India in the dark over terror attack
NEW DELHI - The bloody trail of terror attacks continues in India. Delhi was the target this weekend, with TV channels splattered with the increasingly common pictures of gory scenes and wailing relatives - and the country nowhere closer to stopping the bloodshed.
Five serial bomb blasts (in the space of 45 minutes) killed at least 25 and wounded more than 100 people, most out on Saturday evening, shopping for a festival and a holiday season.
Terrorists struck at the heart of the capital's entertainment, commercial and shopping hub, Connaught Place, and the casualties would have been much higher had two bombs not been defused at the same location.
The pattern of the attacks has been the same over the past two years of incidents across the country, including Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Varanasi, that have claimed thousands of lives.
The bombs used are easy to assemble and difficult to detect as they used low-to-medium intensity ammonium nitrate packets filled with scrap iron that turns into deadly shrapnel when the device is ignited.
The remote-controlled bombs are strategically placed (in dustbins, on cycles) at carefully chosen soft targets such as crowded weekend markets in the evening, landmarks and places of worship to inflict maximum damage.
In May, similar serial blasts killed 80 people and injured 200 in the western Indian city of Jaipur, the capital of the tourist state Rajasthan. Serial explosions in Ahmedabad, in Gujarat state, in July left more than 50 dead and over 200 injured.
The latest Delhi bombings have been claimed by the Indian Mujahideen (IM), an Islamist militant group, which sent an online warning by hacking into the e-mail address of a Mumbai-based private firm. The IM has claimed responsibility for blasts in Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Jaipur in the past three months, again via hacked Wi-Fi accounts.
Indian intelligence and security agencies say the IM is derived from elements in the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba, with the local banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) being a party.
The IM came into national focus for the first time in November last year, following bomb blasts in three trial courts in Uttar Pradesh, a large central Indian state with a sizeable Muslim population and marked by a lack of development and millions of poor.
Emails were sent to the media and authorities minutes before the bombs exploded - a pattern that has been followed in subsequent blasts.
Officials say they are in particular looking for a tech-savvy SIMI functionary named Abdul Subhan Qureshi, alias Tauqeer, considered to be a mastermind in the Ahmedabad blasts.
Tauqeer is reported to be a computer engineer based in Mumbai and a former employee of software major Wipro. He is strongly suspected to have designed the bombs in Surat and possibly Ahmedabad and now Delhi.
Failure of security
Despite claims of breakthroughs and arrests in the recent past, especially in Gujarat and Mumbai, it is apparent that the Indian security networks have failed in detecting and preventing terror attacks.
Although security agencies claim the situation would be much worse were it not for their preventive vigil and crackdowns, their comments do not inspire much public confidence.
Officials also privately admit that the entire security apparatus is geared towards protecting important people such as politicians and their families, leaving little manpower and money for ground-level security and counter-terrorism exercises.
Even if police do manage to arrest Qureshi, would the attacks stop? It appears unlikely, and there is even an air of helplessness among those who are supposed to protect citizens. This was reflected in a security review chaired by federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil following the Delhi blasts.
Intelligence Bureau chief P C Haldar is reported to have said that it was difficult to track every terror module of the IM, which has enrolled people from many cities in India. Haldar is reported to have admitted that the hierarchy and structure of the IM are still hazy.
He reportedly said that given their mutually exclusive style of operations, the IM cells that have been cracked are not in a position to provide clues about the activities of others.
Earlier, in a more damning self-indictment, National Security Advisor (NSA) M K Narayanan, who reports to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directly, blamed the intelligence agencies that he ironically leads, for not providing "actionable intelligence" on attacks.
The NSA reportedly told the cabinet that there was no warning about the attack on Jaipur in May. "There is no proper coordination between the state intelligence-gathering machinery and the Federal Intelligence Bureau [IB - that looks at internal security matters]. The inputs provided by the IB are imprecise."
Yet, the security agencies cannot be blamed in isolation of the political leaders, who are engaged in another round of brinkmanship, instead of giving serious thought to revamping the security apparatus.
Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister belonging to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claimed he had personally alerted Manmohan about an impending attack in Delhi.
"Ten days back when I met the prime minister and the NSA, I informed them that the people arrested in connection with the Gujarat blasts had told the police that a plan was on for blasts in Delhi. Only the location was not known," he said.
However, such broad assertions are always suspect, especially with general elections slated in India next summer and the BJP keen to paint the Congress-led New Delhi government as soft on terror.
Following the terror attacks in Jaipur (where a provincial BJP government rules), Modi said that terror warnings from Delhi to the states are like vague weather bulletins that nobody can take them seriously nor understand.
The BJP has been calling for the reinstatement of anti-terror laws, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, that was scrapped by the Congress due to alleged human rights violations, especially against Muslims, that the party counts as its support base.
Yet, the problem is beyond just laws. The preventive mechanism is woefully inadequate and India's lax security structure has become a fertile ground for terror groups to gain cheap global publicity via easy-to-execute attacks, without incurring much expenditures or risk of lives to their cadres.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.