Botched Mumbai Arrest Highlights India's Intel Failures

  • Share
  • Read Later

A policeman stands with two men identified as Tausif Rehman and Mukhtar Ahmed at the Lalbazar police headquarters in Kolkata. Police say the men helped the Mumbai attackers get mobile phone cards, which they used during their three-day rampage

As if they weren't in enough hot water over their handling of the Mumbai massacre, Indian security forces have added yet another blunder to the growing list of lapses before and after last month's attacks: the arrest of Mukhtar Ahmed. Ahmed was held by the West Bengal police on Friday night for procuring mobile-phone cards for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization suspected of staging the Mumbai attacks. His arrest might have counted as a coup against the extremist group, except for the fact that Ahmed is reported to be an undercover intelligence operative for the Jammu and Kashmir police. Having infiltrated their networks, he had been supplying militants with phone cards, and that had enabled the security forces to monitor some of the militants' communications.

The picture of ineptitude and lack of coordination among the different security forces involved was compounded by the fact that the cops who arrested Ahmed failed to check with the Jammu and Kashmir police to see whether Ahmed's claims to be an agent were true; instead they divulged details of his arrest and identity to the media, resulting in his cover being blown, his family being put at risk, and the Indian intelligence community losing a valuable asset. (See pictures of Mumbai picking up the pieces.)

The Ahmed debacle has amplified the indignant chorus demanding an overhaul of India's intelligence and security apparatuses in the wake of the Mumbai massacre. But experts say little concrete action has been taken so far. One reason is the scale of the problem: India is a country of 1.1 billion people and is regularly (and increasingly) targeted by terrorists, but its internal security agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), has fewer than 3,000 field operatives. Only 400 of these operatives are assigned to counterterrorism operations.

External intelligence gathering is the responsibility of the Research and Analysis wing (R&AW), India's equivalent of the CIA. But operations by Pakistan-based terror groups inside India involve some overlap in responsibility with the IB. Coordination among India's more than 12 intelligence agencies, and between the intelligence establishment and other security services, has often been poor. "Take the case of the National Technical Research Organization, which was carved out of the R&AW," says Wilson John, senior fellow at the New Delhi–based think tank Observer Research Foundation and author of Karachi: A Terror Capital in the Making. "Despite being sister organizations, they are consumed by rivalries. The result is that they are both doing overlapping technical and human intelligence, but not sitting down together to exchange notes."

John says there is an absence of a system for "tagging" intelligence inputs in a way that signals their relative seriousness and priority. Following the Mumbai attacks, all security agencies concerned — from the coast guard to the navy to the local police — claimed that the intelligence inputs they had received were not "actionable."

"Given the heightened threat perception over the last three to four years, there has to be a system of tagging to let the local police know which threats to take seriously," John says. He adds that the system needs a federal mechanism to follow up on what action is taken on intelligence disseminated among the security agencies.

For years, experts have warned that India's security services are in desperate need of an upgrade in skills and technology. M.K. Dhar, who served for three decades as an IB operative, wrote in his 2005 book Open Secrets: India's Intelligence Unveiled that "an average IB officer does not even know the difference between various explosive devices and triggering mechanisms" and that "an average IB officer is not oriented with the techniques of war pursued by mujahideen and fedayeen fanatics." He asserts that political interference had led to a servile "police culture" in the IB, and even charges that sincere IB efforts to nab Pakistani agents had been thwarted by leading politicians.

Following the Mumbai attacks, the government announced that it would create a federal investigative agency to improve coordination among intelligence agencies and between them and the various state police forces. Tougher terror legislation is also being framed to expand the tools available to the security agencies. John says there have been improvements in civilian and military coordination and that an informal system of tagging threats has been introduced since Mumbai. "But these are not institutionalized yet," he says.

Ajai Sahni, director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, dismisses what he calls the "small, incremental" steps taken thus far. "There may be some symbolic movements to hold them up to the public for political impact. But that's it," he says. "We need manpower and technology and matériel on war footing. Normal bureaucratic practice will not work; we need to reinvent procedures. It can be done overnight ... if you are flexible and in action mode." Even after the Mumbai carnage, he claims, the requisite political will and sense of urgency remain lacking. "We have such an incoherent and incapable leadership, and across all political parties." While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to understand the scale of the challenge, Sahni says, "he doesn't seem to carry the weight with his own Cabinet colleagues. And the irrational opposition has been blocking all forward-looking steps, irrespective of national interest."

Sahni warns that India's intelligence and security capability is woefully lacking in proportion to the scale of the threat it faces, and to its status as an emerging economic superpower that is under constant jihadist threat. "We cannot afford to be a tin-pot operation with no capacity to prevent and respond to terror, and bring terrorists to book," says Sahni. "That will not be the kind of country where people would like to invest." And the Mumbai massacre has provoked millions of Indians to demand that the government do a better job of protecting them. So, even if political leaders are inclined to drag their feet, those feet will be held to the fire of mounting public anger.

See pictures of Mumbai sifting through the rubble.

See pictures of terror in Mumbai.