The Weekend Leader - Lessons from the blast

First take aways from Delhi blast

Col. R Hariharan


Vol 0 | Issue 1

Terrorists have struck once again in Delhi taking the historical count of such attacks to more than a dozen. Apart from the tragic loss of lives of innocent public, the repeated terror attacks in Delhi have exposed the soft underbelly of India's fight against terrorism.

Unfortunately in our country one can almost predict the immediate response to terrorist attacks because it is so pedestrian - Prime Minister assures the nation terrorists would be brought to book, opposition leaders blame the government for its soft attitude to terrorism, media blames the police, and everyone calls it intelligence failure.

"Much has been made about the absence of CCTV at the gates of the Delhi High Court which is indeed a lapse. But even CCTV coverage is more handy to identify the culprit after the blast than the limited role it can play in preventing a terror strike." Photo courtesy: Tehelka

When Lashkar terrorists struck Mumbai and went on a rampage on a fateful day in November 26, 2008 many probably expected India to react like the U.S. did after 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks. But India is not the U.S.

India has certain special features - a strange disconnect between thought and action, lack of strategic focus in fighting terrorism and a national inability to focus on core issues for immediate response.

These features condition our thought and action in almost all spheres of governance.

For instance India's 11th five year defence plan is yet to be approved even though it will end next year! So it is not surprising that procrastination is affecting India's readiness to fight terror.

Even the 26/11 attack which paralysed the nation for three days, despite all the rhetoric, has served the limited purpose of policy makers deciding to shake off their lethargy and gear up their act to fight terrorism on a national format.

But the policy formulations of newly appointed Home Minister P Chidambaram spelled out after his take over in 2009 are not yet fully translated into action.

For instance the Cabinet Committee on Security approved in principle the proposal for National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) -- an integrated facility to link databases of 21 departments and ministries - to improve the capability to counter terror threats was given only in June 2011, nearly three years after 26/11 attack demonstrated lack of coordination of government agencies as the number one problem in fighting terrorists. Similarly the proposal of the Home Minister for creating a national centre for counter terrorism is yet to become a reality.

Ammonium Nitrate which is freely available in fertilizer shops had been one of the ingredients in many of the blasts.

Though it is at best a low intensity explosive, its use in conjunction with a high explosive like PETN enhances blast intensity. A proposal to ban free sale of ammonium nitrate taken up by Home Ministry is still to be implemented due to objection from Fertilizer Ministry.

Despite these handicaps, if we take a cursory look as the news bytes of Delhi blast trickles in, there are some positive signs to show we are learning.

For instance, the police response was fast, in 40 minutes the injured were admitted in hospital, and despite the rains, effort was made to save the evidence at site.

The bomb site was cordoned off. National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was on the scene almost on the heels of the police.

By evening, police had interviewed eye witnesses of the blast and prepared sketches of two suspects for rounding up.

The composition of the debris has revealed a nitrate explosive was used in making a sophisticated bomb.

The exit routes from Delhi to neighbouring states were blocked. These may not appear major actions but successful investigation of any terrorist act requires collection and analysis of each and every bit of information, as they help in the logical analysis of forensic, human and technical intelligence.

The public also showed increased awareness despite the initial panic. In their reaction people had higher expectations from the government which in itself is a good thing as it showed greater public interest in protective measures being taken by government.

Much has been made about the absence of CCTV at the gates of the Delhi High Court which is indeed a lapse. But even CCTV coverage is more handy to identify the culprit after the blast than the limited role it can play in preventing a terror strike.

In the fight against terrorism, there is no end to preparedness. India is in a state of transition from the bullock cart age to space age; so to galvanise the nation to fight terrorism is no easy task.

It cannot be left only to politicians or bureaucrats. There is a need to create greater awareness on counter measures against terrorism.

There has to be closer interaction between law enforcement agencies and non government bodies. And the media has to play a responsible role, and think well beyond higher TRP ratings.

It is time we stopped finger pointing and scoring political brownie points. We need to take a look at where we have failed and how we can overcome them.

But at the same time we should dispassionately look at some of the glaring weaknesses. These include:

   • Absence of motivated leadership to discourage the terrorist from attacking the national metropolis. To achieve this, political leadership has to take some bold actions, beyond making political statements with an eye on vote banks.

   • Coordination among government agencies both at the state and central level continues to be a weak link. Bureaucracy has to demolish mental blocks and give up turf wars to achieve real time coordination of their efforts.

   • Police modernisation in the states is woefully lagging behind desired levels of preparedness. As Delhi borders five states it is essential this issue is given top priority.

   • Our judicial system has not been able to catch up with the modernisation process affecting the whole country. There is a need to use technology tools to speed up delivery of justice. Similarly, we require stringent laws to ensure terrorists do not use structural weakness to act with impunity.

The author is a retired Military Intelligence officer of the Indian Army with nearly three decades of service. His areas of special interest are insurgency and terrorism, South Asia with special reference to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
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