By Ajai Sahni
November 25, 2013
India's capacity for self-deception is extreme, and this constitutes the gravest threat to national security. The state's counterterrorism (CT) 'policies' have been based principally on political posturing, and not on objective and urgent considerations of strategy and response.
An Enveloping Blindness
Five years have now passed since the devastating terrorist attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 (26/11), and the protracted counter-terrorist (CT) debacles that ensued. There were resounding declarations of determination to fight terrorism, promises that such an incident would "never again" be allowed to happen, policy commitments to a "zero tolerance of terrorism", and an immediate suspension of the dialogue with Pakistan 'until the infrastructure of terrorism' in that country had been completely dismantled and the architects and planners of the 26/11 attacks had been punished.
Within months, however, India was importunately approaching Pakistan for a restoration of the 'dialogue' between the two countries, despite the fact that Pakistan had done nothing whatsoever to comply with even the most minimal of India's terms, and was, indeed, visibly protecting the principal conspirators in this case, including Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the Amir of the banned (and hence, legally invisible) Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, as well as identified officers within the country's military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Worse, the many promises about CT reform and 'strengthening internal security' translated into little more than high profile political gambits that sought to manipulate public perceptions, rather than to address the core issues of capacity and capability. Unsurprisingly, after three-and-a-half years of heading India's Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), P. Chidambaram, towards the end of his tenure, reiterated the assessment he had given a year after 26/11 - that India remained as vulnerable to terrorist attack as it was on that fateful day. There has been no evidence to suggest that this assessment requires any amendment in the past year under Chidambaram's lusterless successor, Sushil Kumar Shinde.
Indeed, if the language and content of the latest addresses by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister Shinde, at the Conference of Directors General of Police, on November 22 and 23 are anything to go by, the entire impetus of CT and internal security reform has been lost. The Prime Minister, it appears, has also lost the speech-writer who drafted his dramatic statement at the Conference of Chief Ministers on April 5, 2005, where he declared, "There can be no political compromise with terror. No inch conceded. No compassion shown. There are no good terrorists and bad terrorists. There is no cause, root or branch that can ever justify the killing of innocent people. No democratic Government can tolerate the use of violence against innocent people and against the functionaries of a duly established democratic Government." Now, however, a dispirited, Prime Minister heading a Government crippled by scandal and a mounting financial and political crises, merely waiting out his term till the General Elections due before May 2014, told the "important conference" of Police leaders, "I don't know if I have anything new to say on this occasion," and proceeded to read out a tired and tedious bureaucratic assessment of the various internal security challenges facing the country. Beyond exhortations to find 'creative solutions', to 'minimize vulnerabilities', and to 'tackle all these issues with collective resolve and firm determination' there is not a single phrase that inspires confidence or indicates clearly that the Government has, or is evolving, a coherent CT strategy.
The visible manifestation of terrorist and armed extremist violence have, of course, declined dramatically over the past years for a wide range of extraneous reasons. Total fatalities related to terrorism and insurgency across the country have dropped from 2,619 in 2008, to 803 in 2012, and presently stand at 791 in 2013 (all data till November 24, 2013). More specifically, Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism has registered a sharp drop, both in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and across India. 541 fatalities were recorded in J&K in 2008, and just 117 in 2012, though there has been a spike in the current year, with 172 already killed. 366 fatalities related to Pakistan-backed terrorism outside J&K had been recorded in 2008 - including the 195 killed in the 26/11 attacks (according to South Asia Terrorism Portal data); the number collapsed to just three in 2009; rose again to 20 in 2010, and 42 in 2011; just one fatality was recorded in 2012; but the toll registered another small surge in 2013, with the total standing at 24, as on November 24.
Worryingly, however, the pattern of attacks, arrests and seizures have exposed a network that is evidently spreading into areas that had earlier remained outside the ambit of Islamist extremist mobilization. Patna, the capital of Bihar, thus recorded its first serial bomb blasts on October 27, 2013, killing eight persons, including one of the bombers, and injuring at least 100. On July 7, 2013, Bihar also recorded the first ever attack on a Buddhist target in India, when 10 low intensity blasts shook the Mahabodhi Temple complex at Bodh Gaya, one of the most sacred sites of the Faith. The Gaya blasts were also the first Islamist terrorist attacks in Bihar. Investigations into the Patna blasts also discovered a strong IM module in the neighbouring Jharkhand State.
Islamist terrorism also inflicted its major attack (resulting in three or more fatalities) in Madhya Pradesh, when motorcycle-borne Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorists shot three persons dead, including a Madhya Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) trooper, in the Teen Pulia area of Khandwa on November 28, 2009.
