Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Delhi races to stay in Commonwealth Games

IN the lobby of the concrete teepee that serves as headquarters for Delhi's Commonwealth Games, one of four machinegun- toting guards points me to the second-floor offices of the chief organiser. No identification is required and I wander past rows of open-plan cubicles.

The lack of building security is a running gag among staff but it's no joke at a time when India's ability to stage a secure event is under question.

Indian and Commonwealth Games Federation organisers have reacted angrily in recent weeks to suggestions athletes face a risk of terrorist attacks during the October 3 to 14 Games.

CGF president Michael Fennell accuses those who question India's capacity to provide adequate security, and to have the venues finished on time, of Western snobbery.

"If a problem occurs in India then it is viewed differently to the same problem in another country," he says.

"The fact is there is always a security risk. Everybody has to make their own decisions, but if you don't go [to Delhi] I suggest you don't travel anywhere in the world."

However, it's not just outsiders expressing concern. India's outgoing National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan concedes the country could face attempted attacks during the Games and suggests Pakistan - or its proxy terrorist agents - would be responsible.

"We believe Pakistan's policy of using terror as a policy weapon remains," he told The Times newspaper, adding the nuclear-armed nation had done nothing to dismantle militant groups since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 180 people dead and more than 300 injured.

"From Pakistan's point of view it's important to disrupt the Games, so you can claim that India is not a safe place."

From his Delhi office, CGF chief executive Mike Hooper - a straight-talking New Zealander who has come to public blows with the Delhi organising committee over continual deadline slippages for construction and logistics work - is keen to dispel all fears.

"We are confident the Delhi government will deliver a secure environment for the Commonwealth Games," he says. "If that means lockdown or something else . . . I don't think that will be the case, but who knows?

"There's been a lot of talk and a lot of it is ill-informed. Our position is quite clearly that at this point in time the Games security planning is on track.

"If we didn't think it was so, we would say it's not so - and we did that two years ago, which is what prompted us to engage Australian firm Intelligent Risks."

IR, which has done several independent assessments for the CGF on security, refused to comment to The Australian but chief executive Neil Fergus said recently he holds no more concerns about security in India than he did for the Beijing or Athens Olympics.

India insists it is taking the terrorist threat seriously. Recent statements from the British Metropolitan Police and Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, that they are satisfied with arrangements, have reinforced Games organisers' line that everything possible is being done to provide a safe event.

Four layers of protective security will be provided around the venues, a centralised command structure established, and 8000 additional police deployed to augment Delhi's 77,000-strong force.

Athletes and officials will be given armed escorts from the airport to the Games village and city hotels, and will travel in dedicated lanes. Anyone entering the village will have to use an electronic swipe card. Anti-terrorist commandos will be stationed inside the village.

But those arrangements have failed to assuage the doubts of regional experts about the capacity of security forces in India - a country located in one of the world's most unstable regions - to prevent attacks by terrorists from outside or within its borders.

"The problem is the sheer number of militant actors running around India today that could carry out a terrorist attack," says Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical intelligence with US-based security analysis agency Stratfor. "You can lock down a stadium but you have crowds trying to get in. That crowd will be incredibly vulnerable to an attack before they get through security.

"I will say the likelihood is very high that India will face attacks. It's not a matter of if; it's going to be a matter of when and where."

Stewart says the splintered nature of the many terrorist groups in the region that might wish India harm, such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba - accused of staging the Mumbai attacks - and Kashmir-based militants, makes them harder to track and control. "Within Kashmiri groups and LeT there are those tied to the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency] and others which are more radical and more closely aligned with al-Qa'ida. Because of that it's not like Pakistan can keep everything under control."

Threats also exist on India's northern border in the form of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a group committed to the fight for an Islamic state in Bangladesh, which also has terrorist cells in northeast India.

In India there are said to be as many as 800 homegrown terrorist cells capable of causing mayhem or - as was the case with the 2001 attack on Delhi's national parliament - assisting others to do so.

