Thursday, May 19, 2011

Counter-Terrorism: Two years after Mumbai, India continues to have a shoddy counter-terrorism data-base

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More than two years after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai and the setting-up of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Government of India continues to have a shoddy counter-terrorism data-base.

2. That is the inevitable conclusion from the current controversy over an embarrassing professional and diplomatic faux pas relating to the alleged inclusion of the name of Wazhul Kamar Khan, a terrorism suspect living on bail with his family in Thane in Maharashtra, in a list of 50 terrorism suspects allegedly enjoying sanctuary in Pakistan. This list was reportedly given by the Government of India to the Interior Ministry of Pakistan some weeks ago and had remained a secret till now. This list was released to the media by the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India after the Abbottabad raid by US naval commandos, which led to the death of Osama bin Laden. The belated release of the list was seen by many as an attempt by our Home Ministry to step up pressure on Pakistan to act against terrorism suspects wanted in India and allegedly sheltered in Pakistan.

3. The fact that Wazhul Kamar Khan's name was mistakenly included in the list was discovered not by the counter-terrorism agencies of India or Pakistan, but by Mateen Hafeez, a well-reputed journalist of the " Times of India". His investigative report was carried by the paper on May 17,2011.Our MHA and retired officers of the intelligence and investigating agencies appearing in TV debates have uncomfortably tied themselves in knots in trying to explain away or rationalise this faux pas. They have been projecting it as a clerical or human error, which does sometimes take place in Government and urging that one should not make a mountain of a mole hil and captalise on this unfortunate error to discredit our agencies.

4. There is nothing mala fide about the inclusion of the name of this suspect. It was not an instance of a fabrication of evidence against him or Pakistan in an attempt to fix Pakistan. At the same time, this error indicates serious deficiencies in our counter-terrorism data-base which should cause concern to our policy-makers. It would also cause concern to the international intelligence and investigating community and add to the suspicions that they already have about the credibility of our investigation process and about our allegations regarding Pakistan giving shelter to Indian terrorists.

5. Our credibility as professional counter-terrorism experts will be weakened by this serious error. A terrorism suspect had been arrested in Maharashtra. He had been gven bail by a court. He was living with his family. And, yet, the Government of India in New Delhi was not aware of it and its data-base indicated that he had been sheltered in Pakistan. That is why his name found its way into the dossier given to Pakistan.

6. At the time the dossier was prepared for being handed over to Pakistan, none any of the agencies of the Government of India or of the Government of Maharashtra would appear to have detected this embarrassing mistake. This would clearly show that there was no co-ordination in the preparation of the dossier. Nor was there any effective supervision of the process and any proper vetting of the dossier before the decision to hand it over to Pakistan was taken. In our anxiety to embarrass Pakistan, the whole exercise seems to have been handled in a very casual manner.

7. Other countries would be greatly concerned by this faux pas and by our casual approach for one very important reason. After the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai, there was a demand in India for a retaliatory strike on the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan from which these attacks had emanated. The Government of Dr.Manmohan Singh managed to resist the demand from some sections of the public for a retaliatory strike.

8.If there is another 26/11 ( God forbid), the demand for a retalitory strike against the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan could be revived. For such a strike to be effective, it has to be based on an accurate data-base of the infrastructure in Pakistan. If this incident indicates the shoddy state of our data-base, by ordering a retaliatory strike on the basis of a shoddy data-base we might create a messy situation and find ourselves in an indefensible position before the international community.

8. Instead of minimising the implications of the faux pas and dismissing it as a human error sometimes unavoidable, we must tale the matter much more seriously than we seem to be doing so far, try to find out how the whole thing happened and take the required corrective action. Our reputation as professional CT experts is at stake in the eyes of the international community. ( 19-5-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.