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'Not enough to find out about an attack when it is in progress!'

November 25, 2009 19:43 IST
Danny YatomDanny Yatom, director of Israel's external intelligence service Mossad from 1996 to 1998, today runs the Global Strategic Group that advises governments and large companies on security issues.

Yatom, 64, once a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has extensive experience in fighting terrorism. As a member of Israeli's elite commando force, the Sayeret Matkal, he was part of the commando squad that rescued passengers from the Belgian airline Sabena's Vienna-Tel Aviv flight in 1972 when it was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.

Immediately after the Mumbai terror attacks, he told Israeli Radio that 26/11 indicated severe lapses in intelligence because they probably 'involved dozens of terrorists enjoying the support of numerous sympathisers. It is vital that the Indian security services draw the necessary lessons.'

Yatom visited Mumbai in March and examined the sites of the 26/11 carnage. When rediff.com's Vaihayasi P Daniel met the grizzled, plain-speaking, former Mossad boss at 9.30 pm at the downtown seafront five-star Moriah Plaza hotel in Tel Aviv, he discussed what a country like India needs to do to be secure from terror attacks.

You have special expertise in counter-terrorism. Tell us about your background.

I served in the Israeli defence forces for more than 30 years. I retired as a major general after commanding one of our territorial commands. We had three commanding generals at the time, which is the highest position in the ground forces. I was one of them.

Then I served as a military secretary or advisor to (then prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin. We did not have the post of national security advisor, but it was like (being) a national security advisor. Then I was director of Mossad. And then I was chief of staff of the government when (Ehud) Barack was prime minister.

I was twice elected to our parliament. I resigned from parliament because I did not like what I had seen there. I did not like to be a politician. After five-and-a-half years I resigned.

A year-and-a-half ago I established this company that provides services in the area of strategy, security and foreign policy.

When we talk about security we speak about all the areas of security -- homeland security, border security, VIP protection security.

We don't only advise. We also implement and execute, mainly, we put the programme on the table. And once the government approves it, we go in and do it. We know how to implement it. We train forces from the level of the individual to the level of a unit.

We specialise mainly in special forces, commando forces, special units like anti-terror units, for instance, and intelligence. Both intelligence similar to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency -- one is external and other one is internal. Those are generally speaking, our services.

I visited India more than half a year ago. I have been to Mumbai. I went through the sites that were attacked in the horrific terrorist attack last November. I met many people -- both people from the local government and the central government. And many private businessmen, in order to find out the possibility to collaborate/cooperate in building a new capability, both in the private sector -- for guards, security offices. And also for central government or the government of the state.

It was a short tour that lasted a few days only, but I continue my engagement with many of those that I met in order to find a way to do things together.

You perceived there was a need and therefore you went to India?

Through some links that I have, I coordinated meetings and I explored the possibility to enter the Indian market in the area of HLS (homeland security) in particular and security in general. We are still exploring the possibilities.

Based on your experience in fighting terrorism and your visit to Mumbai, what do you think of India's present situation? How fragile is her security? Can you add some perspective from your point of view?

Firstly, I am not in a position to advise the Indian authorities because I am sure you have excellent people that can do it and not necessarily they need my advice.

It is not in order to criticise. It is not in order to educate... (But this is) from my point of view, period. People can take it or leave it:

I think that the capability of a nation, which will allow an effective security of the vital interests of a nation, is essential. Every nation, every State, every country, should, today, have the best capability to mitigate and tackle security challenges like terror attacks.

Now it is not a simple issue at all. Because in order to be able to mitigate successfully and to thwart terror attacks, you first and foremost, need very good intelligence, so that you will be able to know what is going on far away from your borders, if somebody is in a process of arranging and planning a terror attack against India.

The better you know, the farther you know, the better you will be able to cope with it.

It is not enough to find all of a sudden in the middle of the night a group of terrorists firing at the Taj Mahal (hotel) or the Oberoi (hotel). Not enough to find out when a terrorist attack is already in progress!

In order to avoid it, in order to prevent it, and in order to thwart it, before it comes to execution, you need intelligence. This is the most important element.

And further?

The second element is rapid deployment forces, which are on high alert all the time, trained and equipped to face groups of terrorists and to win each and every of the battles against terrorism.

This takes a lot of effort in order to prepare and build such a unit.

