Intelligence challenges ahead

The national security scene for India transits to the new year with all the major threats continuing as before and some new dangers also rising on the horizon for the nation's integrity and internal stability. It is the mandate of security to protect the nation from all 'clandestine' offensives of the adversary and its success in this regard rests primarily on the ability of the intelligence agencies to access information on the secret plans and moves of the country's enemies. In today's complex world, relevant information may come — and often only in bits and pieces — from one or more of our internal, external and technical intelligence organisations who pressed the skills of tradecraft into use for garnering it. There is therefore an ongoing systemic challenge of ensuring that every bit of Intelligence got counted in the collation and analysis at the national apex from where again a coordinated response or action would be spelt out.

To the sphere of intelligence has been added the new age turf of cyber space where — like in any other segment of public domain — enemy may leave its footprints that required to be picked up and examined by intelligence analysts. The security set up of India is rapidly embracing this new challenge of having to scan cyber domain — including the social media — in view of the increasing threat of cyber attacks on one hand and the radicalisation spread by Islamic terrorists with the intention of producing ‘lone wolves’ for carrying out attacks on this country, on the other. Also, even as intelligence coordination has improved in recent times this is one requirement that needs to be constantly attended to because of its pivotal importance for national security.

Broadly speaking, cross border terrorism, Islamic militancy, developments in the Pak-Afghan belt, Maoism, illegal migration and North East insurgencies have added vulnerability to our borders. Sino-Pak military alliance, communal violence, crime syndicates collaborating with the enemy, drug trade sustained by Hawala and last but not the least, serious law and order failures that could have the effect of causing internal destabilisation  are the contemporary threats to India's national security, requiring focused attention of the intelligence agencies of the Centre and the states. In the case of India, external threats and internal security have a 'cause and effect’ relationship that makes it doubly important that the inter-agency cooperation and Centre-state collaboration for maintenance of national security was pushed to its highest pitch. Luckily the federal polity of India and delineation of law & order responsibilities as a state subject had not so far come in the way of the agencies in securing intelligence on national security or jointly acting on the pooled information. In the important spheres of terrorism, Maoism and tracking of transnational crime syndicates, however, the Centre-state 'jointness' has to be operationalised further.

Cross-border terrorism is the prime threat to India's security at present and is likely to get further aggravated in the months to come. It is the main instrument of Pak policy in relation to Kashmir where the Pak army-ISI combine is using the militants of LeT, JeM and HuM to replicate the success of Afghan Jehad in the valley. The Pakistan manipulated Al Qaeda for Indian sub continent(AQIS) has threatened to take this Jehad beyond Kashmir by attacking major Indian cities. The task of our intelligence agencies is not only to identify and locate the terrorists infiltrated from across the LOC but also to scan the training camps and the launch pads on the other side as also the plans made for them by their masters. Our external intelligence agency has the added responsibility of assessing the doings of Pakistan on the Afghan front as ISI is now engaged in a duplicitous game with the radicals of Al Qaeda-Taliban combine and their affiliates and is beginning to manoeuvre them for attacking India as mentioned earlier. Intelligence on Kashmir, radicalisation attempts of Pakistan within our own country as unravelled in Kerala and the expanding Pak army-Islamic militants nexus in Pakistan are now the focal polints of the integral charter of our Intelligence agencies. This has to be seen in conjunction with the outcome of the newly established India-US intelligence sharing mechanism that was meant for evaluating  the threat of cross border terrorism from Pakistan.

Also, Pak ISI continues to be very active in Bangladesh and Nepal whose borders with India remain vulnerable to illegal migration and infiltration. Intelligence coverage of states like Assam, West Bengal and Kerala for a likely rise of Islamic militancy there has acquired a new importance. And finally, monitoring of the communal front is again becoming important because the external threat of terrorism was getting enmeshed in the communal divide here particularly as Pakistan was making a determined bid to influence India's Muslim minority. The developments in Pakistan presage a distinct possibility of a stepped up targeting of India by Islamic terrorists and an aggravation of India's domestic conflict caused by Pak proxies and fanatics on communal lines on our own soil. This makes for the challenge of facing a messy internal situation, for our Intelligence agencies.

Both terrorism and Maoism have affected India's domestic security in a manner that could impede economic growth since development requires an atmosphere of peace on the land. The adversary has been able to establish 'sleeper cells' on our soil, step up radicalisation in order to create 'lone wolves' and link up with crime syndicates like the one led by Dawood Ibrahim, to attack India. The threat of Maoism — which is now a transnational problem — also exists closer to the ground affecting nearly a hundred districts in the country. The Centre-state cooperation to deal with these prime threats to national security — both by way of intelligence gathering as well as action against them — needs a constant upgrade. A lot has been achieved in this direction but a seamless grid has to come into play between the Centre, state and district intelligence agencies to maintain internal security.

