Terror struck Paris once again with chilling horror on 13/11, when alleged Islamic State (IS) terrorists struck at six spots simultaneously, shooting innocent citizens and blowing themselves up. Over 120 persons have been killed and many more injured. This attack comes after the one on the offices of Charlie Hebdo a few months ago and has raised several questions on the way the threat from the IS should be countered the world over.
Paris is a symbol of Europe. It is a city that inspires and is the cultural capital of the world. Tourists fall in love with its architecture, museums, fashion, art and the general ambience. An attack on such an important international city has more shock potential than a strike on any other. Comments on foreign news channels have brought out two important points: First, Germany, which has far more immigrants than any other country in Europe, has not been attacked and, so, immigrants have nothing to do with the terror strike. Many of the residents of these countries are returning after having visited Syria and Iraq and, perhaps, having fought there. Many others are being influenced by IS propaganda on the internet and getting radicalised. Second, it is virtually impossible to protect society against such attacks.
Parallels have been drawn to the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008. Attacks on multiple targets by different teams, and the use of the AK series of rifles and explosives remind us of that barbaric attack on Mumbai. It is being said that what distinguishes 13/11 from 26/11 is the response of the forces and police. But the forces and police in India, too, are much better prepared now to face such a strike. Many Indian states have raised counter-terror forces to respond to such situations. National Security Guard hubs have been created in several cities to reach the scene of a possible terror attack faster.
However, we still lack a well-thought-out counter-terrorist doctrine and strategy. A counter-terrorism strategy consists of four strains: Prevent, pursue, protect, and prepare. The first strain, or “prevent”, is the one that needs to be focused on. The IS has, as a matter of strategy, flooded the internet with carefully crafted publicity material meant to attract and appeal to young minds. The advice from the IS is: You needn’t come to the theatre of war; you can indulge in spectacular attacks wherever you are. Australian security forces are learned to have neutralised a module that was set up in accordance with this directive. The module was hoping to seize and behead foreign tourists in public places. In Mumbai, too, one youth had made preparations to bomb an international school.
Self-radicalisation is a threat that has to be faced. With internet access on every phone, preventing radicalisation requires some effort and a well-thought-out plan. Government engagement with communities vulnerable to such an effort is what is urgently required. Serious attempts to address grievances — even perceived ones — are needed to prevent young people from feeling they have no stake in the progress of the nation and indulging in violence. The cooperation of the community, more than eager to help out, is necessary. A counter-narrative has to be developed with the help of the community to rebut the negative propaganda of the IS. Programmes for counselling and improving skills, which can help young people find gainful employment, need to be put in place. Those who exhibit tendencies of straying need special attention. However, in order to identify vulnerable youth, contacts in the community have to be built, nurtured and strengthened.
To “prepare” society to deal with an attack is an important part of the strategy to counter terrorism. When planes struck the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, almost everyone on the floors beneath those that were hit was safely evacuated.
Do our highrises have evacuation plans? Are they practised? When thousands fill up stadiums to witness cricket or other matches and events, is there an evacuation plan worked out between organisers and security agencies to clear the venue without causing panic or a stampede in case of any contingency? Most organisers feel that security is the responsibility of the police and that they are there only to earn profits from events.
Are we trained to react with calm and fortitude to crises? The calm with which stakeholders have approached the crisis in Paris is worth emulating.
The “protect” part of a counter-terror strategy requires all essential and vital installations to be protected from a possible strike. It is not possible, however, to safeguard each and every place where people congregate from a terror strike. The US enacted an important piece of legislation after the 9/11 attacks. The Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (Patriot) Act laid down a comprehensive plan for securing various places and fixed responsibility on authorities for ensuring implementation, even in the private sphere. Some effort is being made in Maharashtra, where a new act has been recommended to the government. However, security plans for certain places like the plaza at the Gateway of India, which has been the scene of at least two terror attacks and for which a security plan was recommended as far back as in 2010, need to be put in place.
The “pursue” part of a counter-terror strategy relates to investigation and bringing to book the perpetrators of a strike and ensuring speedy justice.
There is no time to be lost. Self-radicalisation and lone-wolf attacks are a reality that every society has to be prepared to deal with. Managing contradictions and taking all communities together, and ensuring that nobody suffers from the of being deprived of their dignity, is the need of the hour. We have suffered in the past and need to do our best now, under a well-thought-out strategy.
The writer is a former director general of police, Maharashtra.