The Red Herring Dealers of Lahore

There’s more to the Mumbai terror alert than meets the eye

Yesterday, reports in the media indicated that a terror alert had been sounded in Mumbai and across many Indian airports: five terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba had entered the country and planned to target petrochemical installations in Mumbai using the sea routes. These reports were similar to those a couple of days earlier, concerning Gujarat, where coastal police tightened watch over offshore islands and the petrochemical complex at Jamnagar.

Reports in today’s Pakistani newspapers reveal that three of the five alleged LeT terrorists are shopkeepers and a security guard from Lahore, who have sought police protection in the light of the Indian terror alert.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a goof-up by Indian intelligence authorities, citing Occam’s & Hanlon’s razors. To do so would be to ignore the little known fact that the Lashkar-e-Taiba has, in the past, used red herrings to befuddle and embarrass India’s intelligence agencies, including during one of the biggest terrorist attacks in recent times. It would also be to ignore the alacrity with which the three gentlemen from Lahore discovered their photographs, sought police protection and, according to one popular website that peddles a ‘nationalist’ line, were to address a press conference. All this within hours of the photographs appearing in the Indian media. Things do happen pretty fast in the internet age, but a mere three six hours to mobilise all this should raise eyebrows. (Gujarat police had put up the photographs across the state as early as May 6th). [See update below]

So what, other than incompetence, are the possibilities?

The first is that real terrorists used fake identities to enter India. If they have entered India, it means they are still around and might use the lowering of guard caused by this episode to strike. Also, the alerts indicated five terrorists. It is important, therefore, for the authorities and the media to treat the threat as ongoing and serious, and not drift into complacency.

Second, this was an information operation designed to embarrass India and the United States, and use it to show that India always makes false accusations against Pakistan. By implication, Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were victims of a ‘false flag’ operation by India (and the United States) to implicate Pakistan. The best time for this would have been when Hillary Clinton was on Indian soil. However, by accident, inefficiency or design, the terror alert was sounded after she left the country. In the event the grand expose in Lahore turned out to be a damp squib.

Be that as it may, the myth-making machines of Pakistan will turn this episode into a narrative of how Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba are unfairly blamed by India and the United States. Even if its for domestic consumption, it’s still an effort that didn’t go waste.

We must, of course, consider the Occam & Hanlon razors. Did India’s intelligence agencies goof up? They could have erred in terms of the existence of the threat, the presence of terrorists and their identities. Each of these is a separate issue. That said, at this stage, we are better off if they raise an alert at the risk of looking red-faced rather than let the fear of embarrassment cause them to less on the ball.

Tailpiece: There’s also a chance that the Indian media put up the wrong pictures. How and why they’d end up publishing photographs of the three gentlemen from Lahore is a mystery.

Update: May 11th, 2012 Praveen Swami & Mohammad Ali report “late on Wednesday, shopkeeper Mahtab Butt said he had on a whim used Google to search for the word ‘India.’ The search led him to an India Today group site. There, he discovered a photo of himself, fellow storeowner Atif Butt and night guard Muhammad Babar, illustrating a story on the alleged Mumbai terror plot. Mr. Butt said he immediately called Pakistani television show host Mubashir Lucman — a controversial figure known for his dogged support of the religious right — with the news…Later that evening though, both Mr. Butt and Mr. Atif Butt provided The Hindu with a quite different version of events. The two men said they had learned of the report from a common friend, whom they identified as Khubaab.”

This increases the likelihood that India’s intelligence agencies were fed misinformation to either divert or embarrass them. We can only speculate the reasons for this. Embarrassing India during Mrs Clinton’s visit is enough of a motive. While it is unlikely that the ISI would wish to escalate tensions with India at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the US are close to breaking down, it would be inappropriate to dismiss the risk of a terrorist attack.

Fighting terrorism, starting with the easy stuff

Manage grievances, improve social capital, take security seriously and get better ambulances.

This appeared in Saturday’s DNA.

It’s not difficult to set off a bomb blast in Mumbai, or for that matter in any Indian city. It doesn’t require the person to be highly trained, it just requires the person to be motivated enough to want to do it. It doesn’t even need foreign terrorists to use inflatable rafts to land on isolated beaches, or trek across high Himalayan terrain. It just needs local individuals with greed, grievance, or sheer malice to be persuaded to use locally available material — with some help from those who know who to rig up explosives — to plant a bomb or three.

If our cities don’t suffer terrorist attacks more regularly, it is, to some extent, because our much-maligned police forces manage to foil some conspiracies. The main reason might well be that not too many people want to commit terrorist attacks. If they did, we would see terrorist attacks become as common as other acts of serious crime.

