How India can emulate FBI model
Last Wednesday (December 13) marked the 16th anniversary of the horrific attack on Indian Parliament by terrorists from Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in 2001. It was a terror attack aimed at the very foundation of Indian democracy. Since then, much has been done to fortify the Parliament. However, the vulnerability of the nation to such kind of terror attacks remains profound.
Over the last three years, India has witnessed a considerable number of terror cells and modules being neutralised in addition to foiling many terror attacks through pre-emptive actions. One cannot deny that the incumbent National Security Advisor Ajit Doval with his vast ground level experience as a career intelligence officer has made a distinct difference, albeit with unconditional support from the Prime Minister so far as internal security scenario is concerned. Yet certain pertinent issues remain to be taken care of.
Changing landscape of terrorism
The fundamental dimensions of terrorism have been undergoing a profound metamorphosis and thus the counter-terror architecture needs reform as well. Today, when lone-wolf attacks have become more of a norm than an exception, the biggest challenge is to identify a terrorist who may not have had any history of anti-social work or legacy of being in contact with any radical group. Incidents of recent terror attacks in Europe and US increasingly show the manner in which even a bus or a car could be used to crush people on the road or pavement and wreak havoc. This is not to say that organised terrorism is on the slide but it may well also be possible for perpetrators to just get radicalised through the internet and use very routine stuff available in the market to make cocktails of explosives.
On most occasions, the time in hand to react is so little that there remains no luxury of hold-up between the moment an intelligence input is availed by a central agency on ground and action is initiated by the concerned state-level law enforcement agency after inputs are passed through official channels. In other words, time has come to authorise the central agencies themselves to neutralise threats without going through the tumultuous ordeal of passing inputs to others and wait for them to act.
Recent media reports indicate that the Central government may have initiated some deliberations to revive the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) which was first mooted by UPA. In this respect, it would be interesting to understand why there is a need for such an integrated approach and what kind of architecture countries with a sound history of countering terrorism have in place.
Need to change archaic Indian counter-terror rules
Unfortunately, in spite of being one of the biggest victims of terrorism, India continues with the archaic system of defining law & order as a state subject with Central agencies having little or no authority to move in and act voluntarily unless proper sanction is given to them. Even though NIA has been created as a Central counter-terror investigation agency, it also needs sanction from the Central government before it can initiate investigations on a particular case, which often results in avoidable delay and destruction of evidence. This has to change.
Learning from the FBI model
The website of FBI states that 'FBI is an intelligence-driven and threat-focussed national security organisation with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities'. It further states that its personnel 'work around the clock and across the globe to protect the US from terrorism, espionage, cyber attacks, and major criminal threats'.
There are three important lessons to draw from the US FBI model. In the first place, FBI is a national security organisation. It means the US has a clear-cut approach of delineating national security issues from law and order issues unlike in India where everything related to internal security is still legally in the domain of the states and rarely with the Centre.
What should India do? Define terrorism as a national security issue
Therefore, to make the case for a comprehensive, integrated and pre-emptive approach in the fight against terrorism, the Central government needs to amend laws to define categorically that internal security is an integral part of national security and that issues related to national security are strictly outside the ambit of conventional law and order issues, which are state subjects. This key reform is necessary if India has to defeat the deadly combination of organised crime and terrorism.
Why Integration of NIA, NSG, IB & NTRO are important
Secondly, FBI is a classic case of an integrated approach toward fighting terrorism. It is at the same time an intelligence agency as well as a law enforcement and prosecution agency. FBI has its own intelligence branch, divisions for dealing with terror investigation, counterintelligence, cyber crimes, transnational organised crimes, public corruption as well as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is USA's prime counterterrorism tactical team for special operations.
Contrast this with the India scenario where there are numerous separate organisations doing what ideally an integrated organisation should do. What stand as mere separate divisions of FBI, in India's case, are different organisations for each often under different ministries. There is NIA for post-incident investigation of terror cases and that too only if sanction is given. There is National Security Guard (NSG) for special counter-terror operations. There is CBI for investigation of white collar and violent crimes but that too only if sanctions are given. Further there is a separate Intelligence Bureau with no legal power or mandate to arrest and prosecute. This apart, among several other agencies, there is National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) for collection of technical intelligence. Different organisations headed by separate hierarchy only mean needless gaps in coordination which, even in the best circumstances are difficult to avoid.
Therefore, India has to emulate the American model of counter-terror architecture for more effective outcome. To the least, it needs to integrate NIA, NSG, IB, and NTRO into a singular entity preferably working directly under PMO and of course with legislation backed pan-India mandate for suo motu action in case of a terror or terror related incident, including transnational organised crimes.
How different is this from UPA's NCTC model?
One can argue about how different this approach is from that of NCTC that was mooted during UPA era. The answer to this lies in the fact that UPA was proposing to put NCTC, with pre-emptive strike capability and police powers, under the purview of IB which is beyond the scrutiny of the Parliament. That kind of approach inherently has some flaws. Even FBI is accountable to US Congress. Therefore it is always better to have such a powerful integrated agency to operate under some kind of a Parliamentary oversight subject to certain confidentiality clauses. Both NSG and NIA have been created under acts of Parliament. IB can be merged into them to create NCTC with law enforcement powers.
The integrated entity should have a pan-India presence
Not only is there a need for an integrated approach, but also for the physical presence of such an integrated counter-terror organisation with pre-emptive special operations capability across the length and breadth of the country. Delhi headquartered NIA, in spite of being India's premier counter-terror investigation agency, has its presence limited only to eight branch offices and around fourteen camp offices. NSG, too, is restricted to some regional hubs. This has to change. Creation of an integrated entity would empower it to combine and leverage the presence and strength of each other and create a potent entity with a presence in every major city and district.
Integrate states into the idea of Joint Terrorism Task Force
It is important to keep in mind that creating an integrated central agency like NCTC should not mean that state-level entities get marginalised. In fact, the ideal architecture would be where the Centre continues to finance and push state agencies for strengthening their ATS, SWAT, CID, and intelligence units. Here, too, the US model in the realm of creation of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) by FBI may come handy for India to not only make the whole concept of NCTC more acceptable to states but also more effective. FBI defines the JTTF as 'front line on terrorism: small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, and other specialists from dozens of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies'. Spread across 104 cities, JTTF consists of around 4000 personnel 'hailing from over 500 state and local agencies and 55 federal agencies' as per the FBI website.
Passing through the scrutiny of Parliament would not be easy for this kind of structural reform in internal security. However, the Modi Government has shown enough conviction to push through major economic reforms. NCTC's need is indisputable. Only time will tell how soon this would become a reality.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)