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Gimmicks do not save India and its people from terror

December 28, 2012 11:49 IST

'Some said this wild goose chase was a deliberate ploy of Chidambaram, a reluctant home minister, who believed that keeping all the agencies and forces spinning around all the while, would ensure him a safe career in an otherwise dicey charge, no matter how much enduring damage it did to the institutions.'

R N Ravi, retired special director, Intelligence Bureau, assesses how India can meet the challenges of terrorism in 2013.

Four years since the day when India was traumatised and suffered wrenching humiliation at the hands of 10 terrorists from Pakistan who had sneaked with ease into Mumbai and staged, for over 48 hours, a macabre dance of death and destruction killing 166 hapless people, it is natural for the countrymen to be anxiously curious to know if we are safe today from a determined terrorist attack.

Did the widespread spasm of outrage and indignation following the November 26, 2008, attack lead to the creation of a credible anti-terror architecture for the country?

The ringside view of the scenario is rather dismaying.

Although we made right noises in the wake of 26/11, these were hardly pursued with right resolve and vision.

Rhetoric apart, our counter-terrorism architecture, notwithstanding some cosmetic make-up in recent years, remains inherently weak and vulnerable.

At the most fundamental level, security comprises two crucial ingredients: Pre-emptive, and responsive; and the acid test of efficiency of the security architecture for an entity -- be it a nation, a city, an institution or an individual -- is its capabilities on both counts.

A perfectly efficient architecture detects and disables a threat, whether looming or inchoate before it strikes.

However, we do not live in a perfect world. Hence, it must have a robust responsive capability to efficiently mitigate the incidence of an unprevented threat.

A threat can be pre-empted only if its existence is known before it is unleashed. Thus, an efficient intelligence system is the crucial component of an anti-terror architecture.

Regrettably, there has been little worthwhile capacity augmentation on this count.

The National Technical Research Organisation set up in 2004 to enhance the existing technical capabilities for intelligence gathering has belied expectations. Its essential role is to service civil and military intelligence and provide them, on demand, imageries of target locations and monitor sensitive satellite, terrestrial and cyber communications for them.

However, in the absence of a healthy operational protocol and requisite synergy with consumer agencies, its productivity and utility are grossly impaired.

It has been deeply mired in serious allegations of corruption and nepotism. Its top and middle management posts are arbitrarily filled through a dubious selection process, often with retired officials, more as a reward for their loyalty than merit or professional competence.

The NTRO has lost its creed.

The Multi Agency Centre created in the aftermath of the Kargil war to ensure much-needed synergy among over 24 federal intelligence agencies got some traction after P Chidambaram took charge of the home ministry in the aftermath of 26/11.

Unfortunately, his cavalier interventions pushed the MAC off-tangent. He flipped the traditional grammar of intelligence sharing from 'need to know' to 'obligation to share'.

Obligation to share is essentially the newfound philosophy of American intelligence. It is relevant for them as almost all the terror threats to the US, unlike ours, originate from external sources and thus pooling intelligence from all possible sources and keeping all agencies in the loop is an imperative.

Chidambaram periodically reviewed the performance of all the federal intelligence agencies at the MAC. He judged them by the number of reports they manufactured and shared. It, soon, became a numbers game.

Agencies, in competition with each other, began churning out reports with least regard to tradecraft and their reliability.

The MAC, in mechanical fashion, passes on all the reports to the state police and other ground forces for action. The latter are deluged with grossly vague and unworkable reports.

Intelligence-sharing has degenerated to intelligence-mongering.

Soon the MAC became a joke. Some said this wild goose chase by all agencies was a deliberate ploy of Chidambaram, a reluctant home minister, who believed that keeping all the agencies and forces spinning around all the while, would ensure him a safe career in an otherwise dicey charge, no matter how much enduring damage it did to the institutions.

Some tangible gains have been made in the sphere of international intelligence cooperation, thanks to the US global counter-terrorism initiatives. Our agencies -- the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing -- have enhanced operational contact with Western intelligence agencies and their international allies.

This has helped us neutralise some significant terror threats emanating from foreign soil and disrupting terror modules in India and abroad.

The gains of international cooperation were most felt during the Commonwealth Games 2010, Delhi. Threats to the CWG were from external sources and the day-to-day active cooperation of friendly international agencies was quite reassuring and helpful in the safe conduct of the Games.

Although the significance of international cooperation should not be underestimated, it has severe limitations. It is to a great deal a function of the interests and stakes those countries have in India. It is fluid and uncertain. Our core strength remains our own capabilities.

In order to deal with un-prevented threats and determined pursuit of the terrorists, the Centre created the National Investigation Agency in 2009.

Chidambaram launched it with fanfare and assured the nation that those who committed an act of terror on Indian soil would for sure meet the ends of justice. The nascent agency was populated with officers of proven investigative capabilities.

The first case entrusted to them was against leaders of Dima Halam Daoga, a notorious terrorist outfit of Assam that had killed over 300 innocent people and ran an international arms ring delivering deadly weapons from East and Southeast Asian markets to numerous militias in the region and the rest of India.

The NIA did an excellent job, nabbed the ringleaders and unveiled their international network with clinching evidence. But then came the electioneering for the 2011 assembly election in Assam.

In the game of cynical politics the nabbed terrorists were valuable assets for the ruling dispensation in the state. They had to be set free in a quid pro quo. The NIA was pressured into facilitating their bail.

When despite the NIA, the conscientious district judge in Guwahati refused them bail on the ground that the charges were extremely serious and the evidence on record weighty, the terrorists were advised to approach the high court.

They were set at large and the case was put into deep freeze. It took an unhealthy toll on the morale of the NIA officers in the agency's very first case.

In reckless disregard for the Indian context, Chidambaram sought to replicate the National Counter Terrorism Centre of the US with additional power of intrusive operational reach in the states.

He pursued it with disdain for the federal system, at times with petulance and in the face of legitimate misgivings among his senior Cabinet colleagues.

It provoked many state governments and widened the trust deficit between the Centre and the states. The quixotic project seems to have been shelved with his departure from the home ministry.

Chidambaram, instead of augmenting the operational muscle of the National Security Guard -- the core striking arm of the anti-terror architecture -- in a populist move chose to enlarge its footprint and created four skeletal regional hubs, ostensibly to reduce the response time in the event of an attack.

The crucial lesson of 26/11 is not the alleged delay of a few hours in the NSG reaching Mumbai, a logistical concern that could be easily overcome by placing a dedicated fleet of aircraft to it, but an honest inquisition into its anti-terror capability.

How could a couple of terrorists play with the lives of hapless people for over 48 hours keeping the NSG at bay?

The stress should have been on sharpening its operational teeth and augmenting its efficiency instead of adding to its bulk.

Populist gimmicks and half-measures do not save a country and its people from terror.

R N Ravi is a retired special director, Intelligence Bureau.

R N Ravi