Former athletes, including Australia's Dawn Fraser, have expressed disquiet about the terrorist threat. Last month British government sources quoted in London's Daily Telegraph said there was "virtually no chance" British athletes would attend the Games.

England's chef de mission Craig Hunter has since denied his country had decided to withdraw.

Australian Commonwealth Games Association chief Perry Crosswhite says the 600-strong Australian team will attend, although no athlete will be forced to go. But the rhetoric from both countries strongly suggests they are hedging their bets.

Hunter says a final decision on whether the team will go will be made in September. Crosswhite's language is similarly cautious.

"At the present time the Australian team is going to the games. We believe security arrangements are adequate. But I will continue to assess the situation, as I must do with nine months still to go," he tells The Australian.

In August, Britain withdrew from the World Badminton Championships in Hyderabad because of a perceived threat. In April, Australia's Davis Cup team pulled out of the Chennai event for similar reasons.

At the front of athletes' minds will be the ambush of the Sri Lankan cricket team last March in Lahore, Pakistan. The attack, in which six people died and seven cricketers were injured, disproved the theory that sportspeople are immune from terrorism.

Security is not the only concern, of course.Construction of venues has been slipping further behind deadline for the past year, prompting Fennell to warn that India's lack of preparedness was putting at risk the Commonwealth Games brand.

In December the CGF Co-ordinating Commission toured all Games sites and issued a subsequent report describing delays in the completion of all 17 venues as "distressing".

Less than nine months out from the event, not a single venue has been completed. The main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and the swimming complex are so far behind deadline they will not now be finished before June 30 - little more than 100 days before the opening ceremony.

A Test hockey event scheduled for January 5 in Delhi was cancelled just days before, without explanation. The first real test this year for how the government will handle a big sporting event will now not occur until late February, when Delhi hosts the Hockey World Cup. The next security assessment review will be conducted around the same time.

In its December report the federation cited problems ranging from ticketing and transport to accreditation and accommodation, amid reports only 10,000 of the 40,000 hotel rooms expected to be needed are available.

Days later Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit confessed she was "praying" that all work would be finished and that Delhi would "not let the country down".

Lights now blaze through Delhi's foggy winter nights at the main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies and athletics will be held, and at the adjacent weightlifting centre where construction workers toil to transform concrete shells into sports arenas.

Much is riding on the success of these Games.

The event is India's chance to show the world the face of a modern nation capable of matching the military-style efficiency of China, and transform international perceptions that India is a country of lepers and slumdog millionaires. India fears failure to deliver a dazzling and safe Games will spark unfavourable comparisons with China and the success of the Beijing Olympics. The government is determined the Delhi Games will be a showcase of Indian ingenuity.

But the federation is now calling on the organising committee to swallow its pride and recruit more international experts, warning that "successful delivery of the Games is at risk in key areas".

Australian security expert Clive Williams fears the same brand of Indian nationalism could hamper security measures come October.

Williams says India has "long had a poor track record in the areas of security intelligence, command and control, and counter-terrorism response" and the biggest security concern will be "India's own willingness to accept and act on external advice".

While the serious failings of Indian security forces during the Mumbai attacks prompted an overhaul of national counter-terrorism and policing strategies, security experts in India and abroad agree insufficient work has since been done to plug the gaps.

Ajay Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and head of the Delhi-based India's Institute for Conflict Management, believes India has proven its ability to prevent terrorist incidents "on definitive targets for short periods" and doubts any terrorist strike during the Games would succeed.

Britain's Royal United Services Institute's head of Asia Security Program Alexander Neil agrees the risk for Delhi could be in the lead-up to the event.

"The big question will be whether a group like Lashkar-e-Toiba decides to do another Mumbai-style attack with the Commonwealth Games approaching," Neil says.

Hooper and Fennell say there are no contingency plans to move the Games to another country in case of a terrorist strike or catastrophic deadline failure.

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