India on guard: How well prepared are we to stop another terror attack?

  • Presley Thomas and Appu Esthose Suresh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 25, 2016 14:21 IST
A commando on security vigil at the Rajpath during rehearsal for Republic Day parade in New Delhi. (HT Photo/Vipin Kumar)

Lieutenant Colonel EK Niranjan, who was killed in a recent terror strike at Punjab’s Pathankot airbase, was an old hand in the bomb disposal squad of the National Security Guard (NSG), the country’s elite commando force.

He knew the standard operating procedures and followed them meticulously — a check for booby traps by rotating a body 360 degrees from a distance using ropes to ensure there’s no hand grenade. He’d also gone through the drill to check for trip wires that could detonate an improvised explosive device (IED).

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It was only after the standard checks and a mandatory wait of two to three minutes that Niranjan had approached the bodies of four terrorists killed during an encounter. He was trained to look for live bombs and neutralise them but still paid with his life.

Had it not been for the bureaucratic red tape that dogs the procurement of essential equipment for the elite commandos, Niranjan would have had jammers to ensure a remote-controlled IED was not set off. He would also have been wearing an advanced 9B bomb suit that the NSG sought from the home ministry soon after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. The force is still waiting for these life-protecting suits.

The Pathankot attack is a painful reminder of everything that is wrong with India’s anti-terror response despite two detailed security reviews. One was done after the short but sharp war in 1999 over the icy peaks in Kargil where the army woke up only after Pakistani soldiers had entrenched themselves well within Indian territory and the second after multiple attacks in the heart of Mumbai.

In the high-voltage game of cat and mouse between terrorists and the security establishment, why does the jehadi usually win? Why does India still have chinks in its armour despite being repeatedly hit? Are we really prepared for another strike which can come — in the air or on land — sooner rather than later?

Pathankot prized open all the warts: the suicide squad crossed the international boundary without being intercepted by the Border Security Force. The attackers then managed to hijack an SP’s car and scale the high-security airbase and kill members of the Defence Security Corps despite an alert from the police officer. The 80-hour operation pointed not only to a botch-up by the stakeholders including Punjab Police, the air force, army and NSG but also to critical deficiencies.

The men and machines that lie at the heart of the anti-terror mechanism clearly need urgent training and upgrade, as HT found after critically examining three major terror strikes:

The hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 at the break of this millennium, the 2002 Akshardham temple siege in Gujarat and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

Bullets that don’t pierce

In 2007, seven years after the IC 814 hijack, the NSG conducted tests on a simulator flight at its Manesar headquarters on the outskirts of Delhi.

The first test to take out a terror suspect in the cockpit failed. The 7.62mm calibre sniper bullet could only pierce the cockpit glass to be stopped dead due to its thickness.

The NSG asked for higher calibre sniper rifles manufactured by US-based Barret.

Two years later, eight such guns were bought but the anti-air hijacking unit got only one. The remaining seven were distributed to other units.

Aircraft intervention vehicles, which can approach a plane with hydraulic ladders at a high speed, are crucial during a hijack, but the NSG has only one and that too bought on a trial basis.

To access the exits of an aircraft, the NSG practices with hydraulic ladders mounted on gypsy platforms. These ladders weigh approximately 1,000 kg each and invariably topple when mounted on gypsy platforms, say insiders. An open platform also leaves the commandos exposed to firing.

After the hijacking in 1999 when 155 passengers were released only after Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar and two other militants were set free, the government decided to deploy sky marshals equipped with Glock pistols. But only 15% of flights have these marshals and trials in 2007 showed that the 9mm bullets used in the Glocks could endanger both the plane and passengers.

The NSG wanted to place orders for specialised ammunition that suit inside-the-aircraft conditions while airborne. The tendering process for special grade ammunition has, however, still not begun.

Doors that won’t open

The elite commandos of the NSG — crucial to the operations in Mumbai and Pathankot — can only be as good their tools. So, what slowed down the force at Mumbai’s iconic Taj hotel during the 26/11 terror strike?

HT put this question to NSG officials and they all pointed to the fact that they had to go from room to room with a master key. It became apparent that the force sorely needed hydraulic door busters in its inventory. Under the special powers of the NSG’s director general, five units were bought a year later, in 2009, but procurements were stalled because the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and NSG could not reach an agreement on whether the device should have a rotating handle or a pumping lever, sources revealed.

During the excruciating 80-hour battle in Mumbai, the NSG moved cautiously, guarding the corner walls. A specialised weapon called “corner shot” that allows an area to be scanned without exposing a commando would have helped. A 2012 MHA report marked “secret” agreed that corner shots “will negate unnecessary loss of life”. Thirteen corner shots were to be bought and distributed to the NSG’s regional hubs too, but so far only one has been procured, again under the DG’s special powers.

Once the corner is turned and the commandos come within close range of terrorists, under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGL) act as force multipliers. Inexplicably, launchers have been bought but the elite force is yet to place orders for grenades.

The NSG, in an email response, denied shortage of critical equipments, and said they are in adequate numbers and were also used in the recent Pathankot operations. The NSG refused to divulge the exact holding citing operational reasons. However, for instance, the agency’s website shows it is still in the process of procuring bomb suits.

Lessons not learnt

In September 2002, the NSG reached the Akshardham temple attack site in Gujarat at 10pm but had to wait till the next morning to gun down Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists Murtuza Hafiz Yasin and Ashraf Ali Mohammed Farooq after cornering them in the outer section of the complex.

The elite force did not have guns equipped with night vision rifle scopes or binoculars. Thirteen years later — and this speaks of criminal neglect — the NSG had to halt operations in Pathankot for the same reason.

NSG officials say apathy towards their needs is evident from the number of letters written in the last two years to expedite sanctions to repair a total containment vessel (TCV) that has not been functional at one of its crucial hubs.

A TCV is a vehicle that ensures an IED or bomb is detonated in the safe confines of its walls and prevents any human casualty that can otherwise result from the shrapnel of an IED or bomb. Another reminder of why Niranjan need not have died.

Unified command

Clear command and control are crucial during an ongoing terror attack and so is early intelligence. In Pathankot, concrete intelligence provided by SP Salwinder Singh was not acted on in quick time and confusion prevailed over how many terrorists had entered the base and also over who was controlling the operation. National security adviser Ajit Doval sent the NSG to Pathankot but on the ground, senior officers of the IAF, army and NSG were initially unclear on who was in charge.

This very lack of coordination between agencies was highlighted soon after the 26/11 attack. As a corrective measure, a joint operations centre (JoC) was set up at INS Angre in Mumbai to ensure that all agencies were connected real time to handle a situation.

Pathankot, however, showed that despite an attack in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district only six months ago, little thought had been put towards plugging the holes.

Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists are believed to have crossed the international border through the same sector from where the Gurdaspur attackers had infiltrated into India.

This is probably where mock drills at the highest level could come in handy. In 2010, when the MHA put the drill in place, senior officers including secretaries and joint secretaries struggled to find the designated room in Rashtrapati Bhavan where the cabinet secretary’s office is located. Simultaneously, a team of Delhi Police commandos was seated inside the vehicle in 75 seconds — as per the drill — but was unable to move since the driver was having tea.

After the Indian Airlines hijacking and the 26/11 attacks, Pathankot is another sad and costly reminder of just how unprepared India is despite terrorism emerging as the number one enemy.

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