The terrorist writing on the Indian wall
Information on terrorist related activity is often what largely comes from post-facto investigations of terrorist events. The intelligence failures of today arise from the fact that the early indicators of terrorism in the making remain largely beyond the reach of the existing organisation and methods of the security agencies.
THE APPALLING terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11 has brought a new and vicious dimension to the process of settling social, economic and political scores, both within and between countries. No form of government has yet any adequate or final answer to deal with the ugly results of this process.
There can be little doubt that this dastardly event is but the latest expression of conditions that have been in the making during recent decades. While the people of the advanced countries of the world have been enjoying phenomenal affluence, the people of the Third World continue to live in conditions of appalling poverty, hunger and disease. These are the very conditions that provide a fertile breeding ground for unrest and violence. They lead to a progressive disintegration of these societies into different group identities based on race, language, religion and caste, and to fundamentalist mobilisation within groups, that destroys harmony and promotes hate. Add weak or tyrannical governments without either the will or the vision to eradicate the unrelenting suffering or injustice, and you have an environment where the suicide bomber will be its most striking end product.
Sadly, governments the world over, both democracies and authoritarian, are often themselves party, intended or unintended, openly or tacitly, to the provision of weapons of terror and related skills to such group movements and formations as suited their internal or external political interests, only to later find to their dismay, the political convenience turning into a terrorist backlash. One only hopes that the costly lesson, the defining moment of September 11, is not lost on governments round the world. But this seems too much to hope for, considering that governments largely tend to be driven by narrow interests, not broad vision, in respect of both their internal and external policies.
Any strategy for preventing terrorism can be effective only if it has both an imaginative long-term thrust and a powerful short-term methodology. The long-term solution will have to address the issues of poverty and disease, suffering and injustice. What is needed today is a reconstruction plan on the lines of the Marshall Plan for post-war Europe, what one might today call a Powell Plan for the Third World. But this is beyond the scope of this article. The focus of this article is on the essential elements of immediate action-based approaches. And what is proposed here is not more powers under the law or changes in the Constitution, but more sense, more common sense, in the methodologies of enforcement of our existing laws and in the utilisation of our existing resources. Unfortunately common sense is not as common as we might wish.
We must begin from the implications of the fact that the terrorist or would-be terrorist of today is a faceless, non-descript individual, who merges completely in the civilian population. A terrorist act is the culmination of inconspicuous, covert activities over a long period of gestation, that take place under the safe facade of completely normal civil life. How are the terrorist and his activities to be found and neutralised? The very first indicators of suspicion must inevitably be found through what he does or says at places where he lives, works or visits. These can be noticed, ascertained and reported only by alert members of the public, particularly neighbours, or by alert ground level staff of the security services.
This may seem obvious enough, but sadly we miss or ignore the obvious all too often. We must first recognise that our existing methods do not go far enough to mobilise and utilise these ultimate sources and resources, and that we need new methods that will do so. In respect of mobilising public alertness, there is need for a massive, concerted and sustained national programme to sensitise members of the public to their responsibility to alert the authorities to any information on any suspicious individual or activity coming to their notice, and to the horrible consequences of failure to do so.
The media have a major responsibility in awakening public consciousness of the dangers. There is also need for a system of spectacular rewards for information having a bearing on terrorism from anyone, whether a member of the services, or a member of the public. There has to be a foolproof arrangement against the denial of such rewards to, or exposure to risk of, anyone providing such information. Authorities may claim that these are well-established principles, but by no stretch of imagination can they claim adequacy of the current scale or the methods of implementation of these principles.
The position is no different in respect of the arrangements for ground level staff of the security services utilised in collecting such information. There are several severe and irrational systemic limitations in the current operation of these services, which surprisingly are of their own making. Intelligence collection has been considered a highly specialised function and responsibility for it is vested in small numbers of personnel of supervisory levels, forming an infinitesimally small proportion (perhaps less than one per cent) of the massive manpower resources of the security services. These small numbers are spread thinly on the ground, and tend largely to concentrate on overt events and activities. Even here, their methods remain superficial. For example, there is very little systematic recording and analysis of photographic evidence in respect of participants in violent demonstrations, who could in some cases, graduate into terrorists. Attention to covert activities, through surveillance and other specialised operations is even more limited. Information on terrorist related activity is often what largely comes from post-facto investigations of terrorist events. The intelligence failures of today thus arise from the fact that the early indicators of terrorism in the making remain largely beyond the reach of the existing organisation and methods of the security agencies.
