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Jama Masjid shooting: Case for extraordinary vigil

September 24, 2010 15:32 IST

The firing incident in New Delhi and the explosion of a car should serve as a warning to security agencies, says Wilson John.

Although the mystery of the firing incident at Jama Masjid on September 19 and the discovery of an abandoned car with ammonium nitrate nearby a few hours later remain unresolved, it has raised questions about the level of security in place for the Commonwealth Games scheduled to begin on October 3, the possibility of the re-emergence of home-grown terrorist groups and India's counter-terrorism strategy as a whole.

First the confusion. There was considerable confusion among the police and home ministry officials about the real nature of the attack; was it a terrorist attack or a local feud? Was the car going up in flames an accident or part of the terror plan? For several hours, many thought it was a case of a defective engine of a car going up in flames. Then they found ammonium nitrate in the car.

This chemical has been used by terrorist groups in the past to carry out attacks in Delhi and elsewhere. It is easily available in areas not far from Jama Masjid.  An Australian journalist, as part of a sting operation, bought enough quantities of ammonium nitrate with a trigger mechanism near Delhi and walked inside an unguarded Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium gate. To be fair to the security personnel, the footage was shot at least a month before it was broadcast when the stadium was not `locked down`.

Since CCTVs were not functioning in and around Jama Masjid, patrol cars and beat constables were elsewhere, the identity of the motorcycle-borne assailants also remain elusive. The local residents remain either too cagey or worried to confide in the police, a factor which is increasingly becoming a stumbling block in preventing attacks or pursuing investigations after the attacks. There has been no attempt to revive police-community linkages, arguably a critical element in an effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Even if we were not to view, for the sake of an argument, the Jama Masjid incident -- both the firing as well as the car fire -- as a terrorist incident, there are two fundamental questions which merit a response. First, how did the motorcycle assailants manage to drive their way in and out of the crowded Jama Masjid area (even on a Sunday) without getting caught when there are several pickets and patrol cars in the area. Second, how come the police which reached the site of firing managed to overlook the presence of an abandoned car. Agreed that it is not possible to check each and every car or vehicle in a crowded area like Jama Masjid. It can also be accepted that two men on a motorcycle are such a common sight in Delhi that it is not possible to interdict them easily.

Two issues that need to be flagged here are, in fact, at the core of India's problematic counter-terrorism policies that have fundamentally been reactionary in nature and not, as it should be, oriented towards preventing an attack. First point is about the urgent need to create, test and re-test a real-time response mechanism in case of such attacks. This is easier said than done. An effective response mechanism to a terror attack calls for an extraordinary level of vigil, coordination and leadership, all three visibly lacking in how the security forces responded to the Jama Masjid attack.

An effective vigil assumes a close coordination between various units of local police -- patrol cars, beat constables, local police station, communication centre and intelligence units. It is not how many constables you send out to loiter around but how effective they are in projecting vigil and assurance. Last year, when a red alert was sounded about an impending attack in Connaught Place, several hundred newly recruited policemen descended on the market with sticks in hands, immobile and without any effective communication backup.

Few, if any, lessons have been learnt since then. For instance, the peripheral security of the much-talked about Commonwealth Games Village reflects a cavalier attitude. Although the entry points to the Village have been effectively locked down with multiple barriers and armed patrols, a solitary, unarmed constable has been posted on the road overbridge overlooking the Akshardham temple.

This constable is immobile and has no communication aid to contact his colleagues or seniors in case he spots some suspicious movement or persons. Likewise, there is no effective patrolling on the outer periphery of the Village complex adjacent to the railway line which can be accessed by any group from the nearby colonies or fields.

The most serious security gap is at the Akshardham Metro Station. This multi-storied station overlooks the Village and is one of the most attractive targets for any terrorist group. It is an incomplete structure with the shopping mall yet to come up inside the complex. More than the question of aesthetics, what should worry anyone is that there is no security checking or scanning of bags at the entry point of the station.

The passengers are only checked at the first floor where the ticket counters and entry gates are located. This leaves the entire ground floor area of the station and the staircases exposed. This gap must be plugged without any delay and baggage scanners and body search should be at the ground-floor entry gate. The metro stations at Pragati Maidan, Yamuna Bank and Rajiv Chowk have such security measures in place.

Second point is the level of awareness among the security personnel about the emerging threats, new actors and changing modus operandi of various terrorist groups and cells. The hundreds of new recruits descending on Connaught Place last year had no clear instructions what, and whom, to look out for. This awareness gap was apparent in the Jama Masjid case when the car fire was treated in the initial stages as an accident. The case of Times Square (Faisal Shahzad) bomber should have raised a red flag over `abandoned automobiles` being used to cause explosions. 

There is no visible indication that any lessons have been learnt from the Jama Masjid case to strengthen vigil at parking lots, particularly those near the Metro stations. Many metro parking lots today have several cars and other automobiles parked for days on end. An immediate check of all such vehicles must be carried out. Parking attendants and security personnel at the metro stations must be made aware of the dangers such abandoned vehicles can pose; CCTVs must be installed at key parking lots (Pragati Maidan, Patel Chowk, for instance) and patrol cars must be briefed about the possibility of terrorists using these parking lots to cause mayhem in the city.

As far as the home-grown terrorist groups are concerned, there is increasing evidence that despite a country-wide crackdown on many of these groups, the leaders of these groups have managed to escape the security dragnet and have been successful in facilitating recruitment and creation of new cells in different parts of the country.

A close watch on the recruitment base and funding of these groups could help in detecting the emergence of new cells in cities like Delhi. This must be a concerted and coordinated effort between various police and intelligence agencies across the country with the multi agency centres and national counter terrorism centre acting as hubs of assessments and dissemination.  

Wilson John is Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Wilson John