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U.S. hearings on the Lashkar-e-Taiba

Convergence of perceptions augurs well for Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on June 12 on “Protecting the Homeland Against Mumbai-Style Attacks and the Threat from Lashkar-e-Taiba.“  As a precursor to the hearing, Peter King, chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, remarked that “The LeT is a terror proxy of Pakistan’s [ISI], which provides LeT with a safe haven and funding to train and prepare for terrorist attacks…”  Elected representatives of the U.S. would have hesitated in making such admissions even a decade ago, for fear of embarrassing Pakistan.

The LeT ceased to be an India-specific terror outfit after 26/11; its deliberate targeting of U.S., Western and Israeli citizens during the attacks in Mumbai meant that its orientation was now beyond targets only in India.  Thus, the convergence of common threat perceptions augurs well for Indo-U.S. cooperation on counter-terrorism and on the threats posed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba.  Salient excerpts from the USHOR testimonials follow.

Stephen Tankel on the LeT training Westerners:

LeT has long had a policy of training Westerners. The majority of them are members of the Pakistani and Kashmir diasporas in the U.K., but the group has been training Americans since 2000.

The first Americans known to have trained with LeT were from Virginia and were part of a coterie of would-be jihadists that ultimately became known as the Virginia Jihad Network. Sajid Mir, the commander in charge of overseas operatives, arranged for several of them to provide assistance to a British LeT operative who traveled to the U.S. on multiple occasions from 2002-2003 to procure military gear for the group.

Precisely what LeT or elements within it planned to do with this information is unknown, though they clearly were interested in both surveillance and expanding the group’s networks in the U.S. In 2005, two men from Atlanta Georgia with ties to the ‘Toronto 18’ as well as to a British Pakistani
who acted as a talent spotter for LeT identified possible targets for a terrorist attack in the U.S.

LeT has trained others living in America since then, none more famous than Daood Gilani, who took the name David Coleman Headley in 2006 to help facilitate his reconnaissance trips in Mumbai and elsewhere for the group. He joined LeT in February 2002, participating in the Daura-e-Suffa that month. In August 2002 he went through the Daura-e-Aama and then in April 2003 the Daura-e-Khasa, LeT’s three-month guerrilla warfare training program….

Given the benefits Headley provided to the group, it is reasonable to assume LeT may have increased its efforts to recruit and train other Westerners or to find ways for Pakistani members to acquire citizenship or residency in Western countries. [USHOR]

Christine Fair on the re-branding of the LeT as a charitable organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), and continued support from the Pakistani MJC:

To facilitate LeT’s pro-state message countering that of the various Deobandi organizations operating in Pakistan and against Pakistanis (e.g. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban), Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and the armed force’s Interservices Public Relations appear to direct Pakistani and international media to cover the ostensible relief efforts of JuD and its other alias, Falah Insaniat Foundation (e.g. during Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake and the 2010 monsoon-related flood). The media coverage of this humanitarian work seemed far in excess of the actual relief activities conducted. Subsequent research has shown that the organization did not provide the relief that the various media proclaimed. In essence, this media coverage handed the organization a public relations boon they did not deserve.

In survey work that my colleagues and I have conducted in Pakistan, we have found that the various state and non-state efforts to rebrand LeT as JuD in Pakistan have been successful. During survey pretesting in Pakistan in 2011, we found that Pakistani respondents viewed the two organizations as being quite distinct and engaging in different activities with the latter being seen more often as providing public services.

As I argued in 2011, this strategy is important. By fostering public support for the organization at home, the Pakistani state can resist pressure from the United States and others to work against the organization. Under these varied guises, LeT/JuD can continue to recruit, raise funds and support its message of jihad against the “external kuffar” such as the Indians, Americans, Israelis and so forth. The continued official investment in the organization and expanding public presence suggests that the Pakistani state is ever more dependent upon this proxy for both domestic and foreign policy requirements. [USHOR]

And finally, Jonah Blank:

On the issue of dealing with a Mumbai-style attack, one thing we can do is take a lesson from the citizens of both Mumbai and Boston. The reason the attacks in these cities were so jarring was that they stripped away the illusion of safety. A few weeks ago, however, the citizens of Boston confronted an unspeakable evil– not with panic but with quiet, rock-solid resolve. That’s what the citizens of Mumbai did in 2008– indeed, at leas t half a dozen times in recent years. Unfortunately, that is what other citizens, in the U.S. as well as elsewhere, will be called on to do in the future.

The Mumbai attack had special meaning for me: I used to live in Mumbai, just a few blocks from the site of most of the attacks. I used to buy American newspapers from the Taj bookshop, stop by the Leopold Cafe for a cold beer, watch a movie at the Metro Cinema, take trains from the terminal that locals still call by its colonial-era initials of “VT.”

