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Security gaps still leave India vulnerable to another attack

India is vulnerable to another terrorist attack, like this one unfolding in Mumbai in November, experts say. Besides being behind on technology, National Security Guard officers like the ones here got tied up in traffic.

Associated Press

India is vulnerable to another terrorist attack, like this one unfolding in Mumbai in November, experts say. Besides being behind on technology, National Security Guard officers like the ones here got tied up in traffic.

MUMBAI, India — After nine months of political grandstanding and a high-profile trial of the lone surviving gunman from last year's terrorist assault on this city, India's security gaps remain so wide that counterterrorism experts and high-ranking police officials fear the country is vulnerable to a similar attack.

India's police and armed forces have yet to receive a promised boost in manpower and modernized equipment needed to stave off another strike, security experts say. Of particular concern are the persistent lapses in monitoring India's coast, which should have been the first line of defense when the attackers sailed here from the Pakistani port city of Karachi and then killed more than 170 people.

With extremist violence growing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, India's ability to prevent attacks through intelligence gathering and defensive measures has become more urgent than ever, say security experts and diplomats. The Obama administration sees India as an ally in containing the spread of Islamist militancy in South Asia, and the issue is one of the central sources of tension in India's relations with its neighbor, Pakistan.

The November attack exposed India's inability to protect its financial capital from 10 young, well-trained gunmen who brought the city to a standstill for three days by taking hundreds of hostages in two luxury hotels and a Jewish center. The outrage many Indians felt then has since shifted from the government's security failures to the surviving gunman, Ajmal Amir Kasab. He is on trial, and the 21-year-old could be sentenced to death by hanging.

"The real issue is whether the attack could happen again. And yes, of course it could," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. "There's been no substantial changes in security since the attacks, just more speeches. The gaps are huge. Our national bird is the peacock. But it should be the ostrich, because we are burying our heads in the sand."

One of the biggest gaps is technological, security experts say.

The gunmen who came ashore were equipped with assault rifles, global positioning system navigators, BlackBerry phones loaded with switchable memory chips, Google Earth maps and voice-over-Internet-protocol applications to pinpoint their targets and talk to their Pakistani handlers under the radar of conventional surveillance.

By contrast, the first police officers they encountered were armed with World War II-era bolt-action rifles. According to a confidential police report, most officers had fewer than five rounds of ammunition and few of them had access to cell phones.

Still, some terrorism experts say the real key to stopping similar attacks is ramping up security along the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean coast. Unlike its heavily guarded land borders, India's coastal waters are sparsely monitored, with fewer than 100 boats and 45 aircraft for about 4,700 miles of shoreline.

"Do the math. It's frightening," said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. "With terrorists using technology, the whole ball game has changed on sea and land. India is way behind."

The expense of acquiring better technology is only part of the problem, he said. Finding enough tech-savvy police officers and intelligence agents is a big hurdle in India, especially now that most potential recruits — including those with degrees in engineering or information technology — are snapped up by the outsourcing industry.

India's defense spending is expected to surge by 25 percent this year, to $29 billion, with some of that earmarked for weapons upgrades. India is creating a federal investigations unit similar to the FBI as well as four regional hubs for the country's top commando unit, the National Security Guard.

The security guard was criticized for its slow response to the Mumbai attacks: It took the commandos at least eight hours to find a flight to Mumbai, and two hours in heavy traffic to get from Mumbai's airport to the hotels.

Security gaps still leave India vulnerable to another attack 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 9:29pm]

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