Monday, February 20, 2012

How an NCTC could've prevented 26/11 the right way

Many people oppose the creation of the NCTC. Some say it will do nothing to curb terror. Others call it bureaucratic overkill: another agency on top of nearly two dozen others. Many talk of how the NCTC, in its current form, is anti-federal.

I agree with the last point, as long as the qualifier "in its current form" is added. I disagree with the first two. Using the 26/11 example, I will demonstrate how an NCTC could have stopped the attack WITHOUT "damaging" our federal structure.

Before I do, I've pulled excerpts from this excellent article by Shishir Gupta in the Indian Express, detailing the failures of our security apparatus before and during the 26/11attack.
His primary findings:
- In September 2008, the IB had intel about an LeT operation to take hostages at Mumbai hotels, including the Taj. 
- Eight days before the attack, R&AW received information about an LeT ship off the Indian coast, including its latitude and longitude. The Coast Guard only arrived three days later. It found nothing. 
- On the morning of 26/11 R&AW intercepted communications near the Bangladeshi border requesting for the activation of 10 SIM cards. The input went nowhere. 
- After the attack began, the Mumbai Police control room was found terribly wanting. This paralyzed the actions of first responders.
- With the situation now beyond its control. the Maharashtra government asked for help from navy Marine Commandos. They refused to intervene without written authorisation. 
- The NSG arrived 7 hours after the attacks began. They took over the operation a full five hours later. This was thanks to several procedural delays, including the lack of transport aircraft.

If the NCTC existed - and worked as I imagine it should - here's what could have happened.

I make three  assumptions here.
First, that the NCTC would receive all terror-related inputs from all intelligence agencies.
Second, that the NCTC can requisition any intelligence and offensive/defensive assets in pursuit of live intelligence.
Third, that the states would cooperate if intelligence was shared with them in a transparent manner, in the interest of protecting their citizens.

Here we go:
1. Starting with the September alert from the IB, an NCTC would direct the Mumbai police to boost security around the hotels. Specific procedures would be put in place to respond to an attack.

2. By November, with no sign of an attack, security was withdrawn. This is understandable. Heightened security costs money. Still, the hotel, local police and national security agencies would have the procedures to fall back on.

3. Then came the R&AW input on the LeT boat on November 18. Instead of wasting three days, an NCTC would have immediately sent the latitude and longitude of the suspected ship to the Navy and Coast Guard. It would've directed spy satellites to scan the area even faster. A fully-kitted-out ARC aircraft would have been sent in to augment Navy and Coast Guard search. It is highly likely the LeT boat would have been found and the terrorists stopped before they even got close.

4. For the sake of the exercise, let's imagine the terrorists did get through. Recalling the September input, the NCTC would put 2 and 2 together. An NCTC officer would like say: "The LeT had planned to attack Mumbai. Now we know an LeT ship has got through our search cordon". Immediately a defensive perimeter of coast guard and naval assets would be drawn around Mumbai. Beat patrols would be stepped up, particularly along the shore. The NTRO would be scanning the area with its antennas to pick up any radio or sat-phone signals.

5. We now know the LeT hit squad signalled its handlers in Pakistan on the morning of 26/11 that they were close. The R&AW intercepted a call near Bangladesh asking for the activation of 10 SIM cards. NTRO scanners - if they were placed in the area - would have immediately latched on to the sat-phone's signal, narrowing the search corridor. Here too, the terrorists may have been stopped.

6. For the sake of our exercise, let's assume the LeT squad was extremely good and still got through. Having made no arrests, an NCTC would have immediately directed a 'bandobast' around south Mumbai. ATS from around the city and the NSG from Manesar would be deployed (this is pre-NSG hub days, remember). Individual platoons would be sent to each target hotel.

7. At 9:21 when the terrorists struck, the police would be waiting for them. The NSG would be waiting for them. But, as I showed in steps 3 and 5, it is more likely the situation would never reach this stage.

Can anyone poke holes in this functioning? I'm a journalist. Not a security expert. Can you also point out where exactly the NCTC would have "damaged" our federal structure in all this?

1 comment:

  1. Lets me take a stab at picking holes

    1) "Still, the hotel, local police and national security agencies would have the procedures to fall back on. " - Wishful thinking with the Indian security mindset. Remember there was another hotel attack in Islamabad which triggered the alert and yet we couldnt do anything. More than just coordination its
    2) "Instead of wasting three days, an NCTC would have immediately sent the latitude and longitude of the suspected ship to the Navy and Coast Guard" - bureaucracy would remain bureaucracy. Both agencies RAW and Coast Guard are federal. So how would NCTC do anything different ? Isnt RAW a highly powerful agency. What can NCTC do that RAW wasnt able to do ? How will it do it ?
    3) In Point 4 - You assume common sense which is highly uncommon. I will however grant you point 4. However NTRO scanning is again scary for state governments because they will be used to scan Narendra Modis phone calls rather than terrorists
    4) WIth the NSG hubs now close. The mumbai style attacks will definitely have less impact but that has nothing to do with NCTC.

    Note that we have better response today than on 26/11 just because we have learnt (atleast) a few lessons . That said when the system is so rotten from the bottom inventing a better agency up top will have limited impact.

    I like the idea of the NCTC, but its not going to be a magic wand. Every state police government needs to improve ... IB needs to stop being used for political intelligence (See the hindu and praveen swami on this one)... Most importantly We need better information technology at the bottom so important info reaches the top. All these are hard to do, inspite of the Congress having power both in Mumbai and Delhi. In such an environment having a NCTC which can make arrests seems stupid.


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