NEW DELHI // The Indian government and its security forces are facing severe criticism for their failure to protect the Delhi High Court after Wednesday's bombing which left 12 people dead, but experts say the attack points to deeper structural failings in the country's intelligence agencies.
The government has yet to confirm whether an email claiming responsibility in the name of Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, an Islamist insurgent group based in Pakistan and Bangladesh, was genuine. Three people in Jammu and Kashmir, including the owner of an internet cafe, were arrested yesterday in connection with the email. Another email sent later to two media companies claimed the attack was carried out by Indian Mujahideen.
Investigators scrambled yesterday for leads into the latest blast, offering a 500,000 rupee (Dh39,800) reward for clues, even as the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, acknowledged "there are weaknesses in our system".
"Obviously I think there are still unresolved problems, that's why terrorists take advantage of them," Mr Singh said on Wednesday night during a flight home from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The headline in the Times of India reflected a general mood in the Indian media yesterday: "Terrorists strike yet again, at will".
Reports focused on the failure of the Delhi Police and local authorities to install CCTV cameras at the court complex after a bomb, which failed to explode, was planted there on May 25, in what effectively became a dry run for Wednesday's attack.
Beyond the recriminations and the search for suspects, experts see fundamental problems in India's overall security apparatus.
"The criticism of the police misunderstands the nature of the terrorist threat in India," said Ajai Sahni, of the Institute for Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. "There is nothing the urban police force can do unless the networks that plan and implement these attacks are terminated.
"This attack took place outside the court complex in an area where the public can circulate freely. You can put a security perimeter around buildings, but it has to end somewhere, and there will always be this vulnerability."
India has faced a string of low-level terrorist attacks in the past 18 months, none of which have led to any credible arrests, most recently the serial bombings in Mumbai in July which killed 26.
Dr Sahni said the real problems lie not in India's teeming cities, but out in the rural hinterland, where the deterioration of local intelligence networks has made it easy for terrorist cells to operate without detection: "It is very unlikely this was planned by a cell operating within the city, since that is something that is more easily penetrated by the security forces. But in rural areas there is almost nothing by way of intelligence, because our entire rural policing system has collapsed."
Prakash Singh, a former director general of police who has campaigned for law enforcement reforms for years, agreed. He said the politicisation of the police has left it unable to process information effectively.
"Policing in India is in very bad shape because it is in a political and bureaucratic stranglehold," he said. "Rather than let professional police officers collect intelligence and make decisions themselves, decisions are made by the home minister or a group of ministers and orders are simply handed down. If any officer tries to contradict them, they know they will soon be out of a job."
Mr Singh said the problem was particularly acute at state and district levels, where local politicians ensure the police "spend more time spying on their political opponents than looking for potential security threats".
For the first time, the investigation into Wednesday's bombing is being handled by the National Investigation Agency, which was set up in the aftermath of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and was supposed to be India's answer to the FBI.
But with a staff of 200, which includes fewer than 10 high-level investigators and a budget of just $11 million (Dh40.4m) compared with the FBI's $8bn and staff of more than 30,000, some see these initiatives as little more than a gimmick.
"We can achieve much more without any of this nonsense about national grids and national agencies. What we need is retraining and reorganisation of our intelligence apparatus at the lowest levels," Dr Sahni said. "There will be no improvement if the bottom levels remain dysfunctional."
Despite these difficulties, India's federal Intelligence Bureau claims to have intercepted numerous threats. Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, there have been 404 arrests of suspected Pakistan-based and Islamist militants, according to the Institute for Conflict Resolution, and no group has been able to recreate the violence of those attacks, in which 166 people were killed.
However, many in the Indian security community fear that the shift to smaller-scale attacks, and the lack of credible claims of responsibility from insurgent groups, may only reflect a temporary tactic on the part of the Pakistan establishment at a time when it faces considerable pressure from the US government to crack down on militants.
"We are seeing these low-intensity attacks because terrorist groups have to remain active or they will lose recruits and financial sponsors," Dr Sahni said. "But at this juncture they know their long-term objective of causing the disintegration of India is not possible, so they are biding their time, waiting for the US to tire itself and leave Afghanistan and the rest of the region."