One of the victims of the Mumbai attack was a friend of mine. He was man without whom I wouldn’t have been able to conduct my ethnographic fieldwork. He was an elderly Muslim cleric, easily identifiable as such by his white beard and skullcap– but the gunmen still shot him at close range. [USHOR]

These admissions in earnest would have been unthinkable even a decade ago in a Congressional hearing.  The U.S. may be withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, but its threat perceptions are rapidly converging with India’s.  This is important at a time when the Pakistani establishment appears to be pitting its frankensteins against each other.

 

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Damned lies and statistics

On Aakar Patel’s attempts to convince us that terror has decreased under the UPA.

When I read Aakar Patel’s op-ed in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on the “successes” of the Manmohan Singh government in combating terrorism, I was reminded of a Sherlock Holmes quote about yielding to the “temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data.”  Except that in this case, the data wasn’t insufficient as much as it was either ignored or used out of context.

Mr. Patel writes:

Under Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, terrorism has decreased in India and Indians have become safer.

….It is correct to say that Indian citizens are as safe as the citizens of Europe and America against Islamist terrorism. You would think that a performance so demonstrably successful would earn Manmohan and his team applause. Instead, we have the inane commentaries that issue from a media that is convinced the Congress is doing something wrong here. [Express Tribune]

To support this very grand conclusion, Mr. Patel cites the South Asian Terrorism Portal’s (SATP’s) figures on the declining number of deaths from terrorism from 2005 (3,259) to 2012 (804).

This is great, except that it doesn’t prove that “terrorism in India has decreased.” If it proves anything, it is that fewer people have died from terrorism (but more on that and J&K later).  An examination of the actual number of instances of terror tell us another story altogether.  According to SATP data, the breakdown of the instances of terrorism outside of J&K and the Northeast is as follows:

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
1 3 4 5 0 3 3 5 7 1 5 4 2 1

 

Thus, available data indicates that the number of instances of terror in India have not varied significantly during either the tenures of the NDA or UPA governments between 2000 and 2013 (barring a few anomalies).  Terrorism, therefore, has not decreased.

Mr. Patel would have been right if he suggested that fewer people have died in terror strikes in mainland India since 2005, but even this cannot be presented devoid of context.  Mr. Patel failed to indicate that the nature of the terror threat was evolving.  India and Pakistan have made two attempts at rekindling a “peace process” during the statistical period (in 2002 and 2009).  During these periods, there was a concerted attempt by Pakistan to appear to “play nice” with India, which meant that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)’s involvement in terror in India needed to be obfuscated.

Local terror groups, proteges of the military-jihadi complex, were thus needed to maintain the pressure on India. Beginning in 2003, local terror groups began assuming operational control over some attacks in India.  But misguided individuals or groups in India neither had the financial nor technical resources needed to carry out the sort of attacks that the LeT or JeM were capable of.  While the LeT and JeM attacks were sophisticated, including the use of fidayeen (having been provided facilities and professional training financed by Pakistan) groups like SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen have been capable of far less.  Attacks against India by local terror groups have been confined to IEDs and low-yield remote-controlled bomb blasts.Thus, there was a qualitative shift in the nature of terror being inflicted upon India beginning in 2003.

This has been the dominant pattern since the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.  By their very nature, these attacks inflict fewer casualties than those orchestrated by Pakistan-based groups. Thus, fewer people dying from terrorist attacks isn’t a credit to the performance of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government;  it is merely a reflection of a qualitative change in the nature of terror India is currently battling.

A word on Jammu & Kashmir, since Mr. Patel apparently suggests  that there have been fewer instances of terror in J&K since the UPA took over.  This is true, but needs to be presented in the context of a larger theme.  The insurgency in J&K is dying a slow and inevitable death.  The Pakistanis recognize this as much as the Indians.  The number of casualties as a result of terror has been consistently decreasing since 2001. The 9/11 and 13/12 attacks, combined with U.S. pressure on terror financing channels have effectively ensured that the insurgency in J&K is on its last legs.  This trend would have held regardless of whether the UPA or the NDA was in power.

But Mr. Patel’s embarrassing lack of research is most evident when he suggests that “figures under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) excluded all Maoist violence because that wasn’t compiled under ‘terrorism’ till 2004, when Singh came to power.”

