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Post 9/11 attacks: Some gaps in security grid, but tighter overall

The 9/11 and 26/11 attacks led to investments in capacity building in counter-terrorism, altered global equations vis-a-vis Pakistan, and paved the way for cooperation with the US and others on combating terror.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi |
Updated: September 16, 2021 7:10:20 am
Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's Special Representative for Af-Pak, with then National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in New Delhi in 2010. In the middle is then US Ambassador to India, Timothy J Roemer. (Express Archive)

On September 11, 2001, as aircraft acting as bombs shattered the myth of American invincibility, there was a momentary sense of vindication in the Indian security establishment. There was hope the West might at last appreciate the problem that India had been wrestling for over a decade.

However, as the United States announced its global war on terror, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) noted the vow President George W Bush made — that this war would not end “until every terrorist group of global reach ha[d] been found, stopped and defeated”. Indian officials wondered whether, for the Americans, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) qualified as terrorists with global reach.

Indeed, through the 1980s, as it used the ISI to fight the Red Army in Afghanistan, and into the 1990s, the US had paid hardly any attention to India’s concerns about the terrorism coming from Pakistan. The indifference persisted even after 9/11, when JeM terrorists attacked India’s Parliament on December 13, 2001.

“In terms of the symbolism, the attack on Parliament was the biggest attack India had ever faced. Yet, we were on our own. The West was too caught up with the invasion of Afghanistan. (The US and UK bombing campaign had begun on October 7.) Whatever intervention came, came because we forced the hands of the US. As India moved its forces to the western border, Pakistan withdrew its military from the Afghanistan border. That was when the US put pressure on Pakistan to act, and (LeT founder) Hafiz Saeed was arrested for the first time (on December 21, 2001),” a former R&AW officer said.

The 9/11 attacks impacted India’s efforts to combat terrorism in two ways. One, they inspired terrorist groups and emboldened them to launch more ferocious attacks. Two, 9/11 paved the way for India to collaborate internationally against terrorism, and to build its own capacities against Pak-sponsored terror.

“Post 9/11, terror groups had begun getting more recruits. They had access to more funds. Disparate groups even began uniting. And there was an urge to launch spectacular attacks and spread indiscriminate terror,” a former Intelligence Bureau official said.

Less than a month after 9/11, a car bomb targeted the J&K Assembly, killing 38. This was followed by the Parliament attack and, in 2002, the attack on Akshardham temple in Ahmedabad, and two suicide attacks at Jammu’s Raghunath temple. The August 2003 bombings in Mumbai followed and then, the series of attacks by the Indian Mujahideen from 2006 to 2013. The most spectacular attack was, of course, the one by the LeT in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Lid on Pak terror factory

To a great extent, India’s efforts to combat terrorism, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, were helped by the circumstances that arose with the US war in Afghanistan. While the Pakistani establishment had to reorient its focus and resources on the Af-Pak region, beginning 2003, the A B Vajpayee government, encouraged by the US, started a peace process with the military regime of Pervez Musharraf.

“Pakistan got increasingly involved in Afghanistan. So while it managed to protect the anti-India terror groups such as LeT and JeM from the global war on terror to an extent, with fewer resources on the Indo-Pak border and the peace process, the infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir reduced dramatically,” a senior intelligence officer said. “Over 1,000 infiltrations used to be reported every year in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s. This dropped to 500 in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Now we consider 150 infiltrations a year as very high,” the officer added.

From the mid-2000s, Kashmir experienced over a decade of relative calm — with violence going down so drastically that paramilitary forces deployed there began to call it a “peace posting” in comparison to a deployment in Naxal-hit Bastar. India was able to conduct elections in J&K and tourism boomed — and the message was conveyed to the world that a major part of the Kashmir problem was Pakistan.

“We were also able to take aggressive action against terror groups because post 9/11, the idea of human rights violations took a backseat among the international community,” a former J&K police officer said.

Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

As far as international collaboration on counter-terrorism was concerned, however, the West continued to prioritise its own interests for the next few years. “After 9/11, while the US started to look at South Asia differently, this focus was limited to very narrow field of threats in geographic terms. Mostly, it was limited to Afghanistan and the Af-Pak region, and to some groups that were directly related to al-Qaeda,” the former R&AW officer said.

The LeT, active since the early 1990s, was designated as “Foreign Terrorist Orgnisation” by the US State Department only in December 2001. It took almost seven more years for the United Nations to put it on the UNSC 1267 list as a group “linked to Al Qaeda”. “The problem was that the attention of the US soon shifted to Iraq. So while US-India cooperation on counter-terrorism did get a fillip post 9/11, their wasn’t enough time for this relationship to crystallise in the way it should have. It was only after the 26/11 attacks that the Americans started to take the LeT seriously. Their focus came back to the region after Barack Obama became President,” the R&AW officer said.

