The killings this weekend at the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou, preceded just days earlier by the lethal attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, hold out important lessons to India about the threat of terror —and what the government should be doing about it. For one, the attacks show, the threat doesn’t come from any one organisation. The attack in Jakarta was executed, authorities there say, by Indonesian jihadists who trained with the Islamic State. The attack in Ouagadougou, though, was carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an organisation whose obituary has been written several times over. The second lesson is this: The use of conventional military force against terrorist groups doesn’t guarantee an end to terrorism. French forces have been fighting AQIM for years now, in an endless battle of attrition that has raged across the deserts of North Africa’s Sahel. In West Asia, a multinational coalition has pounded the Islamic State. Though these interventions have degraded jihadist forces, they have not, and will not, succeed in annihilating them. The third and most important lesson, thus, is this: The critical line of defence against terrorism is a well-trained and well-equipped domestic police force, capable of interdicting and responding to attacks, thus mitigating their impact.
For India, this last lesson is not a trivial one. Ever since 26/11, India’s higher police management has spent thousands of crores on upgrading counter-terrorism capacity. The results, though, can at best be described as patchy. Though most states and major cities now have élite special weapons and tactics units —Mumbai’s Force One is the best-known example — their training and infrastructure are often ramshackle. Force One, for example, does not have a dedicated campus of its own. Then, the training of first responders — the constables who will have to deal with a situation until special forces arrive — is dismal. Few constables even get an annual session on a firing range, let alone proper training. Élite national forces, like the National Security Guard, also show signs of disturbing deficiencies in training, ruthlessly exposed in Pathankot, where they caused unnecessary losses of personnel and protracted delays in eliminating the terrorists. Finally, the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing remain understaffed and underfunded.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had come to office promising vigorous action to deal with these problems. That, regrettably, has not happened. Indeed, the most significant action the Union government has taken so far has been slashing part of the ministry of home affairs’ budget for national police modernisation. New Delhi needs to initiate a national audit of police and intelligence preparedness, based on global best-practices and standards, and set forth a clear, time-bound schedule for these to be met. There is no alternative.