By Ajai Sahni
Eighteen persons were killed and 131 injured, as three near-simultaneous blasts rocked India’s financial Capital Mumbai (Maharashtra) on July 13, 2011 (13/7). The first of these explosions took place at Zaveri Bazaar in south Mumbai at 6.54pm; the second was at Kabutarkhana near the Dadar suburban railway station in Central Mumbai at 6.55pm; and the third was at Opera House, also in south Mumbai, at about 7.05pm. No group has yet claimed responsibility for this attack.
Significantly, this is the third attack at Zaveri Bazaar, which was first hit in August 1993, and again in August 2003. Zaveri Bazaar is the country’s largest bullion market, and, at an estimated INR150 billion, accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the country’s wholesale bullion trade.
Since March 12, 1993, when the country’s worst terrorist outrage killed 257 people and injured 713, Mumbai had suffered major attacks on at least 13 occasions, before the latest serial bombings on 13/7.
Security and investigative agencies have refrained from pointing the ‘needle of suspicion’ at any specific group, and insist that all possibilities are being probed. Precedent trends and intelligence relating to recent terrorist activities and movements, however, suggest that the Islamist terrorist formations backed by Pakistan are, once again, most likely to have engineered the Mumbai 13/7 attacks. Initial reports indicate that the Indian Mujahideen (IM) – a faction within the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) – the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) are presently at the core of investigations. Indeed, one suspected IM cadre, Faiz Usmani – the brother of Afzal Usmani, currently in jail for involvement in the 2008 serial bombings in Gujarat – was picked up for questioning by the Police, but shortly developed medical problems and was hospitalized. He died subsequently at the Sion hospital, the post mortem report indicates, as a result of a hypertension induced blood clot in the brain and a heart attack. There were no indications of torture or external injury, though Usmani’s family is blaming the Police for his death.
The Police has also identified two suspects from CCTV footage at two locations, and has prepared sketches for circulation among investigative and intelligence agencies. A number of other leads, including some recorded telephonic conversations during and after the serial explosions, are also being examined. It is, however, premature, at this stage, to go beyond broad speculation to attribute conclusive responsibility.
The recurring tragedy of terrorist attacks in Mumbai is compounded by the absurdity of political pronouncements in the wake of each of these. Political leaders have trotted out the usual alibis for failure, claiming that terrorism was a ‘global phenomenon’; that India is better off than Pakistan, where such incidents occur with quotidian regularity; and crucially, as Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and General Secretary of the Congress Party observed, that it was impossible to prevent terrorists attacks ‘hundred per cent of the time’. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram argued that there was “no intelligence failure”, since no prior intelligence had been received regarding such an attack.
None of these arguments, however, were based on any realistic assessment of India’s counter-terrorism capabilities, or of the adequacy or otherwise of the measures to protect the country in general, and Mumbai in particular, since 2008, when the 26/11 attacks had killed at least 166 and left 300 injured.
Significantly, in the wake of the 26/11 attack, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that such a “ghastly act… would not happen again”, and promised sweeping reforms in the security and intelligence systems.
The reality is, India’s counter-terrorism capabilities remain minimal, and, despite large quantities of money spent – and misspent – since the 26/11 attacks, these have been augmented, at best, marginally, and in tiny pockets. A significant proportion of this augmentation has been purely symbolic, with little real impact on the ground; the creation of National Security Guard (NSG) hubs in the metropolis, and of the National Investigation Agency, being two prominent examples of utterly wasteful symbolism. Another proposed white elephant, the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) is yet to take off. In the meanwhile, proposals to improve basic policing and intelligence gathering have made little progress.
It is, indeed, astonishing that nearly five years have passed since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s observation, “Unless the ‘beat constable’ is brought into the vortex of our counter-terrorist (CT) strategy, our capacity to pre-empt future attacks would be severely limited.” Yet, nothing has been done to translate this into reality, in Mumbai, or anywhere else in the country. Instead, grandiose schemes continue to be designed at Delhi for centralised control of CT responses and CT intelligence.
