When police in India’s third-largest city released Yasin Bhatkal in 2010 for peddling fake currency, they had no idea they had freed the leader of the country’s most dangerous home-grown Islamic terrorist group.
Within three months, he masterminded bombings that killed 17 people, the deadliest attacks since a November 2008 assault on luxury hotels and a railway station in Mumbai took about 160 lives. Since then, not much has changed: Kolkata Police Commissioner Surajit Kar Purkayastha said his officers still don’t know if they’re releasing wanted terrorists like Bhatkal.
“There’s very little we can do to stop this from happening today unless one of our officers recognizes the man’s face,” Purkayastha said by phone last month. “Especially if he doesn’t have a previous record.”
Renewed threats from al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are increasing pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boost India’s defenses. The country of 1.2 billion people has lagged in improving its terrorist-fighting capabilities over the past decade even as the planned U.S. exit from Afghanistan makes it more likely that Pakistan-based fighters who had targeted American troops will turn their weapons on India.
“India isn’t lacking in resources,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS Inc., said by phone from London, adding that Indonesia and China have done more to counter terrorist threats. “It’s a matter of coordination between the organizations that already exist.”
Two incidents this week underlined the heightened risk in Kolkata and throughout India. A suicide blast near the site of a daily flag-lowering ceremony on the India-Pakistan border killed more than 50 people, while separately India’s Navy withdrew two warships from Kolkata’s port due to the threat of an attack during a planned public viewing.
The 2008 Mumbai attacks triggered calls to remove the walls separating intelligence agencies. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed creating a central database called the National Intelligence Grid, or NATGRID, which would cull records from about two dozen sources so police officers could easily find out if they had a terrorist suspect in custody.
Six years later, NATGRID still isn’t operational. While construction work began 11 months ago on data centers in Delhi and Bengaluru, an April deadline to finish them has passed. The government doesn’t have a timetable for when NATGRID will come online, according to K.S Dhatwalia, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the project.
Files in toilets
“In Indian intelligence circles they don’t like to share,” said Alok Vijayant, a director at the National Technical Research Organisation, an intelligence body set up in 2004 for high-technology surveillance. “Not even poison is given out free of cost.”
Pakistani relatives gather around the bodies of blast victims at a hospital after a suicide bomb attack near the Wagah border gate on Nov. 2, 2014.
In May, after Modi won the biggest Indian election mandate in 30 years, the government decided not to extend the contract of Raghu Raman, NATGRID’s former chief executive officer who had served in India’s army and spent five years building the network’s foundation. His replacement has yet to be named.
“India has databases that are pretty sophisticated and we also have databases that are files tied together and stored in some bloody toilet in a government corridor,” Raman said by phone, adding that he wouldn’t comment on NATGRID’s readiness. “India must overcome its bureaucracy and social hierarchy to have a fully functional intelligence community. Until then, the risk of a serious attack will persist.”
There has been some progress. Since 2008, an average of 17 people have died per year due to terrorism related violence, about seven times less than in the previous nine years, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal data going back to 2000. Only one person has died in an attack this year.
The Navy has established four joint operation centers to share intelligence, including at Mumbai and Port Blair, Kiren Rijiju, deputy home minister, told lawmakers in July. Modi’s new national security adviser, Ajit Doval, used to helm India’s Intelligence Bureau.
Authorities have also made gains against Indian Mujahideen, the terrorist group led by Bhatkal, who walked out of the police station in Kolkata four years ago. Since the government first declared the group a terrorist organization in June 2010, authorities have nabbed more than 120 operatives, including Bhatkal on the India-Nepal border last year.
Bhatkal had used a fake name when he was caught earlier in Kolkata, which was enough to prevent police from detecting him. Authorities only realized they had previously had him in custody when he claimed responsibility for detonating two crude bombs outside a cricket stadium in Bengaluru later in 2010.
India is rife with home-grown terrorist threats, from Maoist rebels to Islamic extremists, as well as groups based in neighboring Pakistan. In a 55-minute video released Sept. 3, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said the network would extend operations to India to end what he called the suffering of Muslims in South Asia.
This week the Pakistani Taliban group that claimed it conducted the border bombing threatened Modi because of his role in killing “hundreds of Muslims,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat ul Ahrar, posted on Twitter. Modi led the state of Gujarat during 2002 religious riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
“Fringe groups can thrive in such an environment if the government does not take these threats seriously enough to make sure all agencies are prepared,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a distinguished fellow with the Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies. “Modi can’t run the police from Delhi.”
The failure to share intelligence makes life even tougher for India’s police, who were criticized for being outmaneuvered by the 10 attackers who methodically ambushed Mumbai in 2008. The country has about 138 officers for every 100,000 people, three times less than Turkey and shy of the United Nations recommendation of 220 required during peacetime, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
Modi’s ability to increase the number of officers is limited by India’s constitution, which gives the country’s 29 states control over the local police force.
“Modi has no control over local police,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “Their effectiveness, their numbers, come from the state level, so their shortcomings can only be resolved at the state level.”
Last month at New Delhi Railway Station, where more than half a million passengers visit daily, a police officer slept on his white plastic chair instead of screening bags on a security belt. The station is one of about 8,000 across the country where passengers made more than 8 billion trips in the year through March, according to India’s rail authority.
“While we are confident we can counter any type of terrorist threat, there’s also a sort of carnival going on out there,” S.N. Shrivastava, special commissioner of the Delhi Police’s anti-terrorism unit, said in an interview at his office. “Our best chance of stopping an attack is collecting intelligence before it gets to the target.”