Last month’s attack in Mumbai heralded the return of terrorism after a hiatus of 31 months. As usual, there was a blend of anger, exasperation, and effort to demonstrate speedy response in abundance, after the attack. The idea that an immediate response could substitute the development of a framework to augment counter-terror capability was also visible. Experts called in by the media bemoan delays in procurement of equipment and weapons, the breakdown of human intelligence apparatus, delays in police reforms or deficiencies in technical intelligence capabilities as the root causes of the present situation. While the proponents of each of these aspects are right, of course, the point being missed is that none of them is mutually exclusive to the other.
A reactive and piecemeal approach to capability improvement —showing some “action” in consumption of funds, build-up of equipment and manpower—is inherently suboptimal from an outcomes perspective. And here is the reason why.
Capability enhancement is the sum total of different streams working in synergy rather than development of any or all of them in isolation. Given that the objective of terrorism is to coerce the mindshare of masses—that should be the end from where we begin fixing the framework. Whether we have 5,000 CCTV cameras or as many bullet-proof jackets as there are policemen is irrelevant in wresting back the initiative from terrorists who will simply find places where there are no cameras or, for that matter, blow themselves on camera.
To make a meaningful difference, four thrust lines of counter- terror strategy need to be developed in conjunction. These are human intelligence, technical intelligence, infrastructure capacity and most importantly addressing the mindshare of the masses. None of these is more or less important than the others and achieving high capability in even three of them does not improve the overall outcome significantly. All four are equally important.
Human intelligence is unarguably the bedrock of any counter-terror strategy, but is fraught with limitations. The notion that revival of the beat constable will fill a major gap in information gathering is misplaced in the modern urban context, the main theatre of operations in terrorism. The relevance of the beat constable or any other means of gathering information with “an ear to the ground” has undergone a dramatic change because of the “verticalization” and “virtualization” of urban India. A decade ago, policemen on the ground could gather information because their beat was horizontal. People needed to meet physically to communicate and the policeman or his surrogate informant could dip into that stream of information flow. With increased vertical urbanization, the bulk of the policeman’s beat has moved out of his orbit. A beat constable has relevance in the horizontal colonies of south Delhi, not in the 30-storey condominiums that are the new paradigm of urbanization.
Secondly, the proliferation of various communication tools is drying up sources on ground. People don’t need to meet to exchange information or ideology. That has now moved to the Internet and electronic platforms. Reliance on technical intelligence by itself is also an overrated delusion. Picking out conversations from cyberspace and homing into terrorist cells by triangulating their cellphones make for good movies and sales pitches, but the reality is far more laborious and unyielding. Incredible volume of data is being created every second and the ability to sift through billions of fragments of information is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Added to this, is the fact that most data in India is still undigitized and, therefore, computationally unsearchable—such data has to substantially be cleansed before any meaningful insights can be tweaked from it. The need to build frameworks and the ecosystem to leverage technical intelligence may be inevitable, but it is a long haul fraught with contradictory requirements of national security and democratic rights of citizens.
Developing infrastructure capacity is perhaps the most complex of the four pillars because, ironically, every rupee that we spend in increasing our counter-terror infrastructure is a victory for the terrorists. Plucking Osama bin Laden from his lair was a major triumph for the US, but let us not be deluded that Osama did not have his share of spoils, too. Al Qaeda’s strategy of “bleeding to bankruptcy” is forcing the US to cut back several developmental activities and has contributed in no small measure to its financial crisis.
Each time we lobby for the procurement of more hardware and weapons or the raising of forces we are walking down the road the terrorists want us to. We currently protect hotels, marketplaces, temples, offices, headquarters, airports, railway stations, among others. Soon it would be schools, campuses, universities and personalities. Before we realize it, our cities will turn into garrisons causing resource drains diverted from developmental activities, exacerbating further dissent.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
This is the first of a two-part series. Comments are welcome at email@example.com