assessments

Dec 8, 2008 | 14:01 GMT

12 mins read

India: Assessing the Counterterrorism Picture

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai provide a stark demonstration that India's security and counterterrorism assets are simply too poorly funded and organized to comprehensively address the militant threats faced by the country.
In the wake of the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai, India's ruling Congress party is desperately trying to demonstrate at home and abroad that concrete steps are being taken to improve India's national security. After Home Minister Shivraj Patil was replaced Nov. 30, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to strengthen maritime and air security, expand the National Security Guard and create a Federal Investigating Agency. Playing political musical chairs and expanding an already bloated bureaucracy, however, are unlikely to assuage the fears of Western corporations who now seriously doubt the capabilities of India's internal security forces. As the blame game in India intensifies, reports are now emerging that the Indian authorities actually had received intelligence from the United States more than a month in advance that warned of a pending attack by sea on Mumbai. Additionally, a pair of Islamist radicals from the Kashmiri group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) captured in early 2007 reportedly revealed during their interrogations that they and six other LeT members had arrived in Mumbai from Karachi via boat, split into pairs, headed to safe-houses provided by local supporters, and conducted pre-operational surveillance on a number of targets including the Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels. Even an Indian fishermen's union has now claimed that it warned the government that militants were using sea routes to smuggle ammunition beginning in September. Despite these warnings, the security forces in Mumbai were extremely ill-prepared to pre-empt the attack or to respond rapidly to contain the operation once it was in motion. From a broader perspective, the Mumbai attacks are a stark demonstration that India’s security and counterterrorism assets are simply too poorly funded and organized to comprehensively address the militant threats faced by the country.

The Indian Threat Environment

India has a number of internal security threats that continue to drain the nation's resources. In the Northeast, porous borders and the general lawlessness enable foreign intelligence agencies and other militant organizations to funnel people and weapons into India proper. Scores of tribal-based separatist movements in this region have long waged militant campaigns against each other and against the state. The most notable of these groups is the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which, alongside other militant outfits in the region, gets backing from Pakistan's and Bangladesh's intelligence agencies, who have an interest in keeping India's hands tied. India's most active militant threat comes from Naxalites, or Maoist rebels, who have been waging a 40-year popular insurrection against the government. The Naxalites have a force of approximately 15,000 cadres spread across 160 districts in the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal. They operate primarily in the lawless, densely forested areas of India's interior and use populist issues such as land acquisition for special economic zones, farmer rights, infrastructure development and opposition to corporate expansion to justify their militant campaign. Due to their strong support networks and proven ability to outmaneuver Indian paramilitary forces, the Naxalites have in many ways lived up to Singh's claim that they represent India's most serious internal security threat. The threat that receives the most attention, however, is concentrated in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where Islamist radicals aim to coerce India into ceding Muslim-majority Kashmir to Pakistan through a militant campaign. The Kashmiri Islamist groups have operated under a variety of different names, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and al-Badr. Many of these groups were developed and nurtured by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, but were forced to go underground after the Pakistani state came under pressure from both India and the United States in 2002 in the wake of a major attack on the Indian parliament. Since then, the links between the Pakistani state and its proxies in India have become murkier, with many of these groups becoming more autonomous and more closely linked to elements of al Qaeda in Pakistan as well as so-called ISI rogues who long ago had gone native with the jihadist ideology. As Pakistan has become more and more preoccupied with its own jihadist insurgency as well as its political and economic problems, the relations between the ISI and the Kashmiri Islamist groups has become increasingly strained. With greater independence and room to maneuver, many of these groups have succeeded in expanding their militant networks inside India proper. Most of their attacks have focused on inciting communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims by targeting religious sites, crowded marketplaces and cinemas in states with a history of religious violence. The Mumbai attacks a week ago crystallized suspicions that these homegrown militants, in close collaboration with their Pakistan-based counterparts, were shifting to a more strategic, Western-focused target set.