Unsurprisingly, Syed Asif Ibrahim, the Director of India's Intelligence Bureau (IB), speaking on November 21, 2013, at the Conference of Directors General of Police, warned, "The LeT and IM have enlarged their network and developed capabilities to carry out acts of terror at short notice in various parts of the country... Evidence gathered from various cases indicates Pakistan continues to nurture terrorist groups..."
The declining trends in terrorist violence and the exposure and neutralization of significant Islamist terrorist networks can, at least in part, be attributed to the extraordinary efforts exerted by the existing intelligence and enforcement agencies, despite the paralyzing deficits that continue to afflict them. Crucially, partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal indicates that at least 929 persons involved in Islamist terrorism and extremism - including LeT and IM cadres, as well as ISI agents, and Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali nationals - have been arrested outside J&K since the 26/11 attacks; 141 of these persons have, thus far, been arrested in 2013 alone.
A significant aspect of several recent arrests has been the degree to which foreign intelligence and enforcement agencies - including many that tended to look the other way at Pakistani and Islamist terrorist mobilisation and mischief in the past - have increasingly cooperated with India. Some significant actions that involved support from foreign agencies include the arrest of IM operative Fasih Mohammad (deported from Saudi Arabia and subsequently arrested at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport on October 22, 2012) - Fasih Mohammad was a suspect in the April 17, 2010, Chinnaswamy Stadium (Bangalore, Karnataka) blast case, and the September 19, 2010, Jama Masjid (Delhi) shooting case; the arrest of LeT operative Abu Hamza alias Sayeed Zabi ud Deen alias Zabi Ansari alias Riyasat Ali alias Abu Jundal, the 26/11 attacks handler, arrested on June 21, 2012, after being extradited from Saudi Arabia; and LeT terrorist A. Rayees, deported from Saudi Arabia and arrested on October 6, 2012, named as the third accused in the case of the seizure of explosives at Malayalamkunnu under Chakkarakkal in the Kannur District of Kerala, in 2009.
Indian security agencies arrested three top terrorists - Yasin Bhatkal aka Mohammad Ahmed Siddibappa Zarrar aka Imran aka Asif aka Shahrukh; Asadullah Akhtar aka Haddi; and Abdul Karim Tunda - from the Indian State of Bihar along the Indo-Nepal Border in the month of August, 2013. These arrests reconfirmed the fact that the Indo-Nepal Border has long provided safe passage to terror groups operating on Indian soil under the direct patronage of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
These successes, however, do not reflect any dramatic improvements in CT capabilities over the past five years. Despite massive increases in the expenditure on internal security, capacity augmentation has been no more than marginal, and most state agencies continue to struggle with manpower, technology and resource deficits that are little different from the situation in 2008.
Significantly, for instance, the annual budgetary allocation for the UMHA has escalated dramatically since 26/1, more than doubling, from INR 254.39 billion in 2008-09, to 592.41 billion in 2013-14. A detailed breakdown of this expenditure is not available, nor is any detailed assessment of its components possible here. It is useful, however, to take an overview of some of the most pressing heads and commitments made post-26/11, to see the sheer magnitude of implementation failure.
One of the proudest 'achievements' of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government was the creation of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) within a month of the 26/11 attacks. The legislation to establish the agency had been bulldozed through Parliament in an atmosphere of hysteria, with the promise that the NIA would be "like the FBI", America's Federal Bureau of Investigation, and would play a crucial role in 'fighting terrorism'. The commitments were manifestly dishonest, even as the legislation to establish NIA pushed beyond the limits of India's Constitution. Nearly five years after its establishment, the NIA has little to show in terms of quantifiable CT impact. The NIA has a sanctioned strength of 650 officers - yielding an investigative caseload that can only be the envy of most investigative agencies in the States. Just 72 "important" cases of terrorism have been cherry-picked for investigation by the NIA, and chargesheets have been filed in just 32 of these. Three persons have been convicted in two of these cases. Many of the investigations 'taken over' by the NIA had already been at least partially completed by State agencies. The cumulative CT impact of the NIA - if at all measurable - would at best be negligible. It is useful to note that the total strength of all Crime Investigation Departments (CID) in the State Police across the country stood at 11,729 personnel in 2011; they were intended to handle as many as 6,252,729 offences registered that year, yielding a ratio of 533.09 cases per officer (it is no surprise that most of these cases go uninvestigated).
