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Monday, January 24, 2022

Overtaken by terror

Another 26/11 anniversary has come and gone. We need to think about why terrorists appear to be out-thinking counter-terrorism machineries.

Written by Vappala Balachandran |
Updated: November 30, 2017 11:19:25 am
26 11 attack, 26/11 anniversary, 2008 mumbai terror attacks, terror attacks, counter-terrorism, Islamic State, India terrorism The most worrying aspect of global terrorism is that individuals who are already on the CT machinery radar are seen committing carnage.(Ilustration: C R Sasikumar)

The tendency to merely list our resistance capability on every anniversary of the 26/11 attack should be replaced by an analysis of whether our preventive machinery is able to match the changing terrorist methodology. Unfortunately, governments follow linear thinking. We are no exception. What appear in our discourses are lists of new special squads, better weaponry, satellite imagery, coastal radars and transponders to prevent coastal infiltration. No doubt these are relevant in certain situations but is our counter-terrorist architecture flexible enough to match or surpass the exponential thinking of terrorists?

Our experience is that it is not. In fact, this is the problem with other governments too. That is why there is a chorus of protests across the globe that terrorists are 10 steps ahead of counter terrorism (CT) machineries. Globally, a helplessness is growing in countering the vehicle-mowing-down tactics of Islamic State (IS), first seen in Nice on July 14, 2016 — it caused as much shock as al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack although only 86 were killed. It was also more innovative as “low cost terrorism” tactics than using passenger planes by al Qaeda on 9/11. This was followed by similar killings in Berlin, London (Westminster), Stockholm, London Bridge, Barcelona and New York — in all they claimed140 lives. The “citizens meeting” convened by EU Security Commissioner Sir Julian King in Nice on September 28 and attended by Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi could not come to any concrete solution to prevent such a use of public spaces by IS killers.

On November 14, a 10-minute Daulat-ul-Islamia audio clip in Malayalam from one Rashid Abdullah, originally from Kasaragod in Kerala, was sent over by “telegram” from Afghanistan exhorting his followers to mow down crowds at the forthcoming Thrissur Pooram festival or at the Kumbh Mela. On November 11, there were media reports that over 100 people from Kerala are suspected to have joined the IS.

Our weakest point is in not having any reliable record of our overseas workers who are the source of such recruitment. The former Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), which was trying to collect such data during the UPA government’s tenure, was merged with the Ministry of External Affairs after the present NDA government took over. This was a retrograde step as a single-point high-level attention on our overseas workers that had been going on since 2004 was relegated to a minor wing of our vast diplomatic apparatus due to inter-ministerial squabbles.

Mumbai, which beefed up resistance capability since 26/11, was surprised again on July 13, 2011 when terrorists changed tactics and reverted to serial bomb attacks. We were ready for commando attacks but terrorists reverted to their old strategy of IEDs (timed devices). Three attacks in busy business centres killed 26. Similarly, the Pune Bakery attack on February 13, 2010, which killed 17, also could not be prevented.

Another incident on May 23, 2015 created quite a panic but finally ended comically. It exposed our air vulnerability which the 26/11 Enquiry Committee had underlined. At about 5.55 pm, a Jet Air pilot who was about to take off for Ahmedabad noticed five unmanned objects like drones obstructing his flight path. He informed the ATC and aborted his take-off. The ATC personnel, who could not identify the objects, asked an inbound flight from Kolkata to go around. No one, not even our air force, took charge of the situation to identify the objects. It needed the Prime Minister’s Office’s intervention to finally make deeper enquiries to discover that the objects were hot air balloons floated by an event management company. This was at a time when the IS was suspected to have used commercially available DJI Phantom drones and fitted explosives as remotely piloted bombs against the US and Iraqi armies.

A contrasting situation is emerging in the UK which appears to be on edge with four IS attacks this year. Earlier, the media had accused the MI-5 of creating panic after its chief Andrew Parker’s warning on October 17 using strong words: “Intense”, “more terrorist activities coming, more quickly”, “tempo highest in 34 years of service”. The media criticised him for exaggerating the problem. Simon Jenkins attacked Parker in The Guardian (October 18): “The head of MI-5 has lost the plot… (he) seems to have suffered a panic attack this week”. But on November 24, it was the British media’s turn to be accused of creating a panic after an incorrect report on the alleged Oxford Street firing and Daily Mail’s hurried tweet.

The most worrying aspect of global terrorism is that individuals who are already on the CT machinery radar are seen committing carnage. All the 16 terrorists who were responsible for seven vehicle-mowing incidents were on law enforcement’s radar in one form or another. This has demoralised the CT agencies, who are not able to explain to the public why they were unable to prevent such forms of innovative terrorism. Even with bulk interception, there is no guarantee that attacks would be prevented since analysis is not catching up with collection. It has been admitted that information on Khalid Masood (Westminster Bridge), Salman Abedi (Manchester Arena), Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba (London Bridge) was available beforehand. Yet, the attacks could not be prevented.

Along with this, the CT agencies are struggling to prevent the growing online propaganda even when the IS has lost ground. For example, even after losing Mosul in June 2017 they were able to create panic in the UK with a botched operation. On September 15, there was a crude “bucket” bomb explosion at Parsons Green tube station (London) during the morning rush hour. Amaq News announced that this bomb was “one among many” planted in England. None of the Western agencies or private watch groups could detect from where the IS sends their “online” messages.

Yet another problem is the inability of national investigating agencies to successfully secure evidence to prosecute thousands of IS fighters who had returned voluntarily or were forcibly repatriated from abroad, especially Turkey.

Finally, the most effective bulwark against terrorism is national cohesion. Our saffron fringe groups have destroyed that by dividing people on religion, custom and food, making us more vulnerable.

The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat who was also member of the High Level 26/11 Enquiry Committee.

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