Computer analysis can enhance counter-terrorism capabilities, says this study

A hundred security forces personnel are needed to find and defeat one terrorist. That is one approach in which every jungle hideout in J&K, mountain cave in Afghanistan, or an apartment in a town is watched, searched or raided. Another uses technology as the better means to find and eliminate terrorists. Satellite surveillance, wireless interception, infrared photos and drones used in combination lead security forces to terrorist safe houses, meeting places, and vehicles in which they travel. Over the years, the nature of terrorist organisations, camps and weapons, and communication facilities have changed. Terrorists and insurgents rarely work from large jungle camps, or use heavy weapons or use primitive instruments to communicate. Today they are generally one or more steps ahead of security forces in technical capabilities. Indian Mujahideen (IM) has shown that even with simple instruments and low cost strategies it can regularly target and cause damage in Indian population centres.

Since looking for small terrorist groups in cities and metros is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, a new strategy is being used by many states including India. This requires examining information or inputs from multiple sources to identify patterns and habits of terrorist leaders and groups that can provide a lead to impending attacks. These can be families and friends, meeting places, messages on social media and advertisements etc. This also includes contacts across society amongst the youth, colleges, traders and commercial activity.

Every kind of information is churned into the data basket to find early signs of terrorist plans. This is only possible through the use of computers. Nothing is considered unimportant in this quest for clues and leads, which can assist in finding the ‘holy grail’ of the intelligence trail. No wonder almost all states snoop for such information through intelligence and private agencies, even by violating the privacy of their citizens.

Applying to IM

Indian Mujahideen: Computational Analysis and Public Policy, applies this specifically to IM, the organisation which has carried out deadly attacks against innocent citizens in different cities. The study is based on information in the public domain but nevertheless provides valuable insights. The study and its conclusions have been praised by experts in the U.S., Israel and India. The authors note that three advances have revolutionised the study of behaviour of both individuals and groups. First, the wide and rapid information dissemination on internet has made available greater than ever information on terrorist groups. Second, text analysis techniques have enhanced our capability to better search the data. Third, huge advances in ‘data mining’ allow state agencies to track any number of variables used by terrorists for predicting terrorist attacks.

The authors describe policy analytics methods which merge elements of mathematical logic, logic programming, and integer linear programming to evolve a Policy Computational Algorithm. Using this method, the book lays out startling conclusions on patterns of behaviour of both terrorist organisations and state agencies. It recommends specific policy measures which can make a difference in the counter terrorist actions of the government. An examination of conditions which have preceded attacks launched by the IM in public places has been used to find indicators of future attacks. Thus IM attacks on public places have been seen preceded by five months of warming diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan. They are also preceded by IM leaders’ conferences by four months before the attack. IM also starts claiming responsibility for other attacks three months before a next attack. Two months before IM attacks on public sites, IM issues statements about its campaign, intentions and strategy. A pattern of special interest is that about two months before an attack, there seems to be an increase in the arrest of IM personnel.

Why publicity?

As the authors candidly state, these patterns are not necessarily causative. They are however patterns which can be used as ‘canaries in the coalmine’, to be used by law enforcement agencies collaborating against terrorism. These can be used to reset the environment in which the IM operates. It is not as if Indian intelligence agencies are not implementing some of these policy choices, but a logical model reconfirms them and adds more possibilities. An important variable is of the publicity given and credit claimed by state and Central organisations for IM arrests. The authors rightly warn, such arrests do not disrupt IM from carrying out future attacks. On the other hand, publicity to details of arrests only leads to the IM benefiting from the news and learning new lessons.

In a country of India’s size and variety, data sufficiency is not a problem. In fact, surfeit of data is the challenge. States and the Centre have different priorities and perceptions on what can or should be shared between them in law and order and terrorism-related activities. An IM operative arrested while crossing the border from a neighbouring country into Punjab or West Bengal may have a direct link with Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. If data sharing, rapid transmission of information and combined police actions are flawed, IM and other anti national organisations will continue to succeed in their plans. The way to introduce synergy in this is through a national organisation which can coordinate information, without in any way detracting from the powers of state security and intelligence agencies.

The authors, who include a respected former head of India’s CBI, have commended the concept of a National Counter Terrorism Centre. The book rightly posits that intelligence failures are of two kinds. The first is of failure to provide advance information and the second is failure to see the whole picture from available facts. Data appears unrelated when seen in isolation, but when carefully correlated almost illuminates the danger zone. This cannot be achieved without Delhi and state capitals sharing, in other words surrendering, a portion of their dourly defended turfs. It is time political leaders faced with new threats to India — and that is what IM and similar entities amount to — find the way forward.

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