Indian Internal Security

Despite the myriad threats confronting the country, India's internal security forces suffer deeply from corruption and red tape — as well as a persistent lack of training, funding, equipment, professionalism, motivation and coordination among agencies. While the country's army, navy and air force are better trained and better equipped, the forces responsible for internal security are still scrambling for resources and suffer from a number of inefficiencies. The internal security apparatus is divided into more than a dozen different paramilitary units that fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The biggest problem with this security set-up, however, is that the paramilitary units rarely coordinate with each other in sharing intelligence, training forces and developing counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. Ironically, just two days prior to the Mumbai attacks, Singh addressed some of these issues when he spoke to Indian police personnel and recommended that a task force chaired by the national security adviser produce a road map within 100 days detailing steps to be taken immediately and over the next several months to evolve a proper "networked security architecture." Singh warned that the public would lose faith in the country's internal security apparatus if a major terrorist attack slipped through the cracks, and he prophetically cautioned that "time is not on our side." The main problem to which Singh was alluding was the lack of interoperability between the paramilitary, intelligence and police forces. Though India's various paramilitary units mostly fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs, there is no unified command structure to oversee their activities for specific situations, such as a major terrorist attack. Moreover, the overall focus of most of the paramilitary forces has been on the rebel threats in the northeast, in the Naxalite-infested states and in Jammu and Kashmir. With most of these forces accustomed to operating in rural India against guerrilla fighters, the paramilitary arm of the Indian security apparatus is ill-equipped to combat urban terrorism in a city like Mumbai. In a situation like the Mumbai attacks, most of the security responsibility falls to India's police, trained to control riots, arrest criminals and address other typical law-and-order needs. The local police are the ones with their ears to the ground, and would usually be the most valuable intelligence source in a city as large and chaotic as Mumbai. Without any mechanism to integrate the first-responders in the police force with the more elite paramilitary and intelligence agencies, however, there is an information gap that will greatly threaten India's ability to respond to future threats. Additionally, India's police force is chronically under-trained, under-equipped and unmotivated. Indian police use antiquated shotguns and rifles that usually come secondhand from the armed forces, and are not equipped with body armor. Recent footage of Indian police at the scene of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai's busiest train station, showed officers carrying the .303 Lee-Enfield rifle that was developed in 1895. A police officer armed with a baton and an old rifle is extremely unlikely to have the motivation or confidence to battle diehard radical Islamists armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades. Moreover, since wages are so low (a police officer reportedly makes as much as an unskilled municipal worker) corruption in the police force runs rampant and recruitment is alarmingly low. According to New Delhi-based think-tank the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, there is an average 122 policemen for every 100,000 people in India, a figure far lower than the U.N.-reported average of 222. The National Security Guards (NSG), also known as the Black Cats, are India's only elite rapid-reaction counterterrorism force trained to respond to hijackings and hostage situations. The force is well-equipped and is reportedly modeled on elite European hostage rescue teams. However, it has proven incapable thus far of combating terrorist threats on short notice, especially when a large number of victims are involved. The NSG is based in Manesar in Haryana state, near the Indian capital, and is committed in large part to guarding Indian politicians. Since the force does not have its own aircraft, it took nearly eight hours just to fly the commandos into the city and get them into position during the Mumbai attacks. (That said, due to the high volume of targets in the Mumbai attacks, it would have been a daunting task for any number of hostage rescue and tactical teams to contain the threat rapidly, no matter how well trained they might have been.) The NSG's sluggish response to the Mumbai attack is what led Singh to announce recently that additional NSG units would be set up in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. The gunmen who carried out the Mumbai attacks were also well aware of the deficiencies in India's coast guard. The Indian coast guard, charged with monitoring the country's vast 4,670-mile coastline, has long been neglected by government authorities, despite repeated intelligence warnings that India could be attacked via an amphibious assault. In many ways, the local fisherman along the Maharshtra coast were more aware of suspicious activity, including previous reconnaissance operations by militants, than were the Indian coast guard forces. The weaknesses in India's coastal security are also of particular concern for major energy corporations such as Reliance, whose giant Jamnagar refinery sits on India's western coastline. India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) serve as the primary internal and external intelligence-collection agencies. These agencies also work closely with the military intelligence wings of the Ministry of Defense and other agencies such as the National Technical Research Organization. While the IB and RAW are extremely adept at targeted surveillance of espionage targets, particularly when it comes to on-the-ground human intelligence, the Indian intelligence apparatus is still lacking in its ability to collect, piece together and comprehensively analyze potential threats when they are unspecified. For example, a hypothetical IB agent surveilling the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai might have been able to pinpoint a meeting taking place between an ISI operative and his handler, but would have been more likely to overlook other suspicious activity happening to take place at the hotel at the same time, such as operatives furtively conducting pre-operational surveillance of targets or stockpiling suitcases full of munitions in a hotel room. A particular problem for multinational corporations (MNCs) is that the Indian intelligence agencies are unlikely to disseminate specific information on threats to MNCs operating in India, even if the threat runs a high chance of targeting the corporations themselves. While communication between the IB and MNCs has somewhat improved (two years ago the IB actually took steps to share information with private and public security officials on a radical Islamist threat against particular MNCs in major Indian cities), the amount of information the IB ends up disseminating to the MNCs is usually too vague for corporate security chiefs to act on it.

An Unpromising Future

While India's security agencies are still busy pointing fingers at each other for dropping the ball on the Mumbai attacks, the country is facing a much deeper problem as rest of the world comes to realize the gross inefficiencies in India's internal security apparatus. Already, MNCs are canceling business trips to India and sending foreign executives based there back to their home countries in the wake of attacks. Much of this is to be expected in the immediate aftermath of an attack as deadly and sophisticated as the one that took place in Mumbai, but this security dilemma is not one that many corporate security executives are going to be able to downplay in the longer term. Already, western MNCs have begun to second-guess their operations in India due to crumbling infrastructure, bureaucratic hassles, uneven regulations, rampant corruption, and rising wages. Adding a thick security layer to these issues will only exacerbate the concerns of many western MNCs, who are unwilling to risk having their employees killed in a terrorist attack. As militants operating in India focus on a more strategic, Western-oriented target set to strike a blow at the Indian economy, the onus is on the Indian government to demonstrate its seriousness in overhauling the country's internal security network; however, the potential for any such reforms to be implemented rapidly — or at all — remains low.

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