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Natgrid in deep-freeze?

26/11 was said to be India’s 9/11. In the initial days after the attack, the government and the ruling Congress party acted with some sense of urgency to revamp the security architecture of the country, writes Varghese K George.

delhi Updated: May 31, 2011 00:43 IST
Varghese K George

26/11 was said to be India’s 9/11. In the initial days after the attack, the government and the ruling Congress party acted with some sense of urgency — something roughly similar to the US after 9/11 — to revamp the security architecture of the country. India planned a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) on the lines of the US to coordinate between multiple security agencies and a National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) to make surveillance more efficient and regulated.

Thirty months after 26/11 and five months after a detailed project report was prepared for the Natgrid, the cabinet committee on security has not even taken it up for discussion. As for the NCTC, even the idea seems to be dying in the old-world, entrenched thinking of the establishment.

What India is doing now is more in line with what the US had been doing between 1993 and 2001 — prevarication.
In 1993, the World Trade Center (WTC) was attacked first. On February 26 that year, a truck loaded with more than 600 kg of explosives was driven to the parking beneath the north tower of WTC. The conspirators had expected the north tower — under which the bomb exploded — to fall on the south tower, bringing both down. The positioning of the bomb did not make it as effective as was expected though it drove a hole through four levels in the basement of the north tower. Seven people were killed and 1,000 were injured.

The group that carried out the attack had entered the US on various pretexts and some easily slipped out afterwards. If the act itself was not a sufficient warning, the perpetrators expressly stated that more terror attacks would follow.

After the attack, the US analysed the loopholes in the country’s immigration system. It was also found that the government had no real-time knowledge as to whether people entering the country were doing what they had come for.

The investigations revealed that Eyad Ismaoil, a Palestinian who drove the truck to the WTC, had entered on a student visa to attend Wichita State University but dropped out of college and had gone underground. The US Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS) was working with paper files, making the tracing of any records a difficult task such as in this case. It also became apparent that student visas were most commonly misused – many were found to have just disappeared from universities where they were supposed to be.

The US government therefore decided to launch Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS) in 1996 and a pilot program was completed by 1999. CIPRIS would be a centralised database, which would track the activities of immigrant students. For instance, the universities had to inform the CIPRIS if a student dropped out or has changed the stream of study, say, from engineering to flying.

Universities, the INS bureaucracy and activists opposed the CIPRIS. The original proposal for sharing information with law-enforcement agencies and the biometric identification of migrants were abandoned as a consequence. A stripped down version called Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), was put in place – and the price that the US paid was heavy, in September 2001.

It turned out that if the US had done what it set out to do after 1993, 9/11 could have been prevented. Three people who flew three different planes to targets on 9/11 had fooled the US security exactly the way it was feared after the 1993 incident. Hani Hanjour entered the US on a student visa but did not show up at university. Mohamed Atta and Marwan Shhehi arrived on tourist visas and changed over to vocational student visas. They could easily change tack under the radar. So much so, the Huffman Aviation Academy in Florida received approved visas for Atta and Shhehi six months after the 9/11 attacks. The CIPRIS could have detected them.

The indecisiveness of the government in restructuring the worn-out security apparatus is frighteningly similar to that of the US before 9/11. Do we need another terror spectacle to qualify as our own 9/11?