India’s counter-terrorism centre should be a unique model (Commentary)

June 16th, 2008 - 11:40 am ICT by IANS  

By Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay
Jaipur, as usual, is fading away from the headlines of the national media, as it always does till another terror strike jerks our collective psyche with gory images, wrecked vehicles and charred human limbs. Like in earlier instances, in the case of Jaipur also, claims and denials about the failures of the state and central agencies, issues like lack of information gathering at the base, unhindered exchange of information amongst agencies and, most crucial, the analyses of data collected came to fore in the aftermath. Establishing a federal agency solely dedicated to counter-terrorism, which can act independently and investigate in any part of India and if required can collaborate with partner agencies abroad and finally prosecute through designated courts, is being rightly talked about at highest quarters. Providing special powers to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to transform it into a federal anti-terror agency is being deliberated upon. Strengthening the existing multi-agencies centre and revamping their working procedures are also recommended. Though counterpoints against another federal agency have already been raised, a federal anti-terror agency is highly necessary primarily to redress the valuable time lost in transferring the case from the state where a terrorist attack is perpetrated to the CBI.

At the outset some caveats have to be presented. When we talk about a federal anti-terror agency, a parallel is naturally drawn with the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Yet we must remember that an Indian anti-terror agency must not follow any models from the US, Europe or Southeast Asia, howsoever successful they may have been. Definitely lessons should be learnt about their evolution, structure, size, mandate and operations; nevertheless an Indian federal anti-terror agency must be first of all Indian in nature, which would not only respect the federalism in the country as well as take into consideration the Indian specificities, growing nature of trend, radicalism - religious or ethno-centric, the huge landmass and pluralistic ethos.

India has been facing the challenges of cross-border terrorism for decades, most exemplified by a plausible nexus between different terrorist groups with the sole objective of weakening the state and, most importantly, encouraged from the neighbourhood. India’s terror challenge is multifaceted and as a result the Indian experience has always been unique. No other models can be replicated here. Besides terrorism, the FBI also deals with other serious crimes. But if the proposed federal agency in India is only devoted to terrorism and related organised crimes (on a case-by- case basis), then its focus would not be diluted.

It appears that right now the establishment of an anti-terror federal agency would take time because of the need for a political consensus, necessary enactment and thorough debates on its mandate and structure. In the meantime, a national counter-terrorism centre may be earnestly pondered over. Right from the very beginning, counterpoints may arise. A potent argument would be that when India’s ground level intelligence gathering is not up to the mark, a counter-terrorism centre that is supposed to analyse information may become a top heavy organisation.

International experiences show that a counter-terrorism centre plays the most effective role in the countries that have already announced a counter-terrorism policy. Most of the counter-terrorism strategies are based on multiple pillars. However, as the US considers the ‘war on terror’ in predominantly military terms and therefore mainly relies on means by force, some other examples like the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) may be deliberated upon.

Britain, which had earlier been facing terror onslaughts mainly from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its derivatives, has in the post-Cold War era been facing the threat of homegrown terrorism emanating from a part of its young immigrant Muslim community as well as internationally connected terrorist network based in the United Kingdom. The entire threat reached its saddest climax with the suicide bombings in the London underground July 7, 2005. Britain has however been pursuing its Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), which is based on four pillars: pursue, protect, prepare and prevent.

By giving ‘pursuance’ the first priority, Britain has made it clear that unearthing terror modules and sleeper cells and thwarting terrorist attacks in advance through clandestine operations and information sharing actually serve the ultimate goal of preventing its populace from death and destruction. On the other hand, the rubric ‘prepare’ facilitates the government and its various arms like emergency, medical, fire services to remain equipped and well coordinated for any eventuality in case of terrorist attacks.

At the multilateral level, the United Kingdom has also influenced the formulation of EU’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy which is also based on four pillars: prevent, protect, pursue and respond. Needless to say the 27-member EU is definitely not a federal state like India. It can be argued that the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy looks good on paper but still the member countries are the sole authority as far as joint anti-terrorist operations and investigations are concerned. Moreover, it can also be pointed out that the EU’s role in counter-terrorism to its member countries is purely advisory. It is incumbent upon the EU member states to give more teeth to its capability and muscle to its new organisations.

Above all, the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy should be seen as a vision document in which the EU attempts to bring the counter-terrorism capabilities of an ever-expanding union under a single umbrella and, for instance, has taken up the task to jointly monitor the radical Islamist propaganda in different languages in cyberspace. Most importantly, the EU has not devised its Counter-Terrorism Strategy with military ends but on ‘international consensus’.

Terms like protection, prevention and response are not at all absent in the Indian discourse on counter-terrorism. Scores of writings and polemical essays have been focussing on the need for overhauling the counter-terrorism establishment, intensifying cooperation not only amongst central agencies but also with state agencies and essentially revamping local intelligence units. At present, the Indian endeavour in counter-terrorism seems to be sub-optimal despite having so many agencies. It is obvious that given the critical nature of acute and emerging threats, agencies have to focus simultaneously on so many international, regional and national issues. Quite understandably, response to the imminent danger of terrorism in some cases does face overlapping and duplication of efforts. Nevertheless, overlapping is not a typical Indian experience but a common negative characteristic of counter-terrorism strategy per se.

Hence, a dedicated counter-terrorism centre is a necessity. It must be a lean and slick tool and broadly its mandate can be divided into two parts. Strategically, this centre should make terror databases and build scenarios for policymakers on the targeted regions and its different contours and future terror potential. On the other hand, it may monitor different terrorist groups on a daily basis, their leadership and international networks and sanctuaries and deliver periodic threat assessments. Investigation, prosecution and liaison with federal agencies and international partners and training may be coordinated with the proposed federal anti-terror agency.

Ambitiously concluded, the gene pool at the counter-terrorism centre must think ahead of the terror strategists and be innovative in its approach to providing solutions, for example, in the case of cyber terrorism and radical Islamist propaganda on the internet. Only the best and the brightest of the state and central agencies must be encouraged to join the counter-terrorism centre.

India, being an IT giant, does not have any dearth of IT experts who can provide pioneering models in combating the threat of the day which thrives on propaganda in cyberspace. Private-public participation in this endeavour may be considered to assemble the best talents. The actualisation of such a centre may take time and have to go through a deliberative process. Nonetheless, at present it could be the timely Indian response to globalised terrorism with numerous facets.

(Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay is associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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