Thanks to Harinder Bains, Ahmad Rahami, the suspect in the New York and New Jersey blasts was recently apprehended by the police. Bains is neither an intelligence agent nor a security official but a common man, who spotted Rahami sleeping in the doorway of his bar in Linden, New Jersey. He could have moved on ignoring the threat bearer, but took the risk to do his duty as a citizen. There was a similar incident in India as well recently, when some school children managed to alert the security forces on sighting 5-6 persons in Pathan suits carrying weapons and backpacks near the Uran Naval Base.
This brings to the fore the important aspect of the common public as an ally in countering terrorism. It is not possible for the state forces to be present everywhere. If ‘eternal vigilance’ is identified as a crucial component of any counter-terrorism strategy, involvement of the civil society is crucial. Without the eyes, ears and intuition of the general public, it is difficult to identify terrorists who are anonymous and blend seamlessly into the environment in which they live and operate, especially in the urban landscape.
The need for a vigilant public has become even more critical in India as the phenomenon of urban terrorism, characterised by its diabolical, constant, deadly, unpredictable and transnational nature, has taken firm roots. Urban areas, with a large and densely populated terrain hold significant advantages for terrorists. Unlike in rural areas, inhabitants in cities and towns are more heterogeneous, giving them more space for anonymity. Cities and towns are the nerve centres of a country, and it is here that targets are most varied and abundant - public areas and modes of transport, commercial centres, and people or centres of symbolic and strategic importance such as government buildings and officials, corporate heavyweights, and foreign nationals and embassies – ensuring a more widespread impact of a destructive act.
Overall, an urban landscape facilitates terrorists in realising their goals: surprise, maximum damage with minimum risk, hyper media attention and subsequent disappearance. The “eyes and ears” scheme followed by police in some Indian metros like New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai could be made mandatory for all urban areas. Apart from members of residents’ welfare associations, such schemes should include street vendors, rickshaw-pullers, barbers, parking lot attendants, security guards, drivers, cyber cafe owners, property dealers, used car dealers, guesthouse owners and porters. Common public also need to be sensitised on the gravity of the threat from terrorism, and on suitable responses. Strong security consciousness and a sense of situational awareness need to be created. Situational awareness in fact should be a habit in the interest of personal security of all citizens. People could contribute as informers, witnesses, and rescuers. All these could, in fact, be made a fundamental duty under the Indian Constitution.
The people have to keep a steady eye on tentative, errant behaviour, or suspicious movements in their neighbourhood or in public places, and share the information with point persons in the police and intelligence agencies. For instance, on every New York City subway train, the message to passengers since 9/11 has been clear: “If you see something, say something.” Similar periodic announcements are made at all Indian airports and railway stations. Citizens could organise themselves into ‘neighbourhood watch committees’ through community consensus mechanisms, based on a genuine concern to prevent future terrorist attacks. All communities could be co-opted in counter-terrorism measures instead of perceiving members of some communities as the “other.” On coastal security, the community of Indian fishermen could be made as ‘working partners’ to keep a constant tab on coastal waters.
For this, the local police should consciously develop ‘social assets’ by establishing professional and moral superiority over the terrorists, while, at the same time, honouring the rights and liberties of the people even in difficult situations. Most importantly, witness protection laws have to be strengthened; informers have to be safeguarded.
Awareness creation among people should also include ‘golden rules’ to be followed by people in case of a terrorist attack. Training of people in civil defence is important in post-attack scenarios. It has so far not been taken seriously. As suggested by the ‘National Policy Approach Paper on Revamping of Civil Defence in the Country’, civil defence infrastructure should be made available in all the districts in the country. This demands close coordination with the Panchayati Raj Institutions, urban local bodies and pertinent civil society groups. Making best use of ex-service and other retired security personnel could be considered in this regard. Every citizen should know the basic tenets of first aid, which in fact should be part of school curriculum. Such familiarisation will not only minimise the lethality of terrorist attacks, but also reduce the consequent panic.