States against terrorism

Fixing Anti-Terrorism Squads

At a time when the National Counter Terrorism Centre debate is heating up nationally, it may serve well for states to introspect and initiate corrective measures for their respective Anti-Terrorism Squads (ATS). Maharashtra’s elite Anti-Terrorism Squad, which generates maximum scrutiny, could perhaps do with a few corrective measures for itself. Mumbai is traditionally a favoured terror target and Maharashtra, a conducive breeding ground and a safe haven for fundamentalists. Given its strategic position and jurisdiction, it becomes imperative to review Maharashtra ATS’ shortcomings realistically, both in investigative and administrative domains.

Ever since it has become operational in 2004, Maharashtra ATS has been the cynosure of all eyes. The ATS has been credited with successfully cracking the Indian Mujahideen Module responsible for a part of the conspiracy of the Gujarat serial bombings, and for unravelling the first ever case of Right Wing terrorism during its investigations into the Malegaon 2008 bombings. It has also been at the critics’ receiving end when it failed to substantially justify the arrests in the 7/11 train bombings. Questions have been raised about ATS’ inability to arrest the key perpetrators of the German Bakery blast in Pune and the recent 13/7 triple blasts in Mumbai.

In the last few years, the ATS is under extreme pressure. But what is a matter of grave concern is that along with high pressure investigations, the ATS is now devoting greater time in dealing with the loss of credibility, and in battling inter-agency rivalry. The recent episode which saw the Maharashtra ATS and the Special Cell of Delhi Police embroiled in one-upmanship battle portray a poor picture of an elite force. First person accounts from junior officials of both Delhi Special Cell and Maharashtra ATS suggest that the Intelligence bureau and Special Cell had leads on one of India’s most wanted, Yasin Bhatkal. Armed with credible intelligence, Special Cell officers initiated an operation within the jurisdiction of Maharashtra ATS. Eventually, when the ATS officials got to know about the covert operation being conducted in their jurisdiction, the dirty game reached another level, jeopardising the entire operation and costing India one of its most wanted terrorists. Minute details of the entire affair notwithstanding, it suffices to say that it is time for the Maharashtra’s Home Department and the top ATS leadership to take a step back, review, act and then (re)launch themselves.

Policing wisdom says that a loss of case is pardonable for an investigator but the loss of credibility isn’t. Off late, the ATS has risked the loss of its total credibility for short-term gains. But all is still not lost. It would benefit the Maharashtra ATS to be friendlier with the Mumbai Crime Branch and other agencies involved in intelligence gathering and counter terrorism operations.

On operational fronts, the ATS needs to review its performance on multiple levels. In the last few months, ATS has been perceived as a non-cooperative agency looking to break informers and sources originally tamed by other rival agencies. ATS must look into developing a mechanism where sharing of information and the informer with other agencies is more amicable. Information from common informers should lead to join operations and joint successes.

There is no doubt that Maharashtra ATS has got some really fine investigators in its team. But being an expert in tackling the Mumbai underworld and being a counter-terrorism operative are two totally different things. Most of the officers currently are proficient at gathering underworld intelligence. But it is now time to shift gears and launch heavy duty counter-terrorism operations. ATS needs to develop dedicated teams tracking different factions of terrorism – be it the jehadis or the Right Wing. The government must send ATS officers for counter-terrorism training sessions in countries which have developed advanced training modules on the subject.

Equipment and technical upgrading of the ATS is important. But what is more important is the development of human intelligence. It will not happen overnight for an agency. But recruiting officers directly and letting them handle selected informers over an extended period of time will definitely yield results.

Unlike earlier, communicating with the ATS has become a one way street for the media. One can connect with the ATS only when invited for a meeting or a press conference. It is perfectly agreeable that ATS continues to be secretive about its operations, but it may serve well to strengthen its relations with the media. Appointment of a good, effective and well informed spokesperson will help in communicating the efforts being put in by the ATS.

On an administrative level, home department of the state government is facing a difficult situation. The ATS, in its current form, is directly under the control of Director general of Police. However, ATS is headquartered in the Mumbai police jurisdiction and draws some of its best inputs from the city limits. Because of the reporting hierarchy there is a lack of trust between Mumbai Crime branch (ATS’ equivalent in Mumbai police) and the ATS. The state government should consider the option of reverting to the old model where the Mumbai unit of ATS reports to the ATS chief and the Mumbai police commissioner and the rest of Maharashtra units report to the director general of Police. This could potentially reduce the rivalry and increase the chances of operational success.

The other option that the Maharashtra government could consider is to convert ATS into an intelligence agency. It could be converted into a parallel intelligence bureau of the state where information gathered will be shared with the appropriate office, depending on the jurisdiction.

It will also be prudent for the ATS to seriously consider a revamp and take lessons from successful set ups like the OCTOPUS of Andhra Pradesh Police. Similarly, counter-terror units in other states should draw the right lessons from Maharashtra ATS to review and repair their respective loopholes. The key for any successful operation is intelligence gathering, analysis of the input, and co-operation which leads to a positive execution of the plan. What the union government aims to do nationally with the NCTC, various agencies in the states should try and achieve at their levels too.