Boston Bombings: Lessons for India

24 Apr, 2013    ·   3893

Ashok Bhan highlights the need for a national resolve and institutionalizing mechanisms to deal with terrorism

Ashok Bhan
Ashok Bhan
Distinguished Fellow

Those who watched the footage of orderly public behavior and response of emergency services soon after the Boston marathon blasts will realize how much India has to learn as a society to respond to a terror attack. No crowding, no slogan shouting, no protests and of course no questions asked whether it was an intelligence or police failure and whether any intelligence had been provided by the Federal agencies. While silently mourning the victims, every one displayed maturity and helped preserve the scene of crime and allow relief work. All that the police spokesperson said was that it was a terrorist attack, candidly accepting that there was no initial lead to the perpetrators of the crime.  

Three days later, President Obama in an interfaith congregation instantly struck a chord with the audience claiming in him and the first lady “a piece of Boston”. While mourning the deaths he remembered to profusely thank the police, fire services, guards, nurses, doctors and citizens. By promising that perpetrators “will be found” and will “face justice” and announcing to a standing ovation that next year “the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever and to cheer even louder for the 118th Boston Marathon”, the President right away set an agenda for the investigators, security machinery, community and the organizers of marathon. People from all faiths and across political spectrum cheered to endorse the President’s affirmation that a “bomb can’t beat us” and the “spirit of the country shall remain undimmed”. He was making a strong statement that in dealing with terrorism all Americans were together irrespective of caste, creed, faith and political affiliation.

What sets Americans apart from us in dealing with terrorism? The Americans have faith in their systems; in the instance case their security apparatus. They have made substantial investment in strengthening it post 9/11. Technology has been leveraged for intelligence gathering, prevention as well as investigations. No exceptions at airports or other protected places, no VIP culture and no humiliating of security personnel for doing their legitimate duties. They are confident of catching the perpetrators. And they indeed got the Boston bombers in good time.

In India, with some honorable exceptions, most of the states are unwilling to invest in developing infrastructure and trained personnel to fight terrorism. They have starved police forces of “quality” and insist on “quantity” to serve the short term interests of the party in power. Therefore, the police in these states are incapable of having a “firm grip” over terrorism and people have no faith in them.  After each incident the knee jerk reaction begins. It is a pity that even before investigators could find any clues the recent incident in Bangalore was clumsily politicized. This is not the way to fight terrorism.

The strategy devised by the US Government to fight terrorism found instant support from different shades of political opinion. Post 9/11, Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) of FBI were located in vulnerable cities. These task forces are mandated to carry out operations and respond to threats and incidents. Each task force has components from FBI, central intelligence, local and state law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security. They have met with very good success in preventing incidents after 9/11.

Cross-border terrorism in India has obliterated the distinction between internal and external security. The constitutional division between aggression from outside to be dealt with by the Union and law and order by the States can’t be applied to dealing with terrorism of the cross border variety. Unless there is cohesion between the Centre and the States in generating intelligence, preventing terrorist strikes, responding in the event of a strike and investigating, it is unlikely to take us far.

It will require an umbrella organization like proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) to coordinate anti-terrorist operations.  The intelligence will get enriched from the generic variety to specific and real time one by matching electronic surveillance results with ground information.  A sound investigation back-up would help trace cases as well as unearth networks, support structure and funding. Professional investigation requires total cooperation from intelligence and operational teams which does not come forth when they work in tight compartments.

The differences on NCTC need to be ironed out so that well-equipped and trained joint task forces are available in each state. A police station in each state capital, manned by state ATSs, with statewide jurisdiction, can be earmarked to register terrorism related cases, make arrests and searches. Such an arrangement should satisfy the States.  Any delay in arriving at an agreement will only jeopardize our preparedness to fight terror.  We may be in for difficult times in the event of Afghanistan relapsing into turmoil post drawdown of US led ISAF troops and once again becoming a base for Pakistan sponsored terrorism against India.

Our attitude in dealing with terror must change. It needs a national resolve, irrespective of political ideology, to fight terror successfully. Systems will have to be in place to pool the resources of the Centre and the States. We must invest hugely in preparedness. For best results, society as a whole must come forward to lend a helping hand. In a state of preparedness there will be little chance of picking up innocents as so often happens. A network of operatives throughout the country with a unified command will give the desired results. Our faith in the security apparatus will grow. Like the Americans, we should also be able “to find them” and “bring them to justice”.