Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Delhi bomb: Experts see failure to adapt in terrorist strike

With an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, India has ignored old-fashioned policing.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Hours after a powerful explosion rocked central New Delhi, killing 11 people and leaving dozens more seriously injured, the city is still reeling.

But the spontaneous outrage directed toward Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi when he attempted to visit some of the blast victims at a local hospital this afternoon offers a strong hint of where public opinion is headed.

The bottom line: Today's blast marked the 19th terrorist strike in the Indian capital in 15 years, and despite nearly as many revamps and restructures, neither today's Congress-led government nor its predecessors from the Bharatiya Janata Party, have taken effective measures to improve internal security.

Instead, “there has been a lot of utterly wasteful symbolism in the creation of a number of meta institutions that have no utility whatsoever,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

“Despite all our internal security problems for the past 60 years, we still don't have a counterinsurgency policy,” said Kishalay Bhattacharjee, internal security chair at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“We do not have an anti-terrorism policy. So anything that is decided is very ad hoc. It's very knee-jerk and it's decided on the spur of the moment to allay the public fear or calm down the anger, and then it lapses back into non-implementation mode.”

At 10:17 a.m. Wednesday, an improvised explosive device reportedly made with ammonium nitrate was detonated among a crowd of people gathered outside the Delhi High Court.

Apparently hidden in a briefcase, the bomb generated a powerful explosion that killed several people on the spot and lacerated many others with shrapnel. By evening local time, 11 people had died from wounds sustained in the blast, and the tally of the injured had climbed to more than 70.

Every Indian politician of note and more than a few foreign luminaries expressed their horror and disgust. And opposition politicians declared their solidarity with the government in the midst of the crisis.

But when the usually nimble-footed Gandhi arrived on the scene at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, where victims were being treated, angry bystanders shouted slogans demanding that he “go home or back to where he came from,” according to India's Economic Times newspaper.

Though Gandhi was just a stand-in for the government, or politicians, or the powers that be, the angry reaction was real and justified. From the 2001 attack on parliament to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India's security establishment has had the same, tired response to terrorism, according to experts. They talk. They draw up some papers. Maybe they even create a new intelligence agency. But on the streets, where the actual work of policing happens, nothing changes.

“Forget about intelligence,” said Bhattacharjee. “We do not have the basic security and surveillance infrastructure working in this county. If you go to the mall or cinema hall, the metal detector is there, but half the time it doesn't work.”

In this instance, India's intelligence agencies reportedly had passed information about a possible terrorist attack on to the Delhi police. However, it was apparently not specific enough to generate an action plan. And that's precisely where the problem lies.

“The police is the weakest link in our addressing of internal security challenges,” said Bhattacharjee. “[For the system to work], the police has to be the strongest nodal agency. There is no army out here, or paramilitary forces working out here.”

Nevertheless, India has repeatedly ignored reform at the grassroots level in favor of snazzy acronyms and big-fix fantasies. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, was designed to eliminate information getting lost in the shuffle by providing a single node for intelligence about terrorism.

The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) was constituted to do essentially the same thing for operations. And the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) — inaugurated Sept. 1 — is intended to put all that lovely intel together in a central database.

The only trouble is that India's problem isn't that it has too much information, or that it's too disorganized, says Sahni.

“The reality is we have very small flows of information from the ground,” he said.

The best case in point? The most effective measure to combat terrorism that India has proposed in recent years is a database known as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS). But the way that it is being introduced virtually guarantees its failure, Sahni believes.

“It's no use creating these big computer centers in Delhi if there isn't one computer and one man to operate it in every police station,” he said. “We are trying to do these things top-down, when we ought to improve the system from bottom-up.”

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