Are we any safer now?

There has been little progress so far in the investigations on the three blasts that rocked Mumbai two months ago. Much like the Jama Masjid shooting incident and the Pune Bakery blast case, the investigations in July bombing case seem to have hit a dead-end now. The inputs provided by the forensic analysis of the blast sites have not developed into solid leads in the absence of actionable human and technical intelligence.

Total Devastation: The blast site at Opera House that shook the city to
its core. File pic 

Although he was maligned for making the statement where he denied an intelligence failure, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had in fact acknowledged the absence of intelligence on these blasts. The best leads in such cases often come from monitoring the communication channels -- both sound and data -- before and after the event. Going by the media reports, investigators have failed to observe any unusual activity on those networks.

As a cover-up for failing to make any headway with the investigations, it is being posited that either stand-alone groups or a couple of members of the Indian Mujahideen -- without any logistic support or overt directions from their handlers in Pakistan -- undertook these blasts. While this theory may allow the investigators to convince their bosses to close the case-file, it provides little solace to the common man. If we don't even know who did these blasts, for what motive, how he or she organised and funded them, and who provided support to them, how can we even realistically hope to prevent the next blast? 

Let us get one thing clear here. There is no single measure or set of measures which will completely eliminate terror strikes. For every 50-feet wall that the security forces construct, the terrorist will eventually build a 51-feet ladder. The strategic aim thus is to progressively reduce the probability of occurrence of a terror strike.

The best way to look at these anti-terror measures is to divide them into three parts: left of boom, on the boom, and right of boom. The 'right of boom' efforts focus on mitigating the effects of a bomb blast with quick police reaction, effective crowd control, proficient emergency services and better trauma care while 'on the boom' efforts involve using real-time physical surveillance and ground-level intelligence to physically prevent the bomb from blasting. But the most effective method to deal with a bomb is the 'left of boom' effort: by disrupting terrorist cells before bombs are built and planted.

Since the Mumbai terror strike of November 2008, many 'right of boom' steps have been taken by the government. These include creation of Force-1 SWAT teams and relocation of a NSG unit closer to Mumbai. Compared to the November 2008 terror strike, the performance of emergency teams after the July 2011 blasts was also far better.

While there was a lot of talk after 26-11, it is only post-July 2011 that there is a renewed push to undertake a few 'centre of boom' steps. Installation of close circuit cameras and greater emphasis on the beat-constable's role are steps in that direction.

However, 'left of boom' efforts remain the weakest link in our anti-terror strategy. The monitoring of sale of Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser, which is used as an explosive in bombs, has failed to deter the Maoists from making and planting bombs. It is bound to be no different for other terrorists. No jehadi modules have been busted in the last couple of years, and other attempts to disrupt terrorist cells are conspicuous only by their absence. Fortunately, the current geopolitical dynamics has allowed India to successfully deter Pakistan from undertaking a major terror strike on the Indian soil.

Whatever be the case, anti-terror measures demand continuous alertness from the state and the citizenry. And a lot of good fortune. Because the bad guy has to be lucky only once while the good guys have to succeed always and every time.

Sushant K Singh is the Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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