The challenge of handling security for development is particularly a difficult one in the Naxalism-affected areas since holding peace after a territory was cleared off the left extremists required a high degree of police-civil joint planning at the state level. This was needed to identify the armed cadres, take military action against them and simultaneously reach out to the rural poor and the weak. Production of 'intelligence from below' is the bedrock of successful anti-Naxalite operations. In the Centre-state joint strategy, the Centre should be the lead player in dealing with terrorism whereas for Naxalism this role must belong to the state. Anti-Naxalite operations must be conducted under the command of the DGP of the state who is better placed to deal with two major impediments to the handling of this problem — corruption and local level politics. In fact, time has come when within the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ the Centre should more firmly assign the mandate of law enforcement and maintenance of order to the states as unsatisfactory law and order is tarnishing the image of India and to an extent affecting the investment climate in the country.

An entirely different level of challenge for our security and Intelligence set up has arisen from the new found centrality of cyber space as a frontier of warfare. Several countries have already set up cyber commands and integrated cyber operations with general warfare. National cyber strategies have been formulated to deny the use of cyber space by the adversary, confuse the enemy's decision making loops and destroy the opponent's critical infrastructure. The nation's dependence on cyber space has increased in all fields — economic, military, transportation, banking and science and technology — touching in fact all components of national power. Cyber attacks can disrupt or disable essential services, steal or destroy essential data and cripple military systems. Cyber attacks are being continually developed with the aim of evading the opponent's defences and the involvement of both state and non-state actors behind such attacks added to their complexity, as the adversary was left free to use proxies and deny its own hand. Incidentally,26/11 is a classic case of Pak ISI planning the Mumbai attack  with the help of LeT and taking steps to blame it on India's own agents as was revealed by David Headley to the FBI. Pakistan would have succeeded but for the arrest and prosecution of Ajmal Kasab who spilled the beans for ISI. Early warnings can be produced by our agencies in relation to happenings in the physical world as was to an extent done for 26/11 but it is not possible to do that in cyber space- where one can at best make a detection only when the system was under attack. This is why in cyber domain offence was easier than defence.

Intelligence, however, can be directed on detection of moles put in by the adversary to implant malware in the system, getting information about Phishing attacks, and carrying out due diligence on imported equipment. In 2012, a US Congressional report warned that Chinese communications companies Huawei and ZTE posed a threat to US national security interests and could sell equipment with back door surveillance tools to give the Chinese government control over American communications network. For India there is an urgent need to take into account the developments occurring in other countries in this field and move towards making the national cyber strategy a part of national security strategy. The situation of India in terms of the threat scenario facing it is unique and there is urgency about developing indigenous solutions for this 'fifth domain' of war.

Proliferation of intelligence outfits including technical agencies necessitated by the expanding security scenario and the widening of the 'battle ground' — to include the clandestine turfs in nuclear, space and cyber domains — has made it absolutely essential to ensure that no piece of intelligence was lost in transmission and that there was convergence of flow of information to a central point for holistic examination and assessment. At the operational level a viable arrangement exists in the form of the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) led by Intelligence Bureau under the MHA for inter- agency and Centre-state coordination. At the national apex intelligence coordination at the strategic level has now to be institutionalised and the best way of doing it would be to instal a director, national intelligence — on the lines of what has been done in the US. DNI would see that the focus of agencies was on the identified and anticipated threats, that the communication channels worked at their optimal best and that each individual agency logically followed up on the information first accessed by it to get fuller details through its own resources. This Intelligence coordinator should have the required professional background, experience  and image to put together the work of agencies spread across home, defence and external affairs besides Cabinet secretariat. The DNI will be helpful for policy makers including the NSA in reaching the right Strategic decisions and be in a position to facilitate the growth of the agencies in keeping with the requirements of our times.

The profession of Intelligence needs information savvy people who are not only bright but also willing to put in hard work and adopt anonymity by choice. It may be mentioned that for years Intelligence Bureau recruited officials for its mainstream at the SI level only from amongst First Class graduates and for senior ranks had a pick of IPS officers drawn from the top of the merit list for every batch. In the age of brisk inflow of information Intelligence professionals have to show the ability of 'distinguishing essentials from non- essentials', decide about the point of 'action' on the available information and handle course correction necessitated by some new move of the enemy. Our Intelligence agencies have to expand-  taking on the best available talent including area and subject specialists and upgrading the basic and inservice training all the time. Under the Modi regime India has rapidly risen to the position of a major power with a global role on the issues of war and peace. The nation must be ready to spend a great deal on the country's security set up in the period ahead.

( The author is a former director, Intelligence Bureau)

Columnist: 
DC Pathak