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The question remains: Just how prepared are we for another 26/11?

By Vicky Nanjappa
Last updated on: December 01, 2009 18:21 IST
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Vicky Nanjappa amalgamates different conjectures, perspectives and opinions of security experts as he tries to figure out an answer to perhaps the most important question: How prepared is India to prevent future terror challenges?

A year has gone by since Mumbai was attacked by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Following the attack, India put a lot of pressure on Pakistan to shut down the 'terror factories' in that country. Several arrests and releases were carried out of Lashkar terrorists, and Pakistan claimed they have been able to deal with the problem to a large extent.

The big question is whether the terror threat in India has come down, or does it still loom large? What plans do outfits such as the Lashkar have on their minds, and how do you think they would attack India once again?

We spoke to security experts and officers in the Intelligence Bureau to assess the situation, and what sort of threat India still faces.

According to security experts, the 'terror factories' in Pakistan are still very much open and they are constantly trying to destabilise India.

Ajit Doval, former chief of the Intelligence Bureau points out, "Threat from the terrorists depends on their intentions, capabilities and the opportunities they can seize. Larger the space these variables provide, the more varied and higher the level of threat. As the strategic intention of the terrorists is to destabilise India, their tactical objectives stretch from targeting senior national leaders, destroying the country's vital installations, striking at targets to bleed our economy, arousing religious passions and shaking the faith of the people in the ability of the government in protecting them by wanton depredations leading to mass killings. Fortunately, the capabilities of terrorists fall far short of their intentions."

"However, they are still sufficiently high to inflict unacceptable losses against inadequately defended soft targets. Considering their present capabilities, they can target busy public places, centres of economic activity, tourist spots, infrastructural facilities like those in the power and communications sector, etc. Of late, they have also been trying to acquire skills to hit cyber-critical infrastructure. What is a matter of serious concern is the consistent and perceptible increase in their capabilities," Doval added.

Intelligence Bureau officials also point out that terrorist outfits have been constantly upgrading their skills. A senior IB officer points out that terrorists have undoubtedly upgraded their skills -- particularly in leveraging and improvising commercially available technological aids to support their operations. "Their technology, communications, fabrication of improvised explosive devices, use of sophisticated weapons, obtaining genuine or forged travel documents, ability to operate clandestinely using covers and alibis -- all have increased manifold. This has enabled them to inject a higher degree of surprise, speed and deniability in their operations. They can counter our security forces and out-smart them in any engagement," he said.

The situation in Pakistan is, however, qualitatively different. The terrain, tribal factor, local support, large-scale culture of violence among certain societies for centuries, weaponisation of the civil society, etc make it an entirely different ball game. It is compounded by the dubious policy of the government there -- in particular, of selectively patronising and supporting different terrorist groups. They have been running with the hare and hunting with the hounds and working as the single most important factor in the accretion in the terrorists' strike capabilities.

Preventing terror post-26/11

K P S Raghuvanshi, chief of Mumbai's Anti-Terrorist Squad, says the scenario as of today is different. "We are better equipped to fight terror when compared to a year back, prior to the Mumbai attacks. Forces have been upgraded and we are also working on a separate intelligence unit considering the fact that Mumbai is very high on the terror radar. However, we need to keep upgrading since the opponent cannot be taken for granted. We have to be prepared for a surprise element that they may spring upon us," he said.

A senior police official in Delhi, who is part of the anti-terror team, says there needs to be proactive operations and intelligence will be a crucial aspect. "We need to be constantly informed and upgraded about the new threats so that we can prepare ourselves accordingly," he said.

Doval points out that India has tried to strengthen its protective security regime to deny the terrorists tactical opportunities. "However, in a country of India's size, vulnerabilities, limited resources and democratic freedoms, it is not possible to make all the potential targets impregnable. This leaves large gaps that provide opportunities to the terrorists to take on soft targets. This will require high interdicting intelligence capability. This will also require greater technology support and strengthening of our emigration, border security, check on flow of illegal finances, action against gun-runners and breaking collaborative networks of terrorists with the underworld, drug traffickers and organised crime syndicates," he said.

"I think this area still requires much greater strengthening through structural reorganisation, pumping additional resources and accretion in operational capabilities. Only a highly proactive intelligence capability can keep the country ahead of the terrorists and surprise them before the strike, rather than chasing them after the event," he added.

Biological warfare

This threat is often spoken about by intelligence agencies and security experts. IB officials point out that while terror groups like the Lashkar have the capability to launch biological warfare, it is likely that they may resort to this option immediately. The fact of the matter is that the Pakistani agencies such as the Inter-Services Intelligence and also the government machinery, are not in favour of terror groups launching an attack of this nature.

No terror group in Pakistan can independently launch biological warfare or use weapons of mass destruction against India unless and until there is a definitive nod from the government or the ISI. The IB says it would be a whole other scenario if they even attempt using such methods against India.

The consequences of such an attack would be severe, since there is every chance of the international community isolating Pakistan in case they resort to such tactics. Doval points out that Pakistan will do everything under the sun to exercise necessary restraint and control over terrorist groups in order to restrain them from using WMD against India.

The Al Qaeda threat and threat from foreigners

Of late, India has seen unexpected threat perceptions from both the Al Qaeda and from foreign nationals.

The IB says the man to watch out for is Ilyas Kashmiri, and unless and until we deal with him, he could prove to be a nuisance to India. He is the face of the Al Qaeda today, and is expected to lead the terror outfit some day.

Security experts while speaking of the Al Qaeda threat say this outfit should be understood and dealt with as an ideological movement rather than a hierarchically structured terrorist outfit. Many Jihadi groups around the world draw inspiration from it, subscribe to its ideology and share their worldview of enemies of Islam without any organisational alliance.

The IB says the threat to India from the Al Qaeda may not be very high, but the ideology it subscribes to and the methodology it follows can prove to be dangerous.

Moreover, there are many organisations like the Lashkar and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami which owe allegiance to it and have been targeting India. Ilyas Kashmiri is the operational chief of HUJI and till few years ago was a trusted operative of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence.

He served in Pakistan's elite Special Services Group and was trained with Pakistan's Special Operations Unit by Britain's Special Air Service. It was only on the bidding of the ISI that in the early 1990s, he was asked to join HUJI and build it up.

He lost favour with the ISI after he turned down their request to join the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Both ideologically and operationally, he does constitute a potential threat as he is capable of mounting terrorist actions against India through his HUJI activists based in Bangladesh.

In the last few years he has come close to the Al Qaeda and carried out operations on their behalf. 

Speaking on the threat from foreign nationals, Doval points out that the Lashkar has always maintained transnational linkages with Jihadi organisations abroad and tried to net recruits among people of Pakistani-origin settled abroad, either as citizens or residents in those countries.

It makes use of these foreign based human assets for many errands. The involvement of Lashkar activists have come to notice in many terrorist actions abroad including the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Its activists had been under scrutiny in many countries -- David Hicks in Australia, Richard Reid and Dhiren Barot in the UK are illustrative. Not to mention David Headley, of course.

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Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru