Amid alarm beset by the ghastly attack on Paris on November 13 the security and intelligence outfits back home, including those from the Ministry of Home Affairs held a high-level meeting with National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, Air Chief Marshal Sudip Raha, Research And Analysis Wing chief, Rajendra Khanna, Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma, Joint Commissioner of Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, B B Dash and Director General of CISF Surender Singh. Since the intelligence inputs were also backed by a security agency of a friendly country and they suggested possible terror strikes on highly sensitive places like Rashtrapati Bhawan, Vice-President’s house, PM’s residence, headquarters of IAF, Sena Bhawan and Delhi Metro rail, the meeting at North Block was held to assess the country’s anti-terror preparedness level. Coordination between various security and intelligence agencies was stressed. Also, monitoring of suspected elements, including ISIS sympathisers was given priority. Operatives of NATGRID, the agency which is yet to be fully operational, thanks to the bureaucratic logjam, were asked to keep a tab on suspected individuals’ travel, immigration, bank and financial transactions. In all, the country’s more than a dozen security and intelligence agencies were asked to be ready to counter possible terrorists’ attack which, as per intelligence reports could be more “dangerous” than 26/11 or Paris incident.
Since these reports talked about possibility of terrorists using drones and other aerial mediums to carry out strikes in Delhi, the MHA wanted to ensure that nothing is left to chance. It also wanted a sync between its tall claim that “India will respond to any new challenges” and the preparedness level against threat from ISIS or any other terrorist outfit. However, those who once formed the formidable part of the country’s security apparatus, have a different take on the country’s preparedness level. Even though they agree that coordination system among security agencies has increased to some extent post the 2008 November Mumbai attack, they have no qualms about differing with the Government on the preparedness level. “There appears to be a sense of complacency and decline in alertness levels of police,” former Home Secretary G K Pillai was quoted as saying by an English daily. Indeed, this was very much seen in the case of attack on the Dina Nagar police station in Gurdaspur district in Punjab on 27 July this year. One month before the incident, IB had issued multiple warnings about Pakistan-sponsored terrorists’ strikes against defence and police establishments in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, security preparedness against terrorists’ threat was missing despite the fact that the modus operandi of attack on Dina Nagar police station was similar to the one witnessed at Raj Bagh police station in nearby Kathua where two heavily armed terrorists in Army uniform had stormed it in the third week of March.
“These two incidents reinforced the importance of capacity building of local police forces. In fact, the size of the country that we have and the kind of huge potential targets that exist here, we need to focus on strengthening of our State police force to make our counter-terrorism initiative more effective,” Colonel Vivek Chadha, a research fellow at New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) told Policy Pulse, hinting categorically that at the State level the local Government has yet to accord priority to counter terrorism. As per an estimate, State Governments allocate only three percent of their budget to policing and law and order thereby, keeping in doldrums the modernisation and capacity building of police forces.
At the central level also, things are not okay. The IB or other intelligence outfits lack sufficient manpower to gather data on suspected elements handling social media and internet. On funding of terrorism-related activity too, the country’s law enforcement agency finds itself in a spot. Absence of counter-terrorist financing law, security experts say, stops the law enforcement agencies from having a comprehensive approach towards terrorist financing. According to former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, “challenges” before the country are increasing and in view of this, “there is scope for improvements of preventive measures”. He also stresses for “strengthening of human intelligence”. In this regard people who had been involved with counter-terrorism initiative of the country support the idea of roping in NGOs, student bodies and various social groups for bolstering human intelligence.
Nonetheless, both current and former officials of the MHA agree in one voice that the country is yet to change the on-going narrative that it is a soft target for terrorists’ attack. Loose ends in preventive measures have not been tied. Amid this there are reports that Pakistan’s ISI is ganging up with three terrorist outfits-Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed to carry out terror strikes in India. To meet this objective, intelligence sources say, more than 30 militants belonging to these three outfits are being trained in a camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Earlier in June, the US flagged the possibility of ISIS attack on India. Then in July, an investigative story published in the USA Today said that ISIS was preparing to attack India to provoke an Armageddon-like confrontation with the US. Following the terrorist attack in Paris, New Delhi has been seen pulling its socks up with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying that “India is alert about ISIS,” still whether it is capable to prevent ISIS or any other terror groups’ attack on its soil is under the realm of speculation.
