The Threat to India's Games

The 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi were always going be an obvious and tempting target for India's enemies. By making the US$2.2 billion games a symbol of national virility, the Indian government knowingly transformed a sporting event into a political statement that would, unsurprisingly, attract an equally political response from those who wish the country harm.

A week before the games are due begin it is still uncertain whether the seven-year lead time was sufficient to enable India's sclerotic, corrupt and factionalised managerial and political classes to deliver a product intended to meet the nationalist and triumphalist expectations of the nation. So far the event has managed only to humiliate, divide and weaken the country and its rulers as the first of the 7,000 or athletes from more 70 countries arrive ahead of the Games' scheduled start on 3October.

Other far less benign elements have also had seven years to prepare for the games, and just as clean-up crews work frantically in an effort to make the foreign visitors' accommodation habitable, it must be assumed that terrorists are also being quietly prepared for their long-anticipated role in the event.

At this stage in an already fraught and tense atmosphere, with many foreign governments having given what can be only be their reluctant recommendation that the national teams travel to India, a single shot fired anywhere near a foreign national in Delhi could be all that it would take to destroy the games.

This opportunity offers an ‘open goal' in terms of political violence or terrorism. While the Indian security forces may be able to deter or confront a major and elaborate terrorist attack –though this doubtful – there is absolutely nothing they can do to prevent the small-scale shooting or bombing that would see athletes either refusing to come to Delhi or prompt a rush for the airport if they are already in the city.

There are four main security threats to the games that the 100,000 or so military and police personnel deployed to protect them will find difficult to counter. Indeed, the principal role of most of this huge force is to offer ‘reassurance' rather than protection – a function it may well fail to achieve on both counts.

The principal threat is that of a carefully-planned multi-dimensional attack intended damage India's reputation and amour-propre – and perhaps trigger a confrontation with Pakistan – by causing a large number of casualties. The games' long gestation period will have facilitated the slow build-up of personnel and resources hard to detect by the usual methodology employed by the security forces based on surges or spikes in movement, communications activity and personal behaviour patterns.

Any of a number of pre-planned attack scenarios could be selected to respond to counter-measures or target individuals, teams or facilities. The past use of suicide teams in the December 2001 attack on the parliament building in New Delhi and the November 2008 multiple attacks in Mumbai indicates the type of tactics that such a group might employ. The huge number of unformed security personnel could actually help such a terrorist operation as it is virtually impossible to provide a workable identification system between units, particularly if there are multiple actual or staged incidents. All it would require for a terrorist group to launch an attack would be access to the uniforms and weapons carried by one of the myriad military or police formation deployed to guard the Games.

An opportunistic attack in response, for example, to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kashmir might prove less damaging in terms of casualties but would almost certainly have the same effect on India's national interest by triggering a flight to safety by many foreign teams or individuals and the abandonment of the games. Such an attack could be mounted at short notice by organised criminal syndicates rather than political groups, in a similar manner to those launched in following anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993.

Random attacks by self-radicalised or mentally ill individuals against venues or foreign visitors could also have a disproportionate impact. Foreign participants and their home governments are likely to respond to any breach in security in the now febrile atmosphere with a heightened sense of caution rather than awaiting a more forensic analysis of the source and basis of a security incident. Foreign governments are in a particularly invidious position as their diplomats have to balance their national long-term relationship with India against any immediate threat to their citizens.

This factor has led some governments to advise participation in the Games despite deep misgivings by their own risk specialists over the ability of Indian security forces to offer adequate protection to the game's venues and contestants.

The most sensitive potential source of violence may be described as ‘protective' incidents staged by elements close to the state. This would involve using a minor ‘terrorist' incident to override the other problems that threatened to wreck the games. The rationale would be that the failure of the games due to a security threat was preferable to the humiliation of having the country – and key politicians – exposed to ridicule and eventual electoral sanction over more banal factors. While it is extremely unlikely such a tactic would be readily used given the risk of exposure, nor should it be discounted given the high cost of failure.

Perhaps India's best protection against the most dangerous threat to the games, its athletes and spectators – the long-planned attack by a group with a coherent strategy aimed at damaging Indian interests – is the very chaos that has engulfed the event. As the purpose of any terrorist attack includes creating confusion and distress to its target, there may little point in expending resources when this effect has already been achieved.

An attack, in this context, may well be viewed by its architects as counter-productive as it may well only serve to mask internal political divisions and offer the government and political leadership a means of escape from a far more damaging event than the relatively short-lived impact a terrorist attack.

Gavin C. Greenwood is a security consultant with the Hong Kong-based security risk management consultancy firm Allan & Associates.