Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hit and miss with Indian terror attacks

Aug 29, 2007
By Ajai Sahni

Terrorist attacks on soft targets have been occurring with sickening regularity across India (outside of Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast), at intervals of about two to three months over the past few years, and last weekend's twin bombing in Hyderabad falls squarely into this pattern.

On Saturday evening, 43 people were killed and dozens injured in blasts at a laser show and an eatery in the Kothi locality in


Reacting on television shortly after, federal Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, with suitable gravitas, informed the nation: "It is a terrorist strike" (the ignorant public was, perhaps, at risk of mistaking it for a humanitarian strike). Lest the profundity of this observation be lost on national audiences, Gupta, for good measure, trotted out his own practiced cliche for all such occasions: "It is a dastardly act," he intoned.

Such attacks, however, are progressively becoming iconic manifestations of utterly senseless violence. This is terrorism without strategy, purpose or direction. The succession of attacks over the past five years across India have secured no recognizable tactical or strategic terrorist objective and, once the media storm after each incident dies out, they leave little trace of impact on the administrative order, policing, or the lives of common people.

Apart from the tragic consequences for the direct victims of terrorism and their families (and they are, by definition, merely incidental to the terrorist objective), these attacks leave little trace, and literally weeks - indeed, often days or hours - after the incident, the target areas return to a forgetful, if perverse, "normalcy", as do local and national authorities. In terms of structural impact on national or local politics, governance and public intercourse, the consequences of the succession of incidents over the past years have been negligible.

This factor has been the more pronounced as a result of the fact that after the December 2001 attack on India's Parliament, there has been no significant Islamist terrorist attack on a strategic target. Despite all the clamor about "intelligence" and "security" failures, the fact is, Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist groupings - principally the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen - the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and their Indian collaborators, such as the Students Islamic Movement of India, have failed to strike at anything but the softest of soft targets outside Jammu and Kashmir.

Moreover, those killed have, with rare exception, been the poor - and their lives have little value for India's elite, except when elections come around and the political parties are compelled, briefly, to solicit their votes.

Nevertheless, each terrorist attack provides the occasion for posturing and creating a little storm of uninformed "analysis" in the national media teacup, as well as for a continuous sequence of motivated leaks from intelligence and investigative agencies.

Hence central agencies leak the information that, since March, they have known that 8 kilograms of military-grade explosives (RDX) were delivered to a HUJI operative in Hyderabad, but that "for its own reasons, the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh did not allow the kinds of aggressive - and unpopular - policing that the Central Bureau of Investigation and city police felt were necessary to secure the city".

It does not appear to be relevant to this critique that it was not military-grade RDX but locally available industrial explosives that are known to have been used in last weekend's twin blasts; nor is it clear what kind of "aggressive policing" would be required, either to find a little packet of 8 kilograms of RDX or to secure every potential soft target in a city of 6.25 million. It is useful, in this context, to note, however, that at least six modules or cells of Pakistan-backed terrorists have been located and neutralized in Hyderabad since 2004, the last of these on April 1. Indeed, the very fact that Islamist terrorists have failed to target strategic locations, and have been forced to limit their attacks to the softest of locations, would suggest that policing and intelligence have been reasonably successful.

As for "securing the city", that is, simply stated, an impossible task under existing conditions. For one, attacks are overwhelmingly no longer orchestrated by networks and cells established within the target city, and have progressively been transformed into synchronized multi-group operations coordinated by handlers most likely in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Individual members of these groups are simply directed by handlers to make evanescent and anonymous contact with members of other groups to provide specific materials and services: explosives, detonators, safe haven, bomb-making expertise and local support, and most disappear without trace long before the attack. It is only the low-grade cadres or mercenary elements charged with the "delivery" of the explosive devices to target areas who are occasionally recognized by witnesses and eventually arrested, but they have no idea of the broader participation in, and location or execution of, the larger conspiracy. Significantly, the planning and preparation components are ordinarily outside the (urban) target areas, in India's vast and virtually unpoliced greater areas of large cities and rural hinterland.

It is useful to reiterate that India's cities cannot be "secured" if its hinterlands remain entirely "unsecured", and India is a thoroughly under-policed country. It has an average police-to-population ratio of 122 officers per 100,000 civilians. Most Western countries have ratios ranging between 250 and 500 per 100,000, and the United Nations recommends a minimum norm of 222 per 100,000. Andhra Pradesh, the state of which Hyderabad is the capital, has a ratio of just 98 per 100,000, and is also tackling (fairly effectively) a raging Maoist insurgency.

Deficiencies of capacity are also endemic in the intelligence agencies. While disaggregated data are unavailable, it is useful to recall that previous reports have called for a tremendous augmentation of capacities, including manpower, a massive upgrading of technical, imaging, signal, electronic counter-intelligence and economic intelligence capabilities, and a systemwide reform of conventional human-intelligence (HUMINT) gathering.

Most of these recommendations remain unimplemented, beyond a few symbolic changes. One recommendation calls for a "multi-agency setup" to confront the challenges of terrorism, and this was, at least formally, implemented through the creation of two new wings under the Intelligence Bureau: the Multi-Agency Center (MAC) and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI).

MAC was charged with collecting and coordinating terrorism-related information from across the country; the JTFI is responsible for passing on this information to the state governments. Regrettably, both MAC and JTFI remain understaffed, under-equipped and ineffective, with even basic issues relating to their administration unsettled. Their principal objective, the creation of a national terrorism database, has made little progress.

Augmenting HUMINT capacities has also lagged far behind requirements. In 2001, the Girish Saxena Committee recommended at least an additional 3,000 cadres in the Intelligence Bureau. According to available information, until now, just 800 additional posts have been sanctioned, though the requirements would have expanded dramatically over the intervening years. As with the larger administrative apparatus in India, there has been a long, slow process of deterioration in the country's intelligence and policing capabilities - perhaps not in absolute terms, but certainly in terms of capacities lagging well behind the magnitude and pace of emerging challenges.

The specifics of the twin blasts in Hyderabad are yet to be determined - and given the recent operating methods of Islamist terrorist groupings, it is possible that, as with investigations into earlier blasts, inquiries will hit a dead end.

Crucially, however, if India is to devise effective counter-terrorism policies, strategies and tactics, the country's leaders and intelligence and enforcement agencies will have to go beyond the current incident-led patterns of response and analysis, and address the gaping capacity deficits that afflict every aspect of security and intelligence administration, policing, and law-and-order management in the country.

A strategy to exert pressure and impose costs on the external sponsors and supporters of terrorism, and capacities to implement such a strategy, are also necessary. If India is to secure its cities, its hinterlands cannot be abandoned to lawlessness, and its hostile neighbors to a policy of hopeful supplication.

Ajai Sahni is editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.

(Published with permission from the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal .)

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