Nov 29, 2008

India - Strategic deafness & the massacre in Mumbai

Praveen Swami

Had our political establishment acted on intelligence warnings, at least 127 people who made the mistake of being in Mumbai on November 26 would still have been alive.

Last month, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s supreme religious and political head, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, made a signal speech to top functionaries: “The only language India understands is that of force, and that is the language it must be talked to in.”

Had India’s strategic establishment listened, at least 127 people who made the mistake of being in Mumbai on November 26 would still have been alive. If more carnage is to be prevented, it is imperative to understand the culture of strategic deafness that facilitated the murderous attacks.

From the testimony of the arrested fidayeen Ajmal Amin Kamal, the Maharashtra police have got their first insight into the role of Lahore and Karachi-based Lashkar commanders in organising the attacks. Both the Maharashtra police and other intelligence services of the nation seem confident that they will succeed in demonstrating that the guns in the hands of Kamal and his terror squad were directed by commanders in Pakistan.

Comparison with U.S.

But even as India debates what the authorship of the attacks will mean to Pakistan-India relations, commentators have been scrambling to contrast India’s responses to terror with that of the United States. While the U.S. has succeeded in blocking successive attempts to execute attacks on its soil since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the argument goes, India’s failure has been dismal.

Politicians have been quick to agree, blaming India’s intelligence services for failing to predict the Mumbai terror attack. In fact, the available evidence suggests that the boot is on the other foot: despite credible intelligence that terrorists were planning attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere, India’s political leadership failed to act.

Back in 2002, Indian intelligence informants began reporting that Lashkar operatives were being trained in marine commando techniques along the Mangla Dam, which straddles the border between Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the province of Punjab. It soon became clear that the Lashkar, which found it increasingly difficult to penetrate India’s Line of Control defences, was hoping to open new routes across the Indian Ocean — routes which would give it easy access to key cities like Mumbai.

In 2006, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil was disturbed enough by what India’s covert services were telling him to make a specific mention of the need to step up counter-terrorism defences. Among the intelligence that Mr. Patil based his speech on was the evolving story of Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar operative who commanded the terror group’s India-focussed operations out of Bangladesh. In September 2006, Haroun was briefly held by Bangladesh authorities before he was quietly deported. But a west European covert service obtained transcripts of his questioning by Bangladesh’s Directorate-General of Field Intelligence — evidence which shook up even India’s Home Minister.

Haroun, it turned out, had been using a complex shipping network, and merchant ships and small fishing boats, to move explosives to the Lashkar units operating in India. Among the end-users of these supplies was Ghulam Yazdani, a Hyderabad resident who commanded a series of attacks, including the assassination of Gujarat pogrom-complicit former Home Minister Haren Pandya and the June 2005 bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express. Investigators probing the Haroun story determined that his network had helped to land a giant consignment of explosives and assault rifles on the Maharashtra coast for an abortive 2006 Lashkar-led attempt to bomb Gujarat.

India’s intelligence services determined that Haroun had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the Lashkar. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun had studied the prospect of using a deserted island for building a Lashkar storehouse, from where weapons and explosives could be moved to Kerala and then to the rest of India. In 2007, when evidence emerged of heightened Islamist activity in Maldives — including the bombing of tourists in Male’s Sultan Park and the setting up of a Sharia-run mini-state on the Island of Himandhoo — the seriousness of the threat to India’s western seaboard became even more evident.

Last year, the Lashkar’s maritime capabilities were underlined once again, when a group of eight fidayeen landed off Mumbai’s coast. On that occasion, a superbly crafted intelligence operation enabled Coast Guard ships to track the landing. Police in Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir, acting on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau, arrested the fidayeen. However, it was clear that the networks Haroun was able to build were up and running.