A new approach
It is therefore clear that we need a new approach from the existing organisation and methods of the intelligence and security agencies that has a wider, deeper and more sensitive reach into the socio-economic environment. A handful of personnel obviously cannot have such a reach. Large numbers must be involved in this process. The first and most direct step would therefore be that every member of police forces and other security agencies, from the lowest rank upwards, must be mobilised, trained and pressed into this task, to provide such a reach. The common civil police constable, be it remembered, has an extensive physical presence within the community. He easily relates to the working classes, to which he belongs and in whose midst he lives and works. He has a modicum of education, and quite certainly shares the same levels of common sense, and sense of right and wrong of the common people. He is trained to be disciplined, tough and committed to a sense of duty. A little more training could easily sensitise him to the critical tasks of looking for information that could be the early indicators of terrorism in the making.
Here then is an existing massive manpower resource of security agencies that can provide enormous and critical added value at little extra cost. Simple though this suggestion may seem, and eminently practical though it may be, there are, as stated earlier, some surprising obstacles to its acceptance. There is at the outset the deeply rooted view, held both by political and police leadership, that the constable is a unit of manpower, exclusively in the sense of a unit of physical force, to the total exclusion of his other more powerful human potentials. This view commits the massive constable resource exclusively to physical enforcement of law and order, which essentially translates into containment of opposition parties, and hence, into service of political (and often personal) purposes. This view sadly precludes use of the vast potential of this huge resource for far more critical social purposes. It is one of the tragedies of free India that the political and administrative system has chosen to maintain the police philosophy and methods that were appropriate to the political purposes of the British rulers in India, instead of adopting the philosophy and methods of the British police which relied primarily on its constabulary in serving the British people. Quite certainly, this has been a major contributing factor that has led not only to loss of the public image and social effectiveness of the police in India, but to the concurrent all-round erosion of the rule of law, and growth of violence and terrorism that has characterised our post-Independence history.
Potential of the constable
For the many (including leaders of our police forces) who still think little of the potential of the constable, be it also known that much of the critical intelligence in the hands of the intelligence and security agencies has always been, and even today continues to be, first brought in by the faceless constable. The role of supervisory ranks has been often to arrogate the credit to themselves, or to be privy to turning information collection and appraisal processes to partisan political purpose. And if contributions of critical information can come, as indeed they do, from a very small proportion of the constabulary, it should take no great intelligence to see what the entire constabulary can accomplish if only they were sensitised, motivated, mobilised and utilised appropriately. Unfortunately political and police leaders seem to have a preference, if not a fascination, for more exotic and expensive organisations and methods that side-step a more socially meaningful role for the constable. Clearly no solution will work if it is not founded on an extensive and sensitive human feeder network on the ground.
The investigation agencies are yet another major resource that has access to critical information, but which existing organisation and methods have tended to isolate and exclude from the intelligence function. Every investigation, even though post-facto to an occurrence, collects a lot of significant background information that could be of great value in anticipating further events. At present there is no foolproof and automatic mechanism for all this information to be fed into a common intelligence pool. There is clearly a case for consciously investing every investigating agency with, and equipping them for, an intelligence function. This was indeed very much the arrangement in the Criminal Investigation Departments in earlier times, till later, Intelligence got separated as a specialised function. Specialisation inevitably leads to compartmental isolation, unless its negative effects are offset by review, reorganisation and coordination.
A recent news report has it that the FBI in the U.S. is now veering round to the need for a pro-active intelligence role in addition to its primary investigative role. Be it remembered that investigative agencies have enormous powers under the law for access to information that the intelligence agencies do not. Much reliable intelligence will flow in if these powers are used intelligently. The intelligence function added in an appropriate way will not only provide the investigation agencies with a well-informed basis for current or future investigations, but also add to effectiveness of the main intelligence agencies and of overall national preventive strategies.
The approach outlined above, though illustrated with reference to the role of the police, could, indeed should, be extended to every agency having access to information or intelligence that could have a bearing on terrorism. It should cover not only all police, security and intelligence agencies, but agencies that provide travel, transport, wired and wireless communication, banking and taxation services, other services that monitor traffic in arms, ammunition, explosives, drugs, currency, etc, or services that maintain extensive identity records like photographs, fingerprints, passports, ration cards, etc.
Security audit commission
What new mechanisms would be needed for reporting and processing information and intelligence flowing into every agency? Existing arrangements often show up weaknesses in their internal reporting, processing and appraisal systems and also ineffective coordination and sharing of information that is critical when there is a multiplicity of agencies having access to different but relevant segments of information. A fundamental solution, one that existing security and intelligence agencies perhaps may not like, is the setting up of a new National Security Audit Commission (referred to hereafter as the NSAC) that is external to and independent of all of them and has the following among other responsibilities:
(a) To build and maintain a national archive of security related information and intelligence which every security agency in the country should be required to report to it.