Lure of ISIS
However, there is an undeniable fact that ISIS’ presence is increasing in the country with its number of sympathisers swelling from a dozen early this year to 73 by the end of October this year. The Government’s estimate is that only 23 of them have so far joined the outfit, of whom six have died in various ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq while one Areeb Majeed from Kalyan and a 17-year-old girl who had entered Syria from Qatar, have deserted ISIS and are in the police custody now. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Chennai, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir--are seven Indian states where intelligence agencies have, in order to check the activities of educated youth from Muslim community, put their surveillance mechanism on. Of them all, youth from five South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chennai, Kerala and Karnataka- have been identified as those appearing to be keen to join ISIS even as the outfit “maltreats” recruits from the South Asian region. Apart from low salary, according to various intelligence reports, recruits from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives are given inferior weapons and accommodated in dingy and small houses.
Yet, what is startling is that those who have either joined ISIS or are sympathetic to the outfit are highly educated and well-versed in information technology. Such uncompromising truth tumbled out in the course of interrogations of several ISIS sympathisers in the past few months. They have told police that their association with ISIS started through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In a way, say security officials, it indicates beyond a doubt that only educated youth are lured towards the outfit.
Recently, 17 youth from Telangana who were prevented from travelling to Syria or four youth from Maharashtra, stopped from travelling to West Asia were found to be well educated. Some of them had done their engineering from prestigious institutions of earlier united Andhra Pradesh. Thirty-eight-year-old Afsha Jabeen who was arrested by police in Hyderabad on September 11 after she was deported from Dubai on charges of trying to recruit youth online for ISIS, is a graduate. Thirty-two-year-old Salman Mohiuddin, who was arrested at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad before he was trying to fly out of the country to join ISIS in January, did MSc in Transport planning and management from the US’ Texas Southern University after completing his B Tech from an engineering college in Hyderabad. Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a West Bengal resident who was running ISIS propaganda Twitter account-@ShamiWitness, was working with a Bangalore based software company. As per a dossier prepared by intelligence agencies, of the total 73 sympathisers of the Jehadi group, more than 80 percent are graduates, nine percent are school dropouts, eight percent techies and three percent post-graduates.
In view of this, the Government has given a pace to de-radicalisation efforts which include help from influential community elders and clerics to persuade the younger generation to not get influenced by any extremist ideology. Several NGOs and individuals like parents, teachers and school principals are also involved in de-radicalisation programme. However, many experts feel that this mechanism could be effective only when the process is inclusive. “If a de-radicalisation programme is exclusive and out and out targets one particular community then it would not produce desired results. It should be positive and inclusive,” former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta said.
In a recent Cabinet meeting of the NDA Government, it has been decided to strengthen State police forces by imparting training and equipping them with the latest security gadgets. Yet, gathering real time intelligence on suspects is proving to be a challenging task before security agencies. “putting every citizen under radar is not easy and we have already seen this in the case of terrorist attack in Paris which was planned by Jehadis much in advance, say for a year and yet French security agencies with money, equipment and manpower at their command could not track the movement of the perpetrators of the ghastly attack,” a retired security official whose expertise in anti-terrorism operation is still sought by the Government agencies, said on the condition of anonymity.
Nonetheless, among a dozen security and intelligence agencies, there is a little apprehension that Indian Mujahiddin could pledge support to ISIS, though, they acknowledge that several members of IM have joined the ranks of ISIS sympathisers. It should be noted that while IM subscribes to the Deobandi school of thought, ISIS follows the Salafi school of thought. This ideological difference is argued as the key reason why IM has not so far pledged allegiance to ISIS. Connection between IM and ISIS surfaced when National Investigation Agency last year filed a 108-page chargesheet against five IM members accused of association with Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT), an AF-Pak based terror outfit. Of these five IM members, two had shown leanings towards ISIS and had uploaded videos of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calling for jihad in India on their social media handle.
In the wake of the US informing India about the possibility of ISIS attack on its cities, authorities have escalated the level of their surveillance on suspected people and have tightened noose around those engaged in forgery of Government ID cards and documents. Still making the country vulnerable for ISIS attack is easy availability of targets and lack of strategy, electronic gadgets, enough well trained officers to deal with threat from the outfit which has already spread its wings in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives. In that background, to provide fool proof security to the country from any foreseen or unforeseen attack or to keep vulnerable Indian youth away from ISIS influence, are very difficult task if not impossible, say intelligence sources. In a way, it points towards the need of comprehensive anti-terror policy in the country about which experts like former chief of Border Security Force Prakash Singh have their reservations vis-a-vis its implementation. If he is to be believed unless police, the prosecution machinery, judiciary and jails are reformed, “we cannot comprehensively fight terrorism.” In this regard, the veteran security expert gets a support from Colonel Chadha of IDSA, who too feels that police reform should be taken up on priority basis because it is the country’s first line of security against anti-social and anti-national elements. But irony is that despite the Supreme Court’s direction, the State Governments have yet to take a call on police reform, thereby, shredding any chance to framing of anti-terror policy.