Firstly, you have to find the people. You have to select them from maybe many, many people who are ready to volunteer. But you have to have a system how to choose the best people even before they start their training. Because you don't want people to start training and after a week to be withdrawn, to be dropped.

Firstly is how to choose the people. They have to pass certain tests -- psychological tests, physical tests. And only then you recruit them.

Once you have the recruitee you need, of course, a programme of training. It calls for a very, very skillful trainers and instructors.

Then you need the most modern equipment and weapon systems, because in order to be able to fight a terrorist effectively, it is usually at very close distance -- the engagement is at very close distance. You need weapons.

You need gear which will allow you to do it at close distance and in a built area, which is very, very difficult, like Mumbai. If someone can shoot you from the 16th floor: How do you solve the problem?

So it is a combination of training and technology. Technology is weapon systems. Technology is gear. Radio transmitters. Binoculars, for both day and night etc. You need special equipment. This is not the regular equipment that you usually equip an army with. Only special forces.

And they should go through drills and exercises on a routine basis in order to keep their high readiness and their professionalism. So this is (the requirement) for a unit.

You also need means of transportation like helicopters, fast means of transportation. Because if all of sudden there is an attack here you need to be able to take forces and bring them to the place of the attack, as soon as possible.

Once you have those two elements then you start to be ready, in order to be able to mitigate, in the future, a challenge that the forces might be faced by terrorism.

The anti-terror warfare is something very, very complicated because, as in Mumbai, and as in many other places, those terrorists, once they were on the ground, they were ready to die. They came in order to execute a suicide type of terrorist attack. Which means that there is now way to deter them.

You cannot deter somebody who is ready to die. You need to either catch them before they start their journey and before they start implementation or while they are on their way.

Were the Mumbai attacks particularly unusual in format compared to other attacks that have happened all over the world?

I don't think it was unusual.

We saw even more horrific terror attacks, like, for instance, the attack on the Twin Towers (on September 11, 2001, in New York) where close to 3,000 people lost their lives.

There were a series of terror attacks in Israel during approximately a year of the Second Intifada (the violent Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began in September 2000) -- more than a thousand Israelis were murdered in the streets by buses that were exploded, by cafes that were exploded, by restaurants that were exploded.

The problem with terrorism is that if you don't have an early warning -- which is again intelligence -- when they walk in the street, unless they take out the weapons and if they go in the streets with civilian clothes and weapons concealed, you cannot tell that they are terrorists, because they look like you and me. This are one of the problems.

Of course, once a terrorist brings out his weapon there should be a system that immediately will face him, which means not necessarily special forces, but the regular forces. The regular policeman should be able to at least contain, encirculate, and to prevent a terrorist from proceeding.

If he (the terrorist)is going into a high rise building and the police force is not trained and equipped to tackle it, once the police holds the terrorist in a certain place; he is stationary and not on the move, then you call your special forces in order to kill him.

So yes, we have seen such terrorist attacks. But this (Mumbai's 26/11) was no doubt a horrific one.

But I think, and again without referring to India, one of the principles of fighting terror is to try and to finish an event as soon as possible, because if it takes time, as it happened in India, and as it happened in many other places, the more time it takes, the worse it gets and the more casualties.

Do you think it was possible for ten terrorists to do what they did in Mumbai? You have been to study these sites. What do you feel?

They prepared themselves very well. But maybe they were there beforehand. It might be so.

The interrogation of the one who was captured alive (Ajmal Kasab) and the one who was captured in the United States (David Headley), will clarify what exactly happened.

Maybe they were there by themselves. Maybe they sent some others that came and instructed them exactly. Maybe they were assisted by locals. The interrogation should clarify.

Any further learnings you made on your trip to India in March that you can share with us?

In order to defend a country -- and this is in addition to what I said about intelligence, special forces and, of course, the local police etc, etc who should be prepared -- we are talking about circles of security.

The final one is intelligence. If you know, you can prepare yourself to mitigate.

Then you have the security of the border and the entrances to the country. You should check each and every one of the entry (points).

Then you have the local security of the site. For instance, you need security, it might be for a private company. But you need to have security around a hotel, around a shopping centre, around a university.

When I talk about security, mainly manpower, but trained -- not as I have seen them, non-trained security people without weapons -- but trained so that they will be able to -- if worse comes to worse -- if all of a sudden, they face a terrorist they should be able to react. Stop it.

Vaihayasi P Daniel in Tel Aviv, Israel