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The government must act proactively, coherently, effectively

September 09, 2011 10:27 IST

The government must seriously consider enlarging the scope of its counter-terrorism policy to covertly target organisations across India's borders that are sponsoring terrorism in India, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd).

The September 7 bomb blast at the Delhi high court -- the second in four months -- points to systemic failures in India's counter-terrorism policy and its execution.

Though recent terrorist strikes have been sporadic and have been spaced out in time, the overall impression that has been created is that of an unstable internal security environment as the terrorist organisations appear to be able to strike at will.

The government needs to review its reactive policies and adopt pro-active measures to fight terrorism, particularly the variety that emanates from the soil of inimical neighbouring countries.

A democratically elected government ultimately has to reflect the will of the people in its policies. However, the 'Panipat Syndrome' appears to have been deeply ingrained into the Indian psyche, in that the leaders and the bureaucracy react only when the tiger is already at the doorstep.

What is needed is a coordinated approach, with all organs of the state coming together to formulate and implement a national-level counter-terrorism strategy to fight terrorism. The government must draw up a comprehensive strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-agency and inter-departmental in character. Such a strategy must also balance the interests of the central and the state governments.

The age of 'new terrorism' hit India with the Mumbai serial bomb attacks of March 1993, well before the term had become prevalent and in the same year when a group of Islamist extremists led by Ramzi Yousef had launched the first attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

Walter Laqueur, the well known terrorism historian, wrote in 1999 that the character of terrorism was assuming catastrophic proportions and changing in a revolutionary manner. 'Rather than the vicious yet calculated application of violence that everyone had become familiar with, the world was now confronted with terrorists whose aim was "to liquidate all satanic forces (and destroy) all life on earth".'

The September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States provided a catastrophic confirmation of a major shift in the trend lines of transnational terrorism and there is now ready agreement that the age of 'new terrorism' is well and truly upon us. However, 'new terrorism' is in many ways still a catchphrase that heralds change as no clear understanding of its characteristics is as yet forthcoming.

India's response to the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 was slow and laborious and poorly coordinated among the central and the state governments and their various agencies. Coastal security was virtually non-existent; the Marine Police were too few in number to effectively patrol the vast area entrusted to them; they were ill-equipped and inadequately trained; and, there was poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the Marine Police.

It took far too long to begin flushing out operations and then to eliminate the nine terrorists who were holed up at three separate locations. The army battalion located at Mumbai was only given the responsibility to establish a perimeter cordon when it could have launched flushing out operations at least three hours before the NSG commandos arrived on the scene and before the terrorists had consolidated their positions.

Unbelievably, not much has changed since then.

A carefully drawn up counter-terrorism policy is at the heart of waging a successful counter-terrorism campaign. Peter R Neumann has written: 'Regardless of whether governments are dealing with 'old' or 'new' (terrorism), the aim must be to prevent terrorist attacks whilst maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the population.'

'In doing so, governments need to 'harden' potential targets; develop good intelligence in order to disrupt terrorist structures; bring to bear the full force of the law whilst acting within the law; address legitimate grievances where they can be addressed; and, not least, convey a sense of calm and determination when communicating with the public.'

This fundamental prescription cannot be faulted and Indian policy planners would do well to draw up a counter-terrorism policy on these lines as part of a comprehensive national security strategy.

Counter-terrorism policy must hinge around strong laws to fight terrorism. India's experiments with POTA and TADA have failed to deliver the desired results. Laws must be just and humane, but must not be designed to either be vindictive towards or shield any particular community or religious denomination.

The experience of many other countries has proved that it is possible to formulate strong yet egalitarian counter-terrorism laws. One major source of the lack of a coordinated approach is the gross disconnect between how the Central and the state governments view counter-terrorism.

The Constitution must be amended to move 'law and order' from the State List to the Concurrent List so that the central government can act on its own initiative when necessary, particularly in the case of externally-sponsored terrorism. And, it is time the government bifurcated the internal security function of the ministry of home affairs into a separate ministry headed by a Cabinet minister.

Execution of the counter-terrorism policy involves prevention through effective intelligence penetration of terrorist groups so that threats can be neutralised by an empowered anti-terrorism squad before these are executed; and, the quick elimination of a group of terrorists while they are on a killing spree like during the Mumbai strikes.

Post-incident investigation is aimed at unraveling the identities of the planners and the plotters and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the incident of terrorism. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) should have been modeled on the US FBI to give it both preventive and investigative powers and needs to be reconstituted as it lacks teeth in its present form.

The NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) and the NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Centre), which were announced by Home Minister P Chidambaram with so much fanfare over two years ago, are yet to take off and India's intelligence coordination and assessment apparatus at the national level remains mired in the days of innocence.

The people are angry and upset at the frequent terror attacks that take place with unnerving frequency in India's major metros. The government must not only act, but also must be seen to be acting pro-actively, coherently and effectively.

The government must seriously consider enlarging the scope of its counter-terrorism policy to covertly target organisations across India's borders that are sponsoring terrorism in India.

Unless the problem is addressed at its roots, the solution will remain beyond the grasp of the government.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)