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#2808, 13 February 2009
Role of Private Sector in Preventing Terror Attacks
M Shamsur Rabb Khan
e-mail: samsur.khan@gmail.com

The looming dangers of terror attacks in India after the Mumbai carnage last November has generated a greater need for involving the private sector in preventing terrorism, since government programs and strategies are unable to prevent and deal effectively with terror attacks. The lessons of 26/11 must include an understanding of ’terror tactics’, including the use of technology despite failures to gain information inputs, information sharing, lack of coordination between security agencies and late reaction to disaster, proving that government’s efforts are inadequate and indifferent. 

Unlike the US, India has been slow and sluggish in formulating a comprehensive plan of action vis-à-vis terrorism that would include private business and NGOs. Keeping the counterterrorism strategy exclusively in the government’s domain, India has denied the private sector any role. Questions like information sharing, awareness campaign and vigilance in public places are for academic study, not for the public participation to ensure national security. As against what the RAND study, “How Terrorist Groups End: Lesson for Countering Al Qaida” says “kitchen-sink approach”, the India needs to “include a wide range of tools” in combating the menace of terror. 

In a panel discussion on 28 January 2009 on “Lessons from the Mumbai Terror Attacks” the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, US Senator, Susan M Collins, highlighted the role of “non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private businesses”. The argument made in the statement rightly pointed out that “with approximately 85 per cent (in the US) critical infrastructure in private hands, a strong (PPP) is essential to preventing attacks.” This statement refers to the US context where no terror attacks have occurred since 9/11, but the casualties in the 26/11 attacks have exposed our vulnerability; hence similar efforts are urgently needed in India. 

The Mumbai terror attacks have heightened the need for the private sector to play a bigger role in prevention of terrorism as the challenge before India is to protect soft targets, which places the onus on the government to engage private players. The Panel's Chairman Joe Lieberman observed: "The Mumbai terrorists attacked hotels, an outdoor café, a Jewish community centre and a movie theatre - places that are not traditionally subject to a high level of security. The protection of these kinds of soft targets is a challenge in an open society… we cannot leave soft targets unguarded.” Government agencies were the sole protectors and handlers of the attacks in Mumbai, compounding a massive intelligence failure, “woefully unprepared police forces to handle the threat” and complete confusion of “who was in charge that night”, which illustrates the case for expanding the spectrum of counterterrorism mechanisms. 

According to a report by global consultants Frost and Sullivan, the increased threat of terror attacks in India is likely to see its security sector grow 12-fold within the next decade, pushing annual spending as high as US$9.7 billion by 2016 as against a mere US$800 million spent in 2007. How will this money be spent? India must engage NGOs in research, advocacy and a awareness campaign on a massive scale. In addition, the government should garner the resources and professionalism in the private sector to supplement its anti-terror operations, which means a combined effort by public and private institutions to join hands and develop the 'last line of defence' against soft targets. The relations between the government and private sector companies and NGOs through public-private partnership (PPP) is critical, since the government does not have the resources to protect the country’s infrastructure; hence, the cooperation of private businesses, concerned NGOs and a vigilant general public needs to be given priority to secure India from terror attacks. 

Much to the chagrin of political leadership in India, Ratan Tata said he was exploring the possibility of engaging an external agency to provide security to the Taj hotel. Mukesh Ambani, too, showed his willingness to send his teenage son to the Army for compulsory arms training. However, the challenge before the government is to initiate programs for encouraging the private sector and NGOs to provide a suitable security environment in the country, and involve NGOs to generate an awareness campaign to sensitize the general public on the issues related to security.

India’s counterterrorism strategy must take a leaf out of what Alan Orlob, Vice President Corporate Security and Loss Prevention, Marriot International Lodging, said in Part II of the Panel report on “Lessons from the Mumbai Terror Attacks”: “Terrorist tactics continue to evolve. Our security must evolve as well.” With Tata and Ambani willing to meet the challenge, the time has come for India government to involve the private sector and NGOs in a big way to improve its security set-up.

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