Few eyebrows will be raised at the various guilty verdicts passed down to Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone survivor of the 10-man Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) assault team that caused mayhem in Mumbai in 2008. If there was anything unique about this terrorist trial, it was the overwhelming evidence against Kasab. Combined with the fact he has been found guilty of charges that include seven murders and waging war against the Indian state, it is hard to see Kasab receiving anything less than the maximum possible punishment. The verdict provides the country an opportunity to reflect on the state of its counter-terrorism strategy since the attack. Pakistan’s decision to keep a lower profile after 26/11 and New Delhi’s success in preempting plots by homegrown Islamicists contributed to a remarkably pacific 2009. The recent terror alert in New Delhi and the Pune bomb blast remind us that India should not expect a similar respite every year. It remains unclear how much the country’s defences against Kasab and his ilk are more secure today than it was two years ago.
The best method against terrorism is preemption, to interdict plots and their planners well before they come to fruition. The State has a reasonable record when it comes to local groups like the Indian Mujahideen. It shows little such capability outside the country’s borders and depends, in effect, on the kindness of strangers. New Delhi is spending prodigiously on internal security technology and equipment. The experience of other countries shows that a holistic defence against external terrorism requires a complicated private-public partnership. This, in turn, requires government to understand that it lacks the domain knowledge to game and prepare for the sort of tactical surprise that 26/11 represented. India has yet to achieve that mindset. While an expanded National Security Guard network is welcome, the police remain unsettlingly unreformed. As for prosecution, it is noteworthy that two alleged accomplices of Kasab were acquitted — and the court pointedly blamed the police for making such a poor case of it.
The court, in its judgement, endorsed the argument that 26/11 had its origins in Pakistan and was perpetrated by the heads of the LeT. The truth, however, is that the court’s writ will matter little to Islamabad and that much of India’s counter-terrorism strategising is really a reflection of its lack of leverage over its western neighbour.