(b) To provide the Government of India on a daily and weekly basis, and also immediately in response to any grave occurrence, with an independent analysis and appraisal of all the information thus flowing into or accumulating in its records from all agencies; and
(c) To provide the Government of India an independent and objective periodic analysis and appraisal of errors of omission, commission and judgment in the reporting of the field agencies.
The NSAC could be a small, autonomous, compact body of dedicated professionals and scholars, equipped with very powerful computer systems with massive data storage facilities and with fast hotline communication links reaching into the State and district or other nodal reporting point of every Central or State police force, security or intelligence organisation or other agency in the country that is required to report information to it. It should have sophisticated software programmes running round the clock to automatically extract, store and transmit significant and relevant information from all incoming and accumulated data, on the basis of pointed searches on specific parameters, or if need be, on the basis of blind global searches.
When a lead is available, typically for instance, when a new name surfaces suggestive of a terrorist in the making, the NSAC should provide on demand a list of national and international air flights in the last three months on which the same name figures. Likewise, it could provide a complete list of passengers of a plane that has just been hijacked, and a list of national and international air flights in the last three months on which any of the same passengers figure. The former list could be immediately notified to allay public anxiety through the media. The latter list could perhaps very quickly uncover the identity and movements of the hijacker(s), as so strikingly demonstrated in the FBI investigations in the World Trade Center tragedy. It may be that Indian methods today are similar in a sketchy, skeletal way, but what may be critically needed is not only to modernise and streamline the disparate agencies, but also bring them into tight coordination mechanisms that provide very fast responses on an immediate on demand basis. Such a system alone can provide adequate answers, not only to allay public anxiety, or meet the information needs of post-facto investigation, but also to meet the critical needs of prevention of terrorism.
The Superintendent of Police of every district should be required to study all incoming field reports, and analyse and report his findings every day to the head of the Intelligence agency at the State and national level, and to simultaneously mark a copy to the NSAC. The State level functionary in turn would have a similar responsibility, in respect of all reports coming in from the districts. Analogous arrangements would apply to every non-police agency as well. Every piece of information handled by all agencies should carry a three level rating, viz. Confirmed, Not Confirmed but Plausible, and Not Confirmed.
Some critical features of these new arrangements should distinguish them further from existing arrangements. First, the functionaries at police station, district and State levels will no longer be mere transmitters of information coming from the field, but will be expected to provide personal pro-active direction of the operators and operations in their charge, and will be personally answerable for their own initiatives and personally accountable for the performance of the mechanisms in their charge. We need to move firmly into a new style of administration of personal responsibility, answerability and accountability at its nodal points and make it clear that a style of passive observation and post-facto action can no longer be acceptable. The country can no longer afford an administrative tradition of power and privilege without strict accountability.
Secondly, any member at any level of these organisations should be entitled to report any important or critical information collected by him, directly and in confidence to the district and State level functionaries, or directly and in confidence to the NSAC, to ensure that he gets due credit for it and does not lose it through misappropriation by others. It is extremely important that we consciously subscribe to and build such a new tradition, which is one of the keys to building and maintaining a high and extensive level of motivation and morale at all levels of all organisations.
Thirdly, the new arrangements must provide an infrastructure of equipment at every field nodal point, which enables automatic check of identity and transmission of relevant data through hotlines to the nodal points at the State and national levels of the agencies concerned, and to the NSAC. This equipment should be able to read a new type of electronic identity card which could serve as a passport, voter card, ration card, bank account, Income Tax account or credit card and would carry an electronic photograph, fingerprint and information on blood group, etc. The card could carry enough spare storage for more information to be added by more agencies at any time.
If only there is a national consensus that every citizen should have such a card, as for instance is the case in Germany, it is obvious that it will save a phenomenal amount of public expenditure and inconvenience not only by avoiding duplication of identity information, but also a phenomenal amount of scriptory work in all the agencies, while ensuring foolproof identification for the administrative purposes of the agency concerned. Holographic and encrypted content should make the card virtually impossible to dishonestly duplicate. Its enormous value to security should be obvious. Incidentally the equipment needed for all this is amazingly inexpensive. If our political and administrative system lacks the ability to understand and will to implement these new approaches despite their being so non-controversial, so simple and so eminently within the reach of our resources, the people of India must learn to live with maladministration, crime, corruption, violence, terrorism, insecurity and chaos as a way of life.
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