Column: Eighth Anniversary of 26/11 Attack: What is in store for us?
The first and foremost feature that strikes anybody in our country is the reluctance of governments at the Centre and States to release authentic information to the public whether they are safer now than in November 2008. This reluctance even to share information with the Parliament becomes clear if we read a report on the proceedings of a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs on October 6, 2016. The meeting "lasted nearly three hours, and was attended by Home Secretary Rajeev Mehrishi, whose absence from previous standing committee meetings had irked the MPs" They were summoned to be questioned on the intelligence failure leading to Uri attack and other allied matters on intelligence processing machinery. The last sentence in the report conveys volumes: "However, there were no clear replies from the government side, sources said".
I checked the latest annual report (2015-16) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on whether any substantial improvements have been effected in our preventive machinery. No details regarding better intelligence integration is available since this is an open document. Under the "Coastal Security Scheme" there is a repetition of Phase-I (2005-06) which in any case had failed to prevent 26/11 attacks despite advance intelligence. Phase II was calibrated considering the vulnerabilities experienced on 26/11 and is "under implementation". 131 Coastal police stations were sanctioned of which 104 were operational. 127 Coastal exercises were conducted by the Coast Guard from 2009 till December 2015. A high powered 'National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security "(NCSMCS) under the chairmanship of Cabinet Secretary is constituted to review threats and take remedial measures.
A project to install high resolution cameras on high rises on Mumbai's coast line was mooted by the Western Zonal Council on 21 October 2016 in Mumbai chaired by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The police have been asked to work out modalities. Similar arrangements are being proposed for all the Western States like Goa, Gujarat, Diu & Daman & Dadra- Nagar Haveli. It is presumed that the local police would monitor these cameras.
Are we prepared for surprises?
An incident on May 23, 2015 in Mumbai might cause serious doubts. At about 5.55 pm a Jet Air pilot who was about to take off for Ahmedabad noticed 5 unmanned objects flying in a "tight" formation in the air space across the Mumbai airport. To him they appeared as remote controlled objects. The ATC supervisor who was alerted suspended airport operations. ATC made frantic calls to Juhu Airport, Indian Air Force (IAF) and INS Kunjali, Colaba but received no clear information. INS Kunjali was supposed to keep the Mumbai coastal airspace safe. None had seen these objects. Media quoted the Military Liaison Unit (MLU) saying that the incident was serious. MLU is an IAF detachment charged with the responsibility of giving every aircraft with an air defence (ADC) number.
Till May 25 none took any action and Prime Minister's office (PMO) had to intervene. Suddenly several agencies like CISF, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, Intelligence Bureau (IB) and four local police stations became active. Still no official explanation was available even on May 26. Simultaneously the public were fed with speculative reports that these objects might have carried cameras to photograph sensitive installations and also explosives to be directed against specific targets, including a high rise of a business tycoon.
The truth came out only by the 26th evening through local police enquiries. A prominent diamond export firm had engaged an event management company to release some hot air balloons to advertise a wedding. These balloons had appeared like unmanned parachutes from the ground. The culprits were arrested for violating the airport airspace.
This incident which fortunately ended well would indicate how national security issues are tackled, which despite the 26/11 terror attack, continues to lack either an integrated approach towards facing such problems or a system of accountability in cases of negligence. In all other countries one security department is designated as the "Lead department" to deal with a particular security problem. It is the responsibility of that department to obtain cooperation from others for dealing with that problem. Why was it not done in this case? Why was an impression given that none was responsible? This is particularly significant since the two-member 26/11 High Level Enquiry Committee of which this writer was a member, had warned of the possibility of airborne attacks through hijacked private helicopters which are parked in and around the airport without guards. We had recommended: "As the Aviation Security is with the Central authorities, it is suggested that this matter may be taken up for studies and necessary security measures worked out."
The other important lesson of this incident is that the final responsibility for all security failures finally lands up with our ill equipped, overworked and understaffed local police. Also, the public, who are the ultimate victims of any such incident are kept totally in the dark and have to be satisfied with confusing media leaks. In short, we have learnt nothing from 26/11.
On a positive side it must be said that a later incident on 21 September 2016, although prankish in nature, had tested the response time of our security services. That was immediately after the Uri Army Centre attack on 18 September 2016 which had killed 19 soldiers. Perhaps the quick response was because of a heightened alert all over. A 12 year old school girl in Uran near Mumbai told others and the police that she had seen five armed men, wearing masks and black clothes, while on her way to school. A boy from the same school also said he saw an armed man with a gun. As a result Mumbai, Uran and surrounding areas were put on high alert. The police, anti-terrorism squad, Force 1, coast guard and navy launched search operations for possible intruders.
Delay in grasping overseas developments on terrorism:
We live in a globalized world where terrorists go beyond borders and strike at will. Hence it is very necessary to closely study developments in hotbeds like Afghanistan, Syria-Iraq, Europe and America on the changing nature of terrorist tradecraft and counter measures taken by others. The emergence of ISIS into the terrorist scene was one such instance in which India and the rest of the world took a lot of time to appreciate its full lethal dimensions. Although ISIS had burst into prominence in Iraq in April 2013, the world did not take it seriously till May 2014 when they attacked Belgium Jewish museum killing 4. In the same year there were similar attacks in Australia, Canada, USA and France. India took notice of the ISIS threat only in late 2015 although others including this writer were warning about its potential danger from mid September 2014. The danger was from their returning cadres who would organize attacks against home targets.
One of the biggest difficulties in India is not having a think tank exclusively doing research on internal security and terrorism. Since 1998 I have been advocating setting up such an institution either by government or by rich corporate groups. Even many South Asian countries including Bangla Desh have centres doing full time study of different trends in terrorist plans and financing. All over the world it is realized that executive arms like police or intelligence agencies are far too busy coping with day to day problems and that they have very little time for research & analysis. If we don't do this we will be surprised by new methods of terrorist attacks financed through innovative measures.
[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat & member of the 2 man High Level Committee to enquire into police response to 26/11 terror attack]