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Failure of Indian intelligence: The buck stops nowhere

By Wilson John, IANS,

Almost a dozen state police units and intelligence agencies were tracking down terrorist groups across India for the past two years but missed to detect the activities of the men who were involved in the Mumbai terror attack.

Though there were reports, based mainly on the interrogation of terrorists arrested in the recent past, about Mumbai being the next target, there were no specific leads about how the terrorists will strike.

The increasing failure of the intelligence agencies, both at the sate and the federal level, to prevent such attacks has emboldened the terrorists groups which have struck back, despite large scale arrests and security measures, at a frequency of two months in the recent past – Ahmedabad in July, Delhi in September and now Mumbai in November. These attacks were not carried out by the same group of terrorists but by a loose coalition of groups located in different parts of the country, activated and coordinated by a central command, likely to be outside India.

This singular inability is not caused by lack of information but a deep reluctance to share data and resources among the police and intelligence agencies and the pitfall of having a multiplicity of organisations, with separate command and control which, in essence, means the buck stops nowhere.

The most debilitating factor in the Indian intelligence war on terrorism has been the reluctance, and even refusal, to share information among the intelligence and security agencies. Along with an inept information-sharing architecture at the national level, this reluctance has proved to be the most critical flaw in counter-terrorism intelligence operations.

The problem came to the fore early this year when police in the Karnataka state of southern India arrested one Riyazuddin Nasir on charges of vehicle theft. Nasir would have been let out on bail for these minor charges but for a single intelligence official in New Delhi who decided to search the database for connections with terrorist activities. Nasir was found to be a Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami’s (HuJI) operative and one of India’s most wanted men.

It is not really difficult to see where the problem is: an intelligence structure which has yet to emerge from its debilitating colonial legacy and a complementary stranglehold of bureaucracy. The structure and operational philosophy of state police and intelligence units have not changed much since British days. They are mostly structured as agencies to protect law and order and spy on rivals rather than act as investigative and intelligence units. Criminal investigators are usually inserted into terrorism investigations only after an incident takes place. There are no independent anti-terror units carrying out both intelligence and investigations into terrorist groups at the state level.

At the top of the intelligence pyramid is the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), headed by an all-powerful, politically-appointed National Security Advisor (NSA), who often has much more than terrorism on his mind. Intelligence operations within the country are carried out by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and its wide network of officers and men, all reporting to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The ministry is headed by a cabinet minister and one or two ministers of state – besides a secretary and other senior officials – who often get tempted, at least close to the elections, to utilize the IB for assessing the electoral chances of their party while spying on their rivals. The IB is grossly under-staffed and the field operatives, numbering 3000, and analysts need to be updated on skills urgently.

External intelligence is the responsibility of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), working directly under the cabinet secretary but reporting to the NSA for all practical purposes. The RAW keeps a sharp eye on the activities of terrorist groups with bases in foreign countries. According to former IB joint director Maloy Krishna Dhar, RAW’s reluctance to share information with the IB is legendary. There have also been instances where personality clashes have deterred effective coordination between the NSA and RAW chiefs. The RAW, for the moment, is riven with dissensions in the top rung and afflicted by unsavoury mud-slinging between various officers which have seriously affected its capability.

The second set of intelligence agencies are the military ones, led by the Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) with a network of field offices and forward posts in the border areas as well as representatives in diplomatic missions. Since the DGMI has been historically part of the army, the air force and navy have individual intelligence units collecting and collating information relevant to their operations and bases. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), created in 2002 to correct this anomaly, is entrusted with the task of coordinating the whole spectrum of military intelligence but is presently short-staffed, poorly funded and burdened with an ambitious and expanding circle of objectives.

Paramilitary organisations like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Force (BSF) maintain their own intelligence units to support counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir and elsewhere. Their intelligence operations have often been stymied by the army’s reluctance to share intelligence tapped from its wide network of informers and sources. Other government agencies providing physical security, like the Special Protection Group (SPG), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and National Security Guards (NSG), all maintain their own intelligence units.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the state police, whose intelligence networks remain the primary source of information and main agency for implementing action on the ground. The most critical element in this structure is the investigative branch of the local police forces. These go by various names, such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Special Branch or the Crime Branch. There is no uniformity in responsibilities or operational duties. Typically, these units carry out the investigation and prosecution of terrorist, and arms and counterfeit cases, placing them in the unique position of being able to detect the emergence of terror networks or coalitions.

Unfortunately, they remain the weakest link in the intelligence chain as these units carry the burden of acting as colonial-style law enforcement agencies and not as modern units capable of organising preventive measures based on intelligence collection. These forces are commonly afflicted with poor morale and problems related to accountability, pay and training. Even in metropolitan centres like New Delhi and Mumbai, the police-criminal nexus and pervasive corruption have rendered effective intelligence from federal agencies worthless.

There was clear intelligence available about terrorist attacks in Mumbai at least a month before the July 2006 commuter train blasts. This intelligence was not followed up on, nor were preventive measures put in place at railway stations. A week after the Mumbai bombings, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quoted by the media as saying that “past responses have been inadequate in dealing with these problems which are of a different intensity, magnitude, scale and scope”.

Of the several steps taken in recent years to overcome these outstanding difficulties, two held great promise. One was the creation of the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), with a focus on collecting technical intelligence (TECHINT), cyber intelligence and cyber counter-intelligence. Beginning with RAW’s Aviation Research Centre (ARC) assets, NTRO is rapidly expanding and strengthening its intelligence capabilities to fulfil this mandate.

On the other hand, the NTRO mandate adds one more agency to the mix, as the IB, RAW and the Indian Army’s Signals Directorate will continue to maintain autonomous TECHINT units.

The second step was the establishment of a Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and a Joint Task Force on intelligence within IB as a hub of India’s counter-terrorism effort. The mission objective was to run an umbrella organization comprising state-level units called SMACs and the development of a national counter-terrorism database supported by state-level police-intelligence Joint Task Forces and inter-state Intelligence Support Teams. Conceived after the pattern of the US Central Investigative Agency’s (CIA)Counter-Terrorism Center, the MAC was to be responsible for the joint analysis of intelligence flowing from different quarters and coordinating relevant follow-up actions.

Five years after MAC was approved, it is today composed of a skeletal staff and five SMACs, using a database hosted on a bare-bones computer system designed in-house, with no real-time links to state police forces or other intelligence agencies. There is no sign of the development of the comprehensive database on terrorists on which the entire counter-terrorism information grid was to be built. Senior intelligence officials have pointed out that the interrogation reports of 16,000 Islamist terrorists caught between 1991 and 2005 could prove to be a gold mine of actionable intelligence.

These inadequacies can be overcome by beefing up the present staff strength and widening the recruitment base to include the qualified technical personnel needed to develop, integrate and man the information grid. But progress is delayed due to unseemly bureaucratic wrangling over funding for an additional 140 positions at MAC. Added to this problem is the army’s refusal to depute officials to the agency, citing disciplinary and administrative problems.

Difficulties like these and the tepid response of the state governments to a 2007 Supreme Court directive ordering improvements in the functioning of police and intelligence agencies continue to bedevil India’s attempts to fashion an effective counter-terrorism strategy. Meanwhile, terrorist groups continue to display a marked advantage in adapting to newer technologies and modes of operation, allowing them to function more quickly and quietly than the Indian intelligence community.

(Wilson John, senior fellow of the Observer Research Foundation, is an expert on military and strategic affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected])