By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Indian army infantry base in Uri came under terrorist attack in the wee hours of September 18, 2016. Four terrorists entered the base and managed to kill 20 soldiers. It apparently took place amidst the change of shifts and caught them off guard. These precisely are the scenarios we need to think through and be prepared for. This comes in the backdrop of another major terrorist attack on one of the Indian frontline air bases — the Pathankot air force base — in January this year.
These attacks raise concerns also about the security of India’s vital installations, especially nuclear ones.
It has been fortunate that India has not faced such a scenario on its nuclear premises, including the civil nuclear power plants, so far. And it is certain that each of these attacks pose new questions to the security managers of India’s atomic energy installations in how they must further beef up security measures. After every major terrorist attack, the Design Basis Threats (DBT) are reviewed to understand the vulnerabilities and gaps and address them accordingly. But it has to be kept in mind that terrorists by and large do not follow a pattern in their modus operandi and hence India cannot be developing its facilities defence action based on a predictable trajectory.
Till date, the Indian atomic energy and security agencies could claim that the security around sensitive establishments are tight and there have been no incidents such as attacks on its facilities, despite fears expressed by some foreign experts about India’s nuclear security. But following the Pathankot and Uri attacks, Indian agencies need to reassess their security measures. The very fact that terrorists have attacked highly secured premises should alert Indian security managers to the type of planning and preparation undertaken by terrorists from across the border.
In the backdrop of these most audacious terrorist attacks, Indian security managers must pay particular attention to the following in securing its nuclear facilities. The atomic energy agencies get intelligence briefings on the kind of threats and challenges in the security domain and these have so far averted any significant external threats involving nuclear facilities. Nevertheless, India could strengthen intelligence gathering and coordination efforts in order to ensure greater security to nuclear facilities. For instance, the State Intelligence Bureaus (SIBs) should be revamped. The function of the SIB has increasingly become to collect political intelligence at the state levels and not security intelligence. This must be rectified. Also intelligence coordination need to be strengthened — after every major terrorist attack, there are media reports that suggest that intelligence inputs were available of the attack. If the government did receive intelligence inputs, the question becomes how effective is the intelligence sharing among the different agencies. Taking steps to create more conversations among different intel agencies for sharing of information is important.
Two, should the security agencies fail to detect a forthcoming attack, the next important aspect that should be factored is the inter-agency coordination for effective response to an actual attack. Under current circumstances, multi-agency exercises involving all the different security agencies is done every couple of years. These exercises need to be done on a more regular basis, with all the security agencies involved.
Three, India has to conduct more simulation exercises that would develop worst case scenarios and the security agencies have to prepare appropriate counter-response measures. These skills are still not fully developed. International cooperation might help in developing this further.
Lastly, the focus on insider threat has to be reinforced. Insider threat has emerged as one of the most serious threats in the face of highly sophisticated terrorist attacks within India and across the world. How does one ascertain that one of your own is not turning against the state? There could be any number of motivating factors including financial, disenchantment and dissatisfaction, and radicalization and terrorism. An insider collusion wherein a synthetic insider either carries out an attack or facilitates one can invalidate the best of security measures because the insider could compromise and share all the information.
What is the way ahead? For one, the global efforts in ensuring the safety and security of nuclear materials need to furthered. The formal Nuclear Security Summit process has come to an end but there are multiple platforms and initiatives that have been conceived to take forward the momentum generated on the subject. There have been a few analysts who talked about strengthening regional measures on nuclear security and this may not be the best means to address nuclear security especially in Asia Pacific or the Middle East. Non-related bilateral and regional political issues can create paralysis and nuclear security is too serious to be dragged into this. Such efforts have to be rooted at the global level and the role of IAEA must be strengthened in this regard.