Based on these warnings, New Delhi moved to step up coastal counter-infiltration measures. In its 2007-2008 Annual Report, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs detailed the measures put in place for “strengthening coastal security arrangements, to check infiltration.” In liaison with the nine coastal States and Union Territories, it said, funds had been earmarked to set up “73 coastal police stations which will be equipped with 204 boats, 153 jeeps and 312 motorcycles for mobility on coast and in close coastal waters. The coastal police stations will also have a marine police with personnel trained in maritime activities.”

Painfully slow

Precise figures are unavailable, but officials in three States told The Hindu that progress in realising the scheme was painfully slow. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat inaugurated over a dozen coastal police stations over the last year, but neither State set up a trained marine police. Fewer than a dozen new boats were made available to the two police forces. Without sophisticated surveillance equipment fitted on board, their use for counter-infiltration work was at best rudimentary. And while the Intelligence Bureau received sanction for hiring small numbers of new personnel to man new costal surveillance stations last year, it got neither boats nor observation equipment.

Despite credible intelligence of an imminent fidayeen assault, emerging from the interrogation of Lashkar operative Fahim Ansari, hotels and businesses failed to enhance their internal security systems. Neither the Trident Hotel nor the Taj Mahal Hotel, for example, had access control systems or a system to deal with a terrorist attack or bombing. For weeks before the attacks, police sources told The Hindu, Maharashtra police officials met with top corporate security heads, attempting to convince them of the need to invest in defending their facilities. Nothing was done.

Less than a week before the attacks, additional security stationed in south Mumbai was withdrawn. Maharashtra — which at just 147 policemen for every 1,00,000 population or, expressed another way, 49.9 to guard every 100 square kilometres, falls well short of global norms — simply did not have the resources to keep men tied up to guard every potential target.

Even if police personnel had been stationed near the terrorist targets, it is improbable that they could have intervened effectively. Mumbai, unlike any western city of scale, had no specially-trained emergency response team or a crisis-management centre with an established drill to deal with a catastrophic terrorist assault. In this, it was not exceptional: no Indian city has any crisis management protocol in place. “People contrast the United States’ post-9/11 successes with our failures,” notes a Maharashtra police officer, “but they should also be contrasting the billions spent by that country with the peanuts we have invested in our own security.”

“The whole system is premised on the assumption that our Intelligence Services will get a hundred per cent heads-up on the precise timing of a terrorist attack,” one intelligence official says, “but nowhere in the world does this happen. Intelligence is only an aid to on-ground policing, not a substitute”.

India’s strategic responses were no better. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his foreign policy advisers failed to read the sign that the jihadist groups in Pakistan were sharpening their swords.

In Saeed’s October 19 speech, delivered before an audience of key Lashkar leaders including Maulana Amir Hamza, Qari Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh and Muhammad Yahya Mujahid at the organisation’s headquarters in Lahore, he made it clear that he saw India as an existential threat. India, he claimed, was building dams in Jammu and Kashmir to choke Pakistan’s water supplies and cripple its agriculture.

‘Ongoing war’

Earlier, in an October 6 speech, Saeed claimed that India had “made a deal with the United States to send 1,50,000 Indian troops to Afghanistan,” and that it agreed to support the U.S. in an existential war against Islam. Finally, in a sermon to a congregation at the Jamia Masjid al-Qudsia in Lahore at the end of October, Saeed proclaimed that there was an “ongoing war in the world between Islam and its enemies.” He claimed “that crusaders of the east and west have united in a cohesive onslaught against Muslims.”

India has learnt that not all terrorism stems from Pakistan: the country has faced attacks from Indian Islamists, Hindutva groups, and ethnic-chauvinist organisations in the northeast. Each form of hate has fed and legitimised the other. But this circle of hate has been driven by organisations based in Pakistan too — jihadist groups which have demonstrated that while they are friends of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, they are enemies of the people of Pakistan. In his recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Singh warned that he intends to “raise the costs” for those waging war against India. He could start by demanding that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari act against such groups — and then consider what can be done, if need be, to compel him to do so.

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