Tackling terrorism, therefore, requires us to ensure that terrorism doesn’t become more attractive. The greedy and the malicious can be deterred by raising their costs: if would-be terrorists are exposed, caught and punished, such people might not want to take the risk. Those with grievances can be harder to deter, so we need to ensure that we address them and don’t create new ones. It is impossible to completely erase grievances, but we can manage them. One way to do this is to strengthen social capital. It’s hard to do this in Mumbai, a city given to outpourings of selfless public-spiritedness during crises but abjectly lacking a public ethic otherwise, but it has to be attempted. Mumbai needs to link its social islands together more urgently today than at any time in its history.

We cannot stop a really motivated terrorist, but we can make it hard for him to succeed. Our shopping malls, office buildings, car parks, bus stands and railway stations have installed metal detectors and the like and appointed security personnel to operate them. Let’s be honest: most of the time, it’s just a charade engaged in by both sides. The security people pretend to be checking us, and we play along. How many times have security guards asked to inspect the boot of your car without even bothering about what’s on the back seat?

The places for the rich and powerful — five-star hotels, government buildings and upmarket offices — are veritable fortresses. Most other places at most times just cheat. Yes, it’s not practical for a solitary metal detector to screen a crowd fast enough. That suggests we install more detectors or devise sophisticated methods to screen some people. In any case, the dishonest business of going through the motions has to stop. Do we introspect on our own lack of diligence with a tenth of the energy we use to, quite rightly, blame the government for failing to prevent a bomb blast?

Similarly, does it register in our collective mind that our emergency services are pathetic? After Wednesday’s bomb blasts, bodies and survivors were carried to hospitals in appalling conditions. Why do we have such poor and so few public service ambulances? Is our fire brigade really equipped to handle a city of over 13 million people? Why, do we give way to emergency vehicles while driving everyday? If we cannot prevent diabolical terrorists from trying to kill people indiscriminately, we can certainly try to mitigate the damage. At Thursday’s press conference, reporters asked questions about such things as intelligence failure and what India might do if the plotwere traced back to Pakistan. No one asked why it is that in the richest city of a country with claims to be a global power, survivors had to be bundled in the back of rusty cargo vans to be taken to hospital.

Preventing terror attacks is very tough. Much of it is not in our hands. But making sure we take security procedures seriously is in our hands. So too is insisting that Mumbai have an adequate number of decent ambulances. It’s important to get the simpler things right first.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from

Terrorist attacks on Mumbai – A preliminary assessment

Here is a preliminary, and hence, tentative assessment of yesterday’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

1. Regardless of who set off the three coordinated bomb blasts, it was an act of terrorism. Even if the explosives were set off by members of organised crime syndicates, as some initially suggested, they constitute terrorism. Terrorism is political theatre that primarily aims to create a psychological impact that then influences politics. Physical damage and casualties are secondary, as is the choice of ‘foot-soldiers’.

2. At this point, there are reasons to suspect that this attack was carried out by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s so-called Karachi setup (or the Karachi project). According to David Coleman Headley’s statement recorded by NIA:

“The Karachi setup is basically Abdurrehman’s@ Pasha setup. Pasha has since long been associated with operations in India. Headley believes that local Indian boys are involved in the Karachi setup. The aim of the Karachi Setup is to launch operations into India by using militants of Indian origin…the Karachi setup of Pasha has the complete backing of the ISI. Col Shah who was the handler of Pasha was actively involved in Karachi setup.”

Mr Headley notes that Pasha, who he says is associated with Harakt-u-Jihad Islami/al-Qaeda Brigade 313’s Ilyas Kashmiri, knew that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai trains in July 2006 were “local Indian boys.” He has named six Pakistani army officers as being involved in this setup. Mr Headley has also stated that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has its own Karachi setup that “aims to launch boys from Maharashtra and Gujarat into India using sea routes.”

3. The timing of the attack (when the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States), the location of one bomb close to Shiv Sena’s headquarters and the non-claiming of responsibility after the attacks are three key factors that point towards the Karachi project. To the extent that such attacks create tensions with India, the Pakistani military establishment can reclaim the popularity it has lost among the Pakistani people in recent weeks. LeT has shown an dogmatic obsession with the Shiv Sena. LeT usually does not claim responsibility for its attacks. Unlike in other recent cases, where the Indian Mujahideen sent out long manifestos and grievance sheets to mediapersons soon after/just before the attacks, none have been received so far.

