Another Deadly Bomb Blast in New Delhi

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A nurse tries to assist as a policeman carries a woman, who was injured by a blast outside the High Court, towards a hospital for treatment in New Delhi, September 7, 2011. (Photo: Vijay Mathur / Reuters)

Ten people were killed and 61 injured by a bomb blast inside the Delhi High Court Complex in the capital on Wednesday morning. The militant group Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI) took responsibility for the blasts in an email sent to several Indian news organizations. The attack seemed to have been calculated to maximize the loss of life and to take advantage of gaps in the security screening process for this busy public building. “It had all the makings of an improvised explosive device set up by a terror group,” said India’s Home Secretary, R.K. Singh. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is in Bangladesh on a state visit, called the blast a “cowardly” act. “We will never succumb to the pressure of terrorism,” he said to reporters in Dhaka. “This is a long war in which all political parties, all the people of India, have to stand united so that this scourge of terrorism is crushed.”

Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat confirmed the death toll to TIME, although other reports gave varying figures. Special Commissioner Dharmendra Kumar, who was at the site of the blast, told reporters there that the bomb was kept in a briefcase. Home Minister P. Chidambaram called the blasts an attempt to “destabilize” the country. “It is not possible to say who is behind the blast at this point,” he said in a statement in Parliament. “The group has not been tracked.”

After Chidambaram’s statement, the following message was sent by email from the address,

“We owe the responsibility of todays blasts at high court delhi….. our demand is that Afzal Guru’s death sentence should be repealed immediately else we would target major high courts & THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA.”

Afzal Guru, or Mohammad Afzal, was convicted by Indian authorities for his role in the December 2001 commando attack on India’s Parliament building, in which several security personnel and five attackers were killed. Mobile phone records linked Afzal to the attackers, and he was sentenced to death in 2004.  According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, HuJI is a Pakistan-based militan group with wide links throughout the Subcontinent. Indian authorities have not, however, connected it to the 2001 Parliament attacks, which it blamed on two other Pakistan-based groups, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed.

The blast occurred at about 10:15 a.m. in a temporary structure near the main gate of the High Court, where people stand in line to get passes to enter the building, according to a lawyer in the capital. On Wednesdays, public-interest litigation cases are filed, so the number of ordinary citizens attending the High Court is particularly high. By 10:15 am, there are often as many as 100 people waiting to have their passes issued. (Lawyers and other staff enter separately.) On May 25, also a Wednesday, the same building was the target of another bomb attack. That incident, reportedly using an explosive left inside a plastic bag, occurred in the parking lot and caused no fatalities. Officials at the time dismissed it as “minor,” but the High Court did tighten up its security procedures afterward. Ajay Mehrotra, a lawyer who was in the building during this morning’s blast, said that after the May incident, guards began checking lawyers’ identity cards and automobile tags in addition to those of the public. But a gap remained: people and packages are not searched until after they are issued passes, and today’s blast occurred in that unsecured area.

Indian authorities are taking this incident much more seriously. The Home Ministry immediately assigned the National Investigation Agency to take charge of the probe. So far, they have little evidence to work with. It is not clear yet whether the explosion was set off remotely, using an improvised explosive device, or whether it may have been a suicide bomber blending into the queueing crowd.  As with the coordinated triple bomb blast in Mumbai on July 13, the attack displays some level of planning but little technical sophistication. There is no physical evidence yet to link this blast, or the July 13 blast, to jihadi networks operating in the region, but these attacks do share some characteristics with other attacks linked to jihadists—the victims are ordinary Indians, and the incidents occur in highly visible public places where saturation media coverage is all but assured.

Opposition parties slammed the government for its failure to secure the High Court building despite having been a previous target. Communist Party of India leader D. Raja told CNN-IBN: “We’ll have to probe how such a thing could happen again and again. The government should probe whether it was a failure of intelligence or failure of policy. I find this as a failure of the Home Ministry. The Home Ministry should come clean and explain.”

Whatever the failings of India’s security apparatus, today’s attack is a telling example of why India is so vulnerable to the loosely organized terror networks operating in a post-Osama bin Laden world. It has neither the law-enforcement capacity nor the intelligence-gathering capability to provide the kind of security available to people in the West. Jason Burke of the Guardian, in an excerpt from his new book, The 9/11 wars, explains: “The power of terrorism lies in its ability to create a sense of fear far in excess of the actual threat posed to an individual. Here, governments have largely protected their citizens, and few inhabitants of western democracies today pass their lives genuinely concerned about being harmed in a radical militant attack.” Indian citizens do not enjoy that same freedom from fear. And yet India is just as tempting a target: it is a close strategic ally of the United States and Europe, a free-market, pluralistic society, and it is within close striking distance of jihadi networks operating throughout South Asia and the Persian Gulf.

The precise origins of this attack, like so many before it, may remain murky. As with other attacks, speculation hovers around whether it might have been the work of “homegrown” terrorists, Indians linked to handlers across the border, Pakistan-based militants, or some other group entirely. But unless it is clearly linked to al-Qaeda or its affiliates, the rest of the world is unlikely to take much notice, and India will continue to be one of the world’s largest, softest targets. —With reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick/New Delhi