On the afternoon of July 13, 2011, the police chiefs of 11 states worst affected by terror strikes sat down to review the internal security situation with Nehchal Sandhu, director, Intelligence Bureau, in North Block. Maharashtra was represented by intelligence chief KL Prasad, as police chief Ajit Parasnis could not make it to Delhi due to prior engagement. At the meeting, Sandhu, a veteran counter-terror expert, expressed concern over unsolved terror cases such as the Jama Masjid firing (September 19, 2010), the Sheetla Ghat bomb blast (December 6, 2010) and the recovery of a live bomb at the Delhi High Court on May 25, 2011.
He told his colleagues that the silence was eerie and something may happen. Prasad, on his part, did not have any input on any terror threat to Mumbai at the meeting. Sandhu’s words turned prophetic that day, as within hours of the meeting an energetic home minister P Chidambaram came looking for Sandhu as he came out from yet another meeting. First off the block, Chidambaram informed him about the serial blasts in Mumbai and directed him to get cracking on the job, as none of the state police officers could be reached on phones. By late night it was clear that India had been humiliated by yet another fertiliser bomb, which went on to claim 26 precious lives in a synchronised attack at crowded Zhaveri Bazaar, Opera House and at a bus stand in Dadar, Mumbai. Fifty-five days have passed since the triple attacks, but both the police and security agencies are groping for clues and the identity of the perpetrators.
To make matters worse, it is now clear that the rabid e-mails sent by the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen (IM) after the Jama Masjid and Sheetla Ghat incidents were uploaded from Mumbai through the Opera Mini platform using servers in Norway. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory’s reports have also confirmed that the bomb at the Delhi High Court was lethal with nearly 1.5 kg of ammonium nitrate but it could not explode due to a faulty detonator. These incidents indicate that our counter-terror apparatus is not up to the mark and there is an urgency in the situation at hand, as a large number of terrorist strikes in the past decade have been unsolved.
The fight has become more complicated with the emergence of self-help and self-financed local terrorist groups which operate at subterranean levels. After 10 local Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) extremists were picked up by the Madhya Pradesh police in June last year, the plot to kill the three Allahabad High Court judges who delivered the Ayodhya verdict was unearthed. Operating way below the police radar, these self-financed extremists had conducted reconnaissance of the three judges for four-and-a-half months — without the knowledge of security agencies — and were on the verge of assassinating them.
The chain of events poses serious questions about our capability to root out terror in the country. The answer, perhaps, lies in radically overhauling our counter-terror strategy. Broadly speaking, enhancement of our capabilities to neutralise terror threats outside our land and sea borders should be our first priority. To ensure this we must revive our capacities abroad or else we will have to wait for some foreign agencies to catch a David Coleman Headley to understand the machinations and terror conspiracies planned against India across the borders.
The fact is that New Delhi had virtually no idea about the Karachi Project, a joint venture of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the proscribed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), till Headley identified key players like Abdur Rehman Syed who were turning Indian youth against their own country under the IM brand. The investigations in the Mumbai 13/7 bombings are stuck partly because we do not have information to either dismiss or confirm theories about the involvement of the ISI or any terror outfit. Despite being a trillion-dollar economy, we follow a hit-and-miss strategy to tackle terrorism. Our next line of defence should be to unearth
and uproot terror modules within our country so that terrorists don’t get time to regroup and launch attacks. This is the task of the local police and dedicated anti-terror squads, as the logic is that a terrorist on the run can’t plan and, thus, can’t strike.
The chain of terror incidents with links to Mumbai indicate that terror modules in Maharashtra have regrouped and they have dedicated-and-tested lines of communication and logistics. For any counter-terror strategy to succeed, these lines need to be disrupted on a regular basis. The Batla House encounter and the global pressure on Pakistan post-26/11 had bought two years of near peace to the Indian hinterland.
The last firewall in our fight against terrorism should be a proper and scientific investigation after the strike. It’s a matter of concern that important clues at terror spots get trampled upon by an intrusive media and curious onlookers or they get hosed out by over-eager civic agencies. Some classic examples of shoddy ‘spot sanctity’ are the German Bakery bombing in Pune — the terror strike was first confused with a cylinder blast — and in the Sheetla Ghat attack — the spot was hosed with water from the Ganges despite the fact that the powerful bomb had flung huge chunks of stone slabs as high as three-storeyed buildings nearby.
Shoddy investigations and the desire to pronounce somebody guilty within minutes of attack should be avoided, as terror strikes require painstaking due diligence — the 13/7 blasts show that even CCTVs fail in crowded places like Zhaveri Bazaar. The need of the hour is to catch the right perpetrators and not merely round up men on a denominational basis. There are no other options.