocked and the security forces appeared most unprepared.

    In the aftermath of the Mumbai attack we may have done better under the new leadership in the Home Ministry. For instance, the National Investigation Agency was set up and a decision has been taken to deploy the National Security Guard (NSG) in the four metros and later in all state capitals in the country. Parliament also passed in record time the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act 2008 which would inter alia allow the detention of terror suspects for up to 180 days. But by adopting these measures have we addressed the drawbacks that had in the first place made our security apparatus incapable of preventing or managing terror attacks when they occur? The steps taken are no doubt important in themselves. But they alone would not substantially enhance our capability to counter terror. They would at best qualify to be interim measures before we establish a better system after we undertake an honest re-appraisal of our counter-terror instruments. Of course, the steps taken are also important because the government must be seen to be acting. They would yield important political results and inspire some confidence in the people, whose patience is wearing thin.

    Learning from the US Experience

    We would do well to learn a few lessons from the US. Today we face the same problem that the US faced prior to 9/11: turf wars among intelligence agencies, lack of cooperation amongst them and no follow up on intelligence data. In the investigations carried out after 9/11, it came to light that the FBI had not shared information on suspected Al-Qaeda operatives. It had buried the memo of its agent Kenneth Williams, who had recommended investigation of the operatives who were training at flight schools in Arizona. Similarly, though Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, who was convicted for life in the US for his links with 9/11 was arrested on August 16, nearly a month before the attacks, neither the FBI nor the CIA had cared to inform the counterterrorist group of the White House of the two incidents though it was expecting an attack.

    The US was, however, quick to address this problem by creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the largest reorganisation of government after the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. In 2002, a congressional commission was also formed to investigate 9/11. The commission report delivered in July 2004 also highlighted the failure of the intelligence agencies to coordinate their information gathering activities. It also led to the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

    The DHS is an integrating body of organisations connected with security. It has addressed many of the coordination problems by ensuring that it is privy to all information, both at the federal and state levels, that can be gleaned for terror links. It “leverages resources within federal, state, and local governments, coordinating the transition of multiple agencies and programs into a single, integrated agency” making it a “national mission”.2 It has 16 major components ranging from the Directorate of Science and Technology that provides necessary technology to federal, state and local functionaries to The Office of Health Affairs that coordinates medical responses in crisis. Despite several criticisms about the functioning of the organisation, the fact remains that the US mainland has had no terror attacks since 9/11 testifying to the efficacy of the structure that has been put in place.

    The ODNI was specifically created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to overcome the intelligence agencies’ “need-to-know” culture as the various intelligence agencies with their own networks and data repositories made it “very difficult to piece together facts and suppositions that, in the aggregate, could provide warning of the intentions” of the adversaries.3 To achieve synergy in intelligence gathering and analyses, the working of all the 16 intelligence agencies of the US has been brought within the ambit of the ODNI. The CIA chief has also been mandated to report to the US President through the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)4. The DNI has been made the head of the intelligence community of the US and is the designated principal advisor to the President, National Security Council and the DHS on intelligence matters.

    Restructuring India’s Security Apparatus

    India too would do well to institute a commission to study the nation’s counter terror apparatus and establish an integrated and overarching body like the US has. This body should coordinate, collate and analyse intelligence information besides being entrusted with all tasks including the overall control of the counterterrorist forces such as the NSG. Part of the Coast Guard should also be brought within its ambit. For obvious reasons, the administrative head of such a body should be senior to all the heads of the intelligence agencies. It would have many challenges to deal with.

    India is a soft target and is a porous society. We have the longest border with Bangladesh. An estimated 16 million refugees have traversed this border and they continue to pour from that country. The border with Pakistan is, however, less porous on account of the 550 kilometres of fencing in J&K and strong security measures. Nevertheless, extremists continue their effort to infiltrate into India. Now as the Mumbai massacre has evidenced, the threat from the sea could prove more difficult to counter.

    Our 7500 kilometres of sea coast is poorly guarded. Fishing hamlets dotting the coasts also provide ideal drop zones for terror groups. But the dilemma that India faces is that it would be an almost impossible task to make our land and sea borders watertight in the foreseeable future. In the interim period, we should, however, be in a position to identify, apprehend and isolate infiltrators who can today virtually roam freely in India.

