Seeing through a glass darkly: on combating terrorism

To deal with the terror threat, there must be far greater sharing of intelligence among agencies worldwide

Yet another anniversary of the November 26, 2008 terror attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai has come and gone. Much has changed since then and terror has evolved into an even more dangerous phenomenon. Recent variants represent a paradigmatic change in the practice of violence.

A different genre

It is difficult to recognise the new generation of terrorists as a mere extension of the earlier lot of radical Islamist terrorists who were influenced by the teachings of the Egyptian thinker, Sayyid Qutb, and the Palestinian Islamist preacher, Abdullah Azzam, and adopted the practical theology of the Afghan warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani. There is less theology today and the new age terrorist seems to belong to an altogether different genre of terrorism.

This is not to say that the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai were not different in the methodology and the tactics used in the September 11, 2001 attack in New York City. Nevertheless, the spate of recent attacks in Europe and parts of Asia, from 2015 to 2017 — beginning with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, the major incidents at Brussels and Istanbul Ataturk airports as well as the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, all in 2016, to the string of attacks in London, Stockholm, Barcelona and New York, in 2017 — are very different in structure and the morphology from attacks of an earlier period.

Standing out from the crowd

A large number of terror attacks in the past three years have been attributed to the handiwork of the Islamic State (IS), and reveal its leaning towards the “nihilism” of Sayyid Qutb. It is this which distinguishes the IS from many of the other radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The IS’s recruitment techniques, especially its ability to proselytise over the Internet, including “direct to home jihad” as also its more sanguinary brand of violence, set it apart from earlier variants of radical Islamist terror.


Even while the IS has gained a great deal of prominence due to its brand of violence, other terror networks have continued to be no less active. For example, al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The Boko Haram in Africa has been responsible for more killings than most people would realise. Closer home, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network have carried out several spectacular attacks inside Afghanistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have carried out several attacks inside Pakistan. Pakistan provides the wherewithal and the support to terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad to launch well-planned attacks on Indian targets.

Most of these outfits continue to adopt earlier methodologies. These have proved no less effective than those followed by the IS. The terror attack on a mosque in North Sinai, Egypt in November this year, which killed over 230 persons, is one such example. In December, the TTP was responsible for a terror attack on an agricultural training institute in Peshawar, Pakistan. Differences among terror outfits, do not, however, preclude a complicated pattern of relationships when it comes to operational aspects.

Incorrect perception

Understanding the constantly altering trajectory of terror is important before charges of intelligence failure are levelled. It has become axiomatic to attack agencies of intelligence failure whenever a major terror attack takes place. This need not be the case in every instance. The usual charge levelled is of the failure of intelligence agencies “to connect the dots”. Most often, this is not true. There are many other reasons for adequate intelligence not being available to prevent a terror attack. The danger is that a wrong diagnosis could prevent further improvements in intelligence collection and analysis.


One common fallacy is that intelligence agencies have remained static, are rooted in the past, and that their personnel are inadequately trained to handle current day intelligence tasks. While there is room for improvement, it is a mistake to presume that intelligence agencies have not made rapid progress and kept up with the times. Intelligence agencies today are well-versed in the latest techniques of intelligence gathering and analysis. Agencies obtain vast amounts of information from both human and technical intelligence, not excluding signal intelligence and electronic intelligence, intelligence from satellites and photo reconnaissance, etc. This is apart from open source intelligence.

Agencies employ data mining techniques and are familiar with pattern recognition software. Today, noise and signals constitute valuable meta-data. Analysing meta-data has produced more precise information and intelligence than is possibly envisaged, and agencies well recognise the value and utility of this.

In addition, intelligence agencies have become highly adept in monitoring and exploiting open source material. Mapping and analysis of social networks is today a critical aspect of their work. This is especially useful when it comes to unearthing covert terror networks. Many intelligence agencies today have an extensive database of several thousands of terrorists and potential terrorists.

Admittedly, intelligence agencies, like many other organisations, are risk-prone. They do make mistakes. Intelligence analysts, like analysts in other fields, are particularly vulnerable. Problems also arise from inadequate sharing of intelligence across institutions and countries. All these, however, are a far cry from the charge of an inability or failure “to connect the dots”.

The real problem is that when dealing with terrorism and terror networks, no two situations in the actual world are identical. The nature of threats is such that they continue to evolve all the time. Both the 2001 terror attack in New York and the November 2008 attack in Mumbai were one of a kind with few parallels at the time. Anticipating an attack of this nature remains in the area of an “intelligence gap” rather than an “intelligence failure”. Most experts explain an intelligence gap as one denoting an absence of intelligence output while an intelligence failure is one where, based on available evidence, no warning was issued.

Newer challenges

One of the major challenges that all intelligence agencies face is a qualitative understanding of the newer, and many post-modern threats. These newer generation threats, including those by terror groups and outfits, often lie “below the radar” or beyond the horizon. Anticipating such threats and their nature requires intelligence agencies to be constantly ahead of the curve. Anticipating newer threats is only partly facilitated by today’s technical advances such as new computing and communication technologies. However, these alone are not often enough to meet today’s intelligence needs.


As problems become more complicated, and as terror networks become even more sophisticated, there has to be recognition that the situation demands better understanding of factors that are at work. Levelling mere charges or accusations against intelligence agencies of a failure to anticipate an attack by not “connecting the dots” could be misleading, if not downright dangerous. All professional analysts in whichever field they operate face the same problem as intelligence agencies, and vividly outlined by David Omand, a former U.K. Intelligence and Security Coordinator as “seeing through a glass darkly when the information available to them is incomplete or partially hidden”.

Alongside this, and to fill the gap, there is a case for far greater sharing of intelligence and information among intelligence agencies worldwide than it exists at present. This is important to prevent another terror attack on the lines of the Mumbai 2008 attack. It now transpires that certain foreign intelligence agencies had additional information about the possible attack which was not shared in time, and which led to an intelligence gap. This could have been avoided.

More important, such a situation should never arise in the future. Terror and terrorism is a universal phenomenon. Every nation is bound to share the intelligence available with it to prevent a possible major terror attack.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 6:20:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/seeing-through-a-glass-darkly/article21946959.ece

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