Panacea called NCTC
A day before the twin blasts at Dilsukhnagar in Hyderabad on February 21, the Multi-Agency Center, under the Intelligence Bureau and tasked with collating, analyzing and disseminating threats to India, sent out an alert to all states including Andhra Pradesh. It warned: “Persons believed to be connected with SIMI-IM are believed to be planning an attack in the coming days….All units may kindly be sensitized on the need for extra vigilance and caution to prevent any such action by these terrorists.”
On Feb 16 and 19, the operations wing of the IB alerted all states particularly metropolitan city police commissioners saying that there was need for “utmost vigil on vulnerable targets identified by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in the past.” The three alerts pose serious questions on both the quality of collected intelligence and the policing on the ground.
In the retrospect, if we place these alerts with the interrogation report of arrested Indian Mujahideen terrorist Sayeed Maqbool, who claimed to have conducted reconnaissance of Dilsukhnagar, Begum Bazaar and Abids in Hyderabad in August 2012, Hyderabad as a target becomes lucid. One is always wiser after the event but the much larger questions that need to be addressed are whether an institution like National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) relying on the same intelligence and same state police could have done any better? Or whether creation of more institutions like the NCTC or National Investigating Agency or National Technical Research Organisation on the same meager resource base is a better idea than strengthening the existing ones?
In December 2009, an erudite home minister P Chidambaram advocated the setting up of NCTC within IB and broadly on the lines of existing similarly named body in the US since 2004. Drawing flak on the handling of the 26/11 Mumbai attack by his predecessor, Chidambaram went a step further and proposed arming of Indian NCTC with executive powers to cut the time lag and political decision making in vacating a terror threat. Much as he tried to push the NCTC, Chidambaram met with internal resistance from his Cabinet colleagues who did not want a super home minister and serious challenge from Opposition ruled states which were against the search and seizure powers of the proposed institution.
Three years down the line, the proposed NCTC has been whittled down to a home ministry body without executive powers, parallel to IB in area of counter-terrorism but feeding from the same pool of intelligence collection. Without any clarity on who the new NCTC would depend on ground intelligence in the states, one assumes that the same Subsidiary IB’s which feed the mother body in Delhi will have yet another client.
In short, the multi-agency centre will now report to DG NCTC instead of director, Intelligence Bureau. Will this cosmetic change fundamentally change the quality of intelligence or policing on ground in the states? The answer is no.
In 2011, the IB and the Research and Analysis Wing (RA&W) busted 18 jihadist/Sikh separatist modules including the Darbhanga-Tambaram module of IM, narrowly missing mastermind Yasin Bhatkal on November 27, 2011.
In 2012, 25 terror modules were decimated by the two agencies with IB busting the Saudi Arabia based Mohammed Shahid Faisal in Bengaluru and RA&W enticing the Sayeed Maqbool module into arms of Delhi Police.
Post Afzal Guru hanging, the RA&W and IB were sure that Pakistan based terror groups would target India. The Feb 16 alert discusses the Islamabad meeting of United Jihad Council three days before and talks about the decision to step up offensive against India. Metropolitan cities like Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru as targets of these Pak groups figured in the home minister Sushil Shinde’s daily meeting with National Security Advisor Shankar Menon in the loop but target could not be pin-pointed due to lack of critical intelligence on timing and place of attack.
The paucity of intelligence is compounded by lackadaisical policing on ground with Indian specialty of “Mukhbirs (informers)”, who formed the heart of human intelligence collection since the Moghuls, becoming a thing of the past. The fact is that we try and ape in the west in creation of institutions but do not empower them with the same resources.
The budget and human resources of IB and RA&W are miniscule as compared to multi-billion dollar budgets of American CIA or FBI. There is a need to pump in resources to increase the coverage of Af-Pak region, from where the terror threat primarily originates, and the neighbouring countries rather than setting up a new institution. And even the American experience of NCTC has not been too good as highlighted by the failure to detect the “underwear bomber” at Amsterdam on December 25, 2009.
The situation on ground in India is no different with State Government’s having their own political priorities when it comes to enforcement of law and order and must share the blame. Regional, caste and religion based parties are hyper sensitive to their vote banks even at the cost of being made terror targets. The rot spreads further as the police to population ratio in India is pathetic as compared to the US and the west as a result there are not enough footfalls on ground.
India has more than 145.2 policemen per 100,000 inhabitants as compared to more than 326 .4, 257.6, 559 in US, UK and Italy respectively. The IB and RA&W face serious officer shortage with IPS officers opting for lucrative state police assignments to the dreariness of pouring over intelligence reports. To top it all, rather than concentrating on counter-terrorism, the IB tends to please its masters by collecting political intelligence, which is often far away from the mark.
Instead of scoring political points against the BJP on NCTC, the UPA would be well-advised to set up a separate internal security ministry tasked with the singular mandate to protect the country while leaving ceremonial, legal and centre-state functions to the home ministry. Anything else is a waste of both time and resources.