There is also the matter of dates: many terrorist attacks have taken place either on the 13ths or 26ths of the month. Also, yesterday might have been the birthday of the sole surviving 26/11 terrorist, Ajmal Kasab. The initial statement recorded by Maharashtra ATS gives his birthday as July 13th, although in other records he gives it as September 13th.

The absence of the usual claim of responsibility suggest that the Indian Mujahideen were either not involved, could not or did not risk sending out the email. (Although a caller from Yemen did claim it was their handiwork). It is possible that their capabilities have been impaired as a result of law enforcement and counter-terrorism measures undertaken by the Indian government since 26/11.

5. Regardless of whether the attacks are traced back to Pakistan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government will be under severe pressure, from the public, from the opposition and from within its own ranks, over Pakistan policy. His dogmatic pursuit of dialogue with Pakistan will be called into question, weakening him even further.

6. In March this year, when questioned on India’s response to another 26/11-type attack, P Chidambaram, the home minister, had stated: “If India is attacked again, and we are reasonably convinced that the attack emanated from Pakistan, we will respond swiftly and decisively.” Now yesterday’s attack was not quite on the scale of 26/11 but it will most likely be be traced back to Pakistan. Given the relatively lower level of provocation, it is unclear if the UPA government will swiftly decide to respond.

7. Cliched as it may sound, tensions with India are just what the Pakistani military establishment needs at this moment. Therefore whatever swift and decisive measures the Indian government undertakes must ensure that it does not do anything to make the Pakistani generals popular again.

Talk time

Why India’s offer of talks with Pakistan might not be that bad

So India has offered Pakistan “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security”, emphasising counter-terrorism, at the level of the foreign secretaries. The offer was made two weeks ago and Pakistan is yet to respond. Also, Siddharth Varadarajan reports that “this is the second time in three months that India has proposed an official-level meeting.” For a government that has been incessantly chanting “dialogue must be resumed”, Islamabad seems reluctant to take up the offer. Now that India’s offer is in public, it will be harder for Pakistan to remain reluctant and continue its chanting.

It is not hard to find fault with the UPA government’s decision to resume bilateral negotiations even as Pakistan continues to brazenly avoid taking action against the instigators of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. First, the Zardari-Gilani government will project it as yet another political triumph. This will reinforce the state of denial in Pakistani society. Second, the dialogue process itself is unlikely to yield anything substantial in terms of resolving bilateral disputes. The military-jihadi complex has vested interests in creating new disputes—river water sharing, for instance—not in resolving old ones. It is unlikely that the back channel near-deal on Kashmir discussed during General Musharraf’s final months can be concluded now. Third, it will reinforce the military-jihadi complex’s conviction that India does not have credible instruments of retaliation even in the face of highly provocative acts of terrorism like 26/11. This will raise the risks of more such attacks against India.

So was India’s decision foolish? Was it a result of “US pressure”? While the case against resuming the dialogue with Pakistan is solid, there is also a case for it. Why? Because Pakistan has been offering bilateral tensions with India as the excuse for not fighting the taliban in its own territory. The excuse is ridiculous in the presence of nuclear deterrence, but when has logical inconsistency and factual inaccuracy stopped Pakistan? The Obama administration is not without its own sad combination of inexperience and opinionatedness, resulting in some of its quarters taking Pakistani protestations at face value.

It will be much harder for Pakistan to use the excuse if, hey, “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues” are in progress.

There is, however, a caveat. This policy of destroying Pakistan’s excuses—and acting as an anvil—makes sense only if the UPA government has the intention, capacity and will to compel the United States to hammer the military-jihadi complex. If it doesn’t, then, like similar events in history, India’s decision will be nothing other than folly.

Related Post: Operation Markarap

Pragati February 2010: The Mumbai Project

Almost three years ago, the Percy Mistry Committee report recommended that India develop Mumbai into an international financial centre. Like other plans to modernise the city’s infrastructure and public services, the Mistry Committee’s recommendations were substantially unimplemented.

This month, we argue that it is time for the Indian government to revisit the Mumbai project. It is also time for India to embrace an entirely new urbanisation paradigm.

Another highlight of this issue: Shashi Tharoor defends India’s continued engagement with the United Nations. On that topic, don’t miss the infographic on India’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations elsewhere in the issue.

We also cover topics in naval strategy; the importance of defence economics in planning and budgeting; intelligence relations between the CIA & ISI and the conflict in Balochistan. There’s a lot more.

