Terrorism after Varanasi

Terrorism after Varanasi

In theory, most terrorist crimes are preventable. In practice, a large number can certainly be prevented. What India has witnessed in recent years, however, makes this close to a laughable proposition. The blast in Varanasi already makes one feel that way. Matters need not be like that.

Take the case of terrorists using explosive devices, mostly rigged using cheap and easily available chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, sulfur, potash and/or some fertilizer mix. High-end explosives, such as RDX, semtex, PETN, are in any case tracked. If they’ve been used, one can be sure that either terrorists using them have sourced them from outside the country or that there is a leak somewhere in their distribution chain, something that can be traced relatively easily.

Most terror plots of recent years, however, have relied on cheaper and more abundantly available chemicals. The case for our inability to discover terrorist plots rests on the fact that these substances are produced in huge quantities that defy precise tracking. This is a weak argument.

One technological fix to this problem would be to ensure that the identity of persons purchasing them is known. As soon as someone has purchased such substances, his identity is logged on to a centralized database. This can be done using, for example, the UID number. Here there are no privacy issues involved. For the only persons who have legitimate use for such substances are either farmers, persons involved in manufacturing where chemicals are used in some process or retailers who buy them in bulk. In each case, if proper procedures are followed, there is little fear of harassment at the hands of law enforcers.

The other option is to use specialized chemical “tracers" added to these substances that can be found during forensic examination of the residue after a terrorist-created blast. This is feasible as different tracers can be added to different batches, making it easy to trace a linkage from manufacturer to distributor to retailer and the ultimate purchaser. This is no longer in the realm of science fiction.

The issue is now one of willpower. A series of administrative measures can achieve this. The question that needs answering is: Why is this not being done? Inertia and lethargy ought not to be the response even if what is being witnessed are low-intensity blasts.

Is there a technological fix to terrorism? Tell us at views@livemint.com