The wake-up call after IS supporter Mehdi Masroor Biswas’s arrest is this: Indian spy agencies will now have to look beyond human intelligence
Ajay Singh | January 12, 2015 | New Delhi
A few days before an American-turned-Yemeni preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a hellfire missile attack by US drones in Yemen on September 30, 2011, Indian intelligence agencies got a curious tip-off from their American counterparts. There was someone in India who had been regularly accessing speeches and sermons of the preacher who motivated Muslim youth to join the jihad.
Al-Awlaki was nicknamed ‘bin Laden of the internet’. The IP address through which his sermons were frequently accessed led sleuths to the doorsteps of a Muslim family in Jamshedpur. Initial inquiry found that a convent-educated girl was extremely fascinated by the preacher’s exposition on Islam. “Yes, I do visit the site to listen to the Imam,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner. She knew that her actions did not constitute crime. Sleuths also knew this, though Americans remained unconvinced about her innocence.
The issue was closed as far as the Indian security agencies were concerned. For the US intelligence agencies, which have been grappling with conversion of well-educated boys and girls to jihadi Islam in increasing numbers, such an approach by India was akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. However, Indian intelligence agencies found the US approach too alarmist and out of sync with Indian social realities.
Over the years, Indian security agencies have built a perception of the society which is based on mutual reciprocity and deep interpersonal relations. “This is precisely why no Indian Muslim has so far turned into a fidayeen on Indian soil,” said an expert in counter-terrorism. Of late, the fragility of this perception has been unnerving the Indian security set-up. The arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old Bengaluru-based executive of a multinational company, confirmed the worst fears of intelligence agencies: the ‘lone wolf syndrome’ of jihadi terrorism has finally arrived in India also.
Like the Jamshedpur girl, Biswas has apparently not broken any Indian law. A preliminary investigation has found it difficult to prove his culpability as his actions primarily relate to the cause of the creation of an Islamic utopia in Iraq and Syria. He cannot be faulted on his duties as a professional or in his social interactions. His metamorphosis happened only on the internet, a domain where he purveyed hatred and violence with a maniacal frenzy. In the court of law, such conduct in a virtual domain would not fall into the category of crime.
What worries the Indian intelligence agencies is the emergence of a sinister trend from the virtual world which is largely beyond Indian law-enforcement agencies. In this context, Biswas’s is not an isolated case. Only a month earlier, a 23-year-old engineering graduate from Kalyan (near Mumbai), Arif Majeed, returned after spending five months with the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) for a cause. Majeed accompanied by three friends – Aman Naeem Tandel, Farhad Tanvir Shaikh and Saheem Farooq Tanki – fled home to join the war for IS in Iraq. They were all motivated by exhortations of preachers on the internet. While Majeed came back disillusioned, his friends are still stuck in Iraq.
In all these cases, Indian intelligence agencies are taken completely off guard. They found that their belief in the strength of Indian society’s deep interpersonal ties was misplaced. “This scenario has exposed our inadequacy which we need to overcome very fast,” said a security expert. “Tackling the lone wolf syndrome will be the biggest challenge for the Indian security apparatus,” confirmed a top official engaged in counter-insurgency operations.
Missing on the radar: a huge chunk of economy
Govindacharya has filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi high court seeking recovery of taxes from foreign internet companies, operating business in India allegedly without accountability to the Indian laws. Some salient points made in the PIL:
- He has cited the Uber taxi rape case and the “illegal” operations run by the company in India.
- He has asked the court to direct the central government to ensure a grievance officer is appointed in every intermediary company under the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011.
- The petition alleges failure of the government in checking illegality of agreements which are not authenticated with digital signatures under the IT Rules.
- It also argues that foreign-based companies are liable to pay service tax in India since they are giving services and receiving payment through credit cards, under the provisions of the Finance Act, 1994.
- According to the telecommunication minister, the government lost $4 billion every year due to cyber crimes and approximately 90 million government websites have been hacked in the last three years.
- A significant portion of Indian accounts of Facebook are either fake or being operated by anonymous users due to non-authentication of details by the company before opening accounts as required by the terms of agreement.
- As per reports, Facebook has further allowed account opening by children below 13 years of age who may be one-third of its registered users.
- The gross revenue of Facebook for the previous year was recorded at around $37 billion but the company has not been paying due taxes on their Indian operations as per provisions of the double tax avoidance agreement.
- Facebook has 900 million worldwide users with India being the third largest market after the US and Brazil. Facebook is further strategising to penetrate to capture 2 billion worldwide internet users. China, however, has already banned Facebook.
- As per the terms of agreements of Facebook, a person who is a convicted sexual offender cannot join the site but no efforts have been made by the company to ensure such compliance in India. Myspace.com, a social networking site, had removed 90,000 sex offenders from its website in the US but Facebook has not taken any such effective steps in India.
- According to a report of the consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group, India’s internet economy contributed Rs 3.2 trillion to the overall economy in 2012, representing 4.1% of GDP. Because of its size and unregulated growth, it has become a favourite destination for hackers and cyber criminals causing bigger threat for national security than terrorism.
In the intelligence parlance, ‘lone wolf’ describes an individual who sets his own mission and carries it out himself. Biswas fits this description. But much before him, Kafeel Ahmed, a suicide bomber who unsuccessfully tried to blow up the Glasgow international airport on June 30, 2007, came across as an aberration. Ahmed, also from Bengaluru, turned to jihadi Islam during his stay in the UK where he was pursuing his PhD in computational fluid dynamics at the Anglia Ruskin University. An engineer, Kafeel came from a non-conservative Muslim family and his parents were doctors.
