August 01, 2021
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From Boston To Bangalore

The real lesson of the Boston and Bangalore attacks is manifest in the contrasting patterns of responses in the two locations

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From Boston To Bangalore

Two dramatic terrorist attacks, one in Boston— during the iconic annual Boston marathon— in the US, and the other in Bangalore in India, have once again provoked frantic assessments of a 'resurgence' of terrorism and hand-wringing regarding the 'failure' of states to contain or neutralize this threat. Such assessments are misconceived for more than one reason. First, it must be clear that the expectation that any kind of security blanket can be a 100 per cent guarantee against any possibility of terrorism is utterly wrong. Indeed, the idea that the US has been 'free of terrorism' since 9/11 as a result of dramatic institutional transformations and initiatives by the government, is factually utterly incorrect. The Boston incident is not the first major terrorist incident in the US since the catastrophic 2001 attacks— though it has been by far the most dramatic. Unfortunately, in India, this misconception has been embedded in the discourse at the highest level, with top government officials and their cheerleaders in the media and 'expert' community, particularly those arguing for the creation of the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) in India, reinforcing the erroneous perception that, once the NCTC was established at Washington, the US 'homeland' has been secure. 

The truth is, the US homeland has not been entirely free of terrorist successes since 2001. 

  • On July 28, 2006, for instance, Naveed Afzal Haq opened indiscriminate fire at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one and wounding five. 
  • On February 12, 2007, Sulejman Talovic killed five and wounded another five, at the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah. 
  • And on November 5, 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan, a US Army major serving as a psychiatrist, killed 14 and injured 29, at the military establishment at Fort Hood, Texas. 

Significantly, moreover, in at least three cases, disaster has been averted, not by any preventive initiatives on the part of US intelligence and enforcement agencies, but by the sheer and spectacular incompetence of terrorists: 

  • the December 2001 case of the "shoe bomber", Richard Reid; 
  • the December 2009 "underwear bomber", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and 
  • the May 2010 "Times Square bombing", by Faisal Shahzad. 

The counter-terrorism discourse in India, at the highest levels of strategy and policy, has largely chosen to ignore, or has been ignorant of, these basic realities and has, in imagining a 'perfect' American success after 9/11, invented a variety of arguments that have, at least on occasion, bordered on the idiotic, to justify a range of 'magical' solutions which would help India make the problem of terrorism vanish at a stroke. The Boston incident will, of course, irrevocably puncture this make-believe.

Similarly, raising an alarm about the 'rising threat of terrorism' in India in the wake of the latest attack in Bangalore is contra-factual. Unfortunately, this outcry is typical in the wake of each major incident of terrorism in the country, though both the media and the 'experts' are quickly drawn back into habitual somnolence. The real threat of terrorism can only be assessed in terms of trends, not of random incidents, and the trends, across India, have been broadly and dramatically positive. It is not necessary to cover the details again, but it is useful to note that according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, terrorism and insurgency related fatalities in India have fallen from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, to 803 in 2012. Within this broad trend, the category that provokes the greatest hysteria, attacks by Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists across India, has recorded a remarkable decline, with just one incident in 2012 outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K)— a low intensity blast in Pune, with no fatalities. 2011 had registered three such attacks outside J&K, with at least 41 killed. 2008, of course, saw such incidents peaking, with seven attacks, and 364 fatalities, of which 195 (166 civilians, 20 SF personnel and nine terrorists) were accounted for by the 26/11 Mumbai attacks alone. Before the Bangalore blast, 2013 had already recorded twin blasts in Dilsukhnagar, Hyderabad, on February 21, with 17 fatalities. 

This does not, however, mean that India's vulnerabilities have declined. This is a crucial distinction. While the visible threat has diminished due to a range of extraneous factors, the capabilities of the state and its agencies— most significantly, intelligence and enforcement— have, at best, augmented only marginally, even as an astonishingly blind political executive seeks to focus on theatrical initiatives that can have little impact on real counter-terrorism capacities and capabilities (The issue of capabilities has been taken up repeatedly and does not bear repetition here).

The real lesson of the Boston and Bangalore attacks is manifest in the contrasting patterns of responses in the two locations. It was not the NCTC or major federal agencies that were elbowing their way into the Boston CT responses. Manifestly competent local agencies were firmly and visibly in charge, though the FBI had been brought in to support these authorities, as was the National Guard. Throughout the incident response and the manhunt for the two perpetrators, however, it was State Police representatives and the State Governor, who spoke, circumspectly, with disclosures limited to known facts. At no stage, before identities were actually and unequivocally confirmed, was any speculation regarding the perpetrators of the outrage at the Boston marathon voiced by any person in authority. Even after the identities of the Tsarnaev Brothers and their role in the bombings had been demonstrably established, no speculation regarding their motives and possible affiliations has been articulated by any one in Government. Certainly, their linkages and motives will be progressively exposed as investigations proceed. But the perverse pandering to a hysterical media and public, the immediate politicization of the issue, and the graceless jockeying for prominence between local and national agencies— characteristic of the Indian response and immediately visible in the wake of the latest Bangalore blast— was conspicuous by its absence in Boston. 

Equally dramatic was the contrast in responses and visible capabilities. The sheer quantum and quality of local Police and emergency response capabilities, the discipline, the professionalism, the training and equipment, visible in Boston can only dishearten any Indian security professional, who simply cannot imagine a comparable general force capability in the foreseeable future. 

Boston has a Police-population ratio of 325 to 100,000. The ratio is unexceptional, even by Indian standards for metropolitan concentrations. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2011 (the last authoritative data available), Delhi, for instance, has a Police-population ratio of 448, and policing in India's capital is nothing short of a scandal. Bangalore's Police-population ratio, however, stands at a much lower 207 per 100,000 on sanctioned strength (170 per 100,000 on actual current strength), according to Police sources, and, while law and order in the city are relatively better managed by the city's Force than by its counterpart in Delhi, the responses in the wake of the explosion of April 17, 2013— and in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Indian Institute of Science in 2005, the serial blasts of 2008, and the Chinnaswamy Stadium twin explosions of 2010— have been far from encouraging. It is significant, however, that each of the three preceding attacks has resulted in prosecutions, and the first of these has already ended with the conviction of six conspirators.

The startling difference is, of course, not in numbers, but in the character of response, the systems that are pressed into service at the first hint of a crisis, and, crucially, the cooperation, discipline and respect elicited by the forces from the public as well. In a country where the registration of a First Information Report (FIR) is, for a majority of victims of crime, an insurmountable task, and where such victims are more harassed and intimidated by the Police than are the perpetrators of crimes, it is impossible to imagine such efficiency or public confidence.

It is useful to notice, further, that, while fragmenting terrorist groups are now unable to mount attacks against hard, protected targets— even in India, the last 'hard target' attack was the assault on Parliament in 2001— the susceptibility to soft-target attacks persists, and cannot be ended as long as terrorist groupings and extremist ideologies survive. General policing and intelligence capabilities will be crucial in meeting this challenge. It is crucial that, while a handful of terrorist plots in USA have been brought to fruition, more than 60 such conspiracies have been detected and neutralized before they could get to the stage of inflicting harm. 

India, of course, also has her intelligence and policing successes; but the threats the country faces, and her peculiar vulnerabilities, are infinitely greater. The current relief from the much higher intensities of terrorism that India has experienced in the past, provide an opportunity to create the necessary capacities and capabilities to meet these threats and end these vulnerabilities. This is an opportunity, however, that the political leadership appears, unfortunately, to be frittering away.

Ajai Sahni is Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) and Executive Director, Institute of COnflict Management (ICM) & the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). Courtesy, SAIR

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