The Mumbai attacks in November 2008 revealed deep and inherent flaws in India's national security. A year on, and after several far-reaching reforms, India still looks vulnerable but may well be equipped to respond swiftly and decisively.
By Avnish Patel for RUSI.org
The November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai (known to many Indians as '26/11') exposed India's inadequate resources for counter-terrorism and highlighted the failure to anticipate and robustly respond to major incidents. For many analysts, India's complex polity and its vulnerable geostrategic location has allowed it to be a discernible target for terrorism. The annual US State Department 'Country Reports on Terrorism 2008' highlighted India as one of the world's most terrorism-afflicted countries with attacks on Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Dehli and Assam preceding '26/11' as well as an attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The study reflects the multiplicity of terrorist actors and the perpetrators have ranged from Islamic extremist groups operating within Pakistan, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (blamed already for the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the 2005 bomb attack in New Dehli) and the predominantly rural Maoist/Naxalite insurgents, creating instability amidst large swathes of India's heartland.
The effectiveness of a small, but highly equipped group of terrorists underscored deficiencies in India's preventive and retaliatory capabilities. Prevention failed when available (though not specific) intelligence was not acted upon by the police and the Coast Guard. When the attack eventually went underway, the inadequacy of the first responders was seen at the Mumbai Railway Terminus and was damning, with the Railway Protection Force (RPF) using antiquated bolt action rifles against the modern armoury of the terrorists. This image symbolised the limitations of the Indian response. The less than rapid arrival of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) ten hours after the attacks began also underscored limitations in logistics. The NSG were further hampered by an absence of relevant equipment such as night vision goggles, poor intelligence and planning such as the lack of an operational command centre.
Internal reforms since 26/11
Following the attacks, the perception of a continuing terrorist threat has lingered. The international cricket cash cow that is the Indian Premier league was moved to South Africa during April-May 2009 as the Indian government could not guarantee adequate security resources with national elections happening at the same time. Concerns over the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Dehli will also have to be allayed and the Delhi Police have already announced robust measures including enhanced security checks at venues, strategies against chemical and biological weapons and helicopter surveillance. Following 26/11, visible improvements on the effectiveness of the security apparatus (and the physical responses to combating terrorism) have been implemented. A number of regional hubs have been established for the rapid response NSG units as well as the creation of counter-terrorism schools. There has been an enhanced integrated approach between the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, with a key achievement being the development of Joint Operation Centres (including Mumbai) under the control of Naval Commander-in-Chiefs. To fulfil its expanding responsibilities, the Coast Guard has been strengthened, with an additional 3000 personnel coming in at various levels. There has also been a marked improvement in capabilities, with a variety of fast patrol vehicles, interceptor boats, coastal surveillance aircraft and off-shore patrol vehicles being procured.
The establishment of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) at the beginning of 2009 was the fruition of a long-standing proposal that was finally given impetus after 26/11. It is India's first statutory agency handling terrorism cases, dealing with aspects of investigation and prosecution. In the short term it is seen as a decisive government response to inspire public confidence but it is not a panacea to combat terrorism as it is a reactive rather than proactive entity. Political momentum will be required to insulate the budgetary requirements of this fledgling body and to ensure steady recruitment and training of personnel. The aspiration for it to be similar in method to the US FBI and to provide a greater understanding of terrorist planning and execution will require investment in techniques such as behavioural and DNA analysis, forensics and covert operations. Personnel are currently outsourced from existing security agencies but greater strength in depth is needed as the NIA will require field agents as well as highly qualified support staff specialising in areas such as intelligence, languages and IT.
The role and utilisation of the NIA raises the question of whether it will exacerbate the long standing institutional malaise and add to the clot of disseminating intelligence between central agencies such as the external Research and Analysis Wing, the internal Intelligence Bureau and state agencies. India is not alone in wanting to rapidly disseminate intelligence for actionable purposes but is held back by a lack of coordination and a reluctance to share information amongst intelligence and security agencies. To alleviate bureaucratic tension and to inject transparency and accountability there needs to be meaningful government or political oversight into the functioning of intelligence agencies and the security apparatus. India is still on the back foot, combating several active insurgencies as well as fending off Islamic extremism originating in and outside of India. Whilst the government responses after 26/11 have been far from perfect, they have undoubtedly been hampered by the scale and complexity of the requirements.