The promise to set up a national database for terrorism and crime has made little headway. The task of creating such a database was handed over to the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) in the Intelligence Bureau, but the critical element of implementation - the creation of networks linking up all the Police Stations in the country - lay within the jurisdiction of the States. The project was expectedly beset with many difficulties relating to software and hardware architecture (as, indeed, has been the case with such databases globally), but the core of the project, a database linking all IB units in the country, was eventually established towards mid-2012. However, the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) project, which was intended to link up all Police Stations, and which received sanction on June 19, 2009, is yet to take off, with several States failing even to initiate first steps. Crucially, the CCTNS project is a reinvention of the PolNet (Police Network) project, which was sanctioned as far back as 1996, with the same objective of linking the Police Stations across the country. INR 2.76 billion has been allocated for the CCTNS project in 2013-14, but most observers believe it will take years before the network is ready.
The NATGRID project, which was intended to integrate 21 existing databases - including banking, finance, and transportation databases - and which the Government claimed would help 'fight terrorism', has also failed to take off. NATGRID's potential impact on terrorism is, moreover, debatable, and its efficacy has been questioned even by the IB. Crucially, sources indicate that the project is "several months to several years" away from providing real-time access to existing Government databases, or to identifying suspicious transactions.
The Government has, of course, implemented the decision to establish 'hubs' of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) in four major metropolitan centres but the utility of this move has always been in question. Further, the hubs are functioning under acute limitations for training and readiness of Forces, and the NSG has a critical leadership shortfall, with a deficit of over 22 per cent in its sanctioned strength of officers.
Both the Prime Minister and successive Home Ministers have spoken a great deal about 'bringing the beat constable into the vortex of our CT strategy', and have repeatedly emphasised the necessity of enormously strengthening general policing capabilities. Bringing the Police-population ratio in line with international norms has been a crucial element in this context. And yet, this ratio has risen from 128 per 100,000 in 2008, to no more than 138 per 100,000 in 2012, as against a general norm of 220 per 100,000 for 'peacetime policing', with some Western countries maintaining ratios above 500 per 100,000. There is no evidence whatsoever of any significant change in the very poor manpower profile of the Police Forces, or in their training and capabilities. Mumbai, today, has the same Police that so dramatically failed to protect the city against the 26/11 attacks; the State Police across much of the country, moreover, is measurably worse in terms of resources, capacities and capabilities.
While some augmentation in strength of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) has occurred, there is increasing evidence of rising neglect. Thus, the total sanctioned strength of the CAPFs rose from 838,893 in 2008, to just 906,504 in 2012. Worse, the CAPFs are suffering from sweeping resource cuts, even though they play a critical role in CT and counter-insurgency (CI) across the country. Shortly after 26/11, a 'modernization plan' for the CAPFs was announced, with a total allocation of INR 41.85 billion, to acquire the latest weapons, surveillance and communication equipment, vehicles, body protection gear, etc. But only a fraction of these financial commitments have actually been met. Thus, the CAPFs sought INR 23.60 billion for 2013 for their CT-CI and border control acquisitions; the MHA released just INR 900 million. The Central Reserve Police Force had raised a demand of INR 8.73 billion, but was sanctioned just INR 200 million. The Border Security Force (BSF) sought INR 6.94 billion, but received just INR 200 million.
The IB, the Centre's principal CT bulwark, continued to function at a total strength of 18,795 in March 2012, at a 30 per cent deficit against its meagre sanctioned strength of 26,876 personnel. Any augmentation since, would, at best, be insignificant.
With the breach in Mumbai 26/11 coming from the sea, there was enormous rhetorical focus on strengthening coastal security, and much has been claimed by Governments thereafter of measures taken to secure this objective. Five years later, however, it would be necessary to concede that, fitful efforts notwithstanding, we remain as vulnerable to terrorist attacks along our coastline as we were in 2008.
The latest and dramatic evidence of this vulnerability came with the discovery of the 390 tonne Seaman Guard Ohio, owned by a private US firm, AdvanFort, which its commander admitted had been functioning undetected as an illegal 'floating armoury' for merchant vessels in Indian territorial waters for 45 days prior to its detention 10 nautical miles off Tuticorin along the Tamil Nadu coastline, on October 12, 2013. 35 weapons, including 34 rifles, one pistol and ammunition were recovered from the vessel. The vessel was supposedly checked and found clean when it had berthed on August 23, 2013, at Kochi in Kerala, suggesting, either, that the inspection was far from thorough, or that the arms had been acquired in Indian waters before the vessel reached the point of its interception.
