Indian intelligence agency on the cheap hampers war on militants

Indian intelligence agency on the cheap hampers war on militants
Police escort Yasin Bhatkal (head covered), the key operative of the Indian Mujahideen militant group, outside a court in New Delhi August 30, 2013.

NEW DELHI - When a bomb went off last month in West Bengal, police at India's leading counterterrorism organisation had to hail taxis to get to the scene because they did not have enough cars.

The admission by two officers from the National Investigation Agency underlines how poorly equipped it is to fulfil its role of investigating the most serious terrorism cases, cutting off funding to militants and putting suspects on trial.

The NIA's woes are symptomatic of an overstretched intelligence network at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi must counter the growing threat of Islamist militants from al Qaeda, and possibly also Islamic State, gaining a foothold in the world's largest democracy.

The NIA has no officers specialising in cyber surveillance, explosives or tracing chemicals and has been forced to ask companies to decrypt computers recovered at crime scenes, officers said.

"The government has its budget constraints; we have done quite well in cracking cases with the resources at our disposal," NIA head Sharad Kumar told Reuters in an interview.

When NIA officers eventually arrived at the scene of the blast in West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh to India's east, what they discovered was important.

Two members of a banned Bangladeshi militant group had blown themselves up building bombs, and the NIA believes they were part of a series of plots to destabilise Bangladesh.

The NIA, which had only opened its West Bengal branch five days earlier, was caught by surprise by the blast, as were other Indian intelligence agencies.It is now investigating the case and says it is struggling to find a dozen senior militant leaders who it said had fled the area after the explosion.

Shoestring budget

The NIA was created in response to the siege of Mumbai, India's financial capital, when Pakistani gunmen killed 166 people in a commando-style assault on two luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish centre in 2008.

The agency is seen as India's answer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterterrorism wing, although, despite a population four times that of the United States, it has about 0.5 per cent of the funding of its American counterpart.

Before the Mumbai attack, India's security agencies were so riven by conflict and miscommunication that they failed to process warnings about the threat of a sea-borne assault, the government said later, vowing to revamp the state machinery.

Six years later and Modi has yet to lay out plans to overhaul the structure of the security services or improve the information flow between agencies, according to police and intelligence officers.

Since winning power in May, his domestic security focus has been to boost surveillance of suspects in the Muslim community following the rise of Islamic State and to improve intelligence ties with the US and Israel, government officials said.

So far his government has not responded to the NIA's request made months ago to double the staff, recruit more specialists and create a national centre of excellence to train officers.

A home ministry spokesman declined to comment on those requests, part of a blueprint to overhaul the NIA.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said there had been "aggression from the new government in its statements and its posturing on terrorism.

"There is no sign of a dramatic transformation in its approach, and until we get that, then the best you can hope for is for the same people to do a little better."

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