Chinks in the system

Published : Dec 18, 2009 00:00 IST

Platoons of the Mumbai police march near the seafront on the anniversary of the 26/11 terror attack. - PAUL NORONHA

Platoons of the Mumbai police march near the seafront on the anniversary of the 26/11 terror attack. - PAUL NORONHA

AS I write this on the eve of the 26/11 anniversary, several thoughts flood my mind. First is the plight of the families of all victims, including the policemen who were killed that day. My heart goes out particularly to those from the lower economic stratum who lost their breadwinners in the attack. Possibly the families of those who were working in the organised sector were compensated by their employers. But what about the families of victims who were self-employed?

This is where the government has to step in and not quote rules which do not permit a generous compensation by way of money and employment to the spouses and children of the victims. It will no doubt be a great strain on the exchequer. But then it is a moral responsibility of the government, because every act of terrorism that leads to loss of lives of citizens is a failure of governance.

A number of concerned citizens with an intelligence or law enforcement background strongly believe that 26/11 deserved a blue ribbon commission as in the case of 9/11. The latter was probed by a bipartisan group of eminent Congressmen, and its report was comprehensive and pulled no punches. It carried many recommendations that were eminently practical for swift implementation. It is a pity that the Indian government did not choose to do this. More disappointing was the Maharashtra government’s decision to keep some parts of the Ram Pradhan Committee findings secret, on the grounds, real or specious, that releasing them to the public would prejudice the Kasab trial.

The families of 9/11 victims showed extraordinary solidarity. A similar forging of relationships by associates of the 26/11 victims should help persuade the government to release the whole of the Pradhan Committee report and take other remedial action. In any case, it is not too late to create a group of national experts on terrorism to study 26/11 in depth and find out what went wrong exactly. The purpose should be to learn from the mistakes that happened on the occasion, and not to punish those who failed in their duties on that day.

Expert opinion is that there were many mistakes, including the failure to deny access to live television coverage to terrorists holed up in the two hotels that were attacked and to facilitate access to the fire service vehicles to douse the flames engulfing the Taj Hotel. If an exhaustive inquiry is not ordered, all of us will be forced to believe that there has been a cover-up by both the State and Central governments.

The importance of a clinical scrutiny of 26/11 is highlighted by the current investigation into the David Headley-Tahawwur Rana episode. Since 2006, they successfully managed to enter India on several occasions – nine times in the case of Headley – ostensibly to set up an immigration service agency. They roamed about freely and established many contacts. Until now we know only a few of their contacts. Many others were possibly roped into a grand terrorist design.

There is a suspicion that the ingenious duo had left behind a few sleeper cells. Rana was in Mumbai at least until November 21, 2008, five days before the attack. Thereafter, he travelled to Pakistan where Headley was already in position. It is possible that they had a substantial role in executing 26/11, given Headley’s spite for India. In one of his intercepted e-mails he had poured venom against India and expressed his resolve to retaliate against its “anti-Islamic posture”. It is likely that Rana was a more commercial person in the immigration business. All this is still a matter of conjecture.

The point, however, is that the episode has revealed chinks in the procedure adopted for issuing Indian visas. The media are baying for the blood of the Indian Consul-General in Chicago who issued them. He maintains that the prescribed procedure was followed. The drill is that if the applicant was born in Pakistan, vetting by the Ministry of Home Affairs is mandatory before granting a visa. It is possible that Headley and Rana, having acquired U.S. and Canadian citizenships respectively, hid their Pakistani connections successfully and suppressed the fact that they were born in Pakistan. Assuming that they had declared their true place of birth, would a reference to the Home Ministry have helped, if neither figured in the databases on the basis of which visa applications are cleared? This is a moot question, opening up deficiencies in the system. Genuine applicants may suffer if the government were to adopt more exacting scrutiny of all those with a Pakistani connection.

Rana and Headley came to notice only after the FBI tipped off India. This should embarrass the intelligence establishment and the police department at all places that the two visited. It also highlights the enormity of the task of monitoring the activities of all foreigners entering India. This is where the importance of grassroots intelligence lies. The Intelligence Bureau has much fewer resources than the State police and its intelligence wing. The latter two are more trained to keep an eye on a Chief Minister’s adversaries, within and outside the party, than on terror suspects.

Ultimately all gaps in the system can be traced back to the shameless politicisation of police forces. Former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole, an eminent civil servant with a reputation for integrity, said the same thing on national television in the Ayodhya context. It is grievous to ignore such sane voices. There is no alternative to a strong intelligence edifice at the police station level. Nothing else will work in these times when communication among terrorists cuts across nations, nay continents. Many reports indicate that the FBI collected valuable data on Rana and Headley through monitoring telephones and e-mail traffic. These two channels have become a goldmine of information. However, terrorists are now fully aware of the growing sophistication of intelligence agencies in keeping track of what is going on in cyber space. They are, therefore, likely to adapt their operations in such a way that no critical communication is available to law enforcement monitors before an attack.

The latest arrest of a father-son duo in Brescia in Italy reveals the extraordinary spread of networks that assist terrorism. The two, running a money transferring agency, are known to have transferred $229 to activate Voice over Internet Protocol connections for use by suspects on the eve of 26/11. This is a real-time example of how this channel, most difficult to eavesdrop on, is helping terrorism.

I do not think Indian intelligence agencies lag behind their counterparts elsewhere in the world. We have outstanding professionals in the police with state-of-the-art equipment backing them. What is relevant is that all training at police and intelligence training establishments must quickly change the focus from routine policing to one that is technology driven. Principal technology majors in the country will have to chip in to make good any shortfall in government resources. The Home Minister is technology-savvy enough to bring about the required transformation.

Finally, one dumb question that is asked of many of us: Are we safer than before in the context of government claims that much has been done to bolster the police and intelligence wings of law enforcement? I would like to say “Yes”. That will, however, be too lofty an assertion. The best of security systems are porous and there will be gaps however much we try. Take for instance, the recent Fort Hood (Texas) carnage in which an Army Major opened fire at colleagues and killed 13 people. It is learnt that he was not merely unstable but also a religious fanatic. Such aberrations abet the cause of the terrorist. It is therefore not enough to be prepared. We also have to be lucky all the time!

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