Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mumbai 26/11 – Lest We Forget

This post is not a re-run of the tragic 60 hours which the city of Mumbai was subjected to; it is a reminder to the nation to be vigilant and review the preparedness and plug the gaps in our security. 

Four years have passed since Mumbai was witness to one of the worst terror attacks. A fedayeen or fidayeen (suicide) squad of ten Pakistanis belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba  who entered Mumbai through the sea wreaked havoc at some of South Mumbai’s significant landmarks such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) Railway Station, Cama Hospital, the iconic Taj Hotel, the Trident and Chabad House (Nariman House) and Leopold Café. The November 2008 carnage left about 166 persons killed and more than 300 injured and equally important it left the commercial capital and the nation shocked. These series of well coordinated attacks caught Mumbai and its police off guard; the police force was not prepared or equipped to face this kind of a challenge. This unprecedented situation led to a failure of command and control and resulted in chaos. In the face of this adversity, there were individual acts of valour displayed by officers and men in khaki who took upon themselves to brave the terrorists’ bullets against all odds. A mention must be made of the brave attempts made by police personnel with obsolete weapons who took on the terror duo Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan at CST, the then Additional Commissioner of Police Sadanand Date who along with a few brave personnel fought the terrorists, Kasab and Ismail at Cama Hospital, the three brave officers Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar who were martyred in the lane leading to Cama Hospital and late Assistant Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble whose bravado was instrumental in Kasab being captured alive. The bulk of the responsibility of neutralizing the other eight terrorists who were holed up at the Taj, the Trident and Chabad House were shouldered by the commandoes of the elite National Security Guards who were flown in from their main base at Manesar, Gurgaon.

The attacks on Mumbai showed that India, in general and metropolis like Mumbai were extremely vulnerable to a fedayeen-type terrorist strike. The attacks demonstrated that there were serious shortcomings in matters of intelligence gathering and analysis and response mechanisms. Thus the Central and the Maharashtra governments embarked on an ambitious program of overhauling the security infrastructure.

Firstly, at the centre, India set up the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in December 2008. The Act establishing the Agency empowers the Centre to probe terror attacks in any part of the country, covering offences, including challenge to the country's sovereignty and integrity, bomb blasts, hijacking of aircraft and ships, and attacks on nuclear installations.  In the opinion of this author, setting up a new outfit after a debacle was another case of knee-jerk reaction on India’s part. Multiple agencies with over-lapping jurisdictions only result in turf wars and shirking of responsibility. 

The Government of India embarked on an ambitious plan of setting up the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) an intelligence sharing network which would collate data from the stand alone databases of the various agencies and ministries of the Government of India. NATGRID is being implemented in four phases, the first two of which will be operationalised by the year 2014 and the first data sets would be retrievable by early 2013.

According to Ajai Sahni, the Execute director of the Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal, by simply labelling organisations with names remnant of American agencies doesn’t make them effective. He argues, “by creating a new agency at the top of the pyramid you are not solving the problem. The problem of intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism is not at the agency level, it is the lack of capacity at the bottom. The problem is with training, man power, aptitude of law enforcement personnel on ground, application of technology and no one is fixing that. NCTC is replacing MAC, but MAC till now has been unable to create a terror database (formed in 2009), by changing how will the database come about. You are creating a new body that will run like the rest, so basically it will not run.”

The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) is a proposed federal anti-terror agency to be created in India modelled on the NCTC of the USA. The NCTC was mooted as an apex body, a single and effective point of control for all counter terrorism measures. The Indian Prime Minister had in his address to the Chief Ministers’ Conference in May 2012 stated that the antecedents of the NCTC lay in the recommendations by the Group of Ministers and by the Administrative Reforms Commission, commencing from the lessons learnt in Kargil.

