The Politics of Counterterrorism in India: Strategic Intelligence and National Security in South Asia

By: GP CPT Srinivas Ganapathiraju, IAF

India has witnessed one of the world's highest levels of terrorist violence in the last three decades, with a unique hybrid of both domestic and international terrorism. Two audacious attacks, one on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the other in Mumbai in 2008, along with scores of smaller ones that have left thousands dead over the past ten years alone, have unsurprisingly brought into question the effectiveness of India's security and intelligence agencies in counterterrorism.

While the country's leadership has been quick to place the blame on the intelligence agencies for not providing timely and actionable information, however, the official post-mortem analysis in all cases has failed to take a holistic view of the complex issue of CT. The learning curve has, therefore, been unimpressive to say the least. Barring a few gap-filler organizational changes, corrective action has to this point been piecemeal and incoherent. The continued failure of the country as a whole to anticipate and prevent terrorist attacks, especially the ones driven by transnational Islamic jihadist ideology, has received almost no scholarly attention. The few analyses that are available have merely skimmed the surface of the problem by focusing narrowly on individual events, and hence failed to address the problem at its core.

Dr. Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies in Zurich, specializing in the study of intelligence agencies, sub-state conflict, and organized crime. In this latest work, Mahadevan manages to delve through those many layers surrounding the complex problem of CT in India to identify the core problems. He begins by laying out the following hypothesis and alternative hypothesis:

  • CT failures are caused by intelligence failures.
  • CT failures might arise from the poor quality of such intelligence instead of poor follow-up on strategic intelligence.

He disproves the first hypothesis by applying a "four constraints" paradigm as it applies to India: lack of political consistency, lack of political consensus, lack of operational capacity, and lack of operational coordination. He argues that Indian CT policy vacillates between coercive and conciliatory stances on a purely ad hoc and reactive basis. Any attempt by the central government to mount an offensive strategy has invariably been scuttled due to lack of domestic political consensus and international support. State police forces lack the operational capacity and capabilities to capitalize on good strategic intelligence with good tactical intelligence. Finally, inter-agency rivalry and the absence of a centralized analysis and assessment mechanism at the operational level hamper information sharing and cooperation.

Mahadevan uses three major CT cases within recent Indian experience to apply the "four constraints" model, and critically examines the way the Indian intelligence apparatuses handled each case. These are 1) the Sikh separatist movement in the state of Punjab between 1981 and 1991; 2) the Kashmir separatist movement beginning in the early 1990s; and 3) the more recent rise of pan-Islamic jihadists. He points out that the security forces' CT operations were successful in one case (the Sikh separatist movement), partially successful in another (Kashmir) and utterly unsuccessful in the last (jihadism). This was despite the fact that they harbored the same organizational deficiencies across time and space, suggesting that the success factor is linked to the willingness to act rather than to organization. Consistent political consensus allowed the security forces to adopt an offensive stance that ultimately led to a successful CT campaign in Punjab. In contrast, waning political consistency and lack of consensus prevented the security forces from taking a similarly strong stance in the cases of Kashmir and the jihadis, which ultimately resulted in partial success in the former case and visible failure in the latter.

Disproving the alternative hypothesis as well, Mahadevan concludes on the basis of India's CT experience that the action the security services take on strategic intelligence is more important than the quality of the intelligence itself. Without discounting organizational deficiencies, Mahadevan connects them as contributors to the lack of operational capacity among the intelligence agencies. He attributes the cascade of CT failures to the decision makers' inability to develop strategic intelligence into tactical intelligence through timely follow-up action, a symptom of low operational capacity combined with poor coordination. Highlighting the differences between these two types of intelligence, he challenges the dominant presumption that CT failures are caused solely by organizational weaknesses within intelligence agencies, and attempts instead to draw researchers' attention to the problem of why decision makers fail to act on the generic warnings they do receive.

In his conclusions and reflections, Mahadevan recommends a two-pronged approach for India as it works to counter violent Islamic jihadism. First, he calls on the country to implement a series of domestic security reforms that were supposed to follow from the lessons of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He further suggests that India take offensive CT measures inside Pakistan itself, intended primarily as a deterrent to Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) and Pakistani jihadists.

Eloquently written, the book is well researched and stands apart from many government commissions of enquiry for its holistic approach to the complex subject of CT. The book is a must read for practitioners of CT at all levels who wish to understand its complexity, especially in the political environment of a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy like India. At just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read and worth the price. A must have for all libraries.

About the Author(s): GP CPT Srinivas Ganapathiraju is an Indian Air Force fighter pilot.

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