    Any individual with Asian features infiltrating India can walk the streets of the nation virtually indistinguishable from its citizens and defy easy identification, as the nation does not have any system of identity cards. As a consequence, a potential terrorist who sneaks in from abroad can melt into the Indian milieu, plan, network, stockpile weapons and explosives and wreak havoc after spending considerable time on target reconnaissance, conducting dry runs, etc. Therefore, within a definite timeframe, we should be able to give all Indians some form of ID cards like smart cards linked to a national database. Though it would be a daunting task, there is no escape from it. No property should be leased or hotel accommodation given to Indian or foreign nationals without first ascertaining their identity from the national database with links to an MEA resource that should contain up-to-date information on all visas issued by Indian missions abroad. Legal provisions should also be put in place to ensure that the penalty for breach of such provision is severe enough to deter any potential violators. For instance, laws should be enacted with provision for confiscation of property leased/rented for violating the established procedure. Every police station should be linked to the national database and the Station House Officer be made responsible for the proper verification of the lessees/occupants.

    A separate data mining organisation should be established. Data mining, called data or knowledge discovery, is an important tool in establishing correlations between various sets of information from immigration authorities, transport bodies, police stations, intelligence data bases, mobile telephone operators, etc. This computer software would analyse apparently separate and disconnected information and identify links that would otherwise be hidden. In a computerised world where human dealings/activities are increasingly digitised, important information in many standalone systems are lost when they are not correlated. Linking of separate systems and use of this specialised software would provide critical information to track suspicious activities.

    India should also deploy the RAW and give it the freedom to extract a price from the terror handlers for targeting India. There are many options in this regard. Perhaps, we could take a few lessons from the successful intelligence agencies of some nations. RAW’s counter-terror missions should also be brought within the purview of the overarching body.

    Then there is an urgent need to augment, arm and train our counter terrorist forces. The counter-terror forces in India today are evidently poorly organised and ill-equipped to face terror threats. This is evident from the response to the Mumbai attacks. There is no doubt that our security forces fought valiantly during the crisis. But it also brought to the fore the lack of specialised training and the absence of sophisticated electronic gadgetry in neutralising the terrorists. It is a pity that some of our most courageous men in uniform lost their lives in desperate attempts to stop the terrorists in Mumbai. That they had to resort to naked courage and barter away their lives exposes the stark absence of established systems to handle such situations. The fact that we could at the end of the day capture alive only one terrorist, that too by providence and not by design, is a sad testimony to our confused response to the crisis, revealing the absence of well defined operating procedures and goals while confronting terror attacks.

    The killing of the terrorists at Nariman House, the Jewish outreach centre, reinforces this conclusion. Given the limited space and definite knowledge of the number of hostages in this building, our strategy should have been to capture the terrorists and not to exterminate them. We had many options. For instance, we could have used stun guns/grenades, teargas, used the water supply to the apartments to chemically disable the terrorists, or the adjoining blocks could have been evacuated and the terrorists sooner or later would have run out of supplies. (The capture of Yasin Hassan Omar, a 24-year-old Somalian, a suspected would-be suicide bomber by British police and MI5 in July 2005 after being shot by a Taser stun gun and evacuating around 100 adjacent homes should have been the kind of operation that should have been carried out).

    It is difficult to imagine that the terrorists would have committed suicide as they are indoctrinated to believe that they have to die as martyrs to become eligible for the pleasures in heaven. Captured terrorists would have been invaluable assets in unravelling the sophisticated operation and revealing terror networks and we blew it. The goal, while confronting terror should be the capture of terrorists and killing them should only be the last option.

    Foreign Policy Options

    Besides strengthening the internal security structure, it is equally important to strengthen the external arm of the strategy. As long as terrorist leaders roam freely in Pakistan, immune from punishment, they would continue to plot against India aided and abetted by ISI or at least some elements in it. India’s military option has also been fettered by the US which has ironically praised India’s “restraint”. The US would loath to see India exercise its military option lest it should vitiate the US war on terror in Afghanistan. But US pressure cannot be allowed to render India impotent.

