x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

E-mail threat puts India on high alert

India was again gripped by a sense of unease yesterday following reports of potential 9/11-style hijackings.

Still struggling to recover from an audacious terrorist attack on the country's commercial hub that left more than 160 people dead, India was again gripped by a sense of unease yesterday following reports of potential 9/11-style hijackings.

Authorities deployed extra armed guards, set up physical barriers and began searching passengers and cars at airports in Bangalore, Chennai and New Delhi after the government reportedly received threats suggesting the possibility of aircraft being hijacked by terrorists. "Profiling is being done outside the terminal and inside, with increased physical and hand baggage checks," Udayan Banerjee, the deputy inspector general of Central Industrial Security Force, the agency responsible for airport security, said yesterday. "All airlines have also been directed by the regulatory agencies for further sensitisation of their staff."

Nerves were rattled further during an apparent false alarm at New Delhi's international airport yesterday, which was put on lock- down for 40 minutes after security officials reportedly heard gunfire. Mr Bannerjee said later authorities found no evidence of a shooting. "Everything is normal. There were no eyewitnesses to any gunshots and no rounds were recovered." Indian officials have accused "elements" in Pakistan, including the militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba, of carrying out the attack on Mumbai that left at least 188 people dead and hundreds injured.

Concern over the apparent ease at which the 10 known attackers laid siege to the city - holding dozens of hostages against an onslaught of hundreds of Indian security personnel for 60 hours - has spawned a reckoning among Indian security officials. Palaniappan Chidambaram, the newly appointed interior minister, admitted to intelligence and security shortcomings and called for a re-examination of Indian defences.

"Ultimately there have been some lapses," said Mr Chidambaram, who replaced Shivraj Patil, his predecessor, a day after the last remaining gunmen at the Taj Mahal hotel were flushed out by Indian commandos in the early hours of last Saturday. "What happened in Mumbai must be the trigger for a fundamental change of our attitude towards terrorism and combating terrorism. Neither the state governmental authorities nor the citizens can go back to business as usual."

Clues that Indian intelligence failed to identify and act on evidence of an impending attack also began emerging last week. It was reported that in February, Indian officials arrested a man in connection with a previous attack in the city of Rampur who had been carrying detailed maps of the sites that were targeted in the Mumbai attack, including the five-star Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Mumbai railway station.

According to officials, the suspect, Faheem Ansari, admitted to being a member of Lashkhar-i-Taiba. Lashkar has denied it was behind the attacks. The US media also reported that the United States had warned India in October of possible security threats to Mumbai; in an ABC news report, a US intelligence official allegedly pinpointed the Taj Mahal hotel. Experts also say Indian security forces were outgunned during the three-day battle: the Mumbai assailants carried sophisticated equipment such as global positioning systems and satellite telephones as well as automatic weapons and grenades. Mumbai police, on the other hand, were ill equipped - lacking bullet-proof vests and proper training and armed with antiquated weapons such as the .303 Lee-Enfield rifle, a bolt-action firearm first used by British forces during the late 19th century.

"The problem is that the Mumbai police are grossly under-equipped and undertrained, as are most Indian police forces," Praveen Swami, an author who writes about police security, told Agence France-Presse. "None of this is rocket-science technology - who doesn't have a mobile phone these days?" Yesterday's increase in India's threat level came shortly after a purported e-mail threat sent by the Deccan Mujahideen, a previously unknown group that claimed responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, and just days before the sixth anniversary of the destruction of India's Babri mosque by Hindu nationalists; the mosque attack sparked nationwide rioting between Hindus and Muslims that left over 2,000 dead and inflamed tensions between India's mosaic of ethnic and religious groups.

But Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism analyst at Jane's Information Group, which specialises in world security issues, said fear of sensational and sophisticated attacks such as those via hijacked airliner was exaggerated. "We're at a stage where everyone gets jumpy, where reports get more credibility than perhaps they deserve," Mr Binnie said. "I think it would be hard to pull off a 9/11- style attack anywhere in the world at this point."

Yesterday, Indian newspapers also accused Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of involvement. The ISI is believed to have a history of supporting militant groups. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, was in Islamabad on Thursday to smooth over simmering tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals and urge co-operation with the ongoing investigation. Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has pledged to assist India in its investigation but has also asked India to hand over proof of Pakistani involvement.

hnaylor@thenational.ae