Citizens on the first line of defence

Citizens on the first line of defence

Today is the second anniversary of the attacks that changed the way this country thinks about terrorism. Despite India being no stranger to terror attacks, 26/11 struck deeper than any prior assault, and rallied the country like never before. There was cold rage among the masses, and seemingly enough realization in the establishment for it to take major structural steps—from lobbying in global forums, changing leadership and commencing or strengthening strategic anti-terror initiatives. The quintessential anniversary question is this: Two years down the line, is India safer?

The answer is yes and, unfortunately, no.

Let me explain this paradox with an example. The US government had recognized the threat from Islamic fundamentalists long before 9/11, and had been lobbying intensely for the empowerment of law enforcement agencies to deal with the peculiarities of asymmetric warfare. That didn’t happen until Al Qaeda struck on 9 September 2001. Less than six weeks later, the US president enacted the Patriot Act, increasing law enforcement agencies’ intelligence gathering capabilities and jurisdiction. Anyone remotely familiar with bureaucracy will appreciate that there was no way such a complicated Act could have been passed in such a short time unless detailed preparation had begun several years ago.

A decade down the line, despite a couple of close calls, the US can boast of a fairly unblemished internal security track record, not only because it invested heavily in counterterror capabilities, but also because it rapidly changed environmental elements in order to deal with the new threat.

India, too, has made substantial progress in building institutional capability to combat terror. But it needs significant work in addressing the environment in which these institutions can deliver results. And these changes have to be paradigm shifts in the way Indians realign themselves to the threat of asymmetric warfare.

The first of these shifts has to be a realization that government establishments can do only so much to combat terror. Terrorists operate and thrive within the public infrastructure that society uses. They use banks to transfer funds; airlines, road and railways to travel; cellular networks to communicate; and sleeper cells within communities to conceal themselves. In other words, they use the same infrastructure they seek to destroy. So there is no one better poised than the bankers, the telecom and airline operators, and the citizens within the community to identify the outlier behaviour that acts as early warning signals of imminent attacks. Citizens must realize that they are not just victims, but also the frontline troops in the battle against terror. And instead of expecting security forces to be omnipresent, they must facilitate the omnipresence of security.

The second shift is the recognition that asymmetric threats require a fundamental change in the way we think about our current socio-political scenario. Democracy pivots on civil liberties. But civil liberties are meaningless without civil security. Changing threat scenarios require society to re-think priorities between contradictory requirements.

Hence, an expectation that terrorists will be identified and pre-empted requires observation and analysis of information, which may be construed to be intrusive. Society must make the decision about what to give up to achieve a larger objective.

But there is a perpetual lag between realizing what needs to be done and gaining the momentum to do it. Even something as obvious as preventing smoking in public places required millions of needless deaths before activists were convinced of its merits. Similarly, while events such as 26/11 act as catalysts, public memory is short, and complacency empowers cynics and the champions of status quo. Wars, however, are won on sustained resolute action and not on spurts of rhetoric.

But the third and most important awakening is that structural improvements take radical thought. Institutions and initiatives must be nurtured and supported through this gestation period.

Terrorists use guerilla tactics, leveraging its agility. Countries, societies and their governments, on the other hand, are like supertankers at sea. They need lead time to adjust to the new course. History shows us that terrorism is eventually beaten. But the question is: What price will society pay for not changing course soon enough? The ability of the enemy to inflict immense damage with low investment is only possible because society clings to old paradigms.

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications all along its eastern borders, and relied on the security of this static system. The German invasion forces in World War II overcame this much-vaunted defence within five days, simply by flanking it with highly mobile forces.

Similarly, countries the world over responded to the Mumbai style of attacks by building fortifications around hotels and public places at a cost of millions of dollars. Al Qaeda’s latest tactic of using postal bombs—with a self-admitted investment of less than $5,000—is expected to cost society $4.5 billion in prevention. With such skewed ratios, it is clear who is winning.

And these ratios will not change unless we alter the paradigm of reacting to terrorists. There is no “Ring of Steel" that will keep the enemy at the gates. The enemy is already inside the gates. So, we must realize that to combat an amorphous enemy, we need a ring of early warning, of intelligence—a ring that is built by the community for itself, and by itself.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security

Comments are welcome at