By B. Raman
The 26/11 terrorist strikes led to five important decisions by the Government of India — to decentralise the deployment of the National Security Guards (NSG) by setting up regional hubs, to set up the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to investigate terrorist incidents of a pan-Indian nature, to strengthen coastal security, to create a national intelligence grid to serve as a data-base accessible to all agencies — at the central and State levels — dealing with counter-terrorism, and to set up a National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC), to take co-ordinated follow-up action on all terrorism-related inputs flowing from the intelligence agencies and the police.
The NSG has already been decentralised and regional hubs have come into existence. This has been done because of the delayed deployment of the NSG during the 26/11 terrorist strikes. The then totally Delhi-based NSG was slow to move and equally slow to react and its ability to co-ordinate with the local police and other security agencies in Mumbai was found wanting.
With the deployment of units of the NSG in big metro centres now, there is an expectation that the deficiencies witnessed on 26/11 will not recur now. If this is really so will become evident only when there is another act of mass fatality terrorism. Fortunately, we have not had one since 26/11. As a result, the proclaimed ability of the NSG to move faster and with greater effectiveness now is yet to be tested. It is important that the NSG’s training pays attention to the need to sharpen its institutional reflexes and that it keeps constantly interacting and rehearsing with the local police and other security agencies.
The NIA, which is already functioning, has had a lethargic and confused start. It is not clear to objective counter-terrorism analysts as to when and how it will be called into action. One has reasons to suspect and fear that like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the NIA is tending to become a partly professional and partly politicised agency, which is sought to be used by the Government of India as a stick to beat the opponents with. It has shown greater alacrity and enthusiasm in looking into terrorist incidents in which some Hindus were suspected than in investigating cases where jihadi terrorists—indigenous or externally-sponsored—were suspected. Its record till now in successful investigation has been disappointing due to excessive political control over its functioning. It was expected to be an independent agency which will move on its own after a major terrorist strike. The expectation has been belied so far.
The steps already taken to strengthen coastal security have not yet contributed to an increase of our alertness to possible sea-borne threats. The shocking lack of reflexes on the part of the Navy, the Coast Guard, the intelligence agencies and the Police during a recent incident when an abandoned foreign ship managed to drift into our coastal waters without being noticed by any of these agencies speaks disturbingly of the continuing poor state of our coastal defence. Our capabilities for maritime counter-terrorism—whether by way of improved intelligence collection or physical security or alert mechanism—- seem to be as poor as they were before 26/11.
The decisions to set up a National Intelligence Grid and the NCTC have not yet been implemented—reportedly due to a lack of convergence of views among the various agencies and Ministries that would be involved in the implementation of these decisions as to how to go about it. The implementation process has been lethargic and glacial.
Fortunately, we have not had any major act of mass fatality terrorism (with fatalities of more than 100) since 26/11. However, despite the proclaimed strengthening of our preventive and investigative capabilities since 26/11, we have had five acts of low or medium fatality terrorism after 26/11 in Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and Varanasi. Despite the proclaimed strengthening of our preventive capability, none of them could be prevented and despite the proclaimed strengthening of our investigative capabilities none of them could be successfully detected.
We are clueless as to who committed them, how many undetected cells are operating, are they indigenous or Pakistani, wherefrom are they getting their explosives, detonators and triggering mechanism etc. While our preventive capability has generally been below par, our investigative capability used to be good. This too seems to have deteriorated now due to politicisation and communalisation of the investigation process.
An equally worrisome aspect is the seeming deterioration in our TECHINT capability. While our HUMINT capability was not satisfactory, our good TECHINT capability made up for our HUMINT deficiencies — contributing to successful neutralisation of new cells and successful investigation of terrorist strikes. The detection of the electronic chatter of terrorist suspects has become weaker after 26/11. As a result, good TECHINT is no longer compensating for the poor HUMINT. My assessment is that our terrorism-related intelligence collection capability today is weaker than it was before 26/11.
A reason given for our failures to detect the electronic chatter of terrorist suspects after 26/11 is that the terrorists now have access to better communication technology and gadgets and have better evasive capability and that, consequently, they have become smarter. I do not buy this explanation. I have not seen any evidence to support this. Our poor performance after 26/11 is not because the terrorists have become smarter, but it is because our agencies have become less smart than the terrorists.
We are yet to find an effective way of dealing with the sanctuaries of the terrorists in Pakistan. While our peace initiatives are welcome, they are not going to induce Pakistan to act against these sanctuaries. The peace process has to go hand in hand with a counter sanctuary process through deniable covert actions. Peace does not mean surrender or resignation. Peace means willingness to talk without letting it dent our courage and readiness to act against the sanctuaries. Action to create a counter-sanctuary capability continues to be totally neglected.
The continuing deficiencies in our counter-terrorism thinking and reflexes is due to a disinterested approach on the part of the Congress as well as the BJP. Both are equally guilty of politicising and communalising counter-terrorism. Both are equally guilty of failures to build up our counter-terrorism capabilities. The public is equally disinterested. There is hardly any meaningful debate on the issue either in the parliament or in our media or in public fora. The beneficiaries are the terrorists.
The public has to sit up and exercise pressure on the political class. The voters have to make it clear to the political class that their counter-terrorism record will be an important factor in influencing voter preference. Unless the public stirs itself up and moves, the political class is not going to move.