Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why we won’t learn from New York

The world will applaud the way America defeated the New York bombing attempt. Luck of course plays a part in such matters. But in this case no one can deny the skill and the professionalism with which the investigators proceeded until they got their man in dramatic style.

Luck came in the form of a footpath vendor who noticed smoke inside a parked van. It was lucky, too, that he was a Vietnam war veteran who had a fair idea of smokes and fires. It also happened that a mounted police officer was close by. The officer called the bomb squad which arrived within half an hour and defused the bomb with a robot.

Times Square is the busiest urban spot in the world. In such a location the police managed to clear the area of people. Broadway, the famous theatre district, is in this spot. Police detectives stopped the performances that were going on in two theatres, went on to the stage and asked the audience whether anyone had seen a man moving away form the van. Such thoroughness paid off and they finally tracked the previous owner of the van and the man who had driven it to Times Square with the smoking stuff inside.

The man had removed the vehicle’s identification number from the dashboard. But the number was also on the engine and a cop went under the van to find it. FBI is said to keep a vast database. One of the categories in the database is US residents who spend longish periods in Pakistan. In all probability Faisal Shahzad’s name was on that list, as he had spent about five months in Waziristan.

Once their checking and cross-checking had identified the suspect, the FBI’s interest was to catch him. At this point they lost track of him and it must have been another thorough, high-speed cross-checking that led them to the Emirates flight at the JFK airport. The aircraft had closed its doors for departure. In the nick of time, the FBI boarded the aircraft and took charge of their man.

There is a great deal for a terror-threatened country like India to learn from this episode in New York. Almost certainly, we won’t learn anything. Our political culture is different with individual and group interests taking precedence over the national interest.

As we know today, the 26/11 attack in Mumbai could have been prevented. On 18/11 our intelligence community received information from the US that a suspicious craft had left Pakistani waters and was heading towards the Maharashtra coast. They even provided the exact coordinates of the vessel to pinpoint its location. The agencies that received this information did not share it with the Maharashtra police or the Western Naval Command. Why?

Even more clinchingly, 35 mobile phone numbers were passed on to the Intelligence Bureau five days before the attack. These were phones in possession of the terrorists and their handlers. By tracking them, we could have got real-time information. But the intelligence bosses did nothing. Why?

These are questions the National Security Advisor of the time should have addressed. But M. K. Narayanan was a political person. When political calculations prevail, professionalism of the kind we saw in New York is too much to expect.

Circumstantial evidence gives some credence to the sensational theories former Maharashtra Inspector General of Police S.M. Mushrif spelt out in his book Who Killed Karkare? His answer is that the Pakistani terrorists carried out only the Taj-Oberoi-Trident attacks. The train terminus-Cama hospital attack was organised by India’s own sleuths in order to eliminate Hemant Karkare, the anti-terrorism squad chief who had unearthed uncomfortable facts about “Hindu terrorism”. Mushrif betrays an Islamic bias and thereby weakens his case. But the many questions he has raised call for answers. And no answers have come.