Several commentators writing in the wake of the Paris attacks have claimed that the Islamic State or Daesh has now, abruptly, transformed its purpose and agenda from fighting the “near enemy” to attacking the “far enemy”, and that this constitutes a radical threat across the world. Many in India have followed this argument to proclaim an dramatic threat escalation to this country as well. They have cited as authority a Union Ministry of Home Affairs assessment warning that an Islamic State-backed attack was possible in India (what isn’t?).

The language of the advisory is significant. It warns that the “success in radicalising some youth and attracting certain sections of the local population or Indian diaspora to physically participate in its activities, or the possibility of piggy-backing on terrorist groups operating in India, have opened up the possibility of ISIS-sponsored terrorist action on Indian territory” (emphasis added). States and agencies are consequently called upon to take necessary preventive measures to counter “potential threats, if any”. Officials are reported to have clarified, “There was no fresh input or threat assessed from the outfit. The threat remains at the level as it was before the Paris attacks.” Clearly, the home affairs ministry issued the advisory as a measure of abundant caution, to ensure that intelligence and enforcement agencies are not caught off-guard. There is, however, no specific intelligence suggesting escalating threats.

As regards the “dramatic shift” in Daesh’s agenda after Paris, there is none. Daesh’s objectives were global from the outset. It is, nevertheless, clear that Daesh is now in a position to deploy assets or mobilise sympathetic elements in a wider arc across the world. There have been widely dispersed and tactically varied attacks by, or inspired by, Daesh across at least 17 countries outside the “core areas” of Iraq and Syria – including the downing of the Russian Metrojet aircraft over Egypt on November 4, the bombing in Beirut on November 12 and, closer home, a number of killings of writers and bloggers in Bangladesh in recent months.

 No room for complacence 

While these incidents have little reflection on threat levels in India, there is absolutely no room for complacence. Daesh’s objective of targeting India is unambiguous; al Qaeda has long had ambitions here; the intentions of Pakistani state agencies and their many terrorist proxies remain unchanged, though they have operated under several international and domestic constraints over the past years; and there is still a radicalised fringe, however marginal, within India – particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. There is no possibility of predicting when one of these threats arrives at the point of fruition, and the only option for a country targeted by so many terrorist enemies is eternal vigilance and preparedness.

It is in this that the most dismal picture emerges. Seven years have passed since the devastating 26/11 attacks in Mumbai; successive governments – both at the Centre and in the states – have made numberless promises about improving security and fighting terrorism holistically. Unfortunately, these are mere slogans and postures, and while there are many rhetorical divergences between the present and past regimes, there is little to distinguish actual policy and practice. At the end of this long interregnum since the Mumbai attacks, India remains quite as vulnerable as it was on that tragic day.

There have of course, been some showcase responses intended, more, to create the illusion of response than any real substance of better security. The Mumbai Police rushed to acquire a number of armoured vehicles in full jungle camouflage and positioned them at prominent places around the city. No one in the police leadership could make a case for the utility of these vehicles in the event of another terrorist attack, but many argued that they made “people feel more secure”. A new Maharashtra Police counter-terrorism unit – Force 1 – was raised, even as the Centre’s promise of creating National Security Hubs in metropolitan cities was partially fulfilled. But Special Forces have a limited role in the containment of the impact of a terrorist attack, and, even when located within the city, would likely take far more time in deployment than is the natural cycle of such an attack. Terrorists ordinarily do their planned harm within the first few minutes – or at most the first hour – and it is unlikely that they would do us the courtesy of attacking where our special forces are located and ready.

Little improvement

The core of counterterrorism lies in the preventive intelligence apparatus and first responders – the general police force that would make the earliest likely contact with surprise attackers. On both these dimensions, despite marginal accretions, no dramatic improvements have been registered.

To take the intelligence apparatus first: there have been some improvements, for instance, in technical surveillance capabilities, and these have produced some minor preventive successes; the Multi-Agency Centre under the Intelligence Bureau has been established, as have its state units, and these have resulted in some improvements in coordination, as well as the establishment of a rudimentary intelligence database. These would have resulted in some incremental improvements in efficiency, but the national capacity remains far below what is needed. In 2013, the government conceded that, “As against the sanctioned strength of 26,867 personnel in IB, at present 18,795 personnel are available with a total of 8,072 vacancies (30%).” Despite accelerated recruitment, the Intelligence Bureau is barely able to match the natural rate of attrition. The intelligence apparatus in the states have shown no dramatic improvements.

Abysmal conditions

As for the “first responders”, the state police forces, their conditions remain manifestly abysmal – as is evident in the general law and order situation and the public perception of endemic insecurity and lawlessness. Most states in the country spend less than 4%, and many under 2%, of their budgets on policing (Odisha, in 2013-'14, allocated just 0.29%). The insurgency-affected states in which security related expenditure is reimbursed by the Centre, may spend up to 7%. Delhi is the exception, with an outlay that amounts to 13% of the (separate) State budget. At the end of 2013, the police population ratio had barely crept up to 141 per lakh population, from 128 in 2008, still a far cry from the over 250 that is consider a necessary minimum.

Little is spent on training and modernisation, and critical projects, including the Crime and Criminals Tracking Network and System, have fallen by the wayside. This tracking system has received no central funding in the past two budgets. A variety of other projects announced in the wake of the 26/11 attacks, including comprehensive measures to improve coastal security, have been implemented erratically, and India remains entirely open to attack from the sea.

In sum, little has changed. We have profited over the past years because of extraneous factors and, crucially, the resistance of Indian Muslims – with minuscule exception – to global movements of radicalisation. But our capacities and capabilities, as well as our vulnerabilities, are not far different from what was demonstrated in the sad, incoherent and incompetent spectacle of our responses on November 26, 2008, in Mumbai.

Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, is editor of South Asia Intelligence Review and Faultlines.