The Blog

India's Domestic Threat

The Mumbai massacre was the latest in a long line of terrorist attacks.

8:45 AM, Dec 9, 2008 • By APOORVA SHAH and TIM SULLIVAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Thanksgiving-eve terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, were a startling reminder that Islamist terrorists remain a persistent threat to the West and its allies--and that extremist groups are constantly striving to exploit the deficiencies of police and intelligence services. But they should have been less startling in India, where terrorist attacks have frequently plagued major cities in recent years. With separatist insurgencies in the Northeast and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, the country has long been a hotbed of political violence. But the 2006 suburban railway attacks in Mumbai and this year's bombings in New Delhi, Jaipur, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad--all of which bear some resemblance to the latest tragedy--suggest that India has a fearsome domestic fight on its hands.

Foreign jihadis operating in India, most of whom hail from the Pakistani border regions, have become increasingly brazen. The Mumbai terrorists came ashore covertly in inflatable speedboats, then systematically assaulted a series of symbolic and strategic targets--a far cry from planting makeshift bombs in public spaces and slinking away. At the same time, India's own disaffected Muslim population has provided these foreign jihadis with an expanding pool of willing recruits. According to investigators, the group that claimed responsibility for the September 2008 bombings in New Delhi and Ahmedabad, the Indian Mujahedin, appears to be comprised of young, middle-class, educated Indian Muslims. The scale and sophistication of the Mumbai attacks, which were likely carried out by radicals trained by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, is likely owed in part to the planning and support of a local extremist network.

Despite its longstanding experience countering regional insurgents and separatists, India has been caught flat-footed in its response to the confluence of foreign and indigenous threats. The Indian Mujahedin has proven to be a particularly hard nut to crack. Tech-savvy and efficient, the group's leaders construct ad-hoc networks for each of their plots, communicate solely via e-mail and cellular phones in the course of the planning, and then disband the cells once each operation is complete. Elements of the group are alleged to have connections to al Qaeda, receive funds from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, and cooperate with traditional South Asian insurgents and terrorist groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam in Northeast India and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir. The Indian Mujahedin and its domestic affiliate, the Students Islamic Movement of India, have inflicted almost 50 percent of all civilian casualties from terrorism in India in the last eight years and almost 70 percent since 2006--not including the recent deaths in Mumbai.

As India's terrorists have become better coordinated and more effectively networked, the country's police and intelligence services have been anything but. The decentralized Indian intelligence system, which includes nearly a dozen military and civilian agencies, has been stymied by an inability to communicate critical information or coordinate efforts among its disparate parts. As state and local officials gather intelligence and conduct investigations, for instance, they rarely share their findings with officials in other parts of the country or at other levels of the national intelligence bureaucracy.

It's not surprising, then, that this is hardly the first time India's intelligence agencies' have disastrously underperformed. Following the 2006 Mumbai rail blasts, Indian minister for Home Affairs R.R. Patil provided this damning assessment: "It is not just the state intelligence department and the elite anti-terrorist squad that failed, even the Intelligence Bureau . . . had no inkling" that an attack was imminent.

India's internal security forces are also in desperate need of reform. The protracted standoff between the Mumbai terrorists and the elite counterterrorism forces of the National Security Guard revealed that the commandos--whose clumsiness and apparent lack of planning led to the halting evacuation and clearing of the embattled hotels--have much room for improvement. The government's recent announcement that it will expand the Guard is encouraging; but only a concurrent reevaluation of Indian counterterrorism strategy will ensure that the forces are put to good use. The country's police forces have also tended to do more harm than good. Despite serving as essential nodes for intelligence gathering and terrorism investigations, state and local police forces are perennially underfunded and poorly trained--and their reputation for corruption has made them a contributor to religious and ethnic tension.

Despite calls for reform and enhanced coordination among its intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, the Indian government's response has been tepid thus far. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance, the coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress Party repealed the 2001 Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), which had expanded the government's powers to fight terrorism and curb its funding--similar to the USA Patriot Act. According to Jaswant Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician and former Indian Minister of Defense, the Mumbai attacks were "not just an intelligence failure, but more importantly [a] failure of the state and central governments."

The religious tensions that characterize most disagreements between the Hindu nationalist opposition party, the BJP, and the "Muslim-friendly" Congress Party have only sharpened the counterterrorism debate, with accusations that any strong counterterrorism response is an excuse for racial and religious-profiling of Muslims. The government's fear of igniting one of the many short fuses among religious factions has led it to do practically nothing at all, leaving most of the burden of counterterrorism on local authorities. The Indian Mujahedin and the Mumbai terrorists have exploited this political infighting, while taking advantage of Hindu-Muslim tension as justification for their actions.

In addition to political disagreements at home, finger pointing at Pakistan also began quickly after the attacks in Mumbai unfolded. At a news conference, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that "elements with links to Pakistan are involved," and he appeared to have chided his Pakistani counterpart during a cell phone conversation that was famously broadcast on Indian news networks.

But India's new terrorist threat isn't simply a function of foreign influence or domestic unrest--it's a combination of the two. And while it may be easy to blame Pakistan, which will now face even more pressure to contain terrorists at home, the overwhelming failure of these latest attacks was domestic. This was exemplified by the resignation of Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who had been responsible for managing domestic security in India.

Ajai Sahni, an Indian terrorism expert with close ties to the country's police and intelligence community notes that "India is extremely vulnerable. And the fundamental reason for that is that this is a state that has neglected security for decades." He also points out that "[Indian] police are under-equipped and under-resourced across the board. There is no really hard counterterrorism core to policing in India, despite our decades of experience as a target of terrorism."

In an effort to predict the Indian government's next steps, analysts have observed India's record of absorbing such attacks--cleaning up the mess and moving on. But it has become clear that the people of India are losing their patience with such complacency. Outside of the Taj hotel last week, protesters decried the government's long inaction in the face of terrorism, some carrying signs reading "62 Hour of Trauma--how much more?"

Commentators here and in India have called the latest attacks in Mumbai, "India's 9/11." But unlike the United States, which suffered an attack unprecedented in form and magnitude, India has seen four similar acts of terrorism in its large cities in the last six months. In India's case, prevention and effective response are more a question of political will than an awareness of the threat. But if there are to be any parallels between 11/26 and 9/11, it will be because India, like the United States after 2001, decides it can no longer sit on its hands; and that it must take a proactive stand against all forms of terror--Islamic or Hindu, ethnic or separatist. It will be a tough balancing act, but if India is to remain a diverse and pluralistic society, growing in influence on the world stage, it will have little choice but to rise to the challenge.

Apoorva Shah and Tim Sullivan are research assistants at the American Enterprise Institute.