Another move was the formation of four NSG hubs in major cities, namely, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad. It is difficult to say whether this move was sound or not as the hubs where the commandoes are based do not have the kind of infrastructure and training facilities that are available at the NSG headquarters in Manesar. The government at Delhi instead of setting up regional hubs ought to have considered taking steps in order to ensure quick transportation and rapid deployment of the Special Forces to deal with 26/11 like situations. 

At the regional level, Maharashtra government set up Force One, an elite commando force to combat terror strikes like the one that occurred on 26/11 on the lines of the National Security Guards (NSG). This step was taken due to the fact that non-availability of aircraft in Delhi and lack of ground transportation in Mumbai the operations to flush out the terrorists by NSG commandoes was delayed, thereby leading to higher casualties.

The state government also set up a jumbo State Security Council comprising of 66 members. It is anybody’s guess as to how this body has been functioning since its inception and in what manner has it contributed to the state’s security. These imprudent moves of the government of the day are laughable to say the least.

The Mumbai attacks raised questions about the quality of intelligence or the lack of it, its timely availability to the end-user, surveillance, security of vital installations, deficiencies in coastal security, and the lack of quality equipment like bullet proof jackets, bomb suits, weaponry, communication tools and disaster management including hospitals with trauma care facilities. Serious questions were raised about the response by the Mumbai/State police to the terrorist strike. The Maharashtra Government appointed what was officially known as the High-Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) on 26/11, comprising of R.D. Pradhan, a former Union Home Secretary and V Balachandran a former Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat to probe the lapses and to identify systemic failures on 30th December 2008. The committee submitted its report to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in April 2009, but the government did not release it, citing security concerns. In December 2009, after substantial portions of the report were leaked to the media and after much agitation by the opposition in the state assembly, a Marathi translation was tabled before the state assembly.

While procurement of sophisticated communication equipments, bullet proof jackets, bomb suits and weaponry can be streamlined, the collection and dissemination of intelligence, surveillance and upgrading coastal security are matters which deserve closer scrutiny. For instance, lot of questions were raised about the quality of bullet proof jackets available for use with the police and had the late Hemant Karkare worn a better quality jacket, his life may have been saved. This prompted the state to procure high quality bullet proof jackets immediately after the attack. However for three years, citing technical reasons, no company was awarded the contract. Finally, the state got quality jackets from the agencies that supplied protective gear to outfits like the NSG. Thus procurement issues are not insurmountable.

The issues which require attention are the following:

A lot has been written on intelligence gathering and its dissemination by various experts on the subject as well in this blog written in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks on 26/11 (read Having said that, it must be pointed out that the responsibility of intelligence gathering cannot be vested in specialized agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) or the Special Branch of the local police. Some of the most reliable pieces of information can be garnered at the police station level by beat constables through their network of informers.  Intelligence collected at the grassroots level and shared with other consumers/end users will go a long way in thwarting terror strikes. It is also extremely necessary to have handpicked personnel at the police station to handle collection of intelligence and liaise with other intelligence agencies for expeditious dissemination of intelligence. There is today too much emphasis on technical intelligence (TECHINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT). TECHINT has its own limitations and needs to be used in conjunction with human intelligence (HUMINT) particularly in counter terror operations. The human asset who is able to penetrate a terror network or module is undoubtedly the best source of accurate information which will enable the security agencies to foil terror strikes. It was HUMINT which enabled the US to carry out Operation Neptune’s Spear – the operation which led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, classical tradecraft appears to be a dying art.

Coastal security

Coastal security will continue to be a matter of concern for the security agencies and policy makers considering the fact that India has a very long coast line to safeguard with very limited resources at its disposal. 

