Despite Promises to Bolster Defenses, India Remains Vulnerable

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 22, 2009

MUMBAI -- After nine months of political grandstanding and a high-profile trial of the lone, surviving gunman from last year's terrorist assault on this city, India's security gaps remain so wide that counterterrorism experts and high-ranking police officials fear the country is still vulnerable to a similar attack.

India's police and armed forces have yet to receive the promised boost in manpower and modernized equipment needed to stave off another strike, security experts say. Of particular concern are the persistent lapses in monitoring India's coast, which should have been the first line of defense when the attackers sailed here from the Pakistani port city of Karachi and then killed more than 170 people.

With extremist violence growing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, India's ability to prevent attacks through intelligence gathering and defensive measures has become more urgent than ever, say security experts and diplomats. The Obama administration sees India as an ally in containing the spread of Islamist militancy in South Asia, and the issue is one of the central sources of tension in India's relations with its neighbor, Pakistan.

The November attack exposed India's inability to protect its financial capital from 10 young, well-trained gunmen who brought the city to a standstill for three days by taking hundreds of hostages in two luxury hotels and a Jewish center. The outrage many Indians felt then has since shifted from the government's security failures to the surviving gunman, Ajmal Amir Kasab. Kasab is on trial, and the 21-year-old could be sentenced to death by hanging.

"The real issue is whether the attack could happen again. And yes, of course it could," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. "There's been no substantial changes in security since the attacks, just more speeches. The gaps are huge. Our national bird is the peacock. But it should be the ostrich, because we are burying our heads in the sand."

One of the biggest gaps is technological, security experts say. The gunmen who came ashore were equipped with assault rifles, Global Positioning System navigators, BlackBerry phones loaded with switchable SIM cards, Google Earth maps and VoIP applications to pinpoint their targets and talk to their Pakistani handlers under the radar of conventional surveillance. By contrast, the first police officers they encountered were armed with World War II-era bolt-action rifles. According to a confidential police report, most police officers had fewer than five rounds of ammunition and few of them had access to working cellphones.

Still, some terrorism experts say the real key to stopping similar attacks is ramping up security along the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean coast. Unlike its heavily guarded land borders, India's coastal waters are sparsely monitored, with fewer than 100 boats and 45 aircraft for about 4,700 miles of shoreline.

"Do the math. It's frightening," said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. "With terrorists using technology, the whole ballgame has changed on sea and land. India is way behind."

The expense of acquiring better technology is only part of the problem, he said. Finding enough tech-savvy police officers and intelligence agents is a big hurdle in India, especially now that most potential recruits -- including those with degrees in engineering or information technology -- are snapped up by the country's lucrative outsourcing industry.

Since the Mumbai attacks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed to overhaul the country's intelligence and police forces and upgrade their weapons and training. On Monday, he told the country's chief ministers at an internal security meeting in New Delhi, the capital, that cross-border terrorism was still a "pervasive threat." He said he had received "credible information" about militant groups in neighboring Pakistan planning more attacks on Indian soil.

"We need to be prepared for encountering more sophisticated technologies and enhanced capabilities. We also need to guard our sea frontier as vigilantly as our land border," Singh said.

India's defense spending is expected to surge by 25 percent this year, to $29 billion, with some of that earmarked for weapons upgrades. India is creating a federal investigations unit similar to the FBI as well as four regional hubs for the country's top commando unit, the National Security Guard. The New Delhi-based NSG was criticized for its slow response to the Mumbai attacks: It took the commandos at least eight hours to find a flight to Mumbai, and two hours in heavy traffic to get from Mumbai's airport to the besieged hotels. It is working closely with a 10-member team from the FBI, which is investigating the attacks. Six Americans were killed during the siege.

At the security meeting, Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the governors of India's 28 states that they have grown lax on security since the November attacks and should begin filling the 150,000 vacancies in police departments nationwide. "There are inadequate training facilities for intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis," Chidambaram said, according to a transcript of the meeting.

His office did not respond to repeated requests by fax and telephone for an interview.

Vikram Sood, a retired chief of India's intelligence service, said in an interview that street-level intelligence across India has grown so weak that most police have little knowledge of goings on in the country's increasingly transient and teeming urban centers. The police did not even know that a Jewish center was in the Nariman House, one of the sites taken over by the gunmen, Sood said.

"The beat constable system has completely eroded in India," said Sood, who is now vice president of the Center for International Relations at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank. "India is one of the most under-policed countries in the world. We really need on-the-ground intelligence."

He also said more interagency cooperation is needed.

"Mumbai was a defining moment when for 60 hours we were watching this unfold and nobody seemed to know who was in charge," he said. If there was information that a similar attack was imminent, "there still won't be enough boats or manpower to stop it."

The lack of quality policing is only getting worse as India's economy and public transportation systems grow, said Meenakshi Ganguly, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, which released a recent report detailing India's police deficiencies. India has roughly one police officer for every 1,000 people, less than half the U.S. average. Many are underpaid, overworked and under-trained, according to Ganguly and other watchdog groups that monitor India's police.

"The truth is everyone was caught unaware," said B.N. Raut, a director and the second in command of Mumbai's 56,000-strong paid civilian auxiliary forces. "At least now we are talking about these things. Maybe in memory of those who died we should be doing more than just talking."

Inside the city's main train station, which was attacked by Kasab and an accomplice, security remains lax. Most visitors pass through metal detectors amid a crush of bodies, and backpacks and purses are rarely checked.

"It's pretty useless. We have new security guards at the entrance, but you see them doing crosswords," said Manoj Khan, a manager at a coffee shop that was attacked.

He said he was unable to eat for days after the attacks. "And then," he said, "everything returned to normal."

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