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Encouraging Public Participation in Countering Terrorists

Colonel Satinder K. Saini was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 02, 2007

    Mumbai was recently placed in a state of high alert after a taxi driver informed the police that he suspected four passengers, including a burqa clad woman, whom he drove around, may actually be terrorists carrying out reconnaissance of potential targets. Among the places they visited were the Mahim Dargah, Mahalakshmi Temple, Haji Ali Shrine, Siddihivinayak Temple and the Mantralya. Understandably, to maintain confidentiality about the identity of the person who tipped off the police, he was described as an old Muslim gentleman. Though he was paid a reasonable Rs. 2000/- per day by his passengers, he felt that something was out of place and went forward voluntarily to inform the police. The police subsequently launched a massive man hunt, but drew a blank. Some ill-informed television news anchors questioned the wisdom of the taxi driver and of the police in raising the alarm and raised concerns about inconvenience and harassment caused to innocent tourists, four of whom were arrested and later released.

    The episode raises several issues and provides important lessons for agencies engaged in counter-terrorism. The tip-off coming from a Muslim is in itself significant and vindicates the fact that all Muslims should not be branded as terrorists and viewed with suspicion. Further, the information came amidst the recent trend of terrorists targeting communally sensitive spots in an effort to disturb social harmony. Two other issues – prompt action taken by an alert ordinary citizen and whether the police should have taken him seriously – merit further analysis.

    Despite a number of terrorist attacks across India, the public has largely remained indifferent to the need of being situationally aware of the threat and remaining observant to notice suspicion arousing indicators. Apparently, the incident symbolises a change in attitude in Mumbai, which can be largely attributed to the city being repeatedly targeted by terrorists. This is a welcome sign and needs to be further nurtured and promoted across the country. The public needs to be made aware that police and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies alone cannot successfully fight the menace of terrorism. Increased public awareness and a change in attitude to respond to anything suspicious need to be brought about through police-led programmes and appropriately conceived media campaigns. Such a change in public attitude is likely to impact positively on the overall security situation in the country.

    The general public can help to fight terrorists in many ways. It is an accepted fact that terrorists are extremely vulnerable during the process of information gathering and reconnaissance of intended targets. They generally provide suspicious signs to a vigilant person who may be in the vicinity. Active public contribution to counter this activity will on the one hand make it extremely difficult for terrorists to plan and execute their designs and on the other may lead to a disruption of their plans. Such an observant and security sensitive attitude needs to be sustained at all times so that it becomes a second nature. At present it is stressed upon for a few days after a terrorist attack, only to sink back into complacency soon after.

    The public can also help the police in resource control measures, an important facet of counter terrorist operations. Terrorists are increasingly using commercially available chemicals to fabricate improvised explosive devices. Any person attempting to procure such items in a large quantity should be reported to the police. There has been a proliferation of private security agencies in recent times, providing manpower to guard diverse assets from corporate facilities and housing societies to high and middle income group residences. Such a large manpower employed for access control is essentially untrained and performs tasks of a typical neighbourhood night watchman. The police should launch programmes to provide them relevant “on the job training” and incorporate them suitably in the security setup to further restrict the freedom of terrorists. Closed circuit television cameras are inexpensive means that have a great deterrent value. Housing societies, market committees and others should be encouraged to install them.

    In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it has almost become a norm to blame intelligence failure. Intelligence agencies have an unenviable task and it is extremely difficult to obtain actionable information of a tactical nature, forewarning about the place and time of a terrorist strike. The intelligence community also have to contend with deliberate hoaxes by terrorists to mislead them and distract attention from the actual target. Intelligence agencies give periodic assessments of likely terrorist strikes. Some of these are generic in nature and given with the intent of proving their proficiency. For such non-specific warnings, it may not always be pragmatic to raise an alert as it is difficult to sustain protracted high levels of readiness by law enforcement agencies at periodic intervals. However, in the case of the tip off by the taxi driver in Mumbai, the police had no option but to take him seriously. We should be prepared to accept that a majority of such leads may not result in anything significant, but their value does not diminish. The effort made by a security conscious citizen in observing something that is out of place and informing the police needs to be recognised and encouraged.