FEBRUARY 14, 2010, 12:47 P.M. ET
An Antiterror Wake-Up Call
By BAHUKUTUMBI RAMAN
India suffered its first major terrorist attacks since the 2008 Mumbai massacre Saturday with the bombing of a popular bakery in Pune. While the death toll, currently at nine, doesn't approach the 166 killed in Mumbai, the incident should provoke a rethink of the speed with which New Delhi revamps its approach to the war on terror.
Saturday's attack was a single act of terrorism directed at a soft target. It was not an act of suicidal terrorism, as the bomber left a backpack under a table and then left the building. The device may have been timed or remotely activated. The explosion took place when one of the bakery's clients tried to open the backpack. Such attacks require access to explosive material and basic knowledge of how to assemble a bomb. The terrorist may not have had any special expertise or training.
The Pune incident is unfortunately not a single event. India suffered a wide range of terrorist attacks by different individuals and groups over the years. The 2008 Mumbai massacre was a commando-style attack perpetrated by 10 Pakistani terrorists on multiple targets, and lasted three days. Between November 2007 and September 2008, a group of Muslims calling themselves the Indian Mujahedeen carried out a series of well-orchestrated serial explosions in various cities, including Jaipur and Bangalore.
After the Mumbai attacks, the Congress Party-led government considerably strengthened the country's counterterrorism machinery. Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram has strengthened the capability of the special intervention forces, such as the National Security Guards, to put down commando-style attacks quickly by deploying them in important cities, instead of keeping them concentrated in New Delhi as was done before the Mumbai massacre. Mr. Chidambaram has introduced greater cohesion in the functioning of the intelligence agencies and personally coordinated follow-up action on the data collected.
Further, he has created a National Investigation Agency to investigate serious terrorist attacks with national ramifications. He has proposed the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center and a Ministry for Internal Security patterned after America's Department of Homeland Security. When these institutions are eventually created, all agencies responsible for counterterrorism would function under a single command. Mr. Chidambaram himself would oversee the entire apparatus.
Saturday's successful explosion at Pune shows the measures already taken by the government have not been as effective as hoped. Pune was known to be a target for terrorists. America's Federal Bureau of Investigation has been looking into frequent visits to India by David Headley, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin based in Chicago who belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba network and is alleged to have played a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Mr. Headley is alleged to have scouted out possible targets in New Delhi and Pune, including an ashram close to the bakery attacked Saturday.
India's own National Investigation Agency undertook a separate investigation into Mr. Headley. The NIA's investigation identified other potential targets, such as a Jewish religious and cultural center—also located close to Saturday's attack—that was similar to the center attacked in Mumbai in 2008.
Pune has many technical universities and other institutions of learning which attract Muslim students from abroad. Many of Pune's Muslim youths interact with these students, and are becoming radicalized. Three members of the Indian Mujahedeen—information technology experts—were drawn from Pune's Muslim community.
Given this evidence, the government should have moved proactively to strengthen physical security in the area, in coordination with the owners of the vulnerable private establishments. According to Mr. Chidambaram, they were alerted about their vulnerability, but nothing more seems to have been done to help them in preventing a terrorist attack. There were too few arrests and interrogations of individuals associated with Mr. Headley.
All this shows that Mr. Chidambaram might have created the right institutional infrastructure for dealing with terrorism, but this infrastructure is yet to start working in a coordinated and effective manner. The result is that India's preventive capability continues to be weak. Institutions are important, but it is even more important to make them work as they should.
Mr. Raman served in India's external intelligence agency from 1968 to 1994 and on the National Security Advisory Board of the government of India from 2000 to 2002.
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