Tackling terror with smart, seamless grid

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s statement that Pakistan is under immense pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to rein in terror groups operating from its soil comes weeks after Home Minister Amit Shah announced the resurrection of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID).

Tackling terror with smart, seamless grid

Glaring Lapse: The failure to collate intelligence or act on intelligence inputs characterises numerous terror attacks in India.

Maj Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)

Maj Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)

Military Commentator

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s statement that Pakistan is under immense pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to rein in terror groups operating from its soil comes weeks after Home Minister Amit Shah announced the resurrection of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). The establishment of the long-delayed National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) was pushed for by successive governments as an overarching body to handle terror. However, politics and turf-guarding have held up the creation of smart structures despite the sanctioning of Rs 5,400-crore budget. Inter-agency rivalry and distrust were primarily responsible for creating fissures about staffing and control of the central agency and the NCTC as well as NATGRID were kept on hold. 

After the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, the NCTC was conceived as a single agency to counter terrorist actions and it was initially based on the US model and was meant to handle the functions of joint intelligence and joint operations.

The NCTC was to be superimposed on the existing multi-agency centres (MAC) and was to have sweeping powers to arrest and carry out operations across the country. In addition to complementing the NCTC, a national computerised information-sharing network, known as NATGRID, was proposed as a unified database of national stature to combine intelligence inputs. 

The overriding principle in tackling terror is to be able to forecast terror threats by intelligence analysis and neutralising them before they cause casualties and damage to the humans, materials and national pride. In fact, the failure to collate intelligence or to act on intelligence inputs characterises the numerous terror incidents that have unfolded in India. The inability to separate intelligence activities and armed response has been amply highlighted by the disjointed responses witnessed in various terror acts, from the 2008 Mumbai attacks to the 2019 Pulwama carnage.

The political quagmire over the formation of a Central anti-terror agency stems from the ambiguity in the responsibility for security. Security is a state subject and the police forces are controlled by the state governments, thereby giving the states the exclusive power to legislate with respect to the police system and exercise full administrative control over the police. 

The police are adept at handling crime and law and order situations. However, at present, there is no Central agency to coordinate action against organised criminal syndicates, let alone terrorism. The Mumbai and Pathankot attacks proved the glaring inadequacies of the local police forces in combating orchestrated terrorist actions.

In the haste and shock of 26/11, many attempts were made to revamp India’s internal security architecture and most of the proposals failed to materialise. A look at the architecture of the existing counter-terror mechanism brings the disjoint in the construct of the structure sharply into focus. 

The Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s main intelligence agency, is controlled by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and is responsible for internal security and intelligence. The IB is considered the nodal agency and works closely with the state police and the Central paramilitary forces on counterterrorism intelligence. However, it cannot 

fully execute this function because it has no legal authority to investigate an offence, arrest anyone or prosecute them in court.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is presently the central counter-terrorism law enforcement agency. Such an agency without appropriate anti-terror intelligence and analysis, at best, can follow leads to register cases and probe terror attacks because investigation, by nature, is a post-event activity and cannot be confused with the activity of seeking intelligence and collating inputs that lead to actionable analysis to forecast events.

The Crime and Criminal Tracking Networks & System (CCTNS) was envisaged to seamlessly link India’s police stations, to allow for better information sharing and replicates some of the features proposed in NATGRID. Towards the end of 2018, it was announced that 14,749 out of the 15,655 police stations in the country have been connected with the 18 CCTNS. Their efficacy, however, is up for debate as reviews indicate slackness in delivery of tangible results. Basic ground-level grassroots intelligence functions also need to be honed and used to feed data from across the states for an efficient tracking and monitoring system. 

The recent report of NATGRID becoming functional within a year is a positive and well-considered development in the country’s attempt to form a stable and robust mechanism supported by institutional mechanisms to forecast, analyse and counter the existential terror threat. NATGRID has acquired some of the latest data mining and other essential technology to provide intelligence tracking and collation. 

When fully functional, NATGRID will link 10 user agencies and 21 service providers. A select group of agencies will have access to the data base which comprises mobile numbers, vehicle numbers, passport details and, in later phases, train and air ticketing details. This enables agencies a one-point, real-time access to data which is otherwise widely spread out and held by different government and law enforcement departments. 

David Headley’s movements in and out of the country and his visits to reconnoitre the Mumbai targets were available with various immigration and police agencies. But the lack of a seamless grid to provide real-time information ultimately led to a failure to connect the dots. 

NATGRID will be crucial to intelligence gathering and use of information to arrive at a collated intelligence picture and help in the identification of any emerging threats. Counter-

terror operations agencies can, thereafter, analyse and prioritise multiple threats that emerge. 

A single centre for the control and coordination of all anti-terror efforts, like the proposed NCTC, could be the next logical step. The decision to take overt or covert action against such emerging threats has to be taken by the executive who will now be given the facts duly collated and analysed by a single agency. 

A comprehensive but national approach to tackle terror must transgress political and interagency rivalry and turf guarding. A centralised approach, mostly synonymous with slow and monolithic responses, has to make way for collaborative Centre-state intelligence sharing, with quick decision-making and prioritisation of threats. If not, terror planners and crime-terror syndicates will only be emboldened and strike with impunity, safe in the knowledge that it is business as usual. An armed response across the borders into another country’s territory is probably not the smartest way to combat terror — it puts troops at risk, triggers escalation and, in the end, is a reactive strategy.

The recent actions taken to finalise and resuscitate the NATGRID lead one to hope for the establishment of smart structures to combating terror.


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