“Future historians,” wrote Walter Lacquer, “will be intrigued and puzzled by the staggering disproportion between the enormous amount of talk about terrorism and the tiny effort made to combat it.”

Ever since the savage Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Mumbai in November 2008, Indians have been demanding that the government add muscle to the country’s counter-terrorism defences. Speaking at a lecture organised by the Intelligence Bureau on December 23, 2009, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram laid out the government’s response, outlining his vision for the “broad architecture of a new security system that will serve the country today and in the foreseeable future.”

India’s counter-terrorism response, Mr. Chidambaram said, will soon be led by a single agency with control over intelligence, operations and investigation — the National Counter-Terrorism Centre. The NCTC will have access to counter-terrorism intelligence generated by India’s covert services, as well as authority over the National Security Guard and the National Intelligence Agency. Newly-created electronic databases will make up the NCTC backbone, providing it with vast access to real-time information. India’s new intelligence czar, the Director-General of the NCTC, will report to a Minister with just one responsibility — ensuring India’s internal security.

Will the new organisation bring about a radical improvement in India’s anaemic internal security infrastructure? Or will it, as critics contend, prove to be just one more ingredient in the rich alphabet soup of semi-functional organisations kept warm by India’s bourgeoning security budget?

Ghost of Mumbai

As Mr. Chidambaram acknowledged in his speech, the ghost of Mumbai has haunted his year in office. “In a few days from today,” he said, “2009 will come to a close, and I sincerely hope that we may be able to claim that the year was free from terror attacks. However, there is the danger of a terror-free year inducing complacency, signs of which can be seen everywhere.”

Mr. Chidambaram’s claim of a terrorism-free year wasn’t quite accurate. Three hundred and seventy-eight civilians, and 311 security force personnel, estimates by the authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal show, died in Maoist violence through 2009 — numbers that will likely be revised upwards when the official figures are released next year. Assam saw 386 fatalities, a majority of them civilians and security forces. Even Jammu and Kashmir, where civilian fatalities fell to a historic low of 55, saw fighting which claimed the lives of 72 security personnel.

But the Union Home Minister’s turn of phrase demonstrates the deep impact the November 2008 carnage had on policymaking in New Delhi. Killings by terrorists in India’s heartlands have become part of the rhythm of everyday life — what the Pakistani-American author, Rafia Zakaria, evocatively calls “the new normal.” Mumbai, by contrast, demonstrated that terrorism could hit India’s élites and damage the country’s economic growth. Mr. Chidambaram’s proposals are driven by the imperative of preventing similar mass-casualty attacks.

How real is the threat of such attacks taking place again? Most experts believe the question ought to be when — not if — they will occur.

National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan has been asking in recent meetings with key officials from the intelligence services why no major terrorist attack took place in 2009. Many in the intelligence services believe that the successful disruption of jihadist networks in India made it difficult for groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to stage major attacks in India. Moreover, they argue, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate can no longer allow its nationals to participate directly in major operations for fear of international opprobrium.

But most experts believe the cessation in major jihadist attacks is temporary. Jihadist training camps are up and running — ready for the time when international pressure eases on Pakistan. Already, the ISI has been testing India’s responses by targeting its interests abroad. In October, the Afghan authorities blamed Pakistan-based terrorists for an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, while the police in Bangladesh prevented an attempted assault on the mission in Dhaka the following month.

Capability deficits

Will Mr. Chidambaram’s plans help deter — or, at least, better defend against — a new attack?

India’s NCTC is similar to the United States National Counter-Terrorism Centre, which Mr. Chidambaram visited last year, and came away impressed. Established by the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, the NCTC was intended to close the gaps in intelligence-sharing that allowed a number of September 11, 2001 hijackers to enter the U.S., although the Central Intelligence Agency had identified them as terror suspects.

The Nigerian-born jihadist, Umar Farooq Mutallab’s evasion of the NCTC computer systems that should have stopped him from staging a near-successful attempt to bomb an Amsterdam-Detroit flight illustrates the system’s limitations.

Last month, Nigerian banker Alhaji Umaru Mutallab told officials at the U.S. embassy in Abuja of his concerns about his son. In July, he said, the family had agreed to Mutallab’s request to study Arabic in Yemen. But the father became worried about his safety when Mutallab sent a text message severing all connections with his family. The information provided by Mutallab’s family made its way into the computers of the U.S. NCTC.

But it had over half-a-million names on its database — numbers no intelligence system can reasonably be expected to seriously investigate. Indeed, the U.S. has in recent years cut back the number of individuals it denies entry to flights from 30,000 to 18,000, responding to complaints that innocent travellers were being harassed. Chennai-based businessman Abdul Haye Mohammad Illyas sparked off an international travel alert in December 2004, for no better reason than that his name was similar to a key al-Qaeda operative.

India’s experience of the Multi-Agency Centre — the intelligence clearing-house which will form the kernel of the NCTC — has been similar. Intelligence services have been inundated with information passed on by often unreliable informants. Early this year, uncorroborated intelligence that the LeT had despatched six pilots — and, for some mysterious reason, 30 women — to stage terror attacks sparked off nationwide panic.

“We need better systems to collate intelligence,” says a senior IB official, “but also the resources to assess and corroborate it. You cannot produce the people needed to do that overnight.”

Words like these aren’t spoken idly. India’s Research and Analysis Wing, sources have told The Hindu, has just over a dozen officer-grade employees with expert Pakistani language and area expertise — and less than that familiar with key areas of concern like Central Asia and the Arab world. The IB, for its part, suffers from a chronic shortage of experts familiar with the northeast, and the adivasi languages spoken by the rank and file of Maoist groups.

Filling these gaps has proved less than easy. International relations and area studies programmes, even at premier institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, are poorly funded. Hiring policies designed to funnel new graduates into the civil services, as well as reluctance to look to the private sector for technology and knowledge, have further crippled the intelligence services.

India never carried out a full assessment of the lessons of Mumbai but the available evidence does not suggest that an NCTC-type mechanism would have deterred the attacks. The Maharashtra government’s official enquiry, led by former intelligence officer Ram Pradhan, noted that the intelligence services had issued at least 17 alerts on Lashkar attacks on the city starting from August 7, 2006. In both May and August 2008, they issued warnings that the Taj Mahal hotel and the Oberoi hotel would be targeted. The Mumbai police officials took the warnings seriously, the enquiry found, but lacked the resources to mount an effective response.

Put simply, no institutional response is likely to be effective until it is supported by an effective police infrastructure.

Mr. Chidambaram’s speech makes clear that he understands the problem. “The failure to perform essential police functions,” he noted, “is where the rot lies even today.” For those police functions to be effectively performed, he noted, the States would have to hire 400,000 constables in the next two years. He pointed to the desperate need for better police infrastructure and training. But there is still no agreed national road map on how these needs will actually be met — and when.

Peter Clarke, head of the Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said in 2007: “the most important change in counter-terrorism in the U.K. has been the development of the relationship between the police and the security service [MI5].” He said “the joint working between the police and the MI5 has become recognised as a beacon of good practice.” That was possible because both MI5 and the police were extensively equipped and trained to deal with terrorism. In India, the process is just beginning — and at a pace which would put a tortoise to shame.

The key problem is not the lack of institutional arrangement for the management of India’s counter-terrorism response but system-wide deficiencies in skills and capabilities. Vision and hard work will be needed to address them.

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