Since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, moreover, the State Police has not significantly improved its preventive CT capabilities. Instead, the focus has, again, been on symbolism, such as the setting up of the ‘elite’ Force 1 and the acquisition and positioning of armoured cars at street corners. The crucial imperative of improving general Police capabilities has largely been ignored, and the Police constable remains essentially what he was – poorly trained; poorly integrated into the intelligence chain; operating in conditions of extraordinary stress; and held in wide contempt by both the public and his own masters.
Police-population ratios in the country have risen very slowly, from 128 per 100,000 at end-2008, to 133 per 100,000 by end-2009. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) claims this figure has risen to 160 per 100,000, but data has been manipulated in the past as well. The Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) had claimed an all India ratio of nearly 178 per 100,000 in 2008, a figure that was subsequently debunked when the authoritative National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) published its Crime in India, 2008, report in 2009. Available information suggests that the 160 per 100,000 figure has been arrived at on the basis of Census 2001 population figures. Census 2011 estimates indicate a nearly 20 per cent growth in population over the intervening decade.
The Police-population ratio in Maharashtra has also shown some improvement, rising from 155 per 100,000 at end 2008, to 166 per 100,000 by end-2009. This is far from adequate, even for routine policing requirements. For a State confronted with a range of unconventional challenges, it simply will not do. Further, the system is riddled with leadership deficits at the cutting edge, with a shortage of 20.39 per cent in the ranks of Inspector, Sub-Inspector and Assistant Sub-Inspector.
Worse, the Police is routinely prevented from doing its job in a wide range of enforcement tasks – particularly against organised crime – creating spaces for terrorist operation. It is useful to recall that, in February 2011, Maharashtra’s retiring Director General of Police, D. Sivanandan, had openly stated that the crackdown against the oil mafia after the killing of Malegaon Additional Collector Yeshwant Sonawane, was “just to satisfy the media”. As the Vohra Committee, established in the wake of the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, noted, a large proportion of crime in India is collusive, with the politician-bureaucrat-criminal nexus playing a central role in protecting illegal operations and networks. It is astonishing that the Dawood Ibrahim gang – which was responsible for the 1993 bombings – continues to flourish as Mumbai’s most powerful crime franchise under political protection nearly two decades later, even as Ibrahim’s networks, patronised by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), have become a major facilitator for terrorist groups operating from that country.
It is significant, in the present context that, according to official documents put together by the MHA in 2010, Maharashtra was among seven States that had fared poorly in modernising their Police Forces. Maharashtra failed to use the funds allocated by the Centre for upgrading the Police and intelligence apparatus, and to submit its utilisation certificates (UCs) for funds spent. As a result, Maharashtra was denied additional allocations, and its “funds have been diverted to other responsive states.” The MHA noted that the ‘poor performance’ States had outdated and obsolete weapons and, even where modern weapons were supplied, Police personnel were not trained for their use. Deficits were also noted in Police communication networks, transportation and forensic capabilities.
Continuing deficits in intelligence are also obvious, and at least some of these are deepening. After teh 13/7 attacks, Home Minister Chidambaram has argued that “this particular group” did not use “communication devices like phones or mail”, and that, consequently, State and Central agencies had failed to detect their activities. Historically, India has rightly prided herself on her human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities. Over the past years, it appears that the increasing acquisition of, and reliance on, technical intelligence (TECHINT), is contributing to a progressive neglect of HUMINT. Such a situation is simply unacceptable, but not particularly difficult to understand. Successive Governments have failed to create a comprehensive intelligence network – human and technical – across the country, which would be equal to the growing challenges Agencies are required to deal with.
