Pune Revisited By Terror
On August 1, 2011, while there was a change of guard at the Ministry of Home Affairs in North Block, New Delhi, four bomb blasts, between 7.30 PM and 8.30 PM, along half-a-kilometre stretch of Pune’s busiest artery, Jangli Maharaj Road, shook the state administration out of its slumber and complacency. Earlier Pune had witnessed such mayhem in February 2010, when a bomb ripped through German Bakery, a popular eatery amongst foreigners and locals at Koregaon Park, killing 17 and injuring more than 60 people, including many foreigners. After a lot of permutation combination intelligence agencies opined that the bombing was the handiwork of Indian Mujahideen, who had earlier carried out bomb attacks across the country—Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 and Jaipur (Rajasthan), Ahmedabad and Surat (Gujarat) and Delhi in 2008.
In all, five improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were planted. Four IEDs exploded and the one planted near a car showroom failed to explode. These IEDs were quite sophisticated in their design and content. These had explosive, shrapnel, timers, detonators and power source. Preliminary investigation by the police and forensic department indicated that ammonium nitrate in gel form was used as explosive. Digital watches were used as timers. The IEDs were planted on three brand-new bicycles and inside a trash can. The explosions were of low-intensity and did not cause any damage to life or property. State Home Minister and Pune Police Chief used this ‘low-intensity’ alibi to downplay the incident and Police Chief termed it a ‘mischievous act’ opining, “I don’t think the terrorists are trying to target Pune.” His naivety drew instant flak from security experts and media. However, Union Home Secretary was more circumspect in his assessment of situation and did not rule out a coordinated terror attack.
Whodunit? Many theories involving Islamist, Maoist and Saffron terror organisations and criminals were doing rounds. In Maharashtra Maoists hold their sway in Garh Chiroli area bordering Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. They seldom venture out for a strike from their stronghold. The so-called Saffron terror group could not have more ill-timed their strike preceding Rakshabandhan, Janmashtami and Independence Day to incur wrath of the society. The criminals had no motive to plan such a huge strike at first place. It was a delicate situation with Hindu and Muslim festivals falling in quick succession that could have snowballed into a communal flare-up and major law and order problem.
Islamist terror organisations both native and from across the border had motive to execute such a strike. Indian Mujahideen would have wanted to avenge the murder of Qateel Siddiqui, its operative, who was killed by his inmates in Pune’s Yerwada Jail in June 2012. Lashkar-e-Taiba could have asked some Indian terror outfit to carry out this strike in retaliation to extradition of its lieutenant Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Zundal from Saudi Arabia, who is in custody of Maharashtra, Police in connection with 26/11 attacks. Students Islamic Movement of India, the mother organisation of Indian Mujahideen, could have done it in retaliation to extension of a ban on its activities imposed by central government.
Prima facie, these blasts were similar to earlier terror attacks carried out by Indian Mujahideen, which has a penchant for planting bombs in clusters, in crowded places and camouflaged in daily use items like lunch boxes and bicycles. The group came into focus in 2007, when it carried out a series of bomb blasts in the country. Despite the ban and police and investigative agencies on its trail, the terror outfit has managed to keep its hierarchy intact. Two of the Bhatkal brothers—Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal—are directing operations from Pakistan, whereas its “Indian Chief” Yasin Bhatkal is reportedly in Bangladesh.
Post-26/11, Pakistan faced international condemnation and sanction due to the involvement of its ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai attacks. It has reworked its strategy from direct to indirect involvement in India by placing reliance on Indian terror groups for undertaking terror attacks. Interrogation of Abu Jundal has revealed that Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian Mujahideen have jointly set up sleeper cells across India for future terror strikes.
Indian Mujahideen has also been banned in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It has, over the years, been able to establish itself in Maharashtra with a network of ‘sleeper cells’ in major cities of the country. It is well entrenched in Pune. Experts believe that Pune is the ‘nerve centre’ of Indian Mujahideen in South India. The Pune Police should not have missed the congruence in the present and past strikes executed by the outfit to reach a logical conclusion and gone hell for leather to nab its cadres.
