Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | India is not better prepared than 2008

Shortage of human intelligence results in relying more on technical methods which in turn churn up unmanageable volumes of information

The kaleidoscopic features of modern terrorism have befuddled even advanced countries with better interdiction capability. France, which had the reputation of “Europe’s Counter-Terrorist Power House" for decades, saw its defences crumble in 2015. Before 9/11 it had refined its overseas intelligence collection and could alert US and Canada to arrest Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam on 14 December 1999 before he could undertake the Millennium Plot of blowing up Los Angeles Airport. That had made the French attitude towards the US appear to be arrogant. Although politicians rallied to declare solidarity with America by saying “Nous sommes tous Americans" (We all are Americans), certain French writers like Jacques Derrida could not restrain themselves from attributing the attack to America’s past blunders and “a distant effect of the Cold War". This arrogance was also because France had not suffered any jehadi attacks between 1996 and 2012 while the US and UK had experienced heavy hits.

As a result, France cut a sorry figure when the locally known Kouachi brothers carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, killing 17. More embarrassment was to follow in November when 137 were killed in six separate incidents in Paris by the Belgian-French Abaaoud gang. In July 2016, a self- radicalized man of Tunisian origin crushed 86 under a truck in Nice, which heralded the most innovative Islamic State (IS) tactic called “low-cost terrorism". This was followed by 12 such attacks in the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, France and Spain.

All these refinements in terrorist methodology need to be kept in mind before we assess whether we are safer now than in 2008 when the 26/11 attacks devastated Mumbai. The 26/11 methodology— an attack coming from the sea or terrorists indulging in commando tactics—need not be replicated in all future attacks in India. We also need to analyze the current problems faced by counter-terrorism (CT) agencies the world over before coming to the conclusion whether we are better protected.

In my lecture on the same subject to the Singapore Police officers in November 2017, I had listed several key trends. First, the public expected increasing openness by CT agencies to convince them that they are doing their best to prevent attacks. For that, many CT agencies in other countries publish their activities officially. Unfortunately, we never do that.

The second trend, which is a big problem, is that interdiction capability is not catching up with innovative terrorist methods like using passenger vehicles to mow down unsuspecting public. Shortage of human intelligence results in relying more on technical methods which in turn churn up an unmanageable volume of information. However, their analysis capability is not able to catch up with the technical intelligence volume.

I also told them that almost all the 16 terrorists responsible for seven vehicle mowing incidents starting from Nice (France) on 14 July 2016 to New York on 1 November 2017, killing 140, were on the law enforcement radar. This has demoralized CT agencies who are not able to explain why they were unable to prevent such forms of terrorism.

We need to analyze how far our CT network is able to counter these trends. The first major difficulty is that terrorism is handled by different state police systems with no legal role by the central government under Schedule 7 of our Constitution. It is true that under Article 355, the central government is duty-bound “to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbances". But the Constitution did not provide any implements to the central government to carry out this obligation except in emergencies when it can take over the administration of the state under articles 352 or 356. In all other situations central forces that are supplied to the states are under the control of state authorities. Similarly, the intelligence provided by the central government to the states is only of advisory nature.

Thus, in our system all peacetime CT activities are the legal responsibility of the states. Situations might arise when the states concerned might ignore terrorism-related alerts like what had happened in Maharashtra since 2006 when bureaucratic inertia prevented the Maharashtra home department from building up preventive capability including coastal surveillance. In all countries a centrally directed CT architecture is provided to watch the global developments in terrorist methodology to advise all components of the country to take preventive measures.

In many countries concurrent powers are given to the central government to intervene when a state fails to take security measures. Unfortunately, we do not have that system.

After 9/11 the private sector was involved in a big way in other countries in supplementing security and resistance measures. This is because several key infrastructure projects are now managed by private companies. In some countries they even participate in intelligence sharing so that they could take preventive action on their own with their security personnel. The US department of homeland security’s (DHS) “Infrastructure Protection Office" in 18 critical sectors manages public-private sector partnerships. The NYPD shield in New York City assembles nearly 3,000 private security managers who get briefed almost on a daily basis on intelligence and on follow-up measures after an alert is sounded.

We have to go a long way to claim that we are safer in 2018 than what we were in 2008.

Vappala Balachandran is former special secretary, cabinet secretariat, and a member of the high-level committee appointed by the Maharashtra government to enquire into police performance during the 26/11 attacks.

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