Three years after the attacks on Mumbai on 26/11 we have to ask ourselves : are we any better off ? What lessons did we learn ? Could we prevent an attack or cope with it better today ?
On the anniversary of 26/11, several of us question whether we have made any progress in our battle against terrorism. Many quote the success of the United States in preventing a major terrorist attack post 9/11. Others quote the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in the UK, as being a strong deterrent to would be perpetrators.
The general perception, which grows with each passing attack, is that India is seen as a soft state, vulnerable to and unable to protect ourselves, against such attacks. Spurred on by the impassioned anchors of the TV News channels, we indulge in collective breast-beating. “How can India claim to be a super power,” we ask “when we cannot even prevent a bomb blast? ”
Without wishing to defend the Government, which undoubtedly can and should do more to beef up National Security, this article proposes a simple hypothesis:
– we need to agree on the Outcome we desire;
– it should be achievable and affordable:
– when this outcome is achieved we should celebrate success – and publicise it as a failure of the Terrorists.
The general feeling among citizens is that there is only one possible outcome that is desirable in dealing with Terrorism and terrorists : namely no more terror attacks. In fact, there are several, three of which are outlined below. I believe if we closely examine these and make a conscious choice of which outcome we desire, then the chances that we will achieve the desired outcome and thereby deal with the problem are much greater.
Outcome 1 : Prevent any further Terrorist attacks, e.g. the USA model
This is clearly the most preferred outcome. There can be no doubt that the Dept of Homeland Security combined with the US Patriot Act, have made the USA a strong and secure fortress against terrorism.
It is also the most expensive outcome to secure. It is estimated that the expenditure on Homeland Security in the USA is currently 80 % higher than Education, and that cumulative expenditure in the past 10 years (both public and private) exceeds USD 3 Trillion. Can India afford a comparable expense ?
The Anti-terrorism legislation required to secure this outcome also raises questions on possible infringements of Human Rights. As Ian Lupstick points out in his insightful paper Trapped in the War on Terror 83,000 suspects were confined and interrogated in the USA post 9/11. Of these only 39 convictions were secured and only 1 foreign national was convicted.
Our experience in India of anti-terrorism legislation like POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Act) and MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) has been mixed, with several reported instances of mis-use and abuse, resulting in the repeal of POTA in 2004.
Thus, though No more Terrorist Attacks is the most wished for outcome, it may neither be affordable, nor the most desirable, given that the route to secure it may not be one we wish to take.
Outcome 2 : Pre-emption & Retribution : root out the evil & punish perpetrators swiftly
This outcome as its name suggests relies on preempting terror attacks by targeting specific identified “terror groups”. In the event of an attack that we fail to prevent, our aim must then be to swiftly identify the culprits and prosecute and punish them, so that others are deterred from following in their footsteps.
Though not as water tight or secure as Outcome 1, many of us consider this as something, which we can legitimately achieve within the framework of our existing security and judicial systems.
The key Terrorist organizations are well known and even recognized as FTO’s (Foreign Terrorist Organisations) by the USA and other major nations. Why then, can’t we go in and “take them out”? Similarly, many of us are outraged at the amount the Indian State is spending on keeping Ajmal Kasab in custody, and cannot understand why, what should be an open and shut case, has taken so many years to bring to closure.
Regrettably the truth is, that no matter how desirable this outcome, geo-political considerations make pre-emption difficult if not impossible. As for the speed of our judicial system, this is something it is going to take a while to expedite, and a much larger issue than dealing with terrorism.
Thus though Preemption & Retribution is an outcome, that in theory, is much more feasible than the first outcome of No More Terror, in practice it seems as difficult to achieve.
Outcome 3 : Harden selectively & Recover swiftly
As a very wise and senior Defence officer once told me : “A terrorist functions under the garb of an ordinary citizen. He becomes the enemy within. The only way to fully guard against terrorism is to police every citizen. If you can’t do this then harden those targets that you feel must be protected, and ensure resiliency everywhere else. Your success is in a swift recovery – if the Terrorist knows he cannot keep you down or break your spirit – he has failed”
This is the essence of Outcome 3. It is also the one that is most sustainable in the long run, and the most achievable in the immediate future.
A necessary first step is to identify locations that we wish to protect at all costs. These could be places like transport hubs, schools & hospitals, places of religious worship, popular market places, administrative, legislative & judicial buildings and police & defence establishments.
Hardened infrastructure implies both adequate and up to date human and electronic surveillance. Likewise Resiliency does not merely rely on the “spirit of the people” but means that Disaster Management and Business Continuity measures must be instituted and tested regularly. Regular fire drills must be conducted and Crisis Management teams and Business continuity protocols established at a building, locality and city wide level. Measures to seal off escape routes as well as arrange speedy evacuation in the case of an incident must be taken and tested.
While the State can undertake this for Public spaces and buildings, citizens should be encouraged to do the same for private spaces as well. The more “hardened” locations we have the harder it will be for terrorists to wreak havoc.
The interesting thing about focusing on this Outcome is that it provides insurance against more than just Terrorist attacks. It creates resiliency for any kind of disaster.
It is clear that each of the above outcomes is different. The scale of Resources both financial and human, needed to achieve each of these is also different. What is important is that we take a realistic and pragmatic approach to deciding what is feasible and achievable for us in the Indian context.
Rather than be-moaning the past, this is the dialogue we should have on the anniversary of 26/11 and arrive at a bi-partisan consensus on which Outcome we would like to focus on. Once our target outcome is clear, the chances that we will devote the necessary focus to achieving it are significantly improved.
The War against Terror is likely to be a long and prolonged one. It is time we tackled it with the pragmatic determination that is essential to help us prevail.
Note: This article was written by me for the Gateway House, an independent Think Tank based in Mumbai, as part of a special supplement and series of 13 Commentaries on 26/11. It is re-published on my blog with their consent.