As India reels from the bloody aftermath of last month’s attacks in Mumbai, the stunned country is asking how a handful of terrorists were able to kill nearly 200, injure scores of others, and pull off what is increasingly being called “India’s 9/11.”
Last week, for instance, tens of thousands of angry Indians took to the streets in demonstrations – not against Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Pakistan-based, Islamic terrorist organization responsible for the attacks, but against their own politicians for not preventing yet another atrocity. In their sorrow and outrage, many Indians are asking how their government failed, yet again, in its responsibility to protect its people, especially when members of the political class were a target themselves in India’s most serious, previous terrorist attack, a 2001 assault on Parliament in New Delhi.
Driving the public furor are revelations that, like in the New Delhi attack, intelligence received before the Mumbai attacks indicated that the city was being targeted and the terrorists would come by sea. According to one Pakistani observer, several “low-profile attacks” were even carried out in different parts of India as rehearsals for the Mumbai assault. Somehow, this critical information, “lost in the system,” was never acted upon.
Several theories have been put forward to account for these political and intelligence failures. One is that the Intelligence Bureau, the agency responsible for India’s internal security, simply is not large enough to protect a country of 1.1 billion people. Moreover, of the agency’s 20,000 employees, only 2,000 are actually engaged in the all-important field work that can be used to uncover terrorist plots before they are carried out. Understaffed and unfocused, India’s intelligence services simply lack the capacity to infiltrate terrorist organizations.
Intelligence sharing is another problem. India’s approximately one dozen intelligence agencies refuse to share information with each other and do not answer to a “central command.” Wilson John, a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and the author of Karachi: A Terror Capital in the Making, said that even in the Mumbai attack, all emergency response units were operating in isolation. “There was no one guy in charge, which is why 10 guys were able to hold off hundreds of men deployed from the security forces,” said John.
Further hindering the country’s counterterrorist efforts is that intelligence lapses are compounded by equipment failures. Consider that the Mumbai terrorists were killed only after the intervention of India’s National Security Guards (NSG), a special counter-terrorism unit. Tragically, it took the NSG nine hours to get to Mumbai from New Delhi because its airplane was unavailable. The NSG’s equipment, meanwhile, was outdated or simply lacking.
India’s police might be expected to step in where its intelligence agencies have fallen short. Instead, there is evidence that the police contribute to India’s terrorism problems. In their zeal to arrest Islamic terrorists, they often brutalize innocent, young Muslim men, who then join domestic Muslim terrorist and extremist organizations. A better-trained police, experts say, is vital to India’s long-term success against terrorism threats.
The political class is by no means exempt from blame. For instance, the government failed to overhaul the country’s domestic security operations after the 2001 New Delhi attack. The main reason, it seems, was cowardice: The Congress Party, whose ruling coalition enjoys support among India’s Muslim voters, did not want to alienate a key voting block by enacting tough, anti-terrorism measures. If anything, the Congress Party weakened India’s counterterrorism apparatus, abolishing the 2001 Protection of Terrorism Ordinance backed by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party.
The BJP is not much better. It protects Hindu extremists and terrorists who have staged attacks against Indian Muslims, thereby aiding the goal of extremists on both sides, and of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, who hope to reignite communal riots in India that match, or exceed, those that erupted in 1947. To this end, mosques and Hindu temples are being targeted for bombings, as extremists on both sides hope to capitalize on sectarian violence. The BJP is still judged stronger on national security – observers of India’s political scene are expecting voters to swing to the BJP in next year’s elections as a backlash from the Mumbai attacks. But its reputation has come at the cost of a national consensus that would serve as a bulwark against terrorism, foreign and domestic.
Not all is bleak in India. While the country still has a way to go toward improving its intelligence structure, a crucial first step was made with the recent proposal of a national intelligence oversight committee to gain control of its disjointed network of agencies. India is also considering launching a covert war against the terrorists’ camps in Pakistan. Both measures would move the country to an unusual position against terrorism: on the offensive.
In staging the Mumbai attacks, the terrorists had hoped “to stop the heart of India from beating.” Not only did they fail in their fanatical ambition, but in spurring much-needed changes in India’s security forces, they may have ensured their failure for years to come.