Suppose there was perfect “intelligence”, advance notice of the time, place, and date of a terrorist attack. Suppose further that all local state and central organisations, police at different levels, and paramilitary and the armed services, were all in sync, had familiarised themselves with situations that may arise, and practiced the precise actions needed to thwart the terrorists. What would happen in this situation in real life? As evidence shows, there would be inter-agency chaos and jurisdictional confusion leading, inevitably, to delays and a muddled response.
In Pathankot, there was 24 hours’ notice about the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)-inspired terrorist event, and yet the jihadis managed, with ease, to breach the defence system. A few of them traversed the distance to the Pathankot air force base (AFB) in the local Superintendent of Police’s car, penetrated the AFB perimeter and holed up unmolested for a whole day to rest and recuperate in an unused shed not far from where the Indian Air Force planes were parked.
They embarked on their suicidal shoot-up mission that met with little initial resistance because the nearby Army Division didn’t act, assuming that a National Security Guard (NSG) unit was flying in from Delhi. Once deployed, the NSG lost a senior officer because he failed to take the elementary precaution of treating a dead jihadi as a potential booby-trap.
Lapses in Security
This episode also reveals the rot of corruption at all levels, especially the BSF, state police, and the AFB guard, and how easy it is for an intruder simply to buy his way into sensitive areas (according to news reports, fifty rupees procured access to the Pathankot base). It also brings to light the severely lax attitude to security (with no surveillance cameras on the perimeter and no cordon sanitaire, with habitation allowed just beyond the boundary markers.
A more egregious example of system breakdown was witnessed in December 1999 with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 by militants who obtained the release of Mahmood Azhar, the JeM chief, in return for the safe return of passengers. The awful thing was that just a year earlier exactly this situation was gamed, and a multi-agency ‘Exercise Sour Grapes’ carried out to practice moves to frustrate hijackers, such as parking a truck/tanker in front of the plane, disabling the plane by blowing out its tyres, and mounting commando action.
But, when IC 814 touched down at the Amritsar airport to refuel, all hell, predictably, broke loose. Every responsible head of agency in government from Chandigarh to Delhi lost his head, none of the practiced actions were implemented, the Punjab Police commando unit and Indian Army formation in the vicinity were asked to stand down, and the refueled aircraft took off, eventuating in the humiliating negotiation involving External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Taliban ruffians in Kandahar.
Lessons Not Learnt
Sandwiched between these incidents during the BJP governments was the still more devastating Mumbai 26/11 strike in 2008 during the Congress Party’s watch by a handful of seaborne terrorists. I had written then that, luckily, their Pakistani minders didn’t have another ‘Pearl Harbour’ in mind because the terrorists could as easily have blown up a large part of the navy’s Western Fleet, then lying at anchor 500 meters away and 40 degrees off the jihadis’ approach line to the Gateway of India on an outboard motor-rigged inflatable dinghy.
So, the problem is not the party in power, or the incompetence of politicians at the helm, but the absence of operating procedures standardised across a spectrum of terrorist actions that every relevant police and intelligence agency at the local, state, and central government levels, as well as the paramilitary, NSG, and the armed services should adhere to strictly in counter-terror contexts anywhere in the country. The need is, therefore, urgent for a slate of counter-terror SOPs to ensure predictable, decisive, prompt, integrated and effective responses.
Why We Urgently Need the NCTC
Minus this, as in all terrorist-induced crises to-date, every agency will act separately according to its own bureaucratic lights and succeed only in getting in the way of every other agency doing the same. It advantages the jihadis and encourages their state-sponsors to rely on terrorism as asymmetric means of warfare to unsettle the Indian state and society at will.
Worse, there’s no nodal organisation, such as the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), to coordinate intelligence inputs, tailor the SOP-related actions to specific situations and to control all anti-terror operations. Mooted by the Manmohan Singh government after 26/11, NCTC is lying fallow. With neither SOPs nor an apex agency in sight, all such crises invariably end up being handled by the National Security Adviser of the day. Brajesh Mishra tackled the IC 814 hijack, MK Narayanan 26/11, and Ajit Doval Pathankot and each, in his own way, made a hash of it.
NCTC Can’t Wait Any More
•Pathankot terror attack raises the issue of severely lax attitude to security besides highlighting how easy it is for an intruder to buy his way in.
•Luckily terrorists behind Mumbai 26/11 strike didn’t have another ‘Pearl Harbour’ in mind with the navy’s Western Fleet being a few metres away.
•The need is, therefore, urgent for a slate of counter-terror SOPs to ensure predictable, decisive, prompt, integrated and effective responses.
•A large part of the problem can be addressed by institutionalising the NCTC to coordinate intelligence inputs and control all anti-terror operations.
Published in ‘The Quint’, January 15, 2016; at http://www.thequint.com/opinion/2016/01/14/terrorists-edge-indias-systemic-disorder-exposed-in-pathankot