26-11

Securing India

A decade after 26/11, terrorist methodology has changed, state response remains woefully same.

November 30, 2018 12:29:38 pm

26/11 should never have happened. Enough indications were coming from 2006 that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was preparing to strike Mumbai, most probably through the sea, that they were training a team for ocean crossing operations, and that it would be a commando-style attack against multiple targets. Only the date and time were not clear. A TV channel survey on July 30, 2006, after a published threat to our West Coast nuclear installations, had indicated that Mumbai was not ready to face an armed sea infiltration. On June 16, 2007, the same TV channel quoted Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, that eight LeT militants had infiltrated through the Mumbai sea coast. Three of them were arrested in Rajouri in March 2007. Strangely, they had adopted the same modus operandi as 26/11 terrorists with Hindu ID cards and transferred to an Indian boat after reaching Indian waters.

All these could have been useful inputs as “open source intelligence” for security planning to strengthen our coastal security had we possessed a “bottom up” security architecture, where such trends are fed into the drafting boards. But we did not have that culture in 2008, nor do we have it today. As against this, the American Department of Home Land Security (DHS) had studied extensive ground reports and flagged threats from 17 million small vessels around their 95,000-mile coastline and prepared a protection plan (“Small Vessel Strategy”) in April 2008.

The least the Maharashtra home department could have done prior to 26/11 was to summon all the coastal security implementers for drawing up a protective plan as Section 4 of the Bombay Police Act had given them the responsibility of “superintendence of the police force”. Tragically, they were totally oblivious of the threat alerts flowing in from 2006. I am not too sanguine whether things have improved even today.

In 2018, we should take into account the vast improvements in terrorist methodology during the last decade when we enquire whether India is better protected now. India should not just analyse the features of Mumbai 26/11. Terrorists seldom repeat their techniques in big attacks except in insurgency-affected areas. “Surprise” is the key element in terrorist methodology, which allows them an edge over security forces in selecting targets, time and methods. The Irish Republican Army had famously told the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, after the Brighton Hotel attack (October 12, 1984), which blew up her bedroom: “Today we were unlucky. But remember, we have only to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”

We had the same experience in Maharashtra. After 26/11, our resistance methodology was to cater to frontal attacks by equipping our force with better weapons and bullet-proof vests. Two years later, terrorists surprised us by coming through the flanks, reverting to timed bomb attacks in the 2010 Pune German Bakery and the 2011 Mumbai triple attacks.

“Surprise” was the most effective weapon even in the 19th century. The first suicide explosives attack occured in Imperial Russia. After six failed attempts through conventional methods, King Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by Ignati Grinevitsky’s suicide bombing. This methodology travelled to Imperial Japan as a war weapon, preparing 3,000 Tokkotai in planes against American naval forces during the Second World War. The first major suicide truck bombing, which evicted super powers from Lebanon, was the 1983 killing of 300 American and French peace keepers. While al Qaeda used passenger planes as murder weapons, Islamic State (IS) perfected vehicle mowing. Long distance indoctrination conceived by Osama bin Laden was accomplished by IS with persuasive online brain-washing.

Thus the stakes of protecting our country are far more complex in 2018 than in 2008 when we could have intercepted the 10 Pakistani attackers through better coastal security. Now we have to detect hidden online indoctrination and stealth funding to dormant modules. Our counter-terrorism (CT) machinery and disorganised banking system are unable to detect this. In December 2017, Zoobia Shahnaz, born in Pakistan, was arrested in New York for sending $85,000-worth crypto currency to IS under the cover of charity. Although the might of IS has degraded considerably, it is still trying to procure drones which it had used earlier with explosives. On September 26, 2018, two persons were arrested in Denmark, trying to procure drones for IS.

The common bureaucratic response to such “surprises” is to add more intelligence teams, CT forces, better equipment and technology. But a 2008 paper by Belfer Center (Harvard Kennedy School) questions the efficacy of these hackneyed steps. They examined three foiled unreported attempts (1993 “New York City day of terror plot”, 2001 “Lackawanna Six” plot and 2007 “Fort Dix plot”) to conclude that only more efficient ground intelligence could prevent such plots. In India, the state-level intelligence collection has completely degraded since the last many years as ambitious police officers try to get transfers to uniformed wings. No doubt some Anti-Terrorist Squads (ATS) have done good work, but they are all subject to rotational tenure rules.

In some cases, intelligence agencies which were once able to operate beyond their borders are finding it difficult to detect transnational tentacles, even within their country, of al Qaeda or IS. The French, while quite successful in detecting traditional terror outfits like GIA, were unable to follow the kaleidoscopic methodology of al Qaeda or IS. They could foil the “Millennium Plot” of the Los Angeles Airport bombing on December 14, 1999 by alerting American and Canadian agencies on Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam. But they could not track the movements of criminal gangs already on their watch-list, like Kouachi brothers of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 or the Abdeslam gang of the Paris November 2015 attacks. J&K police may be able to detect different strands of traditional Kashmiri terrorists, but not the new faces of Afghan or Kerala terrorists leaning towards al Qaeda or IS.

All these could be remedied to some extent by a centrally ordained terrorism watch centre, which could also operate as a think tank with sufficient inputs from academics and private experts. The UPA government had conceived a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) to centrally focus on myriad developments in terrorism, but they were too ambitious with its charter. This was opposed by some chief ministers including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was then Gujarat chief minister. It is for this reason that the NDA government has not created any centralised CT structure despite their loud proclamations of a muscular response to terrorism. Thus instead of waging war on terrorism under one general, we are left with 29 generals and their state ATS squads.

The writer, a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, was a member of the high-level committee appointed by Maharashtra government to inquire into police response to 26/11.
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