The second day of the year saw a daring terrorist attack on one of the strategic airbases in Pathankot with firing still going on while these lines were being written. The initial news indicates that the attack was engineered by Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based outfit headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, one of three terrorists freed by the earlier NDA Government in exchange for the release of 176 passengers aboard a hijacked Indian Airline flight in 1999.
Inputs received by National Security Adviser and analysis of technical intelligence, after the terrorists `kidnapped' a SP rank officer, helped in the advance positioning of elite security teams and thereby avert what could have been a bigger tragedy.
The important question is how did these terrorists reach the air force base in spite of advance intelligence and our specialised security forces being there? Another issue of concern is why did the huge posse of security forces take such a long time to neutralise the attackers who had succeeded in entering the airbase?
The role of the local police will once again be under scrutiny. This is especially because hijackers used a beacon-fitted SUV to reach the air base even after the police has been informed about the SP's kidnapping and the hijacking of his vehicle in an area not only close to the border but witness to a dastardly attack on a police station only six months back. The Punjab Police failed to follow up the available intelligence and take all possible steps to locate and prevent the movement of terrorists toward the air base. The history of internal security tells us that how a well motivated and well geared up Punjab Police and Andhra Police became shining examples of local police by turning the tide against terrorists and the left wing insurgents, respectively. The local police must be in the forefront of any anti-terrorist operation. Besides gathering intelligence and identifying the local support available to such elements, it should train and equip itself to rise to any such challenge at a short notice. The news photos and video footage of the incident indicate that the Punjab Police men deployed around the vicinity of the base were poorly equipped and undertrained just as they were at the time of action in Gurdaspur in July 2015.
The State Police has obviously not learnt any lessons from the Gurdaspur incident. As regards time taken by the security forces for neutralising the terrorists, it may be too pre-mature to make any comments unless complete details are known. In any case, many factors such as efforts to avert collateral damage could be one of the major factors in determining the intensity of such operations.
Post-event investigation is another important issue which needs due consideration. After the Mumbai attacks, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was set up to investigate all terrorist related cases. Section 6(5) of the NIA Act empowers the Central Government to suo-motu entrust investigation of such cases to the agency. But these powers have hardly been used by both the earlier and the present governments. The Dinanagar Police Station (Gurdaspur) terrorist attack of July 2015 continues to be investigated by Punjab Police and has not been entrusted to NIA. While the local police should be equipped to investigate even the most complex cases, it has difficulties in handling cases with inter-state and international ramifications especially, where major evidence may be available outside the country.
They are also not trained to make use of the legal provisions for gathering evidence from other countries. It may be argued that such measures may not yield the desired results as some of these countries from where the handlers of these outlaws operate, may not cooperate in the collection and transmission of evidence. They may even deny the presence of handlers in their territory and the existence of any evidence. It must be appreciated that seeking evidence from such countries, in spite of the expected response, would help rally round other nations to bring pressure on them to comply with international norms in extending cooperation in investigation of criminal matters. Single agency investigation of all such cases will not only help unravel the linkages in various parts of the country but also result in throwing up leads and intelligence which could possibly help intelligence agencies and security forces in taking timely preventive action for future incidents.
A major challenge faced by investigation agencies handling such cases is collection of evidence for successfully prosecuting the accused or establishing the role of handlers. Most often than not, evidence against the accused, who often operate underground and may not be even be citizens of the target country, is neither available nor forthcoming. Intelligence agencies often have the evidence of terrorist involvement in the form of intercepts and other material. They are rightly wary of sharing such evidence for use in prosecution because they fear the exposure of their intelligence collection methods and sources during the course of the trial.
Most of the countries affected by terrorism are facing similar difficulties and have started exploring steps to tweak their laws to use material collected during covert operations as evidence to bring criminals to justice. There is an urgent need to work out a mechanism, if necessary by amending our laws and modifying procedures, to enable intelligence outfits hand over information and material without fear of compromising their sources or methods. No doubt, the means by which the information was gathered would be an important factor. It will also be necessary to protect the sources and methods of intelligence collection while disclosing the information or evidence used in prosecution to the defendant to ensure a fair trial. We also need to utilise the existing legal provisions permitting the identity of protected witnesses to be disguised by using a pseudonym and giving his statement from behind a screen to prevent identification.
(The writer recently retired as DG of Bureau of Police Research & Development and has served for long years in CBI & NIA)