Liaqat arrest drama: Why we're rotten at fighting terror

The conflicting versions proffered by the Delhi Police and the Kashmir authorities over the circumstances in which Liaqat Shah was arrested last week on the Indo-Nepal border - and, more fundamentally, even of who he really is -  gives cause for utmost disquiet about how our security agencies operate.

Clearly, only one of the two versions of the story trotted out can be true: Liaqat Shah was either a top Hizb-ul Mujahideen operative, as the Delhi Police claims, who was returning from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to wage urban jihad in Delhi on the lines of the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Or he was, as the Jammu and Kashmir police claim, a jaded ex-jihadi who was returning from PoK to surrender as part of the 'rehabilitation' programme for former Kashmiri militants.

It's true of course that terror plots of the kind that the Delhi Police points to are typically conceived in a shadowy world that poses immense challenges to investigators. And on the other side, even the policy that facilitates the surrender and rehabilitation of ex-militants is wrapped in opacity.

The tug-of-war over the arrest of Liaqat Shah shows our security agencies at their worst. IBN-Live

The tug-of-war over the arrest of Liaqat Shah shows our security agencies at their worst. IBN-Live

Even so, it ought not to take more than a trice to establish the veracity of either of those claims. Which is why the fact that both of the theories continue to have a life of their own, unheedful of the internal inconsistencies in their narratives, validates the suspicion that much mischief is afoot.

This goes to the core  of why we are rotten at fighting terrorism, and why the credibility of our investigative and prosecutorial process into terrorism operations fails to command universal respect - even when the Supreme Court, after due process, upholds convictions in as  sensational an attack as the 2001 attack on Parliament.

The back-and-forth between the Delhi Police and the Kashmir authorities is symptomatic of the turf war that drags down any of the good work that our various security agencies may be doing. It would be laughably funny if it were not so devastatingly serious.

Nor is this the first instance of security agencies putting out mutually inconsistent narratives about terrorist operations or squabbling over jurisdictions in a manner that compromises the integrity of the counter-terrorism effort and in fact reducing the whole exercise to a farce.

In January 2012, for instance, the head of the Maharashtra Anti-Terror squad announced in Mumbai to much fanfare and media flourish, that its ace team had cracked the July 2011 bombings in Mumbai, with the arrest of two persons from Darbhanga in Bihar. The ATS said that it was seeking custody of a third accused, who had earlier been arrested in a counterfeit currency case and who may throw light on the conspiracy behind the Mumbai bombings of July 2011, in which some 27 people died.

At that time, Mumbai ATS chief Rakesh Maria offered merciless details of the investigations, which had taken the ATS team to 18 States, and led them to interrogate over 12,000 witnesses. On the strength of all that, Maria said, the ATS could legitimately claim to have cracked the case.

Yet, barely hours later, central intelligence and Delhi Police officials were rubbishing the claims - and saying that in fact the ATS had nabbed the wrong man.

And how were they so sure? Because, they said, one of the arrested men was in fact a Delhi Police informer who was to lead them to the masterminds behind the attack, including two Pakistani nationals. The premature revelation of the facts of the case by the ATS had, in face, "botched up" the investigations and alerted the masterminds, who had fled, they added.

Then, as now, the Mumbai ATS, the Delhi Police special cell and the central Intelligence Bureau are all caught up in a "turf war", even at the risk of impairing the investigation into a terrorist attack. As contemporaneous media reports had noted, all this was "nothing but a turf war between the Maharashtra ATS and the Delhi Police special cell." A Delhi police officer said: "They (the Maharashtra ATS) felt bad when Delhi Police solved the Pune bakery blast case."

When our premier intelligence agencies and anti-terrorism squads cannot work together even on investigations into terrorist attacks, and will not flinch from petty turf wars, it's a damning comment on the effectiveness - or the lack thereof - of our counter-terror operations.

The Liaqat Shah arrest drama exposes not just a lack of professionalism in dealing with allegations of an imminent terrorist attack.  The more worrisome aspect of the tug-of-war is that one of those security agencies is playing fast and loose with facts, unmindful of the ruinous consequences for the credibility of even compelling evidence that may be proffered in the battle against terror. It is this that spawns - and gives legs to - even the most outlandish conspiracy theories and compromises the efficacy of counter-terrorism operations and, indeed, of our Kashmir policy.

And that the Centre should watch mutely when such games are being played in respect of Kashmir, where the government is already playing a losing hand, bodes ill for Kashmir. It is going to be a long, hot summer in Kashmir, and given the propensity of our security agencies to score spectacular self-goals, and the UPA government's schizoid policy vis-a-vis Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, we could end up paying a heavy price.

LIVE