The gains of good intelligence

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

THE one question that rankled people following the Veerappan saga was "why could the police forces of the two States, with all their wherewithal and firepower, not catch a fugitive for almost two decades?" The primary reason had to be the lack of reliable intelligence that could be interpreted and acted upon by a commando team. Military experts with experience in counter-insurgency operations had insisted that the way to breach the domain of the brigand was not with firepower or manpower, but with intelligence inputs on the gang's movement through the forests and with the help of infiltrators. The intelligence could be followed up with firepower.

Although efforts were made by the security forces to buy or extract (by methods fair and foul) information from villagers and the Soliga tribal people who frequent the forests that Veerappan roamed, the information was more often than not patchy, came too late, and was rarely acted upon. And, crucially, the information was hardly allowed to remain a secret. Countering this trickle of intelligence was Veerappan's own intelligence network, which was vaster and more prepared to assimilate information and pass it on at lightening speed to the gang or its sympathisers. The gang was, therefore, always in the know of the movements and operations, while the police were perpetually groping in the dark.

This situation was not lost on Additional Director-General of Police K. Vijay Kumar when he took over as the Commander of the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force (STF) last December. Putting together his past experience with the anti-Veerappan operations (this is his third stint with the STF) and the experience he gained in the elite Special Protection Group and then in the Border Security Force, and with the help of his deputy, Superintendent of Police N.K. Senthamaraikannan, Vijay Kumar was able to "quietly, with no fanfare", put in place over a 10-month period, a secretive and cellular intelligence network that supplied reliable information without raising the target's suspicion.

The STF's intelligence dissemination and collection was based on the `cut-out system', where informers in the intelligence gathering chain were only known to the person they were in direct contact with. This way the location and identity of the person was not compromised, something that Veerappan himself practised with success over the years.

Speaking to Frontline, Vijay Kumar explained that extreme secrecy in the selection and dissemination of intelligence was the key to the operation's success: "We formed cells (each one handling bits and pieces of intelligence) and each particular cell's intelligence input was known to just two people. If a third person was also involved then the level of secrecy could not have been maintained. Very rarely did more than two people know about an intelligence input. This cellular way of working on the intelligence that we obtained helped us in tracking down the gang." The various bits and pieces of information was then connected and coordinated by Senthamaraikannan.

Vijay Kumar said that the cellular method made a major difference to Operation Cocoon. So closely guarded was most of the intelligence that even the Tamil Nadu STF top brass (leave alone the Karnataka STF) was not aware of all the information that was being garnered. Officers were aware of intelligence inputs purely on a need-to-know basis.

The STF also achieved a major breakthrough by infiltrating Veerappan's intelligence gathering network. According to informed sources, the STF was able to `reach' the gang through about 15 informers/conduits, who were all local people trusted by Veerappan. Said an officer from the STF: "Some of these conduits were originally with us but had switched over to Veerappan's side. But, crucially, we were able to reconvert these people. Although they supplied Veerappan with bits of information about our movements, we were able to convert these conduits to our advantage. They worked as double agents. We were prepared to do anything to convert them. We studied their weakness and requirements. And we used not just money (lots of it was handed out) but other inducements, like promises of a job, a house and rehabilitation in a safe place. Much work went into finding out their requirements, then we had to persuade them, that is what took time."

In order to maintain the high levels of secrecy, the STF also made sure that the conduits never mingled with each other and so one did not know what information the other was supplying.

However, according to Vijay Kumar, it was not just intelligence that clinched Operation Cocoon. He said: "The intelligence was backed with good physical work and knowledge of the Veerappan heartland. We also gave our men adequate training. They may not have known where and when they would be needed, but they were in readiness to operate anywhere and at any time."

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