Cultural and behavioural change from the political elites is also required as paradoxically, its status as the world's largest democracy has engendered and encouraged the 'vote bank' nature of party politics. This has stymied consensual and sweeping reform and encouraged the politicisation of counter-terrorism. Initiating reform and instilling a streamlined decision-making process has also hampered what is perceived as a bloated and turgid bureaucratic machine. It is interesting to note that Transparency International ranks India eighty-fourth on the Index of Corruption (out of 180 countries measured), with a rating of 3.4 out of 10, but this is a marked improvement from 2.7 in 2001 and it is considered the least corrupt country in South Asia.
Making greater use of international co-operation
To further bolster capabilities, the Indian government is establishing new ties and building on extensive cooperation and intelligence sharing with international partners. India and the EU are looking into counter-terrorism cooperation with an emphasis on intelligence sharing, research and development of skills of counter-terrorism security forces. The European Union's Counter-Terrorism head, Gilles de Kerchove is keen to gain insights into Indian tactics to curb financing of terrorist cells and work against the so-called Hawala channels. India would also benefit from assessing the efficacy of National Counter Terrorism Centres within EU countries.
The burgeoning India-US relationship has also brought tangible benefits, with the long established Counter Terrorism Joint Working Group (CTJWG) helping to institutionalise cooperation in intelligence sharing, legal issues and surveillance amongst other areas. Indian security agencies have already increased their dealings with the FBI and CIA and this relationship has in turn aided and improved domestic expertise and techniques. In response to the Mumbai attacks, the FBI sent a rapid deployment team which was able to use advanced forensic and technical exploitation techniques to develop critical leads for US and Indian investigations into the attack. The visit of Prime Minister Manmohan to the US (who was also the beneficiary of President Obama's first State Dinner) will bolster India's prestige on the global stage, reaffirming shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It will alsoproject the image that India is a vital cog in the US AfPak regional strategy with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on 'Advancing Global Security and Countering Terrorism' integral to this. The FBI recently alerted India to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) plots against the National Defence College in New Dehli and Taj Mahal. This information came to light following the US arrest of David Headley and Tahawwur Rana, who were allegedly planning the attacks, aided by LeT handlers in Pakistan. The US and India have been sharing information on Headley and Rana and the ongoing investigation indicates that both were part of the larger LeT conspiracy behind 26/11 (as indicated by the sharing of phone records of the alleged attackers by Indian and US intelligence agencies).
Aiding these developments has been the US-Pakistan relationship, with the US acting as an interlocutor and classified information on LeT being forwarded to the Indians. Two of Headley and Rana's handlers in Pakistan were also arrested in October by Pakistani authorities at the behest of the US, but India, due to Pakistani obfuscation has not been privy to the details. This is indicative of continuing Pakistani stonewalling regarding India's frequent requests for information on the LeT hierarchy accused of 26/11. India has so far handed over eight dossiers of evidence to the Pakistani government to help speed up its investigation process but for the Indians, the Pakistani response has so far been disappointing, despite seven suspects being put on trial, including the LeT operations commander, Zaki-ur-Rahman. Prior to the latest dossier being handed over, Pakistan claimed that India were funding and aiding the Taliban and encouraging the insurgency in Balochistan. This serves to highlight how the Pakistani response has been diluted due to its own internal dysfunctional state, with the government also attempting to beat back militancy in the Swat Valley and unrest in the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. The latest dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship has seemingly subdued the activities of the LeT and the conditions attached to the recently passed Kerry-Lugar Bill providing US civilian aid to Pakistan will further shoehorn the Pakistani government to curb militant groups and cross-border terrorism. This is particularly apt as the Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram has said another 26/11 style attack will call for a significant response. Prime Minister Singh's US visit also served as an ideal opportunity to voice Indian concerns over the Pakistani misappropriation of US aid and to seek greater scrutiny to prevent the misuse of funds. US involvement in cooling tensions between the two neighbouring nuclear powers is paramount, deterring the Pakistani military and intelligence services from utilising its proxies to attack India whilst also requiring Pakistani troops for the offensive in the Tribal Areas against the Taliban. A repeat of 26/11 by terrorists trained, financed and equipped in Pakistan would derail a rapprochement between India and Pakistan. This would however be advantageous to the Pakistani military, as the spectre of Indian retaliation would keep Rawalpindi in a powerful position vis-à-vis the civilian government in Islamabad.
Despite the current conditions and the fact that another Mumbai style incident has not occurred, India must rapidly continue to develop and enhance its security and counter-terrorism apparatus and oil the bureaucratic wheels to ensure this continues apace.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI
Research Event Officer