The government’s approach towards all matters concerning security and coastal security is no exception has always been reactive. Remedial measures are undertaken only after a major incident has occurred and implemented in a haphazard manner without laying the foundation for the system adopted to function effectively. To begin with, the Coast Guard was set up in August 1978 in response to large-scale smuggling along the western coast with a mandate to protect the maritime and national interests of the country as well as to assist in anti-smuggling operations. But the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai highlighted the fact that an inadequately manned and ill-equipped coast guard alone cannot safeguard the coasts. Instead of addressing the fundamental issue of lack of manpower and inadequate equipment, the Indian government launched a new scheme to cater for the terror challenge. Pushpita Das of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in her article  “Why India’s Coastal Security Arrangement Falters?” writes that Operation Swan was launched in August 1993 to prevent clandestine landings along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. It was a three layer security arrangement involving the navy, the coast guard and a joint patrolling team drawn from personnel belonging to the navy, coast guard, state police, and customs. While the underlying idea appeared to be feasible, the bitter fact is that Operation Swan has not resulted in a single seizure even after being for 18 years. According to her inadequate attention paid to overcome the basic problems of coordination, manpower, equipment, and motivation among the various concerned agencies at the ground level has been the main reason for this failure.

The Indian government launched yet another ambitious project in 2005 called the Coastal Security Scheme, which involved setting up a series of coastal police stations to strengthen the surveillance infrastructure along the coast. The scheme was, however, a non starter because the coastal states did not display any enthusiasm in implementing it as they did not perceive any threat to their coasts. Despite Mumbai being a preferred target of the terrorists, Maharashtra too implemented the scheme only in a piecemeal manner. Moreover, the decision to set up coastal police stations with a mandate to patrol shallow waters gave an excuse for the navy to withdraw from joint patrolling immediately. Mumbai’s coastal security was considerably weakened enabling the terrorists to carry out the strike with ease. 

Mumbai 26/11 forced the Indian government to overhaul the coastal security apparatus. Once again it insisted that the navy and the coast guard pool their resources to guard India’s territorial and coastal waters. The state governments were directed to establish coastal police stations and ensure that manpower and interceptor boats were provided to them.

The Maharashtra Government in an effort to beef up coastal security set up the Sagari Police Station in 2009 and another police station at Juhu in 2012. The lackadaisical approach to coastal security can be seen from the fact that Sagari Police Station operates from rooms in governmental quarters at Mahim and cannot even register a First Information Report (FIR) which is essential for investigating a case. Five of their 14 amphibian vehicles and 13 of their 27 patrol boats are in repair yards. Lacking a jetty, Sagari Police Station parks its boats at Malad or near the Gateway of India. Worst of all, most personnel at the two stations neither have the expertise to run the patrol boats nor basic swimming skills. The government ought to have focused attention on imparting training to the personnel for sea patrolling before opening the coastal police stations.

Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) Weapons – The unconventional threat

The continuing possibility of terrorist attacks using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons is an ongoing concern in the national security policy arena in the face of a clear trend among terrorists to inflict greater numbers of casualties. 

Worldwide, the likelihood of terrorists being capable of producing or obtaining WMD may be growing due to looser controls of stockpiles and technology in the former Soviet states specifically and the broader dissemination of related technology and information in general. However, WMD remain significantly harder to produce or obtain than what is commonly depicted in the press. The Central Intelligence Agency has reported that it is likely that most terrorists will continue to choose conventional explosives over WMD, but warns that the al-Qaeda network has made obtaining WMD capability a very high priority. Indian security establishment needs to take cognizance of threat from unconventional weapons, particularly the “dirty bomb” – a type of radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives whose objective is to contaminate the area around the explosion with radioactive particles. An RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public could prevent the panic sought by terrorists.

Medical care and Disaster/Emergency Management

There is an urgent need to augment medical facilities, particularly trauma care which is inadequate even in a major metropolis like Mumbai.  Every time a disaster rocks Mumbai, causing mass casualties, the inadequacies of trauma care facilities at public hospitals get highlighted. During 26/11, most victims were rushed to the state-run but soon they had to be shifted to bigger centres which had better facilities to treat the injuries. Four years on, no lessons have been learnt. The question to be posed is whether the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has the means to respond appropriately in the event of a terrorist strike. 

The issues discussed above are not exhaustive but are merely illustrative in order to assist the policy makers to take suitable steps to counter the scourge of terror within the country.