A diffuse but highly networked group of terrorists, driven by a dangerous cocktail of extremist ideology and a simmering sense of anguish and revenge, currently pose a serious threat to India's economic and social structure. The militants exploit gaping holes in India’s counter-terrorism architecture and strategy as well as the nation’s ambivalent policies toward religious minorities, particularly the 150-million strong but largely impoverished Muslim community.
What has complicated the Indian intelligence agencies’ task since the flowering of al-Qaeda and a global jihadist movement after 9/11 is the alacrity with which various terrorist groups and their support structures have reworked their strategy and operational methods to effectively dodge a series of worldwide bans. The most dramatic change in the Indian context has been the realignment of terrorist forces, with prominent groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)—proscribed by the United States and other countries, including Pakistan—stepping back to allow Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), an al-Qaeda ally with a pan-South Asian presence, to lead the terror campaign in India (Rediff.com, May 25, 2007).
Other changes have been noticed in the structure and modus operandi of India’s terrorist groups. The new recruits to the cause are local men: young, educated and without previous involvement in extremist activities. These men form the nucleus of groups throughout India who tap into the local criminal-hawala network of couriers and handlers to move money and explosives—often locally acquired—to carry out terrorist strikes . The group carrying out the operation typically disengages and disappears after striking, leaving hardly any trace of its existence. Since the simultaneous explosions in Delhi in 2005, investigating agencies frequently encounter red herrings left by the terrorists to confuse the investigation and allow greater time to disband and escape.
Two critical aspects in the growth of Indian terrorism are the mounting evidence pointing to the involvement of the HuJI in terror attacks and the alliance of this group with the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a banned network of young Muslim activists who openly claim Osama bin Laden as their idol (The Hindu, April 3, 2007). For a long time India’s federal and state investigating agencies did not see the link as a serious development, continuing instead to rely on past experience by focusing on LeT and JeM activists.
One of the primary reasons for this poor assessment was the inability of the intelligence agencies and the whole cornucopia of coordinating agencies at state and federal levels to think beyond the entrenched “conventional wisdom” of analyzing terrorist groups through ideological prisms, thereby completely missing the possibility that these groups might work together for a common goal. This has happened not only in India but even in Pakistan, where one such coalition of terror groups called Brigade 313 was involved in assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf (Newsline, August 2004; Asia Times, July 14, 2004).
Equally restricting has been the reluctance, and even refusal, to share information among the intelligence and security agencies. Along with an inept information-sharing architecture at the national level, this reluctance has proved to be the most critical flaw in counter-terrorism intelligence operations (The Hindu, October 30, 2001). The problem came to the fore recently when police in the Karnataka state of southern India arrested one Riyazuddin Nasir on charges of vehicle theft. Nasir would have been let out on bail for these minor charges but for a single intelligence official in Delhi who decided to search the database for connections with terrorist activities. Nasir was found to be a HuJI operative and one of India's most wanted men (The Hindu, February 12).
Failure to Cooperate
It is not really difficult to see where the problem is—an intelligence structure which has yet to emerge from its debilitating colonial legacy and a complementary stranglehold of bureaucracy. The structure and operational philosophy of state police and intelligence units have not changed much since British days—they are mostly structured as agencies to protect law and order and spy on rivals rather than act as investigative and intelligence units. Criminal investigators are usually inserted into terrorism investigations only after an incident takes place. There are no independent anti-terror units carrying out both intelligence and investigations into terrorist groups at the state level.
At the top of the intelligence pyramid is the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), headed by an all-powerful, politically-appointed National Security Advisor (NSA), who often has much more than terrorism on his mind. Intelligence operations within the country are carried out by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and its wide network of officers and men, all reporting to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry is headed by a cabinet minister and one or two ministers of state—besides a secretary and other senior officials—who often get tempted, at least close to the elections, to utilize the IB for assessing the electoral chances of their party while spying on their rivals. EM Rammohan, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, notes: “Instead of concentrating on security issues, they are busy chasing the Opposition so that the ruling party is kept in power. Is that the job of the IB?” (outlookindia.com, July 31, 2006).
External intelligence is the responsibility of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), working directly under the Cabinet Secretary but reporting to the NSA for all practical purposes. RAW keeps a sharp eye on the activities of terrorist groups with bases in foreign countries. According to former IB joint-director Maloy Krishna Dhar, RAW’s reluctance to share information with IB is legendary (Rediff.com, August 17, 2006). There have also been instances where personality clashes have deterred effective coordination between the NSA and RAW chiefs .
