At most times, it is gratifying to sound prescient. But one exception was last Tuesday when this columnist wrote on these pages: "If we don't even know who did these (Zaveri Bazaar) blasts, for what motive...how can we even realistically hope to prevent the next blast?"
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, there was a bomb blast outside Delhi High Court the very next day, leaving 14 dead and 91 injured.
Although the Prime Minister has said that there are some leads, no solid evidence seems to have been unearthed so far. National Investigation Agency, which has been entrusted with the case, has devoted nearly 200 personnel to the task.
Too little too late Cops secure the scene of the blast outside Delhi
Initial reports of post-blast investigations suggested use of ANFO (a fertiliser), mixed with PETN (a high-grade military explosive) to make the bomb, which was initiated using a timer device. Latest reports suggest the use of RDX instead of ANFO and remote initiation by a mobile phone. While forensic analysis has its value in investigation, proliferation of bomb-making manuals on the Internet means that there are no longer any signature styles of bomb-making of different terror groups.
Investigators also seem to be devoting a lot of their energies to the four emails claiming responsibility for the blast. While no clue can be left unexamined as a good investigation practice, inordinate focus on technical inputs points to a poverty of other significant leads in this case. This apprehension is exacerbated by the experience of last six terror incidents where investigations seem to have hit a dead-end. A huge gap in our counter-terror operations stares us in the face now -- a lack of Humint leading to excessive dependence on technical inputs.
Modern intelligence gathering can be classified into four types: Humint (Human intelligence), Sigint (Signal intelligence), Imint (Imagery intelligence) and Masint (Measurement intelligence). Imint and Masint are underdeveloped domains in the Indian context and not applicable to counter-terror operations. Sigint, which monitors and exploits radio, telephone, Internet or satellite transmissions is being employed extensively by Indian agencies. To succeed, Signit has to work in combination with other kinds of intelligence-gathering. That is why Humint, which has been around since the early days of statecraft is so vital.
Whether it is our failure to infiltrate terror groups before they plant a bomb or to conclude investigations which lead to convictions, the lack of Humint is hurting us now. There is an urgent need to review the entire intelligence gathering pattern in the country. We need to plant and cultivate multiple sources in each community and ethnic group. The deficiency of more than 9000 officers in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) needs to be made up on priority. Several officers with proven track-record have been sidelined because their fate is subject to the rules of the state governments. They should be identified and brought in to the IB. Furthermore, there is a severe shortage of officers from the minority community among the intelligence community in India. Reports suggest that even those who are around have to often face trust-deficit issues. This challenge needs to be overcome.
While these steps may take some time, certain administrative measures can be initiated immediately. Intelligence and counter-terrorism officers should be exempt from tenure limitations. They cannot be transferred like other police officers just because their tenure is over. Considering our abysmal rates of prosecution, most of our public prosecutors need to be replaced with better ones. In cities like Mumbai, there is a need to ensure that officers specialising in underworld crime do not control Anti-Terror Squads, which need a different mindset.
If necessary, some of the recently retired officials can be employed to provide proposals to strengthen our Humint capabilities in a time-bound manner. Intelligence in counter-terrorism operations is a game of sorts with huge consequences for the winner and loser. While technical intelligence does help, it is the human intelligence which decides the winner.
Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.