Why can't Indian intelligence agencies kill terrorists?

Lack of resolve and operational inability hampers Indian intelligence from undertaking targeted assassinations


Abhijit Iyer-Mitra New Delhi
The last fortnight we saw the incredible long-term investment it takes to accomplish targeted assassinations. In light of revelations of Dawood Ibrahim’s presence in Karachi this fortnight and the open existence of Hafiz Saeed in Lahore, India’s aspirational aims of “getting rid” of these two charming fellows might be a study worth considering.

Three pre-requisites are involved for this – human resources, legal resources and finally long-term planning. 

As we saw last fortnight, Israeli intelligence gathering teams recruit the rough equivalent of our Satya Nadellas and Sundar Pichais in their formative years. The Indian system has neither the money nor the institutional flexibility to do anything like this. Far from it, “intelligence” figures nowhere in the career radar for parents working hard to put their kids in an engineering college. One often touted reason for this is bad pay – well, no intelligence service pays well.

The primary attraction for bright people joining the intelligence services remains the aura that surrounds it. More importantly, it holds out the promise of serious value addition to science background recruits. That is to say it’s the rough equivalent of the Indian army going to a shanty town, picking out a bright kid and saying “give me three years of your life and I will give you the equivalent of a bachelors and masters with practical training that even Harvard and MIT cannot, for free”. Neither do RAW and military intelligence have that cool factor (arguably the ISI does) given that they are shoved around by everyone; nor does they have that level of education to offer. 

This means that India’s military intelligence and civilian intelligence are run by people not used to innovation, improvisation or out of the box thinking. Complicating this is the abysmal treatment many are subjected to within the system. The lack of clear standards and procedures means that anyone can be scapegoated at any time (and have been in the past) and this leads to the willingness to take risks decreasing considerably.

Consequently the two key elements of the human angle to a targeted elimination – the risk-taking ability and the planning of out-of-the-box solutions by cut-throat corporate sector types -- simply do not exist in India.  

The second aspect is legal – understanding its nuances and how to play about with it. In the world of intelligence cooperation there is no such thing as “illegal”. Normal champions of human rights like Denmark and the UK were more than happy to help the US in their extraordinary rendition flights – ferrying suspected terrorists to Syria to circumvent their domestic bans on torture. Countries that are dead set against the death penalty like France have few-to-none reservations in letting Israeli agents assassinate Palestinian terrorists on their soil; and recently Germany and Poland conspired jointly to release spies involved in the killing of Mhamoud al-Mabhouh. Russia, on the other hand, manages to execute dissidents abroad through sheer audacity; for example, Litvinenko with Polonium-210. If the Russian example is one of an adversarial environment, most of the other examples are in a permissive environment. The question is why do these countries give each other so much leeway but do not give India the same room? 

While it is easy to turn to the “racism” answer, that would be both crude and far from the truth. The reality is these countries play a very fine line with the law and media to manage the fallout of botched operations effectively. The prime requirement for this is the notion of plausible deniability – where the host government can claim it had no knowledge of the operation. This must be combined with the willingness of the spy agency and the country carrying out the operation to not claim credit for it. In India’s case this seems virtually impossible, given that possibly the only cross border raid we carried out – a partially successful one, into Myanmar, a co-operative and friendly country – had ministers chest-thumping on TV. This not only leaves the host nation looking stupid, but also erodes India’s credibility for future operations in other countries. Plausible deniability ultimately is legal fiction – it is about denying your involvement even the face of facts, and giving other governments the legroom they need to maintain the fiction of innocence. This is much like a psychopath at trial, where “innocence until proven guilty” has to be maintained. It is also for this reason that “dossiers” of the kind India wanted to hand over to Pakistan are considered something of a joke – a sign of impotence. 

Finally the all important aspect to an assassination plan is maintaining operational secrecy throughout – and standing by the decision to eliminate irrespective of administration. Consider this – during the Kargil war, an extremely high-value wiretap was released simply to prove an allegation the then defence minister George Fernandes had made. This destroyed years worth of effort for the mere scoring of rhetorical points. Similarly if the latest pictures of Dawood were an intelligence leak – it means the loss of years of effort; albeit the appalling lack of detail to attention (his Clifton address was wrong) simply to score rhetorical points at the aborted NSA dialogue. It has also been alleged that a plan existed to eliminate Dawood that was called off at the last minute. 

It is exactly this kind of vacillation -- an inability to understand the value of silence and secrecy, the inability to play a system and understand legalities and the chronic inability to recruit the best and brightest – that will ensure that our dreams of joining the big league of the US, France Russia and Israel, remain just that: Dreams.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra works as programme coordinator at the National Security Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation. His work focusses on military and nuclear dynamics in South Asia as well as the impact and of technology on militaries, bureaucracies, doctrines, production and supply chains. He has been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre and  holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Monash University Melbourne.
He writes about defence policy, technology & defence cooperation on his blog, Tarkash, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.
Abhijit tweets as @abhijit_iyer

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First Published: Sep 23 2016 | 5:09 PM IST

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