The second set of intelligence agencies are the military ones, led by the Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) with a network of field offices and forward posts in the border areas as well as representatives in diplomatic missions. Since the DGMI has been historically part of the Army, the Air Force and Navy have individual intelligence units collecting and collating information relevant to their operations and bases. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), created in 2002 to correct this anomaly, is entrusted with the task of coordinating the whole spectrum of military intelligence but is presently short-staffed, poorly funded and burdened with an ambitious and expanding circle of objectives .
Paramilitary organizations like the Central Reserve Police Force and Border Security Force maintain their own intelligence units to support counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir and elsewhere. Their intelligence operations have often been stymied by the Army's reluctance to share intelligence tapped from its wide network of informers and sources. Other government agencies providing physical security, like the Special Protection Group, Central Industrial Security Force and National Security Guards, all maintain their own intelligence units.
At the bottom of the pyramid are the state police, whose intelligence networks remain the primary source of information and main agency for implementing action on the ground. The most critical element in this structure is the investigative branch of the local police forces. These go by various names, such as the Criminal Investigation Department, the Special Branch or the Crime Branch. There is no uniformity in responsibilities or operational duties. Typically these units carry out the investigation and prosecution of terrorist, hawala, arms and counterfeit cases, placing them in the unique position of being able to detect the emergence of terror networks or coalitions.
Unfortunately they remain the weakest link in the intelligence chain as these units carry the burden of acting as colonial-style law enforcement agencies and not as modern units capable of organizing preventive measures based on intelligence collection. These forces are commonly afflicted with poor morale and problems related to accountability, pay and training. Even in metropolitan centers like Delhi and Mumbai, the police-criminal nexus and pervasive corruption have rendered effective intelligence from federal agencies worthless. There was clear intelligence available about terrorist attacks in Mumbai at least a month before the July 2006 commuter train blasts. This intelligence was not followed up on, nor were preventive measures put in place at railway stations. A week after the Mumbai blasts, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quoted by the media as saying that “past responses have been inadequate in dealing with these problems which are of a different intensity, magnitude, scale and scope” (The Tribune [Chandigarh, Punjab], July 21, 2006).
Reforming the Intelligence Structure
Of the several steps taken in recent years to overcome these outstanding difficulties, two held great promise. One was the creation of the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), with a focus on collecting technical intelligence (TECHINT), cyber intelligence and cyber counter-intelligence . Beginning with RAW's Aviation Research Centre (ARC) assets, NTRO is rapidly expanding and strengthening its intelligence capabilities to fulfill this mandate. On the other hand, the NTRO mandate adds one more agency to the mix, as the IB, RAW and the Army’s Signals Directorate will continue to maintain autonomous TECHINT units.
The second step was the establishment of a Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and a Joint Task Force on Intelligence within IB as a hub of India's counter-terrorism effort. The mission objective was to run an umbrella organization comprising state-level units called SMACs and the development of a national counter-terrorism database supported by state-level police-intelligence Joint Task Forces and inter-state Intelligence Support Teams (The Hindu, February 12). Conceived after the pattern of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, the MAC was to be responsible for the joint analysis of intelligence flowing from different quarters and coordinating relevant follow-up actions (Rediff.com, April 6, 2003).
Five years after MAC was approved, it is today composed of a skeletal staff and five SMACs, using a database hosted on a bare-bones computer system designed in-house, with no real-time links to state police forces or other intelligence agencies. There is no sign of the development of the comprehensive database on terrorists on which the entire counter-terrorism information grid was to be built. Senior intelligence officials have pointed out that the interrogation reports of 16,000 Islamist terrorists caught between 1991 and 2005 could prove to be a goldmine of actionable intelligence (The Hindu, February 6). These inadequacies can be overcome by beefing up the present staff strength and widening the recruitment base to include the qualified technical personnel needed to develop, integrate and man the information grid. But progress is delayed due to unseemly bureaucratic wrangling over funding for an additional 140 positions at MAC. Added to this problem is the Indian Army's refusal to depute officials to the agency, citing disciplinary and administrative problems (The Hindu, February 12).
Difficulties like these and the tepid response of the state governments to a 2007 Supreme Court directive ordering improvements in the functioning of police and intelligence agencies continue to bedevil India’s attempts to fashion an effective counter-terrorism strategy. Meanwhile terrorist groups continue to display a marked advantage in adapting to newer technologies and modes of operation, allowing them to function more quickly and quietly than the Indian intelligence community.
1. Hawala is an alternative remittance system with both legitimate and illegitimate uses.
2. Author’s interview with a senior RAW official.
3. Author’s interview with an official from the Defence Intelligence Agency, New Delhi, in 2007.
4. From B. Raman’s lecture on National Security and Armed Forces Command Structure, organized by the Forum for Strategic and Security Studies, New Delhi, on October 16, 2007. Raman is a former senior RAW official who gives details of various intelligence operations in his recent book, Kaoboys of RAW, New Delhi, 2007.