Cooperation in the Gulf

Several officers who saw the evolution of the US-India relationship closely said the countries’ counter-terrorism collaboration in the immediate post-9/11 world remained restricted to very specific threats.

“The overarching collaboration never happened, at least as far as the LeT and JeM were concerned. The US always kept them below al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as a threat, even though they were the feeder groups for both al-Qaeda and, later, ISIS,” the officer said.

The shocks of 9/11 travelled beyond the US. The spectre of fundamentalist Islam began to make countries of Europe as well as regimes of the Middle East uncomfortable. In many ways, 9/11 was the beginning of the Muslim world being plunged into a civil war where the idea of “Civil Islam” has come under pressure from the idea of “Apocalyptic Islam”.

“New equations were developed. There were countries in Europe — France and Germany — and in the Middle East, which considered the LeT and JeM a threat. They started collaborating more with us. This was a result of 9/11. There were friends who neutralised anti-India threats in third countries,” the officer said.

Over the years, countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been of great help to India — regularly deporting terror suspects wanted here. In 2012, Saudi Arabia deported 26/11 accused Zabiuddin Ansari, the man who taught Hindi to the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai. Both the UAE and Saudi have since sent multiple IS suspects back to India.

The 9/11 attacks also opened the eyes of the Indian security establishment to threats from beyond the subcontinent. “We became more conscious that these groups have the capacity to act far beyond their borders. There were Somalians and Maldivians engaged in global terrorism. We acknowledged that there were cells even in countries in East Africa, and that they could be a threat to us,” another former R&AW officer said.

Boost beyond security

India also realised that the world was responding to global terrorism, and it needed to put forward an international case of the problems it was facing in its own region.

“The onus was on us to bring out the ramifications of the global reach of these (LeT and JeM) organisations. Once we were able to come up with hard evidence, the US did respond. There were also countries other than the US who appreciated our point of view,” the second R&AW officer said.

The world listened more to India also because of its rising economic power. India’s IT exports to the US were among the world’s largest, and US companies were increasingly keen on investing in India and its huge market.

A woman pays tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks. (AP Photo)

Within years of 9/11, India and the US signed the civil nuclear deal, which indicated that the two countries saw each other as long-term strategic partners. There was also the context of the rise of China, its expansionism in the Pacific region already a clear concern.

By the mid 2000s, India-US engagements had begun to include military ties. These included high-level contacts, joint training, and a variety of exercises. The two countries collaborated in protection of sea lanes carrying vital oil shipments and other sea-borne trade. This was followed by sizable sales of American military and defence equipment to India.

Amitabh Mattoo writes on 9/11 attacks |America’s failure of imagination

Information, cooperation

The cooperation on counter-terrorism that started after 9/11 acquired depth and breadth with time. “Earlier, the US would hardly share intelligence. Post 9/11, they began sharing some information on LeT. They had better coverage on LeT,” a former intelligence officer said.

According to this officer, the US had provided intelligence on an attack in Kashmir during a visit by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the mid-2000s.

Much before Indian agencies got a fix on the IM, the US had contacted India to know if it had more information on the ISI’s Abdul Rehman Pasha, who it said was recruiting and training men for attacks beyond Kashmir. Pasha’s name later figured prominently in context of the “Karachi project” that produced the IM, as well as the 26/11 attacks.

“It was the US which gave us information on the impending 26/11 attacks. It’s another matter we couldn’t prevent it. Indo-US security cooperation flowered following 26/11. The US was closely associated with our investigations and gave us a lot of information. We wouldn’t have been able to prove the case and embarrass Pakistan internationally without the FBI’s help,” a senior IB officer said. Since then, the US has continued to share intelligence on threats targeting India, the officer said.

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Investing in capacity

India also invested heavily in capacity-building. The Indo-Pak border was fenced, and investments were made in creating intelligence infrastructure. The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) was set up in 2004. It also embarked on projects such as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS) and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). It was post-9/11 that R&AW got a counter-terror desk.

“Comprehensive changes were imagined in the Kargil Review Committee report. After the 9/11 attacks, they got a push. We also started looking at terror financing seriously and began engaging with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) was strengthened, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) was brought in. Specific agencies for counter-intelligence and terrorism were created. There was greater synergy among different agencies, especially post 26/11, and operationalisation of intelligence became better,” a senior intelligence officer said.

Now, as Pakistan once again manages to make itself geopolitically important for those wanting to deal with Afghanistan under the new Taliban regime, the Indian security establishment is watching closely.

(Deeptiman Tiwary covers national security.)

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