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Heightened alert needed on 26/11 anniversary

By B Raman
November 06, 2009 16:59 IST
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While security agencies have been able to prevent any major terror strikes since the Mumbai attacks last November, we should not lower our guard, writes security expert B Raman.

As the first anniversary of the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba approaches, there is a heightened alert by the security agencies to prevent any major terrorist strike coinciding with the anniversary by the LeT itself or by other Pakistani and/or Indian organisations such as the Indian Mujahideen or the Students Islamic Movement of India.

The terrorists would be calculating that a successful strike around the anniversary would damage the credibility of the Indian State in the eyes of its people and the international community and strengthen their support base.

While it is primarily the responsibility of the security agencies to thwart any fresh conspiracy by the terrorists, the public will have a useful role to play by sharing with the agencies any information or suspicious activity coming to its notice. The state agencies should create an awareness of the kind of role the public can play and as to how to convey any information or suspicions to the agencies. Successful counter-terrorism depends on effective State-public co-operation.

We have not had any terrorist strike by the IM and SIMI for 14 months now and by the LeT and other Pakistani organisations in Indian territory outside Jammu & Kashmir for almost 12 months now. The credit for this should go to our intelligence and physical security agencies and the police.

It is not that fresh conspiracies were not being hatched in Indian and Pakistani territories. They were, but these were thwarted by the success of the intelligence agencies and the police in identifying and neutralising the cells which might have played a role in the execution of these conspiracies.

The recent arrests of two persons resident in Chicago by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a charge of trying to assist the LeT and Ilyas Kashmiri, a former officer of Pakistan's Special Services Group, who has emerged as another Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, in carrying out a terrorist strike in Denmark and a repeat of 26/11 in India show that the conspiracies are not confined to the sub-continent.

They extend to Europe and North America where there is a large Diaspora of migrants from Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world and some local converts to Islam, who are prepared to assist Al Qaeda, the LeT and their associates in carrying out their plans.

Even in 2003, the LeT had wanted to mount a terrorist strike in India by using recruits in the US, but its plans were detected and foiled in time by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

India has reasons to be thankful to the US agencies for their alertness and for their co-operation in preventing fresh strikes. Strengthened, active and discreet Indo-US co-operation in counter-terrorism has been a significant post-26/11 feature.

The US may be still reluctant to act against the government of Pakistan for continuing to use terrorism against India, but it has given indications of its determination to help India in preventing a repeat of 26/11 in whatever way it can. The strong technical capability of the US agencies and the ground capability of the Indian agencies for human intelligence should help in the efforts to prevent a repeat of 26/11.

In counter-terrorism, it is important to avoid over-confidence and self-complacency. Any planning should factor into it the possibility that despite all the precautions and enhanced vigilance by the intelligence agencies, some terrorist conspiracies may still escape detection by the intelligence agencies. As the post 9/11 cliches goes, in counter-terrorism the agencies know what they know, but they don't know what they don't know.

While the agencies will be making every effort to reduce the zone of 'what they don't know', it will not be possible to eliminate it altogether. That is where the importance of vulnerability perceptions and reviews comes in. Vulnerability perceptions help in denying success to the terrorists even if one doesn't detect in time terrorist conspiracies.

Capacity-building, physical security and alertness play an important role in this. The foiled attacks on Parliament in December 2001and on Ahmedabad's Akshardam temple in September 2002 are good examples of how success can be denied to terrorists through effective physical security based on vulnerability perceptions.

Physical security reviews based on vulnerability perceptions have to be an on-going process. Vulnerability identification and follow-up action to plug gaps in physical security become a difficult exercise in India because of its large size and the hundreds of potentially soft targets available in our metro cities. Despite this, a constantly updated vulnerability map is a must to prevent a repeat of 26/11.

A continuous modus operandi (MO) review is as important as a vulnerability review. The terrorists operating in the Af-Pak region keep changing the MO to make their terrorist strikes more lethal and to take the security agencies by surprise. The MO used by them after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a mix of the old and the new -- use of hand-held weapons and improvised explosive devices, commando-style attacks, simultaneous or orchestrated attacks of a complex nature on multiple targets, suicidal (fedayeen) and suicide attacks and so on.

The training and re-training of our security agencies and police must enable them to meet the changing MO of the terrorists.

Improvised Explosive Devices did not play as important a role in the 26/11 terrorist strikes as they did in the July 2006 terrorist attacks on Mumbai suburban trains. Of course, the IM and the SIMI relied largely on IEDs, but the Pakistani associates of Al Qaeda were using more and more complex commando-style attacks with hand-held weapons, the most spectacular of which were the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year and the recent attack on the general headquarters of the Pakistan Army at Rawalpindi.

Some of the terrorist attacks in the Af-Pak region after the GHQ attack show that the terrorists are shifting once again to vehicular bombs involving large quantities of explosives. These attacks show the continuing availability of large quantities of explosives to the terrorists operating in the sub-continent.

While the Indian and US security agencies have a welcome record of increasing successes in detecting and neutralising terrorist cells before they can go into action, they have had little success in detecting and neutralising potential sources of supply of explosive material. This is a weak point in our counter-terrorism capability which needs the individual and joint attention of the Indian and US agencies.

Pre-conceived ideas and facile assumptions have no place in counter-terrorism such as the following -- the next attack may also come from the sea, the potential targets mentioned by terrorists under interrogation such as the National Defence College reportedly mentioned by the two Chicago suspects may be the real targets etc.

Al Qaeda, the LeT and their associates train their recruits and volunteers in ways of misleading the security agencies and the police when caught.

These are some of the points needing attention as we strengthen our alertness on the eve of the 26/11 anniversary. It is important for the government to set in place a scenario-anticipation group to evaluate continuously the likely scenarios to improve our preparedness.

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B Raman