The challenges of maximum terror

“I have been warning Pakistan,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in a speech early this month, “not to play games with us. The last game should be the Mumbai attacks. Stop it there…If terrorists from Pakistan try to carry out any attacks in India, they will not only be defeated but will be retaliated against.” Today India and the world will mourn the 166 children, women, and men who died in the carnage executed by a Lashkar-e-Taiba assault squad on November 26, 2008. It will honour the sacrifice of the 18 police and National Security Guard personnel and the dedicated staff of the hotels who gave their lives fighting the terrorists. Mr. Chidambaram’s strong words underline the challenge that stares us in the face. Unfortunately, India’s response to the challenges thrown up by Mumbai has been limited. For our cities and their citizens to be protected from future mass-casualty attacks as best as possible, a dispassionate assessment of two issues becomes imperative. First, how well has the country done in meeting the internal challenge of ensuring that its cities are better protected against large-scale terrorist attack than Mumbai was a year ago? Secondly, how much has been achieved in the diplomatic and political effort to ensure that Pakistan dismantles the infrastructure of jihadist groups operating against India from its soil? The answer to both questions, sadly, is less than heartening.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Union Home Ministry began providing States resources for an ambitious programme of police modernisation. In the handful of major cities where such programmes have been initiated, the results have been mixed. Police in Mumbai have acquired new weapons and mobility platforms — equipment, it must be noted, on the reliability and appropriateness of which experts are divided — but remain woefully deficient in training and emergency-response procedures. Many of the special forces set up in the wake of the attacks have drawn on the resources of military instructors who simply do not have the special skill-sets that counter-terrorism policing demands. Part of the problem is that India does not have adequate numbers of experts in training special weapons and tactics units as well as other emergency response teams. Nor does it have a national programme to redress this capability-deficit. While cities from Singapore to New York have carried out full-scale field exercises to test their preparedness against large-scale terrorist attacks, not one Indian city has conducted comparable rehearsals. Delegates from across the world who visited New Delhi to review security arrangements for the Commonwealth Games were dismayed by their quality. Given the fact that the infrastructure of Pakistan-based jihadist groups remains largely intact, efforts to address the capability deficits in India’s police system must be given top priority.

Dealing with Pakistan poses another kind of difficult challenge. In the wake of November’s carnage, Islamabad assured the United Nations Security Council that it would proscribe the Lashkar’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. A year on, it is yet to do so. Key suspects believed to be involved in the Mumbai attacks, like Lashkar military commander Muzammil Bhat, have not been held. Worse, offices of the Lashkar and groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad continue to function; and their propaganda magazines, so critical to recruitment, are still being published. Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s detectives arrested Chicago residents Tahawwur Rana and David Coleman Headley on charges, among others, of participating in a Lashkar plot to attack the National Defence College in New Delhi. The National Investigation Agency is now exploring the possibility that the men may have run an undercover Lashkar cell in India, which facilitated pre-attack reconnaissance by the Pakistan-based terrorist organisation. Bangladesh authorities, for their part, have held suspects involved in an alleged attempt to attack the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. To their credit, since last year, India’s intelligence services have prevented at least half a dozen jihadist operations. Pakistan’s military-led security establishment seems reluctant to act against jihadists targeting India, partly because of the long-term policy of building such ‘assets’ against a traditional antagonist and also because it is unwilling to confront new enemies at a time when it is engaged in a grinding struggle against Islamist guerrillas in the country’s northwest. While engaging constructively with its neighbour, India needs to find new ways and means to get it to deliver on its promises to shut down terrorism directed at its citizens. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Home Minister Chidambaram’s words point us in the direction of just why these issues need to be taken seriously: another major terrorist attack on India could have consequences that would destabilise both countries, and could conceivably precipitate a regional crisis. In both Islamabad and New Delhi, Mr. Chidambaram’s speech was interpreted as a warning that India would respond to future mass-casualty attacks by targeting jihadist bases and logistical facilities in Pakistan. That, in turn, could snowball into a conflict that would bring misery to all of the peoples of South Asia. No rational person would seek such an outcome, but another major terrorist attack could generate a hawkish public mood in India that politicians would not be able to resist. India, Pakistan, and the world must beware of the possibility that the last shots of last November’s maximum terror attacks on Mumbai might not yet have been fired — and do all that is in their power to avert a far larger tragedy.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 8:14:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/The-challenges-of-maximum-terror/article16894235.ece

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