Was it a low-intensity explosion or the bombs failed to explode fully is a moot question? No terror organisation would do a ‘dry rehearsal’ and let go an opportunity to cause casualties by planting low-intensity IEDs and run the risk of exposing its sleeper cell and cadres. In all probability, the IEDs failed to explode properly due to some technical glitch. Indian Mujahideen is known to carry out strikes in quick succession—May 22, 2007, Gorakhpur; November 23, 2007, Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi; May 13, 2008, Jaipur; July 25, 2008, Surat (bombs did not explode), July 26, 2008, Ahmedabad and September 13, 2008, New Delhi. It has the organisational strength of executing coordinated serial bomb blasts in distant places as in November 2007, when near simultaneous bomb blasts occurred in the civil courts of Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi and July 2008 simultaneous bombing plan of Surat and Ahmedabad, wherein, bombs planted in Surat did not go off. In all probability we should brace ourselves for more strikes in near future.
The Government of Maharashtra runs on a coalition of Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Of late, there was a vociferous campaign by NCP legislators against the State Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, accusing him of interfering with the ministries and departments that are with the NCP. Stung by criticism, beleaguered Chief Minister could not muster courage to ask RR Patil, who is from the NCP and heads the Home Ministry in the Cabinet, for an explanation on the blasts. It was NCP supremo and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar who admonished ineffective Patil. “I have worked as home minister for 10 to 12 years. I know that the person handling law and order has to exert authority. Then the message goes to the lowest level. If this authority is lax, then a similar message percolates down the hierarchy and then the people have to pay for the consequences,” Pawar said. Incidentally, RR Patil was handling the home portfolio when 26/11 happened; he was forced to resign on December 1, 2008, but reinstated in October 2009 in the same portfolio. Is state’s security being sacrificed at the altar of coalition politics?
The blasts were carried out on the day when Union and State home ministers were scheduled to visit the city. Their meeting venues were quite close to the blast sites. It is a common practice for city police to cast a prophylactic security net whenever there is a VIP visit. Moreover, a bomb went off near the venue where India Against Corruption activists were holding a rally. Bomb blasts close to the venues of visiting ministers and at a meeting site indicate that Pune Police did not learn its lessons from German Bakery blast.
Sadly, our response to a terror strike is rigid and stereotype. It lacks intelligent thinking. Instead of using the intelligence to ‘zero in’ on the perpetrators, we wait for an email or telephone call from the terror outfit claiming the responsibility for the attack. Investigations to a terror strike is a painstaking job, but the media thinks it is like “two-minute-noodle” and breath down the neck of already harassed police officers and investigators asking for a ‘breakthrough’. It hampers the investigation process.
Can we really stem terrorism? Our intelligence is stagnant. The police do not get ‘actionable’ tactical intelligence. Policing is lackadaisical. We term our security laxity ‘resilience’. The control on war-like material (weapons, explosives and other substances) is loose. We pay scant attention to security of telecommunication and the internet resources. With lots of fanfare we install CCTV cameras in the cities, but a large number of these do not function due to poor maintenance. Pune was no exception. Our cities, public places, transport systems and installations function under serious vulnerabilities. Despite spending millions of rupees, we have not been able to secure our cities. After a terror strike, we do not show resolve to put an end to this menace, but wait for the next one to happen, like sacrificial lambs.
Is it not disturbing enough to learn that in India about 3.5 tonnes of ammonium nitrate can be diverted to terrorists from the ports, warehouses and repackaging companies without arousing any suspicion? Explosives can be made from a variety of substances. It is very difficult to control all such items, but the government can bring in a strict regime to control production, movement, sale and end use of critical items like detonators and detonating cord. It is a known fact that pilferage and misappropriation of explosives and detonators from mining sector is a major source of explosives for the terrorists.
What can be done to improve policing? Our police is over-stretched, under-staffed and ill-equipped, but more importantly it is poorly led. There is no surfeit of officers at the top level but population to police ratio or number of policemen per square kilometre is still low. Has anyone ever seen a senior police officer in flesh and blood standing with a beat constable? Most probably never. Counter-terror operations are for field officers and not for arm-chair strategists. Unless the police brass roughs it out with its constables and sub-inspectors actionable intelligence will continue to evade the police force.
There is a requirement of infiltrating the closely guarded organisation of Indian Mujahideen. We need to plant sources and decoy terrorists in the organisation to trace its network and know about their plans. An uphill task, but not impossible. World over the intelligence agencies have successfully done it.
At least our new Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde should realise that with active presence of Islamist and Maoist terror organisations and Bodo-Muslim ethnic conflict in the country, his portfolio is going to be really challenging.
By Col (Retd) US Rathore
(The author is a threat and risk analyst and defence and security expert)