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India bombing kills 11 outside New Delhi courthouse

The attack, which also injures more than 65, underscores the country's poor response to terrorist threats, analysts say. A Pakistan-linked Islamist group purportedly claims responsibility.

September 08, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • A man injured in a bomb blast in India's capital is taken to a hospital. The bomb exploded outside the Delhi High Court.
A man injured in a bomb blast in India's capital is taken to a hospital.… (Gurinder Osan, Associated…)

Reporting from New Delhi — A bomb blast outside India's Delhi High Court on Wednesday that killed 11 people and wounded more than 65 underscores anew the poor response by Indian security forces to the threat in their midst, analysts said.

The explosion, labeled a terrorist attack by the government, was the deadliest to hit the Indian capital since 25 people were killed in a series of market blasts three years ago. It took place in the heart of the city within a few miles of Parliament and various government offices.

"This is a cowardly act," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement from Bangladesh, where he is attending a summit. "We will deal with it. We will never succumb to the pressure of terrorism."

U.K. Bansal, special home secretary for internal security, said authorities believed the device was of medium to high intensity, built with more than 4 pounds of explosives, possibly including ammonium nitrate, and hidden in a briefcase. Ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer, is frequently found in homemade bombs.

Despite a similar blast at the same court complex three months ago that resulted in minimal damage, no video cameras or explosive-detection equipment was reportedly installed in the area nor were metal detectors working, a few of the many perceived shortfalls in India's vigilance.

"There's been a real decline in professionalism over the past few years," said Bahukutumbi Raman, director of Chennai's Institute for Tropical Studies and a former head of counter-terrorism with the Research and Analysis Wing, India's equivalent of the CIA. "There hasn't been a single successful detection or identification of a terrorist module despite attacks in [Mumbai], Pune, Delhi."

After Wednesday's attack, court proceedings were suspended, the complex evacuated and the nation placed on alert.

At least two news organizations said they received an email claiming responsibility that was signed by Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami, a Pakistan-linked Islamic militant group with ties to Al Qaeda. However, it's not unusual for such claims to be false.

If a Pakistani connection is confirmed, relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors could deteriorate after only recently emerging from a deep freeze that followed the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani-based militants in which 166 people were killed.

The emailed statement claiming responsibility for Wednesday's attack said that if the court did not repeal a 2004 death sentence against Mohammed Afzal, convicted of conspiracy in connection with a 2001 attack on India's Parliament, the group would target the Supreme Court and other high courts.

The head of India's National Investigation Agency said it was too early to comment on the email's veracity but said it was being taken seriously. Other groups suspected in the attack include the Indian Mujahedin, a homegrown group blamed for several attacks, including a series of Mumbai blasts in July that killed 23 and injured 130.

Television video shortly after Wednesday's attack showed general confusion as fire and ambulance crews scrambled to provide care for the injured. Police quickly cordoned off the area to safeguard people against other possible explosive devices and to protect evidence, a break with the past, when suspected crime scenes were sometimes overrun by pedestrians and journalists.

Police released possibly contradictory sketches Wednesday of a suspect or suspects based on witness accounts, one depicting a 26-year-old with a light beard, the other a 50-year-old with a heavy beard.

Indian security has come under criticism since the 2008 Mumbai attack for inadequate intelligence, outdated equipment and poor vigilance.

But little has changed since 2008 or even Sept. 11, 2001, analysts said, with reforms in India's counter-terrorism system stymied by political infighting and inertia. A proposed National Intelligence Grid and National Counter Terrorism Council aimed at coordinating agencies and sharing information have foundered as states bicker, resisting central control.

"The U.S. and India probably have better coordination than between Delhi and the states," said R. Hariharan, an analyst and former Indian intelligence official. "There are 12 to 14 agencies involved in investigating, and each has their own fiefdom. With America's Homeland Security, despite its draconian powers, at least everyone's at the same table."

Anger and frustration among Indians about the recent attacks were evident Wednesday when Rahul Gandhi, a possible future candidate for prime minister, was heckled while visiting blast victims at a Delhi hospital.

India's entrenched security problems, analysts said, include a cultural impatience, and the expectation that crimes should be solved within hours is an obstacle to careful investigation, good forensic work and well-built legal cases.

Other shortcomings include corruption, slow adoption of new technology such as virtual software allowing police to train for crises, and inadequate community policing, important in providing leads on suspicious people and unusual movement.

"There's an unfortunate laxity that rolls out through the entire culture," Said Bhaskar Roy, a Delhi-based security analyst with the South Asia Analysis Group think tank. "It's, 'Do it tomorrow. Do it the next day.' There's a real need to tighten up."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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