Intelligence in War against Terrorism

Intelligence in War against Terrorism
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First Published: Tue, Jun 26 2007. 06 45 AM IST

Updated: Tue, Jul 24 2007. 12 10 PM IST
New Delhi: The Indian nation today has become a target for terrorist attacks. Guwahati, Hyderabad and Gorakhpur are the immediate signposts in the long war that India has been fighting against terrorism. The current signposts indicate two things to the discerning. First, that terrorism is in a position to target religious places with the purpose of creating communal tension. Second, the use of technology to maintain the element of surprise means that the state will have to improve its security measures, for both preventive and policing means.
Of concern has been India’s response to this menace and we have often been labeled as a sot state due to our inability to tackle terrorism with a firm hand. Legal, political and social steps have been taken but they do not seem to have had an effect. The nation continues to simmer in the Northeast, Jammu & Kashmir and over 165 districts of the country which are Naxalite infested. That is not a happy augury for the security establishment of the nation.
Crucial to the security establishment’s efforts to contain the terrorist menace ,is the intelligence machinery. Starting from colonial patterns of intelligence organization and operations, we have come a long way to the post-Kargil situation, where intelligence agencies are able to provide information to decision makers on a regular basis, on both internal and external security issues.
However, there are several issues that need addressing in the light of the present security environment, especially in the context of terrorism. India faces a dual internal-external security threat in the form of transnational terrorism. Facets of this problem have manifested themselves in various forms, over a period of time. Therefore, it should be possible to understand broad trends and evolve specific responses.
Identifying terrorist organizations
In this connection, it is relevant to identify areas that require attention. First, our intelligence agencies need to be focused on identifying terrorist organizations and their cells within India. Broadly, one can distinguish between those organizations which are Islamic fundamentalist groups with cross border affiliation, like the Lashkar-e-Toiba.
These groups are today operating all over India, as was witnessed in Malegaon last year and possibly in Hyderabad more recently. Then there are home grown organizations like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which have developed along traditional lines and have similar patterns of recruitment, as do cross-border affiliated groups, operating in J&K and other parts of India.
Of late, the spread of Islamic fundamentalist organizations to India’s Northeast has been a cause for worry and their linkages with extant groups like the ULFA should be a pointer to intelligence agencies to the opening up of a second front by Pakistan against India. In fact, the series of bomb blasts in Guwahati city in the last several months are probably the handiwork of Muslim Fundamentalist Organizations (MFOs) who are getting the ULFA to do their operations. The Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) in Dhaka, which in turn is controlled by ISI, today controls the ULFA. This is Pakistan’s second front against India.
The other set of organizations are the ideology/socio-economic based insurgency groups in India’s Northeast and Naxalite infested districts. These insurgent organizations have long sworn to overthrow the established state and their social bases are strong, despite the years of attrition by the Indian state. But with many of these organizations, the Indian state is in the process of dialogue and it is hoped that over a period of time, it will be possible to find a solution within the ambit of the law and constitution.
Then there are a host of groups which are lying dormant, like in the Punjab. These groups are still active, in the sense that they function at someone’s behest for monetary or other gains.
The ‘foreign’ link
A common strand that runs through the terrorist organizations, is their linkages with groups outside India, LeT with the Jammat-ud Dawa in Pakistan; the Naxalite groups with the LTTE, ULFA with Bangladesh and so on. The other aspect is that many of them are into money laundering and narcotics smuggling. One has to only read the speech made by the National Security Advisor (NSA) MK Narayanan at Munich to see the scale and intensity of these operations.
Many terrorist groups are funding their operations in India through the FII route. Those organizations affiliated with Pakistan- based groups are into drugs, while the insurgent groups in the Northeast are into gunrunning. Of course, the Pakistan/ISI combine is present everywhere, and it is in our interest to keep abreast of the extent of this challenge and meet it in the best manner possible – by striking at their roots within Pakistan. Covert operations to strike terror roots wherever they are, is one option available to India.
