Dealing with fundamentalist terrorism

India’s experiments with POTA, TADA and UAPA have failed to deliver the desired results. Laws must be just and humane and not designed to be vindictive towards or shield any particular community or religious denomination. We are living in the age of ‘new terrorism’ that is far more violent and diabolical and our policies must keep pace with the emerging developments.

The terror strikes in New Zealand and Sri Lanka are only the most recent manifestations of what is rapidly becoming the new normal in this age of fundamentalist terrorism. It has clearly emerged from the ongoing investigations into the attacks in Colombo that the terrorists involved had linkages in India and Indian cities are probably on the radar on the Islamic State.

Ten years after the Mumbai terror attacks, there is broad consensus that the response in November 2008 was slow, laborious and poorly coordinated among the Central and state governments and their various agencies. Coastal security was virtually non-existent; the Marine Police were too few in number to effectively patrol the vast area entrusted to them; they were ill equipped and inadequately trained; and, there was poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the Marine Police. It took far too long to begin flushing-out operations and then to eliminate the nine terrorists who were holed up at three separate locations. 

The government needs to review its largely reactive policies and adopt pro-active measures to fight terrorism, particularly the variety that emanates from the soil of inimical neighbouring countries. The government must formulate a comprehensive approach to fight terrorism, and all organs of the state must come together to implement a national-level counter-terrorism strategy. The government must draw up a strategy that is inter-ministerial, inter-agency and inter-departmental in character. 

It must be ensured that the counter-terrorism policy is based on strong but egalitarian laws. India’s experiments with POTA, TADA and UAPA have failed to deliver the desired results. Laws must be just and humane and must not be designed to either be vindictive towards or shield any particular community or religious denomination. The experience of many other countries has proved that it is possible to formulate strong counter-terrorism laws. The US established a powerful Department of Homeland Security following the 9/11 strikes and there has not been a major terrorist attack since then.

One major lacuna in India’s approach to counter-terrorism is the gross disconnect between how the Central and the state governments view counter-terrorism. The Constitution must be amended to move ‘law and order’ from the State List to the Concurrent List so that the Central government can act on its own initiative when necessary, particularly in the case of externally-sponsored terrorism. And, it is time the government bifurcated the internal security function of the Ministry of Home Affairs into a separate ministry headed by a cabinet minister.

Besides prevention through accurate ‘humint’and ‘techint’ intelligence gathering, successful counter-terrorism requires the effective intelligence penetration of terrorist groups so that their leadership can be systematically neutralised by an empowered anti-terrorism agency. Comprehensive planning and better stage management are necessary for the real-time elimination of a group of terrorists during a strike while the terrorists are still on a killing spree. 

Though the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave its approval for the establishment of a National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) following the Mumbai terror strikes, seven chief ministers virtually vetoed the NCTC on the grounds that its functioning will undermine the federal structure of India’s Constitution and that it must not be placed under the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The opposition came despite then PM Manmohan Singh’s assurance that, “It is not our government’s intention to alter distribution of power between states and the Centre. The NCTC is to coordinate counter-terror measures, not to infringe on state powers.”

The NCTC was opposed despite the fact that its structure approved by the CCS was a watered-down version of the form in which the NCTC had been conceived by then Home Minister P Chidambaram as an organisation capable of “preventing a terrorist attack, containing a terrorist attack should one take place, and responding to a terrorist attack by inflicting pain upon the perpetrators.” 

The NCTC had been envisaged as an umbrella organisation, which would exercise control over the other agencies. It was proposed to be placed under the IB and the existing Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) was to be subsumed in it. 

The NCTC was to be tasked to draw up and coordinate counter-terrorism plans, integrate intelligence-gathering and coordinate with all investigating and intelligence agencies. 

Though it was never established, the concept had some major lacunae. Unless the NCTC is empowered to conduct counter-terrorism operations like its US counterpart, on which the Indian version was expected to be based, urban terrorism will continue to remain a cause for concern. Without an effective NCTC or a similar organisation, the planning and execution of India’s counter-terrorism policies will remain mired in systemic weaknesses.

Post-incident investigation is aimed at unravelling the identities of the planners and the plotters and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the incident of terrorism. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) must be reconstituted as it lacks teeth in its present form. It should be re-modelled on the US FBI to give it both preventive and investigative powers. While there is no need to blindly ape any country, there is no harm in learning from the best practices abroad and incorporating them into Indian policies. 

India’s intelligence coordination and assessment apparatus at the national level and counter-terrorism policies remain mired in the days of innocence. We are now living in the age of ‘new terrorism’ that is far more violent and diabolical than before and policies must keep pace with the emerging developments. For example, with the Islamic State striving to extend its reach to India, counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation policies must be formulated early.