Before terror strikes again...

Caught off guard by the latest attack, the police find themselves severely crippled by manpower shortage, an ill-equipped and poorly trained constabul

Before terror strikes again...

Last year’s last Sunday, just a whisper away from New Year eve, terror struck the smug Bengalurean. Low on intensity and casualties, the Church Street blast definitely was.

Yet, it had its desired, chilling effect: Fear enveloped the city, and that veneer of security lay completely shattered.

Suddenly, that dictum of a terrorist capable of striking whenever, wherever at a time and place of his liking, stood dangerously close. Bengaluru’s repeatedly punctured ‘Safe City’ tag stood exposed yet again. Five strikes in nine years, and the city police were caught off guard. Again!

In that moment of extreme panic, the police had a thousand questions to ponder: Were lessons learnt from the past attacks? If prevention wasn’t an easy task, were systems put in place to ensure quick action? Were the men trained, the surveillance systems well placed, and the response adequate?

The flaws didn’t take much time to show up. Lack of CCTVs near the terror spot clearly helped the culprits to make a quick, safe getaway. The restaurant close to which the terrorist struck had failed to instal a camera in violation of a police order eight months ago. Eventually the police had to fumble for clues. They had no one to turn to but the dog squads, forensic experts and a mammoth call record list of one lakh telephones.

Lulled into inactionThe city’s security setup cannot afford to be lulled into inaction. This lack of continuity in focus is the problem, points out Gopal B Hosur, former Inspector General of Police, Intelligence, and a seasoned veteran of counter-terrorism.“The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.

There are times of lull and heightened activity. Anti-terror mechanism shouldn’t lull. You need to continuously address this issue through sustained, robust policing,” asserts Hosur.

Critical to this continuity is a halt to the frequent change of officers. Simply put, the current practice of often illogical political transfers should end. “Most senior officers are today generalists, not specialising in areas of their posting. By the time they learn and make sense of their field, it takes three years.”

Counter-terrorism requires sound intelligence work based on intense research and thorough spadework.  Explains Hosur: “Combating terror cannot be a knee-jerk, action-reaction mechanism. It should be based on a lot of research and experience in fighting terror. Much before the 2005 IISc attack, we were exposed to LTTE terror and Left-wing extremism in the 1980s.” Terrorist motives Making sense of the past attacks would mean a clear-cut understanding of terrorists’ motives, strategies, modules and methods of operation. These, analysed by a larger body of cyber, economic, social experts and well-informed think-tanks, should dictate how policing takes place, how beat constables interact and how local police stations respond. City police commissioner, M N Reddi does not agree that the police have been found wanting. Systems have been put in place. But he says the latest terror attack has put greater emphasis on intelligence, human intelligence in particular, surveillance, analytics and coordination with other state and central agencies. 

“Beat constables have been doing their work. But now, they need to add an angle of potential terror attacks. We are preparing a booklet for them on what to look out for from a terror point of view. The police have to reorient themselves to terror also besides crime and law and order,” says Reddi. 

On the city police agenda, according to Reddi, is a full-fledged control room tasked with monitoring the surveillance cameras and their video footages. In times of crisis such as the latest terror episode, inputs from the Traffic Management Centre on Infantry road are being studied.  

Lessons from pastThe city has already been exposed to different terror modules. If the IISc attack that killed a scientist had an LeT footprint with a suicide mission, the other incidents were found to be linked to homegrown outfits including the Indian Mujahideen. An estimated 54 cases have been registered and 191 persons arrested so far in connection with these incidents.

The implication is clear: The conservative concept of policing as providing safety to the public, preventing and detecting acts of crime should change. Beat policing will have to improve. “Every constable should have a one-to-one contact with the locals, enjoy their trust and confidence. The system should build credibility so that citizens feel confident to share information.”

Intelligence gathering should adopt a multi-agency strategy. BWSSB, BBMP, BESCOM and even postmen in their house-to-house beats could alert the police on something unusual. Wonders a top police official, “How much are we harnessing these vital sources of information. A culture should develop this way.” Culture of alertsPerhaps, the Church Street attack could have been nipped in the bud had this culture of alerts evolved into something concrete. Since surveillance in the city is still in its infancy, it offers only post-incident aid. A sensitised BESCOM man, for instance, could have done the alert job minutes after the explosive was placed on the busy street.

But human intelligence would also mean alert policemen on the rounds, trained with the necessary skill-sets, both in uniform and incognito. The lathi-wielding constable and patrol vehicles are all about perception management. A parallel, invisible structure should be at work, looking out for abnormalities. With New Year Eve celebrations just a day away, Church Street deserved it!

Intelligence cannot work in a vacuum. If radicalisation has been established as a feeding ground for terrorism, de-radicalisation is critical. And that would mean building communal harmony, diligent monitoring of radicalised elements and follow-ups of court cases. 

Obsolete technologyHuman intelligence combined with technological surveillance could potentially act as a deterrent to terror. But if technology is not innovative enough, it could become obsolete. CCTVs will fail if not monitored and maintained properly.

Although the ATM attack culprit was caught in camera, the police are yet to nab him.

Technology too needs to be smart. Equipment sourced from outside should be customised for police requirements. A long-time analyst of terror cases cites the case of portrait-building software acquired by the police.

This software, which offers a database of a thousand eyes, noses and other facial features for a witness to recall a terror suspect’s face, should be based on Indian and not Chinese men and women. “You need portraits of local people. The more samples the better. The software needs sophistication.”   

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