Indeed, intelligence capabilities in India remain minuscule, relative to the country’s size and population, and the expanding responsibilities Agencies are required to fulfil. Despite significant recruitment over the past two years, the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) total strength of field agents – the officers and personnel actually involved in intelligence gathering – is about 5,000 (authoritative figures are not available, but this would be a reasonably accurate ‘guesstimate’). An overwhelming proportion of time expended by this limited manpower focuses on intelligence gathering on a wide range of other matters – dominated by ‘political intelligence’ – unrelated to security or terrorism. And yet, the IB is now expected to provide comprehensive intelligence on every terrorist threat and organisation across India. This is something that was never part of the organisation’s original mandate, which was to provide strategic, and not operational intelligence, to the Government. The inordinate and increasing emphasis on the IB has had another unfortunate fallout. Most States now expect specific inputs on all threats to come from the Centre, and are failing to develop significant capabilities of their own.
Despite their tremendous handicaps, however, intelligence and enforcement agencies have disproportionate successes to their credit. On June 5, 2011, the Madhya Pradesh Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested eight SIMI/IM activists from Bhopal and Jabbalpur. Interrogations revealed that these militants were plotting to assassinate judges of the Allahabad High Court who had delivered the September 30, 2010, judgment over the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case. The lawyer representing the Government on the Babri-Masjid (mosque) demolition issue, the Hindu extremist leader Sudhakar Rao Maratha, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Bherulal Tank were also on their hit list. The extremists also planned to destroy the office of Diamond Comics, because the group had allegedly published “anti-Islamic” materials. Sources in the IB disclosed that the terrorists also confessed to having robbed five banks in the State to raise funds for organisational and propaganda activities and other operations.
Another 10 SIMI/IM cadres were arrested by the Madhya Pradesh ATS from Khandwa District on June 13, 2011, following the killing of an ATS constable near Ratlam Railway Station during an exchange of fire with two SIMI activists earlier, on June 3.
On June 11, 2011, six persons were arrested in Mysore in Karnataka over the abduction and subsequent murder of two local youths. This crime was committed, allegedly, to raise funds for the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD), a new front for SIMI.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, at least 399 persons involved in Islamist extremism, including LeT and SIMI/IM cadres, ISI agents and Bangladeshi, Nepali and Pakistani nationals, have been arrested since 26/11, across the country. The most prominent among these was Shaik Abdul Khaja alias Amjad, LeT’s ‘south India commander’, who was arrested in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) on January 18, 2010.
Specifically, reports indicate that as many as 78 IM cadres have been arrested between 2008 and 2010, including, Safdar Nagori, the alleged chief architect of the formation of IM, (Indore, Madhya Pradesh, 26 March, 2008); Mansoor Peerbhoy, who sent out e-mails prior to the terror attacks in Delhi and Ahmadabad, (Mumbai, October 6, 2008); and Syed Salauddeen Salar, the former all India ‘president’ of SIMI, (Kochi, on June 26, 2011).
Nevertheless, at least 31 top SIMI-IM leaders still at large, 17 of whom are believed to be hiding in Pakistan. In the latter group are Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri aka Riyaz Bhatkal aka Roshan Khan aka Shahrukh (one of IM’s co founders); Iqbal Bhatkal (Riyaz’s brother) who helped set up terror modules in south India; Yasin Bhatkal, a prominent bomb-maker; Amir Raza Khan (founding member and controller of IM operations in India); and Abdul Subhan Qureshi aka Tauqeer Bilal aka Abdus Subhan, who may have escaped into Bangladesh recently.
Pakistan-backed terrorism in India, including Jammu & Kashmir, has demonstrated a sustained declining trend since 2001, overwhelmingly because of Pakistan’s own preoccupations with internal terrorism and Islamabad’s more urgent ambitions to recover ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan through Taliban Proxies, as well as because of mounting international pressure. This has made India ‘safer’, for the time being. Unfortunately, safer does not mean less vulnerable. Unless the state’s capacities and capabilities improve dramatically, and across its entire territories, not just in high-profile urban targets, Pakistan will retain the capacities to turn up the pressure once again, if it finds some relief from its own difficulties. With a progressive Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, this will become the more likely over time. India has a small window of opportunity to create the means to comprehensively neutralize terrorist networks on its own soil. If it fails to act with necessary urgency, it may discover that the opportunity has quickly passed.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP