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Pune blasts serve another warning

Immediately after four low intensity blasts rocked Pune last Wednesday, Pune’s Police Commissioner, Gulabrao Pol stated that “this is definitely not a terror attack…we see it as a mischief.” As the forensic analysis of the bombs were to show days later, he couldn’t be more wrong.

Study of the two unexploded bombs has revealed that they were in a boat-shaped wooden case, a design which pushes the explosion in one direction to inflict greater damage. Ball bearings were also placed inside the bomb to cause injuries by flying shrapnel. This design has earlier been noticed in blasts elsewhere in the country. These bombs, however, were different as each of them had three detonators instead of two used earlier. The plan was to make these bombs fool-proof, and thus the terrorists also used two packs of batteries as power supply.

Pune blast
Ridiculous: Pune police’s plan to monitor sale of bicycles in the future is bizarre. A bicycle is not a critical part of a bomb — the explosive, RDX or ANFO, and detonators are.

What then went wrong for the terrorists? Rather, what went right for Punekars? Instead of RDX or other military-grade high explosive, as used by the terrorists in the 1990s and early 2000s, these bombs had ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate-Fuel Oil). Ammonium Nitrate is a commercially available fertiliser and when mixed with Fuel Oil, it forms a deadly high explosive. Due to the ease of availability, it is the explosive of choice for terrorists across the globe. As this columnist had explained on these pages last year (‘The ‘explosive’ fertiliser’, October 4), the Government of India has not notified the Draft Ammonium Nitrate Rules-2009 drawn up a few months after the 26/11 terror attacks. Ironically, this failure to regulate Ammonium Nitrate contrived to work in Pune’s favour last week.

Commercial Ammonium Nitrate has a shelf-life of about three months and being hygroscopic, it loses its potency in humid conditions. Either the Ammonium Nitrate used in these bombs was from an old stock or it had lost its potency due to the rainy season. This meant that the watch-timer circuit only caused the detonators to blast while all the ANFO inside the bombs remained unexploded. Thus the impression was created of low-intensity blasts, which is misleading. Imagine if the six bombs, timed to blast within 40 minutes, over a kilometre, were filled with RDX instead of old and wet ANFO. The explosions during the evening rush hour, on a busy street in the heart of Pune, would have caused heavy casualties.

The post-blast reaction by the agencies was mixed. While teams from NIA, NSG and Bomb Disposal units were able to fly to Pune quickly to conduct post-blast investigations, only one member of Pune police’s Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad had a protective bomb suit. That too was 12 years old and torn. Others used bullet-proof jackets, which provide no protection against explosions. Worried over allegations of corruption in procurement, the state government even now has no plans to buy more bomb suits. Media management by the Pune police, to assuage public fears, was abysmal. While extensive media briefings might not be possible to protect early investigative leads, the information available in the public domain was unverified and sourced to leaks. In today’s age of social media and 24X7 News, this is unacceptable.

Maharashtra government has now sanctioned Rs 30 crore to Pune police for purchasing CCTV cameras. But there are doubts about the efficacy of using CCTV cameras. The existing CCTV cameras installed at Dena Bank, McDonald’s and Bal Gandharva traffic square, near where the blasts occurred, have not yielded any leads.

Because two of the bombs were strapped on to bicycles, reports suggest that Pune police is trying to monitor sale of bicycles in the future. This is bizarre because bicycle is not a critical part in making a bomb: the explosive, RDX or ANFO, and detonators are. As denial of RDX has led to the use of ANFO with lesser success, a similarly strict monitoring of detonators at quarries, mines and construction sites will deny the terrorists the wherewithal to make a bomb. If the terrorists can’t build a bomb, the question of placing it on a bicycle or in a tiffin-box doesn’t arise.

Indian security and intelligence agencies have been gloating about Abu Jundal’s capture from Saudi Arabia. The information garnered from him is splashed in the media every day. Lest we get complacent, these blasts at Pune are a timely reminder that capturing one Abu Jundal isn’t enough to thwart the terrorists trying to hurt India. Every city might not be as lucky as Pune on a wet Wednesday evening.

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

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