February 22, 2013

Lack of effort leaves big gap in anti-terror architecture

B Raman

Thursday's blasts in Hyderabad cannot be categorised as mass fatality terrorism. The blasts were directed at soft targets in a crowded area. Details available so far do not indicate what could have been the motive or who might have been the perpetrators. The police, as well as the public, should refrain from speculation that could mislead and distort the investigation.

The improvised explosive devices did not have any unique signature. The explosive used does not appear to have been of a sophisticated kind. Fertiliser-based ammonium nitrate, which is easy to procure and which can be lethal when mixed with certain chemicals, is suspected to have been used. For many years now, terrorists in many countries have been using ammonium nitrate-based IEDs for acts of terrorism.

Expertise in fabrication of IEDS using ammonium nitrate as the core material is available in many web sites run by terror organisations. No special training is required in the matter. In western countries, counter-terrorism agencies have been able to reduce the use of ammonium nitrate by terrorists by imposing strict regulations on their storage and sale to persons who are not genuine farmers. We are yet to impose and enforce similar regulations in India. If it turns out that ammonium nitrate has been used once again for an act of terror, priority should be given to steps for imposing such regulations in India.

Our counter-terrorism agencies continue to face the threat of sporadic acts of terrorism carried out by individuals or groups wanting to give vent to their anger against the state or other communities. While our police and intelligence agencies are able to collect intelligence regarding sustained acts of terrorism by groups with known objectives, targets and modus operandi, they face difficulty in monitoring activities of individuals and groups indulging in sporadic acts of terrorism triggered by anger of the moment due to some reason or the other. While sustained domestic terrorism of the kind witnessed before 2008 is under control, sporadic attacks of the kind witnessed in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad pose a problem for our intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies.

The state police have to play a more active role in preventing sporadic acts of terrorism and they have to be assisted by central agencies. The National Counter Terrorism Centre, which has remained a non-starter due to reservations from some states ruled by non-Congress parties, might have strengthened the joint capability of the Centre and states for preventing sporadic terrorism. The absence of a political consensus on the NCTC leaves a big gap in our counter-terrorism architecture.

We face three kinds of terrorism - state-sponsored terrorism emanating from Pakistan, domestic terrorism of a sustained nature and domestic terrorism of a sporadic kind. While the threat of state-sponsored terrorism from Pakistan continues, it has not repeated itself after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Domestic terrorism of a sustained nature of the kind witnessed in 2007 and 2008, due to the activities of the Indian Mujahideen, has been disrupted by the action taken by our central agencies and the state police to identify and disrupt their sleeper cells. But terrorism of the sporadic kind continues as seen in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad

P Chidambaram, who took over as home minister after the 26/11 terror strikes, managed to strengthen our capabilities against all three kinds of terrorism. His drive, though sometimes controversial as in case of NCTC, kept our agencies on their toes. The kind of vigorous leadership that he provided to counter-terrorism efforts, has been missing since Sushil Kumar Shinde took over from him last year. Counter-terrorism leadership is again in a state of decline as it was before 26/11.

Terrorists - whether the Pakistan State-sponsored or the domestic kind - are looking for weaknesses in our counter-terrorism architecture which they can exploit to step up their activities. Incidents like those of Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad and our inability to detect them and identify the perpetrators definitively, will enable them as well as Pakistan to take advantage of the weaknesses that seem to be re-emerging in our counter-terrorism capabilities.

Without effective and dynamic leadership, even the best of counter-terrorism machinery will fail to deliver. Such leadership and drive have been missing under Shinde's stewardship of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Prime Minister, assisted by his National Security Adviser and the National Security Council Secretariat, which is part of the PMO, has to play a more active role for reversing this decline. Otherwise, we may be in for another nasty surprise as we faced on 26/11.

The writer is additional secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India


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