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India and international financial services

The opportunity in the crisis

In today’s DNA, Mukul Asher & Azad Singh Bali argue that it is an opportune moment for India to make a serious play in developing international financial services:

It may seem odd to stress the need for developing international financial services (IFS) during the fragile recovery from the global financial and economic crisis. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has argued with considerable justification that its conservative approach to liberalisation of the financial sector has significantly contributed to mitigating the macroeconomic impact of the current global crisis.

Nevertheless, diminished prospects of the current providers of IFS due to the crisis and subsequent rethinking of the appropriate role of finance; India’s own growth prospects; and its vision of emerging as a major economic power strongly suggest that this is an opportune time to develop IFS in India.

…The development of IFS in India primarily for domestic needs should be the first priority. This phase may last perhaps a decade. As India’s financial and capital markets acquire greater depth and size, in the subsequent phases, India could consider serving the needs of international clients and become a global financial centre. It is therefore clear that the policymakers and the stakeholders need to sustain their efforts and focus over a long term, and plan sequencing of this process carefully.[DNA]

Where’s David Miliband now?

Shouldn’t he tell his boss “to be alive to the impact of his government’s counter-terrorism strategies on minorities?”

The New York Times reports that a “radical Islamic group planning a protest march through the streets of a town that has achieved iconic status in Britain for honoring the passing hearses of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan ran into a stiff rebuff from the British government on Monday.” The British prime minister has stated that he is “appalled” and the home secretary has indicated that he is inclined to ban the rally.

Where’s that cabinet colleague of theirs, David Miliband? The British foreign secretary had found it appropriate to speak at the site of a terrorist massacre at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel and lecture his hosts on the “need to be alive to the impact of our counter-terrorism strategies on minorities.”

We strongly agree with Gordon Brown that “any attempt to use this location to cause further distress and suffering to those who have lost loved ones would be abhorrent and offensive.”

That’s exactly what we want to impress upon Mr Miliband.

Why fixing drains will help counter terrorism

India cannot be competent in internal security without being competent in overall governance

“If 26/11 is not to become another one in an endless series of fatalities,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes “we need to keep asking the question: how can a people who have much to be proud of, be endowed with a state that has much to be embarrassed about?” The answer is in a guest post I wrote on Dilip D’Souza’s blog last year. Here is the post, in full:

Since those Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in the last week of November, I received innumerable emails and phone calls from nice people expressing righteous anger against two targets: the incorrigible Pakistan and our own arrogant, self-serving and incompetent politicians. Shouldn’t we just bomb that place Muridke, where the ISI trains jihadis? Shouldn’t we punish politicians and bureaucrats who failed to prevent these attacks from happening? It was difficult to reason with them: no, we can’t just bomb Muridke, because, you know, that would start a war with a wretched, broken country that has nothing to lose. And besides, that’s exactly what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex wants us to do. Now, I didn’t think that I would have to defend myself against the charge of being a “dove”. But let that be for now.

What about our politicians and our security agencies? Shouldn’t they be punished for ignoring the terrorist threat until it was too late? Sure. But first, let’s ask when was it that we gave them a credible signal that we think this was important. And let’s ask ourselves why it should be surprising that our intelligence and security apparatus failed to prevent a sophisticated amphibious assault mounted by both the might of a powerful intelligence agency and a well-organised organised crime network.

South Mumbai is one of India’s richest constituencies. It also has the lowest voter turnouts. The Maharashtra state government routinely fails to protect its citizens from the ravages of the monsoon. Mumbai didn’t complain. The Maharashtra government failed to put uppity political goondas in their place. Mumbai didn’t complain. The state government shelved plans to invest Rs 2000 billion to modernise the city. Mumbai didn’t complain. Plans to transform it into an international financial centre disappeared into another black hole. Mumbai didn’t complain. The good citizens of India in general, and Mumbai in particular had seceded from the nation—choosing to provide for themselves the basic public goods that the government ought to have.

It is unreasonable to expect competent policemen and intelligence agencies when the public works, healthcare, education and environment departments are characterised by non-performance, corruption and worse. Unless the overall quality of governance improves, one cannot expect India to battle terrorism and other lesser threats to human security. And you can’t expect law enforcement to comply to the civilised norms we expect. In this context, it is just as unreasonable to expect the Indian state to be effective against terrorism as it is to expect it to show regard for human rights of suspects. The upshot is that overall governance must improve. How?

