Already beleaguered and wracked by infighting, India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has been a subject of much mirth in the sub-continent this month after the five Pakistanis it identified as infiltrating terrorists turned out to small time businessmen and a security guard from Lahore.
The RAW bosses are now at their wits end to explain the faux pas as it stands accused of poor due diligence and general incompetence.
Fact is that the RAW got photographs of the five so called terrorists on May 2 from a credible source, who identified them as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) cadres with mission to hit India. Concurrently, there was credible input from foreign agencies that LeT was out to target three vital installations in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab. The five photographs were discussed between the RAW representative and Intelligence Bureau sleuths the same evening as the latter was not convinced about the antecedents of the five persons.
On that day, the Indian agencies had the following inputs:
* Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, Reliance Refinery at Jamnagar and HPCL-Mittal Refinery were targets of LeT terrorists as the proscribed group had not only conducted research of these strategic sites on the internet but also conducted area reconnaissance.
* Threat from LeT had gone up as photograph of one of the five identified terrorists was found super-imposed on an old (expired) Gujarat state driving license. This forged license was handed over to Indian agencies by the same source.
While the IB was still skeptical about the five photographs as they could not corroborate the ground, the RAW was very confident about its input as terror attack appeared imminent.
On May 3, a high powered group headed by Home Minister P Chidambaram with National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon, Home Secretary Raj Singh, RAW Chief Sanjeev Tripathi and Director IB Nehchal Sandhu met to discuss the threat. Even if it is now established that it was Pakistani ISI which baited the RAW with false information, Home Minister P Chidambaram had no option that day except to raise a nation wide alert and disseminate the photographs to state police through the established multi-agency centre under the IB.
After the 26/11 massacre in Mumbai, no Home Minister or Intelligence chief wants to hold back inputs and there is no bar on mobile vendors and security guards to be active members of LeT terror group. Even if the five persons in the photograph are innocent, the fact is that India is under serious threat from the jihadists from within and those based in Pakistan. The intriguing aspect is the alacrity with which the information reached the four mobile vendors and one security guard in Lahore within hours after it was released by MAC to the state police in India.
Rather than blaming RAW for this fiasco, Home Minister P Chidambaram took it upon himself on the decision to disseminate photographs to the state police. For Chidambaram it was a collective decision of the high powered group to disseminate the photographs among the state police as well as place the three vital installations on red alert. But the Indian agencies chose to absolve themselves by blaming the other through articles in media.
Given the fact that LeT terror apparatus is intact in Pakistan, Indian intelligence agencies need have synergy with each other rather than fights as the only beneficiary in the latter case is the mentor agency of Lashkar in Pakistan.
The photograph fiasco actually highlights the need for RAW to increase its coverage of Pakistan so that it has the capacity to independently verify intel on ground. No point blaming the MAC under IB for sharing the information with the state police without verification. The fact is that RAW should have build up the intel on ground before asking MAC to share it with Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab police.
The flip side, however, is that counter-terrorism and intelligence are 24X7 games for countries and you win some you lose some. The RAW fumbled on photographs but managed to foil a terror attack in Chandini Chowk and provided vital clues in the Iranian Quds inspired attack on Israeli diplomat in February this year.
Rather than being defensive, Home Secretary Raj Kumar Singh should take up the issue of threat from Lashkar amir Hafiz Saeed with his Pakistani counterpart next week during the bilateral home secretary level dialogue.
One must understand that Indian hinterland has been free from terror since September 7, 2011 Delhi High Court blast. Home Minister and Indian agencies should be allowed one mistake.