Technology- terror’s new faceless avtaar
In terms of modus operandi what is emerging from Hyderabad, Guwahati and other places is that terrorists are beginning to get anonymous. They are using remote-controlled or improvised explosive devices to target places and people. The use of cell phones to detonate explosives from a distances throws up another challenge. Whether it is the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad or Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati, the type of explosives used is usually the same.
The carriers of explosives have become tiffin boxes as was seen in Gorakhpur. The main issue is the utilization of technology to maintain an element of surprise. What else can terrorists do? They are constantly evolving new mutations; maritime terrorism, WMD terrorism, terrorism directed at energy infrastructure, cyber terrorism, etc and this is perhaps where its future lies.
Role of Intelligence agencies
The next issue that should be engaging our attention is the role of intelligence agencies in preventing terrorist attacks against targets in India. Can we in the real sense, prevent a terrorist attack in this day and age of terrorist modules, when information is so tightly held that one module will not know what the other is doing?
On most occasions, even with the most precise information from the intelligence agencies it is not possible to prevent an attack. The Israeli’s do have a system of preventive intelligence that aims to penetrate terrorist organizations in a manner that enables them to obtain information about likely attacks. They also perform preemptive intelligence operations against terrorist organizations. Both these methods are difficult to perfect but a start can be made by following the prescription given below:
* Indian agencies need to build up huge databases. Sifting through this will give us a pattern to the terrorist madness. Building patterns of terrorist attacks however, does not automatically lead to prevention. But it does lead to a better understanding of the situation. Most important of all, Indian agencies need to start building expertise in terrorist organizations and their patterns of operations.
* Human penetration amongst terrorist organizations is the next method. Human intelligence and electronic intelligence will have to be tuned to the maximum to penetrate terrorist groups and focus on building operational data that can be regularly shared with the police, para military forces and others.
* Timing and training that can make penetration possible is a time consuming and often expensive exercise, but that does not mean it cannot be done. Covert operations should be a focus area. If terrorists can prepare suicide bombers, it is certainly possible to find suitable material that can make penetration within terrorist organizations possible. The problem will be finding the right kind of incentive to Indian operatives who prefer to work from desks. Efforts however have to be made and if one looks around, one is sure to find talent that fits the bill.
* Electronic eavesdropping is well underway and as experience of counter-terrorism in Punjab shows, it is possible to penetrate organizations. But the new wave of Islamic organizations with their backers in Pakistan having the latest technology, makes it that much more difficult to break codes and operate smoothly. So the best thing to do is to move forward. India must keep in mind the US experience of 9/11, where the best electronic intelligence failed to detect the attackers, forcing them to acknowledge the value of human intelligence, even if it be negative!
Command and control
What of command and control? Today, India has many agencies with blurred lines of operational work. In theory, all agencies report to NSA where special units deal with terrorism from all angles. However, terrorism is really a challenge for the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) looks after the external aspect. The logical question that arises is, as to who will assess all the information, on the basis of which action can be taken? Ideally, it is the JIC that should be doing this.
Meanwhile, issues that need immediate attention:
*Study of terrorist organizations, structures, cells, methods of funding to be conducted. The IB did a detailed study of left wing organizations in the 60’s; a re-look is desperately needed.
*Study terror strikes across India in the last five years and find patterns to enable one take preventive steps for the future.
*Step up penetration of terrorist organizations. National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) can be tasked to work on this aspect.
Terrorism is here to stay. But are the intelligence agencies in India ready to take on the challenge? Perhaps yes and perhaps no. One half is to acknowledge the fact that they are prepared, but the other half is to say that they are inadequately prepared. Much more then needs to be done to fight terrorism, especially with the objective of being forewarned.
There is nothing like being prepared to fight with information, than be caught unawares. Unfortunately, this is exactly the scenario that prevails in India and elsewhere in the world. Clearly, this must change.
Dr Bhashyam Kasturi is Executive Editor, AGNI Journal of the Forum for Strategic and Security Studies and Associate Editor, Journal of Defence Studies (IDSA)and can be contacted on
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First Published: Tue, Jun 26 2007. 06 45 AM IST