By voting. By giving money, legitimately, to politicians to support their election campaigns. And by holding them to account. I’m stopped at this point by people who say it won’t work, and we need to do something “stronger” to change politics. I find this amazing. Because despite being one of the simplest instruments available to Indians, it is dismissed as being ineffective by people who have not even tried it. If the vote is empowering the historically downtrodden segments of the Indian population, won’t it empower the middle class too? No, it’s not a quick fix, but our politicians are a smart lot—they are bound to notice a bank of votes and notes when they see one.

It doesn’t matter if the choice on the ballot is between a criminal and a person who has broken the law, between a former and current member of the same party, between a candidate of this party or that. Voting is the most credible signal we can send to our politicians—both to fix the drains and to secure us from terrorists. It’s time we send it loud and clear, above all the noise we make.

Why study 26/11 when it’s easier to bury it?

Democracy cannot operate without sunlight

Y P Rajesh in the Indian Express on Mumbai’s unanswered questions:

26/11 deserved an inquiry commission on the lines of the US commission that probed 9/11 and went on to blame the FBI and the CIA for intelligence failures. Particularly since the failures in India involved central and state, civilian and military agencies. But all that Mumbai got was a state-level exploratory trip by two retired officials who had to rely on police officers volunteering information, and even those findings were buried. [IE]

Now, inquiry commissions, in the India context are more often used to put an issue with explosive political implications first into suspended animation and then into deep freeze. They are also used as political trump cards whenever the ruling party badly needs one.

But not constituting one, or creating one flippantly, ensures that even the small chance that policy lessons will be learnt disappears. It is bad governance—there is no systematic study of what went wrong and what went right, citizens do not know what to demand of their politicians (even if the citizens of South Bombay cared about such things) and culprits at all levels of government do not even get called out. Shame.

This is not to say that 26/11 didn’t compel the Indian government to get a lot more serious about internal security than on 25th November 2008. Appointing P Chidambaram as home minister was the first such move. He has injected a degree of purposefulness in the government’s security apparatus. The home ministry might have drawn some lessons from 26/11. But we are none the wiser.

The least the UPA government can do on the first anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks on India is to offer an honest appraisal of the entire episode.

Hitting Indian targets to hurt American strength

Washington and New Delhi must understand how the jihadis have drawn their battle lines

The first message, mainly for those in the Obama administration who use catchy phrases like ‘offshore strategy’ and ‘light footprint counter-terrorism’, is that with drone attacks, you can never really be sure whether the target was taken out. Baitullah Mehsud is probably dead. Rashid Rauf less so. Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri is probably alive. Because he’s giving interviews to the intrepid Syed Saleem Shehzad. Drones might be generally successful, but even with greatly improved technology, a strategy that solely relies on them is unlikely to do anything more than drive the terrorist trade, well, underground.

Now the interview itself. It is evident that Mr Kashmiri used the occasion to do more than signal his continued live existence. It is also evident that he is batting for the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (even as he is battling it, but this is a familiar Pakistani paradox). He denies that he was once a member of the Pakistan army’s Special Services Group (SSG), takes the party line on Indian consulates in Afghanistan and professes loyalty to Pakistan’s interests and even to its army.

He—or perhaps Mr Shehzad—reinforces the linking of the 313 Brigade (a joint venture of the five biggest Pakistani jihadi outfits) to the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. This is important, because it suggests that although the Lashkar-e-Taiba arranged for the foot soldiers, it involved actors and organisations responsible for carrying out major acts of terrorism against India in the past. And perhaps, last week’s raid on the Pakistan army’s general headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. (Perhaps, because this requires you to believe that Mohammed Aqeel alias Dr Usman, Mr Kashmiri’s associate, was caught rather than ‘caught’ by the Pakistani forces during their hostage rescue operations.)

It is what Mr Kashmiri says about the jihadi grand strategy that is most important. He concedes that “decades of armed and political struggles could not help to inch forward a resolution of (the Kashmir issue” because:

the entire game was in the hands of the great Satan, the USA. Organs like the UN and countries like India and Israel were simply the extension of its resources and that’s why there was a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, the Kashmir issue and the plight of Afghanistan. [Asia Times Online]

Ergo, the “real game is the fight against the great Satan and its adherents” and “al-Qaeda’s regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.”

There you have, expressed succinctly and lucidly, why the United States and India are fighting the same war. The Obama administration is demonstrating strategic folly by failing to contemplate the damage to its geopolitical interests and those of its allies by demonstrating a lack of will to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi partly believes that Afghanistan is “America’s war” and lacks the political imagination to strengthen the military component of its presence in Afghanistan. If there was any doubt that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan & Pakistan will re-escalate the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, Mr Kashmiri has laid it to rest.