An anti-terror wake-up call

An anti-terror wake-up call

India suffered its first major terrorist attacks since the 2008 Mumbai massacre on Saturday with the bombing of a popular bakery in Pune. While the death toll, currently at nine, doesn’t approach the 183 in Mumbai, the incident should provoke a rethink of the speed with which New Delhi revamps its approach to the war on terror.

The Pune incident is unfortunately not a single event. India has suffered a wide range of terrorist attacks by different individuals and groups over the years. The 2008 Mumbai massacre was a commando-style attack perpetrated by 10 Pakistani terrorists on multiple targets, and lasted three days. Between November 2007 and September 2008, a group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen carried out a series of well-orchestrated serial explosions in various cities, including Jaipur and Bangalore.

After the Mumbai attacks, the Congress-led government considerably strengthened the country’s counterterrorism machinery. Home minister P. Chidambaram has strengthened the capability of the special intervention forces, such as the National Security Guard, to put down commando-style attacks quickly by deploying them in important cities, instead of keeping them concentrated in New Delhi as was done before 26/11.

He has also created a National Investigation Agency to investigate serious terrorist attacks with national ramifications. He has proposed the creation of a National Counterterrorism Centre and a ministry for internal security patterned after the US’ department of homeland security. When these institutions are created, all agencies responsible for counterterrorism would function under a single command.

Saturday’s attack in Pune shows the measures already taken by the government have not been as effective as hoped. Pune was known to be a target for terrorists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been looking into frequent visits to India by David Headley, a US citizen of Pakistani origin based in Chicago who belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba network and is alleged to have played a role in the Mumbai attacks. He is said to have screened possible targets in New Delhi and Pune, including an ashram close to the bakery attacked on Saturday.

India’s own National Investigation Agency (NIA) undertook a separate investigation into Headley. NIA’s investigation identified other potential targets, such as a Jewish religious and cultural centre—also located close to Saturday’s attack— that was similar to the centre attacked in Mumbai in 2008.

Pune has many technical universities and other institutions of learning which attract Muslim students from abroad. Many of Pune’s Muslim youths interact with these students, and are becoming radicalized. Three members of the Indian Mujahideen—information technology experts—were drawn from Pune’s Muslim community.

Given this evidence, the government should have moved proactively to strengthen physical security in the area, in coordination with the owners of the vulnerable private establishments. According to Chidambaram, they were alerted about their vulnerability, but nothing more seems to have been done to help them in preventing a terrorist attack. There were too few arrests and interrogations of individuals associated with Headley.

All this shows that Chidambaram might have created the right institutional infrastructure for dealing with terrorism, but this infrastructure is yet to start working in a coordinated and effective manner. The result is that India’s preventive capability continues to be weak. Institutions are important, but it is even more important to make them work as they should.


Edited excerpts. Bahukutumbi Raman served in the Research and Analysis Wing from 1968 to 1994 and on the National Security Advisory Board from 2000 to 2002. Comment at