Lessons from Ambala

Oct 18, 2011, 07:29 IST | Sushant Singh

Last week, acting on the intelligence inputs, our security agencies seized an explosives-laden car from Ambala Cantonment Railway Station in Haryana

Last week, acting on the intelligence inputs, our security agencies seized an explosives-laden car from Ambala Cantonment Railway Station in Haryana. Notwithstanding the many sceptics doubting Delhi Police's story of the seizure, it is an incident that must be analysed closely.

Intelligence agencies pursued the lead which they had chanced upon while monitoring a telephone call from Nepal two weeks before the seizure. It reaffirms the belief that India's technical intelligence capabilities have significantly improved over the years. In the name of privacy, attempts have recently been made to cap the technical intelligence capabilities, particularly telephone monitoring and interception, of the agencies. This incident should serve as a salutary warning to those who wish to make our intelligence agencies operate in a static, rule-bound manner -- bound by legislative and bureaucratic oversight -- when the threat we confront  is dynamic and constantly evolving. But the failure to arrest any culprit red-handed again highlights our weakness in human intelligence gathering, which could not build-up on the lead provided by technical intelligence. This is a lacuna which needs to be fixed on priority.

On red alert: The failure to arrest any culprit red-handed highlights
our weakness in human intelligence gathering, which could not build up
on the leads provided by technical intelligence

As per reports, the car was to be picked up from Ambala by members of Babbar Khalsa, a defunct Khalistani terror group. Involvement of Khalistani militants has raised many eyebrows because militancy in Punjab has been dead for 15 years now. While intelligence agencies, during the past couple of years, have been warning of a revival of some Khalistani terror groups, none of these threats have actually materialised into a terror strike. Perhaps, the nomenclature of a Khalistani terror group is a ruse being used by a Punjab-based criminal network or terror module to enshroud its operations.

As we know from our experience in the northeastern states, crime and terror usually go hand-in-hand. Because the seized car was a stolen one, with a fake registration number, the criminal angle to this conspiracy is self-evident. Notwithstanding this, Punjab Police needs to work proactively to nip any emerging terror threat in the bud.

In contrast to the central agencies, the performance of the state police leaves a lot to be desired. Central agencies were able to garner intelligence, share it with other agencies and states, and send the specialist teams which took control of the situation. When Haryana Police was requested to keep the car under observation, raucous nature of its surveillance meant that the persons nominated by the terrorists to pick up the car were, in all likelihood, driven away by the commotion. In fact, Haryana Police actually gave an all-clear (no explosive found) after seizing and searching the car.

It needed a team from the NSG to arrive at Ambala and find the explosive, detonators and timers buried inside the panel. The most glaring non-accomplishment in this operation has been the lack of any arrests. The CCTV cameras at toll booths on the highways haven't been of much help as they were focussed on the registration plate of the car, and not on the passengers.

No terror module has been busted and hopes that it could lead to tangible progress in the stalled investigations of Pune, Mumbai and Delhi blasts lie belied now. However, the operation will still force a change in the modus operandi of the terrorists. Not only has one terror strike been prevented, some of the terrorists' future plans will stand disrupted after their "dead drop" method of isolating various teams stands exposed.

Our agencies must endeavour to keep them under pressure. The seizure of explosive-laden car at Ambala is another reminder that India faces a serious terror threat which is nationwide, continuously evolving, and controlled, funded and coordinated by foreign agencies. While it is necessary to celebrate this success of security and intelligence agencies, it is equally important to quickly learn the right lessons from this episode. When it comes to terror, India simply can't afford to let its guard down.

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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