Terrorism & National Security – Learning From The Mumbai Assault


IN the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai, it is only to be expected that a raging debate has erupted about national security and possible lapses. However, little light has been shed on systemic changes that are clearly required.

Much of the debate has been poorly informed and, especially on TV, often clouded by emotional responses. Unfounded rumours, unverified gossip or inspired leaks from different arms of government seeking to blame each other have not helped. Some of the desire for punitive action against the perpetrators and their sponsors may be understandable, but such attitudes are not conducive to the desired goal, namely a thoroughgoing reform of the security apparatus to prevent further such disasters.

This article is not a post mortem of the Mumbai attack but seeks to draw lessons from it and from comparable international experience. Viewing national security as part of overall security strategy, one should examine the architecture and workings of anti-terrorist security in all its dimensions i.e. detection or intelligence gathering and analysis, prevention or pre-emption, preparedness and capacity-building, and finally disruption or response.


The first and most obvious question for discussion is whether the attack on Mumbai could have been prevented. The only however unsatisfactory answer can only be — probably. Even US intelligence agencies admit that, with all the measures they have instituted, a sea-borne attack on the US as in Mumbai could happen! A good thief will always find a way to beat the best lock! The goal of all security systems is therefore, not to provide a foolproof guarantee, but to make the task of the terrorist as difficult as possible, be flexible and facilitate prevention.

Contrary to accusations of “intelligence failure”, it now appears that credible intelligence had been generated about a possible sea-borne terrorist attack on Mumbai. Intercepts of communications over satellite and mobile phones spanning a considerable period were available from Indian as well as US agencies. Two major questions arise: was the information sufficient to enable preventive actions and how was the information disseminated and used?

Media leaks from India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, speak of several pointed recent alerts, even suggestions that the famous hotels by the sea were targets. The Mumbai police chief denies having received any “specific” information but says that rather vague messages were received about attacks likely from the sea somewhere on the West Coast. Navy chief Admiral Suresh Mehta states that “no actionable intelligence was provided.” Yet there is tacit admission by both that, due to this same intelligence, police forces in Mumbai as well as the Navy and Coast Guard had indeed been on alert. So much so that a Coast Guard vessel had in fact intercepted the allegedly hijacked trawler but let it go when the occupants showed some possibly fake identification.

How much more “actionable” can intelligence get? Will security agencies wait to act until they are provided the exact time and location of attack so that terrorists simply walk into the waiting arms of law enforcement?

There may well have been a problem in information transmission. If all sorts of information flow in an unsorted and non-prioritised fashion, they cease to be useful. One can well imagine bureaucrats in the security forces receiving several intelligence memos from different sources each day and simply marking them up the ladder or filing them away!

Vetting and analysis of intelligence, building upon leads to gather more related information to bring out a clearer picture (or development as it is called in the parlance), assigning appropriate threat levels, effective communication to all concerned and ensuring appropriate follow-up measures, are all important elements in the chain. Clearly all this was not done in the present instance. As it now transpires, even the prime minister’s security was not aware of the alert when they went to the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai just a few hours before the attack to prepare for the PM’s visit a few days hence!

Admiral Mehta argues that all this represents “system failure”.

Flawed system, not system failure

This has become a much-abused term in India. By seemingly acknowledging that the whole system is faulty, it prevents closer examination of problem areas. More importantly, the term suggests a well-designed functioning system exists which somehow broke down on the day. Trouble is, the security system in India has for long been deeply and structurally flawed and, over the years regardless of the party in power, has only been tinkered with at the margins.

Sure, intelligence gathering capability could be further improved but in Mumbai, the problem was how intelligence was communicated, in what form and to whom, and what action was proposed or taken in response. Was there a system at all?

The BJP which led the central government during 1996-2004, and which is now attacking the UPA government for its failures, also invoked “system failure” after the Kargil fiasco but did precious little to rectify basic problems. Then too, as the K Subrahmanyam Kargil Review Committee concluded, prior intelligence had been ignored and the Army was finally compelled to respond in fire-fighting fashion. The Report on National Security prepared as a follow-up by a Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by L K Advani himself made many recommendations, most of which were not implemented certainly in spirit, and were also not followed up to ensure proper functioning towards the desired ends.

The GoM Report had recommended an agency to co-ordinate all intelligence: the Joint Intelligence Committee under the National Security Council was set up, but does it function as intended? What happened to the intelligence alert and how was it processed? The Navy chief told TV channels that he had seen media reports that the Coast Guard had intercepted and cleared the hijacked vessel — note he had not heard this directly from the Coast Guard! Many coastal police stations as recommended have been set up both during the NDA and UPA tenures, including 24 in Maharashtra alone, but they are notoriously poorly equipped in terms of boats, weaponry and trained personnel. Were they alerted and activated to act on the Mumbai intelligence alerts? Should there not have been a more active cordon-and-search by the Coast Guard in view of the alert? Should coastal police stations in and near Mumbai not have noticed the terrorists landing with laden haversacks?

In a typically verbose article on CNN-IBN’s website, Arun Shourie of the BJP blames the UPA for failing to act on repeated warnings over many years that the sea-route was vulnerable. Referring to the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai when RDX was smuggled in by sea, he asks “were those blasts not warning enough?” Indeed, but what did the BJP/NDA government do when they were in power for 8 long years till 2004? And did any other measures taken prevent the assault on parliament or on the Akshardham temple, or the hijack to Kandahar of Indian Airlines IC-817 plane which took off from Amritsar even as the NSG was getting ready?

