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How a plot was lost

It could have been the greatest counter-terrorist coup of the decade. Ten terrorists could have got off their dinghies on November 26 and walked into the waiting arms of the Indian security forces. Instead, 200 people have died and 389 lie injured. So what happened? Who messed up? Prem Shankar Jha examines.Full Coverage | See graphics I | See graphics II

india Updated: Dec 07, 2008 00:10 IST

The frantic scramble within the intelligence agencies to find out what went wrong, and their willingness to enlist the media in proving that they were not to blame, has unleashed a flood of information. This deluge shows that the government not only knew that an attack was being planned, but had a pretty accurate idea of when it would take place and how and where it would be launched.

And yet the Indian State was able to do nothing to stop it.

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) first got wind that the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba was developing a sea route to India via Mumbai as far back as March 2007 when a coastguard ship to intercept a trawler carrying eight fidayeens, let them go after accepting a bribe. But the authorities managed to plant a bug in their belongings and traced them all the way through India, before arresting them in Jammu.

The movements of this group did not specifically suggest that Mumbai could be their target. That came to light in February 2008, when the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested an LeT operative, the UP-born Fahim Ahmed Ansari, along with seven others. He and two others had been infiltrated into India from Pakistan specifically to travel to Mumbai and blow up the stock exchange building. The UP case files against him include maps he had drawn of the fort area of Mumbai, with specific references to Oberoi hotel and the Chhatrapato Shivaji Terminus. The LeT may have decided upon the sea route only after this group was arrested.

Confirmation that the Taj also was likely to be a target came on September 18 when the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) picked up a satellite phone conversation between a known LeT operative and some other person in which the former said that ‘the target’ was a hotel near the Gateway of India. Another intercept, six days later on September 24, revealed that four luxury hotels, all of them at the edge of the sea, were being considered as possible targets.

By the end of September, therefore, all that the agencies had not put together, between them, was the timing of the attack. But they did this too within the next six weeks. On November 19, the R&AW received an ‘intelligence input’ (possibly from the Americans), based upon the interception of another satellite phone call that originated at a point due south of Karachi and four days sailing away from Mumbai, that the ‘cargo’ was on its way to Mumbai.

All that the government had to do was to put the navy on high alert, move in the National Security Guards (NSG) and commandos quietly, identify the most likely drop off points and be waiting for the terrorists when they arrived.

But this required five things:

A sharing of the information between the agencies

Discerning the pattern that was emerging

Informing the Prime Minister and all the concerned executive agencies

Issuing an alert to the state governments and the targeted hotels and buildings that was sufficiently precise to make them sit up and take notice

Moving the NSG and naval commandos into key locations without allowing our media to get wind of it and blow the gaffe.

Not a single one of these things were done Someone has got to pay.

But so far, all that the Manmohan Singh government has done is to decide upon whom to make its scapegoats. The real culprits are going scot-free. Shivraj Patil, Vilas Rao Deshmukh, and R.R. Patil may have been indifferent ministers who needed to be replaced anyway. They may have lacked the minimum understanding or experience needed to deal with issues of security, but none of this is relevant, for they could have done nothing even if they had had it.

For none of them, not even the Home Minister, was given either the information they needed or the wherewithal with which to prevent the attack.

That information lay buried in the police and intelligence agencies of the country -- i.e. in its vast and sprawling bureaucracy. If it did not reach the executive branches of government in a usable manner, the fault lies in the chain of command that stretches from those whose business it is to collect the intelligence to those whose business it is to collate and analyse it, and recommend the appropriate course of action.

That entire function, and the Secretariat that performs it, is located in the Prime Minister’s Office, and is presided over by the National Security Advisor (NSA)