Since he doesn’t provide support for his statement, we can only assume that he arrived at such a conclusion based on a note in SATP’s website which says “Data Till 2004 does not include Fatalities in Left-wing Extremism.”  But this just means that SATP’s data on Maoist terror is incomplete, not the Government of India’s!  In fact, official data on left-wing terror casualties has existed since at least 2000, when the BJP-led coalition was in power.  A cursory review of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report 2003-2004 (pg. 41) would have indicated as much to Mr. Patel, but it should already be clear by now that Mr. Patel was not on a fact-finding mission.

Which brings us back to Mr. Patel’s point that terrorism has decreased and India is safer under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terms in office.  Even if we are to accept that there were fewer instances of terrorism — which they weren’t, as shown in the table above — it is ludicrous to say that India is safer today (forget being as safe as the U.S. and Western Europe, as he suggests!)  The infrastructure for terror continues to exist in Pakistan.  We know from news reports that the intent to hurt India remains undiminished.  We also know that local infrastructure for terror — however nascent – is being developed to challenge the state.

India’s ability to address these threats is hindered by a crippled internal security apparatus.  State and Central internal security agencies are experiencing systemic institutional atrophy.  The NIA — the UPA’s solution to our woes after 26/11 — hasn’t solved a terror case since 2009. Communication and coordination between various Central and State intelligence and police forces is poor.  Even worse, Centre-State mistrust on issues of national security has increased during the tenure of the UPA, to the extent that critical progress on the NCTC and NATGRID has stalled.  None of these reflect too well on Mr. Patel’s theory of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s “demonstrably successful” performance in making India safer.

Ultimately, the question is this: given what we know about the state of India’s internal security infrastructure, can we afford to take comfort in the various data points being bandied around by Mr. Patel?  That he may prefer the UPA and Dr. Singh over the BJP and its allies is understandable insofar as it is one’s personal choice.  But cherry-picking data points and drawing broad and inaccurate conclusions on an issue as important as national security merely to better market his party of choice is both irresponsible and dangerous.

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A system of neglect

India doesn’t need more ideas in tackling its internal security challenges; it needs action.

Another terrorist attack in a major Indian city this week left 16 dead and over 50 injured. Yet, within hours of the attack, India’s elected leaders were busy passing the buck and hypothesizing on the intent and “color” of the terrorist attack before a formal investigation had even begun.

There is something sadly predictable about all of this; the incident in Hyderabad itself — going by the dilapidated state of India’s internal security apparatus — and the indulging in parochial rhetoric thereafter that our leaders find so irresistible. Shouting free-for-alls followed when Pune and Varanasi were hit in 2010, and when Mumbai and Delhi were hit in 2011. Yet, not one terror case since 2008 has been solved. While our internal security agencies battle for their own credibility and relevance in the absence of strong political leadership, the cycle of terror continues.

In response to the attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the government set up the NIA, whose mandate could, at best, be described as confused.  India’s “FBI-style” agency, meanwhile, hasn’t produced the results to even remotely warrant a comparison with the FBI. Centre-State issues have stalled essential progress on NATGRID and the NCTC.  And internal security at the Centre continues to be the part-time responsibility of the Home Minister, whose other responsibilities include areas as varied as dealing with Centre-State issues and the implementation of the provisions of the Official Languages Act.

Can Indian citizens really harbor any expectations of reasonable safety and security when there is such abominable neglect on issues related to national security? India’s internal security apparatus is rotting. And this rot is merely a microcosm of a much larger problem that India faces, which is that there is systemic institutional atrophy in varied velocities across the country. The aspiring India of 2013 has government institutions built to govern an India of the 1940s. Where there are incidents that expose these very apparent gaps, we apply short-term Band-Aids when our institutional structures are falling apart at their very core.

Let’s be candid: India does not need any more ideas on how to tackle internal security challenges. Most of these ideas exist in public domain today. They have already been articulated in reports commissioned by the Central and State governments of India themselves. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report in 2001, for example, put forward recommendations in reforming our intelligence agencies. On the heels of the KRC report, a Group of Ministers report under the chairmanship of LK Advani proposed structural changes in intelligence and police reform.

The Ram Pradhan Committee Report — as yet not made public — commissioned by Maharashtra in response to the 26/11 attacks, highlighted critical gaps in coordination and execution of response to an ongoing terror incident. The National Police Commission issued eight reports between 1979 and 1981 on police reform and measures to prevent political interference. The Padmanabhaiah Committee report in 2000 recommended significant structural reforms to policing in India. Further, various states have set up their own commissions to study police reform since the 1960s.

So the ideas for reforming our internal security are already there. What India needs is meaningful action, which can only come about through structural reform (sustained by the continued application of political will) to bring our internal security apparatus into the 21st century. If ideas are needed anywhere, it is perhaps in trying to determine how to politically “sell” these essential changes.

