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Can soft-target terrorism be prevented?

Israel, a country of about seven million people (India has 1.2 billion), a landmass of 20,770 sq km (India has 3.28 million sq km), is among the most 'securitised' and heavily policed states in the world.

Yet, terrorists succeed in attacking soft targets on a regular basis, principally because the source and safe haven of terrorism lies outside the country - in Palestine Authority areas and neighbouring Arab states.

In India, similarly, the principal sources of Islamist extremist terrorism lie outside the country, in Pakistan and (increasingly) Bangladesh. There are clear limits to what can be done to address or neutralise these sources and, indeed, India has no strategy to confront this challenge.

Nevertheless, while the threat cannot be altogether eliminated, it can substantially be contained, even minimised. Three stages of responses are necessary to this end.

Mobilisation of existing capacities: Immediate steps can be taken to operationalise, retrain and reorient the maximum proportion of available police and intelligence resources. Major initiatives are also possible to tap civilian resources and populations for surveillance, information generation and intelligence.

Capacity building: India is tremendously under-policed, with police-population ratios a fraction of what normally prevails in west. Intelligence cover is also restricted to urban centres and a few ‘sensitive’ hinterland areas. Technical and technological force multipliers are critically deficient.

A colossal effort and investment is required to create necessary capacities for comprehensive security and counter-terrorism. Crucially, India’s cities cannot be protected if the mufussil and rural hinterland is given over to lawlessness.

Systemic changes: Counter-terrorism occurs within the broad context of national politics, governance and social organisation. Effective counter-terrorism legislation, a modicum of efficiency in the justice system, strategies to put pressure on external sources of terrorism, and effective means to end channels of terrorist finance (the same hawala channels are used by corrupt businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians as well) are necessary before the terrorist networks can be shut down.

While the entire range of initiatives will take time, the very first set will bring dramatic improvements to the prevailing security situation.

(Published in The Economic Times, New Delhi, September 5, 2007)





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