A perusal of his mail trail by intelligence agencies revealed that Kafeel had gradually drifted towards extreme conservatism – he had asked his mother to look for “a bride who can live under veil” as per the Islamic tradition. A further inquiry by UK agencies revealed that Kafeel was transformed from a student into a suicide bomber by an Iraqi who exposed him to preachers and motivators on the internet. Kafeel’s parents remained in the dark till his suicide mission materialised in Glasgow.
For Indian intelligence agencies, the Kafeel episode was too distant to warrant a radical change in their approach to tackle terrorism. In fact, the intelligence agencies have relied heavily on their traditional approach of human intelligence (known as ‘human int’) to crack cases of terrorism. Even in the Mumbai attack (known as 26/11), the intelligence agencies could get access to the conversation between terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan only through human intelligence. Sources said that one of the terrorists used a SIM card which had already been under surveillance of the intelligence agencies. Similarly, in the 2008 blasts in Ahmedabad and Delhi, human intelligence proved to be effective in leading the security forces to nab culprits all over the country.
But Biswas’s case has clearly underlined the limitations of human intelligence. Top officials engaged in counter-insurgency operations now admit that though Indian society still retains its innate strength of being highly dependent upon interpersonal relations, the unregulated cyberspace has effectively created a new underworld of terrorism, drugs, prostitution, murder and mayhem. More recently, Uber cab driver Shiv Kumar Yadav, a habitual offender and rapist, found shelter in the cab service app till he committed his next crime. The company behind the app did not bother to check Yadav’s antecedents. Even the police could not get access to the server of the site which is based in the US.
According to a public interest litigation filed by KN Govindacharya, former BJP ideologue and convener of the Bharat Swabhimaan Andolan, in the Delhi high court, around 30 percent of 100 million users of Facebook in India are using fake identities (see box on opposite page). Given the huge size of the economy that internet generates (roughly over 4 percent of GDP, making it the eighth largest contributor), this unregulated sphere becomes an ideal space for underworld operatives and terrorists to work under assumed identities.
Through this PIL, Govindacharya has sought directions to the Indian state to force the social networking sites to adhere to the Indian law and ensure that the virtual domain could not become a safe haven for criminals and a breeding ground for lone wolves like Biswas.
Till the virtual domain is regulated and technical capacity of security agencies gets enhanced, intelligence agencies will remain quite handicapped to deal with the lurking shadow of the lone wolf from a virtual world.
Lone wolf terror attacks
December 15, 2014: Man Haron Monis, an Iranian-born refugee, held a number of persons hostage for nearly 16 hours at a café in Sydney. The siege ended with the death of two captives and the assailant.
December 1, 2014: An American teacher called Ibolya Ryan was stabbed to death in a mall restroom on Reem Island, Abu Dhabi, by a woman (an Emirati national) who was wearing a burqa. An hour after the attack, she planted a bomb outside the home of an American doctor - but it was found and safely dismantled.
October 23, 2014: Zale F Thompson, a radicalised Islamic convert, charged at four NYPD officers with a hatchet. He injured 2 cops before being shot down to death.
October 22, 2014: 32 year old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire at the National War Memorial resulting in the death of a soldier. The suspect was shot down upon confrontation with the police forces.
October 20, 2014: A “radicalized” Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu citizen Martin “Ahmad” Rouleau ran two Canadian forces personnel down. Rouleau, in the aftermath, was shot dead by an officer.
August 4, 2014: Muhammed Naif El-Ja’abis, an Arab, drove a tractor out of a construction site in Jerusalem, injuring several pedestrians and killing one before ramming the tractor into a public bus.
April 15, 2013: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and his elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, set off two pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding over 260 others. The brothers had spent parts of their childhoods in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan but lived in the US for about a decade prior to the bombings.
July 22, 2011: In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in two consecutive attacks. In the first, he killed eight people with a heavy car-bomb placed in the heart of the Norwegian government headquarters in Oslo. An hour later, he appeared at the summer camp of the Worker’s Youth League, the youth organization of the Labour Party, at the island of Utoya, 35 km west of Oslo. There were 500 people on the island. Impersonating as a police officer, he shot for approximately 90 minutes, killing 69 people.
March 2, 2011: 21-year-old Arid Uka shot and killed two United States soldiers and seriously wounded two others at Frankfurt Airport in Germany.
January 4, 2011: Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan was assassinated by his bodyguard in Islamabad.
February 18, 2010: Joseph Andrew Stack III crashed his single-engine Piper Dakota light aircraft into the Echelon office complex in Austin, Texas, killing himself and Internal Revenue Service manager Vernon Hunterflew and injuring 13 others.
November 5, 2009: American born Muslim and an Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. More than 30 others were left wounded.
June 10, 2009: James von Brunn fired a weapon into the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum, resulting in the death of security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. Brunn died while awaiting trial.
June 1, 2009: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American who had converted to Islam, opened fire on a United States military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas. Muhammad killed Private William Long and wounded Private Quinton Ezeagwula. Muhammad was sentenced to life in prison on July 25, 2011. (Source: Wikipedia, news reports)
The story appeared in January 1-15, 2015, issue