The GoM Report had called for “dispersal of the NSG units at strategic parts across the country”, a step not taken by the NDA then or by the UPA till now after the Mumbai assault. It had recommended that “NSG should not be deployed for duties… beyond its original mandate”, in other words for VIP duties, an injunction completely ignored by both NDA and UPA. It bemoaned the “lack of institutionalised arrangements for sharing and co-ordination of intelligence at various levels and particularly at the field level”, and had also called for an “an apex body for management of maritime affairs… for institutionalised linkages between the Navy, Coast Guard and the concerned ministries of the central and state governments”. And the failure is not political alone but bureaucratic as well, both civilian and military, as the obstruction to the appointment of a chief of defence staff by the different Services shows.

Overhaul needed

Whatever the posturing today, neither the NDA nor the UPA have followed through on these. Indeed, the reality is that the entire political and bureaucratic establishment, including the strategic community, the security services and the armed forces, has failed in this regard.

Useful lessons are available from experiences of other countries. In the US, the review of the horrendous “9/11” terrorist attacks showed that intelligence about suspicious persons taking flying lessons in the US and conspiracies being hatched to attack the US simply formed part of the information “noise” and did not receive due attention. The US inquiry found that different agencies were pursuing their own paths and collation systems were not working. The US therefore created a new Office of the Director of National Intelligence sitting on top of the CIA and other agencies, and tasked with co-ordinating all intelligence and working closely with a newly formed Department of Homeland Security which in turn co-ordinates the work of and liaises with all security and police departments nationwide. By all accounts, these new systems are working well, even discounting the intrusive and extra-constitutional domestic surveillance measures initiated by the Bush administration.

In the UK, the security system was restructured after 9/11 and revamped again after the attack on the London Underground in 2005. The Anti-Terror Branch set up earlier and the Special Branch of the London Metropolitan Police were brought together into a “single counter-terrorism command not restricted… by existing structures, with a better capability and capacity to meet ongoing and future threats” and “bringing together intelligence analysis and development with investigations and operational support activity” and inter-meshing with both local police and national security structures.

In India, in response to criticism that the NSG commandos reached Mumbai only after several hours, the government has announced that four decentralised NSG hubs will be set up each with their own, independent aircraft. More such piecemeal steps would undoubtedly be unveiled over the coming weeks. But what is needed is not improvements here and there but a complete overhaul of the architecture and in the way things are done.

Two important aspects may be highlighted here, other than those already discussed.

The adoption and deployment of technologies for surveillance and detection is being rightly stressed but it is equally important to see that these are effectively used. CCTV systems should be backed by real-time monitoring so they can have a preventive role rather passively recording information for post-incident evidence. The need for X-ray and more sophisticated odour-detection or other systems for screening of luggage and people even in “open” public transport systems and other public places, not just in closed spaces such as airports, has not been given due attention rendering such spaces particularly vulnerable. Costs are no doubt a factor but resources need to be optimally deployed so that the maximum numbers of citizens, especially common folk, are protected. Luxury hotels and airports will readily get better protected but what about railway stations, bus stands, market places? The budget of the PM’s Special Protection Group currently exceeds that of the NSG mandated for the whole nation’s security!

The weakest link in the entire system, namely the local police forces, needs to be urgently addressed. These are not only a vital element in the system of intelligence gathering and surveillance but are also first responders if and when all defences are breached. The NSG or SPG “black cats” may have good weaponry and communications equipment, but surely the sight of policemen at Mumbai’s Shivaji Railway Terminal cowering behind pillars unable to counter the terrorists’ automatic weapons with their own single-loading rifles must prompt urgent action nationwide. And weaponry is just a small part of the total picture: local police also require comprehensive re-training, a redefining of their roles, a revival of the beat system with active community linkages. Modernisation of ill-equipped, poorly trained and under-motivated police forces in India is long overdue, especially in view of the threats posed not only by terrorists but also by insurgents of various hues. It is necessary, but not enough, to simply recruit more police. And impoverished state governments should not be left to carry the financial burden involved. Time will tell if the home minister Chidambaram will act differently from finance minister Chidambaram in this regard!

Looking forward

A restructuring of the security architecture must be accompanied by measures to involve the people and to bring about changes in the security environment and related behaviour of corporations, commercial establishments, shopkeepers and local markets, property owners and so on. Security standards need to be established and compliance ensured, but this is another area where India is historically poor, as recent evidence shows on failure by Telecom companies to obtain verification of mobile phone user identities. TV anchors are now lambasting “politicians” as a class for all evils, but the rot goes far deeper. The great Ratan Tata himself, head of the Taj Group of luxury hotels, said in a TV interview to CNN that better security measures at his hotel in Mumbai would not have worked since all these were at the front entrance while the terrorists came in from the unguarded rear! No anchor questioned this or the astonishing view that “hospitality and security do not go together”: indeed they must! The same anchors were earlier pushing the government, and egging on the public, to demand the release of Masood Azhar in exchange for the hostages of the hijacked aircraft held in Kandahar and, more recently, to pay ransom if need be to free the pirate-captured Indian crew of the Stolt Valor.

It needs constant reiteration that national security is strategic in nature, it is long-term and embraces both foreign and domestic policies. All those clamouring for “action against Pakistan” should realise that, quite apart from the obvious human and other costs that any military engagement with the world’s 9th largest army armed with nuclear weapons would entail, such action may only trigger even more enmity in the future. Any steps taken should be part of a longer-term strategy, meaning measures designed to achieve desired goals.

The Indian people, media and those gathered in various protest demonstrations should realise who to blame and who the enemy is: the terrorists! Their objective is to turn our people against each other, against our government and against our neighbours. These are the biggest dangers to be thwarted.