Hyderabad’s Terror Attack: Speculation Swirls as Critics Point to Government Failure

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Aijaz Rahi / AP

Indian policemen guard a shopping arcade which was damaged in one of the two bomb blasts in Hyderabad, India, early Feb. 22, 2013.

Dilsukh Nagar, a densely populated area, around 15 km from the city center of Hyderabad, is one of the main hubs of the city. Crowded with cinemas, restaurants and cheap hotels it is a favorite student haunt. Signboards peep out of nooks and corners touting MBA and engineering prep institutes, and cramped student hostels line the roads, bustling with people in a rush. It is here that on Thursday evening Sandhya Reddy was having a snack with her friends in an eatery outside their institute. When the 20-year-old, pursuing a computer course, heard the first explosion she dismissed it as a cylinder blast. However, in ten minutes there was another blast, this time close to the eatery where she was standing with her friends and a commotion broke out. Reddy bruised her hands from the shards flying about in the aftermath of the blasts and was released from hospital after first-aid. “I am lucky to have escaped with minor injuries,” Reddy told TIME. “But I am angry because even that was unnecessary. Why should anyone hurt me?”

Reddy was lucky to have escaped with minor injuries, but many others were not as lucky. Few minutes away from her, near a bus stand, Vijay Kumar, a student in his twenties, had gone to buy prep material for a government exam. It was to be his last shopping trip. Kumar was one of the five students killed in the twin blast that rocked the capital city of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh on Thursday evening, killing 16 people and injuring at least 119 more. It is the fourth time that Hyderabad has been subject to a terror attack. In November 2002, a scooter bomb blast killed two people; in 2007, three strikes in the city killed 51 people. The Hyderabad blast is the first major terrorist attack in India since a Delhi High Court bomb blast in 2011 that killed 13 people.

(MORE: Hyderabad blasts leave terror cloud over India.)

Thursday’s attacks once again set India on edge. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to respond, calling the attacks “dastardly.” He appealed to the people to stay calm and maintain peace and announced compensation of $3636 from the Prime Minister`s National Relief Fund for each of the next of kin of the dead and $909 each to the seriously injured. The government initiated an inquiry into the blasts, and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters that they had prior intelligence there might be a terror attack and accordingly sent alerts to several states. “We were receiving information for the last two days that such a blast may take place,” Shinde told reporters on Friday. “There was no input about which city would be targeted.”

This tip-off, however non-specific, critics of the government say, should have been enough for them to thwart the attack. The fact that ot wasn’t, opposition leader Sushma Swaraj says, is a “massive failure” of the government. Analysts also argued the blasts demonstrated that India’s central and state intelligence agencies failed the “three T’s” of intelligence sharing – time, target and technique — due to characteristically poor communication. “Seamless sharing of intelligence has always been a major weakness of Indian intelligence agencies,” Paranjoy Guhathakurta, an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, told TIME. “There are multiple agencies, and though of late they have put together committees in system so they can share intelligence, it has not really worked.”

The maladroitness of India’s security agencies has once again raised questions about India’s anti-terrorism vigilance since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. On Thursday, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were tied to bicycles 100 meters apart from each other. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the ingredients of the bicycle bombs – in particular the presence of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and ammonium nitrate – are signature elements of explosives used by the terror group Indian Mujahideen (IM), a homegrown terrorist group in India that has been blamed for several blast cases in India since 2007. According to Indian news channel Zee News, the Hyderabad blasts were ostensibly planned as a revenge attack for the execution of Afzal Guru, an operative for Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad, implicated in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament; Guru was hanged on Feb 9 this year. The plan, according to the channel’s reports, was finalized in Pakistan at a meeting attended by top brass of various terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, HuJI and Hizbul Mujahideen. “It looks like a revenge attack. While we can only speculate, the possibility cannot be ruled out,” says S. Chandrasekharan, director of the Delhi-based think tank South Asia analysis Group.  “It is logical to see this as a reaction.”

(MORE: The making of the Mumbai terrorists.)

Since 2008, India has had 11 more terror strikes in which 60 people have been killed across five cities. The government has taken measures to beef up its security and intelligence agencies. But implementation on the ground is often stymied by India’s notorious bureaucratic red tape. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism squad, for example, has a capacity of 935 personnel but is actually working with just 300. A $28.5 million proposal to improve security around Mumbai was announced soon after the 2008 “26/11” attack—involving 5,000 CCTV cameras at key junctions, motion detectors, night vision for security forces, thermal imaging for the police, and vehicle license plate identification capability. But it never took off. In Hyderabad, despite the city being on alert for a possible terror attack, the wires of the CCTV cameras installed in and around Dilsukh Nagar had been disconnected four days before, allegedly by the terrorists. Authorities had not yet restored the connection, resulting in loss of valuable footage of the blasts. “Despite the experience of 26/11, India’s internal security still remains vulnerable because we have not acquired appropriate capacities and determination to prevent such an exigency,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, former director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. “The Indian politicians do not accept national security with the kind of gravitas it demands.”

(MORE: Terrorism in Mumbai and India’s Divine Comedy.)

This vulnerability, experts argue, has increased manifold with the rise in homegrown terrorism. India’s biggest threat at the moment, they say, is not from cross border infiltrators such as those who carried out the Mumbai attacks but from homegrown groups like the IM who work in coordination with external terror groups. In 2008, out of the 16 people arrested for their role in a series of bomb blasts in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, most were college graduates who did not have police records. They have been plotting various kidnaps and hijacks to free comrade extremists. “Where do you pin the blame down? Do you pin it on domestic security service or external intelligence agencies?” asks B.M. Chengappa, a Bangalore-based security affairs expert. “Homegrown terrorism is all well, but after a point, it is externally stoked.”

With reporting by Raksha Kumar/Hyderabad