    Compare India’s response with US policy. After 9/11, the US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush also enunciated the much criticised doctrine of “preemption”, announcing to the world that it would no longer take a “reactive posture” but take preemptive action wherever the threat came from to prevent its enemies from striking “first”. In September 2001, the U.S. President also declared that the “war on terror will be much broader than the battlefields and beachheads of the past. The war will be fought wherever terrorists hide, or run, or plan.”5 Then why cannot India use the military option at least as a reactive measure to signal to Pakistan that enough is enough and that it would have to pay a price for its act of omission or commission in allowing terrorists to use its soil to stage terror attacks on India? But an answer in the affirmative may seem to be an extreme response in the light of the overwhelming view that India has no military option against a nuclear Pakistan.

    It was even argued that even any symbolic strike designed to communicate India’s resolve to take measures to safeguard the nation can have consequences like strengthening the Pakistani Army, destabilising Pakistan, etc. But many have also argued that this is something that we would do better to let Pakistan worry about. In any case, a splintered Pakistan could be even safer to handle than a united and strong nation whose declared policy is the destabilisation of India. India could then have several options. Forging close ties with some of the splintered entities may only be one of them. The US did not of course worry about a disintegrated USSR when it worked for the destruction of the Communist superpower and this did not prove to be to the disadvantage of the US. We may do well to remember that neither the larger nuclear force that India has, prevented Pakistan from starting the Kargil conflict, nor does it prevent the nation from continuously promoting terror attacks on India. They do not worry themselves into impotency like India does. If there is a threshold between conventional and nuclear war which Pakistan has demonstrated and exploited, India should rethink its policy of excessive restraint.

    If the US requires Pakistan which it arms and bankrolls for sustaining its war on terror in Afghanistan, it cannot be at the expense of India. If India should exercise restraint, then as a quid pro quo, the US should exert pressure on Pakistan to hand over atleast the most wanted of the terrorists whose role in attacks against India is well known to the US. The FBI which was given almost unfettered access to all evidence of the attack in Mumbai and to the lone survivor Ajmal Kasab, has also reportedly concluded that the terror attack was micro managed by handlers in Pakistan. But what have they done in real terms to re-assure India of Washington’s sincerity in cooperating with India in combating terror? This is also not the first instance where the US has been less than earnest in helping India in its war against terror. The Indian mission in Kabul was also bombed by terror elements linked with the ISI in July 2008. The US was reported to have advance information on the attack but there is no evidence that it did anything to prevent it. It is also not a secret that the US did not share with India the evidence that it had gathered in Afghanistan on the hijacking of IC-814 in 1999. It has also been reported that the US would not let Dawood Ibrahim be returned to India as he is privy to some of Washington’s darkest secrets when it enlisted his cooperation to finance the Mujahideens to dislodge the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s.6 The US cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. On its part, it has sought and got custody of many hundreds of Al Qaeda suspects from Pakistan and incarcerated them.

    Using the US Card

    India and the US are strategic partners today. Both nations have taken many steps to strengthen their security cooperation like establishing the India-US Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism in 2000, reviving the moribund India-US Defence Policy Group (DPG) in 2001, announcing the Next Step in Strategic Partnership in 2004 and concluding the India-US Defence Framework Agreement in 2005. The US is also aiming to replace Russia as India’s largest defence supplier and has already signed contracts worth over US$3.2 billion in the last four years. It is also hoping to bag the order for the supply of 126 fighters that could be worth around US$ 10 billion, when the US is facing the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. India should demand tangible cooperation from the US and leverage its newfound influence in Washington to exert pressure on Pakistan to eschew from its policy of promoting terror in India. While India introspects and contemplates measures to obviate another Mumbai style attack, the international community and the US in particular, also have an obligation to prevent Crimes Against Humanity, a term that includes, “inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” from being perpetrated again in the nation that has suffered the most on account of this scourge.


    India would have to wage a long drawn battle against terror. The attack in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and its symbol of economic growth, was a stark reminder of the grim reality that the spectre of terrorism will continue to haunt the nation. It was also a warning bell to India that the steps it has taken to counter the threat are not working. If India’s dream of being a dominant power in the 21st century is not to be shattered, it would have to adopt the twin strategy of setting its house in order and secure international cooperation at the same time. The nation should also shed its reluctance to use force that is ingrained in its national psyche, cemented by centuries of occupation by foreign powers and failure to be an occupying power. The state owes to its citizens its primary duty of being a protector. Indian pride is already hurt as was clear in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack. Another major attack by terrorists in India would invariably trigger an avalanche of public opinion in the country for direct action that no government in power would be able to resist, and equally, render powerless any US effort to stop it.

    The views expressed here are his own.