K Subrahmanyam, perhaps India’s greatest post-Independence strategic thinker, once said that India’s leaders weren’t interested in national security, but in the politics of national security. While entirely divorcing “politics” from national security might not be practical, given the realities of India today, the political class’ response to terror cannot be restricted to trading accusations, applying Band-Aid solutions and commissioning reports.  India’s citizens cannot be held hostage to perfunctory political reactions to every terror attack on Indian soil.  The ideas are there, as is the mandate from the people of India.  But India’s politicians have been repeatedly found wanting in action.  They must step up or make way for those capable of action.

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The Delhi terror trail

Some thoughts on the HuJI & IM emails, and the on-going investigation.

Investigation into the heinous attack on the Delhi High Court that left 11 dead and several injured has begun.  At the center of this investigation are two emails alleged to have been sent by Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) and, subsequently, by the Indian Mujahideen (IM).

The email alleged to have been sent by HuJI was via Gmail.  Based on this article by DNA, NIA and Delhi Police investigating the terrorist attack traced the email to a cybercafe in Kishtwar, Jammu and Kashmir.  The owner of the cybercafe, Mehmood Khawja and two others are reportedly being questioned.

A couple of important points need to be noted about the ongoing investigation.  First, Gmail is a free, web-based service provided by Google, whose mail servers reside in the U.S.  As such, these mail servers and the data they contain are subject to U.S. law. In the event that the Government of India would need access to any of this information, it would need to make a formal request, justifying its need to access a third party’s data, to Google via the U.S. government 1.  If this has indeed happened and has resulted in India obtaining data pertinent to this email, then it bodes very well for the Indo-US counter-terror cooperation.

This is especially impressive, since Indian investigators were able to gain access to the alleged HuJI mail account within the span of 3 hours (the email was sent 3 hours after the blast and investigators had access to the account’s password 3 hours subsequent to that, as indicated in DNA’s account).  Now, it is entirely also possible that Indian investigators were able to guess the account’s password, but the gut feeling of this blogger is that the explanation provided by NIA and Delhi Police stretches credulity.

Next, Toral Varia, journalist with Rediff has a good comparative analysis of the emails sent by HuJI and IM to ones previously sent by these groups.  The article points out discrepancies in typefacing and format — even spelling (the IM email misspelled mujahideen as “Muzahideen.”) — from threats previously received from these groups.  Therefore, it would appear that these emails were sent by people who may have not had prior knowledge about a pending attack on Delhi High Court.

It must be noted that Indian Mujahideen has sent as many as five emails claiming responsibilities for various attacks. All the emails were drafted with precision using PDF files, various fonts and colours, Urdu script, a proper signature, a well researched list of recipients, and sent minutes after a terror attack was executed. All the mails were signed by ‘Al ARBI.’

Content for the Indian Mujahideen mails was usually written in impeccable English, interspersed with the verses from the holy Koran, a picture of the Gujarat carnage, references to ‘atrocities on Muslims’ amongst other inflammatory literature.

However, one look at both the emails, that have been sent claiming and counter claiming responsibilities for Wednesday’s blast, and the first impression is that the mails have perhaps been sent by an amateur. [Rediff]

At the same time, it is also equally important to not discredit these leads based on prima facie evidence.  Unfortunately, some TV news anchors are dismissing these emails as “prank emails.” It would be dangerous to categorize them as such.  Now, the fact the senders of the HuJI email were traced down as quickly as they apparently were leads us to believe that the senders weren’t very technically adept.

Those who follow the modi operandi of jihadi groups know that the first rule that today’s terrorist learns is cyber cover and concealment.  This might possibly indicate that the senders of the email were either not very well trained, or not directly linked to the perpetrators of the attack.  However, this shouldn’t necessarily mean that these correspondences were “prank emails,” as the entire purpose of the emails might have been to deliberately mislead investigators.

Finally, we must recognize that we must give investigators the time and space to fully and thoroughly investigate the attack. Delhi Police has been (quite fairly) criticized for not learning from the lessons of the past and not taking the necessary precautionary measures to deter the attack.  We also know all too well that not one terror attack in India since 2005 has been resolved.  But at the same time, let’s not play judge, jury and executioner before we’ve given the NIA and DP the opportunity to investigate.  In this regard, the media should take it upon itself to play a more constructive role.

1 Some readers have brought Google’s “User Data Requirements” (LT vinay and @_g0nz0_) to my attention. It would appear that Google has established processes allowing governments to access private user data. Based on the language, it appears to be broad enough to access to email, without the involvement of the U.S. However, both GoI and Google would have to be astonishingly effective were the entire process, from request to receipt, accomplished within the span of 3 hours.

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