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Unpacking India’s Intelligence Agencies

Updated: November 15, 2014 10:43 am

How have India’s intelligence agencies evolved since 1947 and how might they respond to al Qaeda’s recent call for an Islamic revival within the country? Find out in Questions and Answers session with Prem Mahadevan.

Could you briefly outline how India’s intelligence apparatus has evolved since 1947.

India’s premier civilian intelligence agencies are the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW): the former deals with domestic intelligence, the latter with foreign intelligence. In addition, there are the intelligence directorates of the Armed Forces. Upon independence in 1947, the IB was the only real intelligence organization that India possessed. Set up in 1887, this agency had been responsible for political surveillance during the British Raj. After India achieved independence, it was entrusted with additional responsibility for foreign intelligence. Between 1951 and 1968, the agency struggled to meet a very broad mandate in a deteriorating regional security environment, as India’s relations with its neighbors plummeted. China and Pakistan launched unexpectedly audacious attacks in 1962 and 1965 respectively, prompting a realization among the Indian political leadership that a specialized agency was needed for foreign intelligence. Thus, in 1968, the R&AW was created. Both agencies have had impressive successes and some rather nasty intelligence failures. The IB in particular is considered as one of the most professional intelligence agencies anywhere in the world, and has achieved a remarkable measure of success in counterterrorism.

India’s intelligence agencies have long been concerned with detecting and responding to the security threats generated from Pakistan. Did this make them an instant ‘partner of choice’ in the West’s so-called war on terror?

Logically it would. In practice, however, the West wishes to retain a modicum of goodwill from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which alongside the Pakistani army, is the main sponsor of terrorist groups in South Asia. This is to be expected, since the ISI is rationing out counterterrorism cooperation to those states that avoid criticizing Pakistan too harshly for its Janus-faced policy of supporting some terrorists while fighting others. With its large and restive Pakistani-origin population the United Kingdom in particular, is vulnerable to Islamabad’s blackmail in maintaining homeland security. British security officials privately admit this. Even so, the West’s intelligence partnership with Pakistan is a tactical affair borne not of mutual trust and goodwill, but out of the negative leverage that Islamabad retains through its dalliance with radical Islamist groups. As such, Indian intelligence agencies share a strategic interest with their Western counterparts in dealing with the threat of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism that transcends the divide-and-conquer games that the ISI tries to play. There is already an informal intelligence-sharing network where security agencies compare notes on the kind of dissimulation efforts that Pakistan engages in. Also, India’s intelligence services make reliable long-term partners for the West since they operate under full civilian control and within a democratic framework.

Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri recently called for an Islamist resurgence among India’s Muslim community. What’s the status of radical Islam inside the country? Will al-Zawahiri’s message have the desired effect?

The general consensus in India is that Zawahiri’s call is part of an effort by the ISI to regain plausible deniability for its sponsorship of terrorist attacks, which was partially lost after the Mumbai 2008 attack. Knowing that Indian political and public opinion would push for strong retaliation in the event of a future terrorist onslaught from Pakistani territory, the ISI is trying to preemptively deny responsibility by floating the idea that ‘non-state actors’ are responsible. It has used the same tactic in the past, when in 2007 it created the so-called ‘Indian Mujahideen’ group, using a small number of jihadists locally recruited from within India to carry out urban bombings. Even if one assumes, however, that Zawahiri’s call for jihad against India was made independently of ISI prompting, the fact remains that the core leadership of Al Qaeda is increasingly dominated by Pakistani nationals. A decade-plus of Western counterterrorist operations has badly weakened the Al Qaeda command structure in Pakistan, making it vulnerable to a creeping takeover by local jihadists. So there is no way that Pakistani involvement in a future terrorist attack on India cannot be traced back to that country’s borders. What remains an open question is whether the ISI itself can escape international condemnation, which it is hoping to do.

It’s obvious that India’s intelligence agencies will be cautious in how they deal with Islamist extremists operating inside the country. Is there anything you can tell us about their basic modus operandi and how effective it has been in tackling extremism thus far?

The Indian security establishment has a well-developed doctrine to combat political subversion, and counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are subsets of a larger effort to preserve the democratic framework of the country. This means that working together with communities that are potentially marginalized or disaffected is essential. India’s most powerful defense against terrorism has been the consistent patriotism of its Muslim population, which largely recognizes that the ISI is keen to falsely implicate them in cross-border attacks so as to provoke a larger conflict within the country. During the 2008 Mumbai attack for instance, the farcical manner in which Pakistani terrorists tried to masquerade as locals under the moniker of ‘Deccan Mujahideen’ showed how amateurish the ISI’s false-flag operations can be. Indian Muslims are wary of the larger design behind such antics.

Human intelligence from deep-penetration agents, mostly operated by the IB, has been one of the reasons why foreign jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have been unable to make any headway in Kashmir over two decades, despite the terrain favoring guerrilla warfare. Likewise, resistance from mainstream Islamic seminaries in India has been a barrier to Pakistani subversion. A classic example was the May 2008 fatwa against terrorism issued by the Dar-ul Uloom seminary in Deoband, the most prestigious in South Asia. Pakistani Islamists were greatly upset by this development, and also by the manner in which the seminary called upon Indian Muslims to show complete solidarity with their Hindu countrymen after the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

To what extent do the intelligence agencies coordinate their activities with India’s police forces? Are some regions and cities prioritized over others?

Neither the IB nor the R&AW is a law enforcement agency. They need to cooperate with Indian police forces as a matter of routine. This is helped by the fact that both agencies are dominated by career police officials. In particular, the IB draws its senior cadres exclusively from the Indian Police Service (IPS) which makes for a strong sense of camaraderie. Even so, competition between various state police forces, or within a police force, is an unfortunate reality and this has in the past, led to some counterterrorist operations being bungled by the implementing agency. Generally, the focus is on preventing terrorist attacks in large cities, where the police have extensive local intelligence networks based on human sources. The IB and R&AW possess significant technical interception capabilities which can be used to generate strategic intelligence on Pakistani and other foreign threats. However, while coverage might be higher in some regions rather than others, this has to do with the inevitable need to optimize resource allocation towards the most pressing concerns. The fact that numerous Pakistani spies and terrorists have been arrested in remote rural areas, often close to international borders, demonstrates that coverage can be quite extensive.

In “National Security and Intelligence Management: A New Paradigm,” Vappala Balach-andran suggests that the effectiveness of India’s national security apparatus is being compromised by the competing interests of several key ministries. To what extent is this true and how does it complicate intelligence gathering?

That there are competing priorities among different ministries is only to be expected in a country with a unique policy problem: how to ensure equitable and sustained economic growth by integrating with the global economy, while at the same time acquiring the structural integrity that strong Western states have in policing their borders. Indian intelligence agencies have been badly hit by economizing trends in the past, and this has usually resulted in information gaps. Projects to streamline data collation and storage have been stymied by the reluctance of some agencies to share information which their counterparts do not need for operational purposes. While I would agree that bureaucratic rivalries are unhelpful, it is also worth remembering that even supposedly efficient intelligence services such as those in Israel have suffered from turf warfare (known colloquially as ‘The War of the Jews’). In Northern Ireland, British intelligence agencies have competed for local sources, going to the extent of undermining national counterterrorist efforts in the pursuit of narrow organizational interests. And prior to 9/11, the US intelligence community was no different—counterterrorism coordination meetings were intended for show rather than substance.

[Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies]                                                                                                                                                                 (ISN)

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