Clearly, a terrorist attempt to pass through Indian waters to a target port would take considerably less than 45 days of undetected movement.
There have been a number of such breaches over the past years, the most dramatic of these being three incidents in 2011, when three massive vessels simply drifted into Mumbai, completely unnoticed by the purportedly enhanced vigilance exercised by Naval, Coast Guard and Marine Police patrols, as well as by the numerous Coastal Police Stations, check-posts, outposts and land patrols that had been established after 26/11. On June 12, 2011, thus, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship, MV Wisdom, en route to Alang in Gujarat, drifted towards the Mumbai Coast after breaking its tug, and eventually ran aground on the very busy Juhu Beach in the heart of Mumbai, at which stage it was noticed by citizens, long before any security agency took cognizance of it. Again, on July 30, 2011, a Panama flagged ship, MV Pavit, which had been abandoned by its crew a month earlier near Oman, drifted onto the same Juhu Beach in Mumbai. Very quickly thereafter, on August 4, 2011, an oil tanker, MV Rak, again from Panama, with 60,000 metric tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel oil on board, entered Indian waters unchallenged, and sank just 20 nautical miles off the Mumbai coast, causing a major oil spill.
If Mumbai itself, the target of the 26/11 attacks, remains so open to the undetected movement, not of little fishing vessel or dhows, but of massive commercial sea transports, it must be abundantly clear that India's 7,516 kilometre long coastline and over two million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, across nine states, dotted with 13 major and 185 minor ports, remains entirely susceptible to terrorist attack even today.
Official sources insist that there has been "significant increase in the coastal surveillance patrols by Naval and Coast guard ships and aircraft", and that four Joint Operations Centres have been established by the Navy at Mumbai, Vishakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair, to ensure coordination between the Navy, Coast Guard and State Marine Police. Numerous coastal police stations and posts have been established, and many high speed vessels have been purchased and deployed.
While substantial expenditures have certainly been incurred on these various initiatives, the systems are far from functional and effective. A CAG report released in July 2013 further compounded a critique of failing systems that the same organisation had submitted to Parliament in 2011. The 2013 was scathing in its observations on procurement, ageing vessels and manpower shortages, noting "72 per cent of the fast patrol vessels (FPVs)/inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), 47 per cent of the advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) and 37 interceptor boats (IBs) were either on extended life or their extended life had expired..." Many of the coastal Police Stations and Posts sanctioned had not been established. Sea patrolling was a fraction of the prescribed frequency, and there had been no night flying. "Out of the 50 CCPs [Coastal check-posts] and COPs [Costal outposts] completed, 36 remained non-operational as police personnel were not deployed."
Worse, even if all these measures had been fully implemented and operational efficiencies ensured, we would remain as vulnerable. The very core of any effective system of coastal defence is not the number of patrols, but the capacity to detect and interdict the entry and illegal movement of ships and boats in Indian waters. In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, the necessity of fitting GPS devices on all boats and fishing vessels plying in the high seas, a protocol for registration of routes of each vessel, and a surveillance and radar system to identify any illegal entrants and deviant vessel, had been repeatedly emphasised. No such system is yet in place, and even the "satellite-based vessels tracking and warning device system, sanctioned at a cost of Rs 46.16 crore in May 2008, to caution fishermen before approaching international boundary, was not established."
India's coastline is vast; there are tens of thousands of vessels, large and small, at sea in Indian waters each day; unless there is a GPS tagging system to identify those whose presence is legitimate, it is impossible, irrespective of the intensity of patrolling, to identify the interloper or deviant. The process of securing India's coastline, consequently, is yet to begin.
It is impossible, here, to make any detailed evaluation of CT-CI capabilities and responses in the States, but recent terrorist attacks in Patna (October 27, 2013); Bodh Gaya (July 7, 2013); Bangalore (April 17, 2013); and Hyderabad (February 21, 2013), have again and again provided evidence of unpreparedness and inadequacy of response. While limited, and often purely symbolic, augmentations have fitfully occurred in some of the States, their cumulative impact remains inconsequential.
The cumulative deficits of capacity and capability that have been built into India's intelligence and security apparatus are so great that they would require a massive and sustained commitment of resources and purpose, before they reach the critical mass necessary to have a measurable impact on the country's vulnerabilities to terrorism. The present Government has demonstrated neither the vision nor the will for such a commitment. The country has been fortunate that the attention of its adversaries has, for some time, been turned elsewhere. But India cannot think itself secure if her only defence remains a reliance on the inattention of her enemies.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP
Source: South Asia Intelligence Review