Two days after the world observed the seventh anniversary of the catastrophic 9/11 attacks in America, a routine reminder that terrorism was alive and kicking was delivered in India’s capital city on the evening of September 13, 2008. A series of explosions in crowded markets in Delhi killed 21 and wounded at least 151. There was little to distinguish these attacks, apart from operational specificities, from the succession of comparable attacks across India that have occurred with sickening regularity -- with interregnums largely ranging up to three months -- for the past nearly three years, and with a lesser frequency over the preceding decade. Fresh in memory, of course, are the serial explosions in Ahmedabad, on July 26, 2008; in Bangalore, on July 25, 2008; at Jaipur, on May 13, 2008; the fidayeen attack on the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Group Centre at Rampur in Uttar Pradesh (UP) on December 31, 2007; the serial blasts in court premises in Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow in UP, on November 23, 2007; the serial explosions in Hyderabad in August and in May, 2007...
The ‘Indian Mujahideen’ (IM) have laid claim to the latest cycle of bombings in Delhi in an email delivered to media organisations even as the first bombs exploded. This is the fourth serial terrorist attack claimed under this identity -- the preceding three include Ahmedabad, Jaipur and the Uttar Pradesh court explosions. Cumulative evidence derived from these past cases indicates that the IM is nothing but the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The repeated attribution of attacks to the IM suggests that SIMI is seeking to establish this identity for its terrorist operations, even as it continues to make a bid for the removal of the ban on its own activities before the courts and with the support of sympathetic political parties. If such a strategy is eventually successful, SIMI could re-establish its overground networks for mobilisation and advocacy of its brand of extremist Islam, while its cadres ‘graduate’ to terrorist activities under the ‘independent’ IM banner. This would create great difficulties for enforcement agencies, confronted with an apparently legitimate ‘political’ movement, formally distanced from, but backed by an underground terrorist group -- a model that several terrorist organisations have adopted in democratic countries across the world.
Much is now being made of the ‘indigenisation’ of Islamist extremism and terrorism in India as purportedly opposed to the earlier Pakistan-backed terrorist activities. It is crucial, at this juncture, to scotch emerging misconceptions on this count. Islamist terrorism in India has always had an Indian face -- but has overwhelmingly been engineered and directed from Pakistan, and nothing has changed in this scenario. Going back to the March 1993 serial explosions in Mumbai, which killed 257 persons and left 713 injured, and were executed by the Dawood Ibrahim gang, for instance, it is useful to recall that nearly 1,800 kilograms of RDX and a large number of detonators and small arms had been smuggled from Pakistan through India’s West Coast prior to the blasts. The operation was coordinated by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and Ibrahim and a number of his gang members have since lived under state protection in Karachi.
Similarly, al Ummah, which was responsible for a series of 19 explosions in February, 1998, which left 50 dead in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, and which had established a wide network of extremist organisations across South India, was also aided by Pakistan, with a considerable flow of funds from Pakistan-based terror groups, often through the Gulf.
The Deendar Anjuman, headed by Zia-ul-Hassan, which orchestrated a series of 13 explosions in churches in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa between May and July 2000, was, again, bankrolled by the ISI. The then
union minister for home affairs had stated in Parliament that investigators had established linkages between the Deendar Anjuman and Pakistan’s covert intelligence agency. Hassan himself was based in Peshawar (Pakistan), where the sect was established under the name of Anjuman Hizbullah, and he is said to have floated a militant group, the Jamaat-e-Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in Pakistan, in order to ‘capture India and spread Islam’.
It is entirely within this paradigm that SIMI’s evolution as a terrorist group is located. Absent the support and involvement of Pakistan’s covert agencies and an enduring partnership with a range of Pakistan based or backed terrorist groups, prominently including the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), SIMI may have had an amateur flirtation with terrorism, an impulse that would quickly have been exhausted with a handful of low-grade and at least occasionally accidental bomb blasts. Instead, its leadership and cadres have had a long apprenticeship alongside Pakistani terrorist groups operating in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and several of the more promising candidates have crossed the border to secure ‘advanced training’ on Pakistani soil or in Bangladesh.
SIMI’s control centre has, for some time now, been based in Pakistan. Operational command in a number of major attacks, including the Samjhauta Express bombing (February 18, 2007) and the two serial attacks in Hyderabad in May and August 2007, was known to have been exercised by Moahmmad Shahid aka Bilal. Bilal was reported to have been shot in Karachi in September 2007, and, while Indian intelligence sources remain sceptical, no confirmed sighting has subsequently been reported. Operational control thereafter has shifted to the Lahore-based second-in-command, Mohammad
I have repeatedly emphasised the fact that "Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) -- as an organ of the country’s military and political establishment -- has been, and remains, the principal source of the impetus, the infrastructure and the organisational networks of what is inaccurately called ‘Islamist’ terrorism across the world." An overwhelming proportion of so-called ‘Islamist’ terrorism is, in fact, simply ‘ISI terrorism’.
While the Indian establishment remains unusually coy about this reality -- with fitful and often quickly qualified exception -- some measure of satisfaction may now be derived from a growing American recognition of Pakistan’s pernicious role as an abiding source of Islamist terrorism. Had this recognition come in the first weeks after 9/11, that could have saved thousands of lives, most significantly in Afghanistan and India, but also in Europe and across Asia.
Nevertheless, Western commentators and governments are now increasingly acknowledging Pakistan’s duplicity in the ‘global war on terror’, the proclivity to act as an "on-and-off ally of Washington". While providing fitful cooperation in US anti-terrorism efforts, The Washington Times notes,
…in other ways, Pakistan aids and abets terror. US officials say that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence… was behind the recent bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul. And the Pakistani government’s refusal to confront al Qaeda has helped create a de facto safe haven for the group and its allies in locations like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan.
US Intelligence officials, The Washington Times notes further, compare "al Qaeda’s operational and organisational advantages in the FATA to those it enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to September 11", and warn that "al Qaeda was training and positioning its operatives to carry out attacks in the West, probably including the United States."
Indian embassy in Kabul after the blast
These disclosures coincide with reports that President Bush had secretly approved orders in July 2008, allowing American Special Operations forces to carry out
ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani
government. US Forces have executed numerous missile attacks from unmanned Predator drones on Pakistani soil in the past, but the September 3, 2008, attack by NATO and US ground troops at a Taliban
-- al Qaeda stronghold in South Waziristan was the first instance in which troops had participated. The incident has already been followed by drone attacks on September 9 on a seminary run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, in which 20 persons, including some senior al Qaeda operatives were killed; and on September 12, at Tul Khel in North Waziristan, in which an al Badr Mujahideen commander was targeted. Haqqani, it is significant, was known to have engineered the attack on the Indian Embassy at Kabul, using a LeT suicide cadre Hamza Shakoor, a Pakistani from Gujranwala
district, on behalf of the ISI.
The increasing frequency of US-NATO attacks -- manned or unmanned -- into Pakistani territory, and the Bush Administration’s approval of Special Operations into Pakistan without prior sanction from Islamabad, has reconfirmed the country’s status as a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and an area of growing anxiety for the world. There is, however, still very little understanding of how heavy and sustained the Pakistani footprint has been in Islamist terrorist activities across the globe. The enormity of this ‘footprint’ is, for instance, reflected in the long succession of terrorist incidents, arrests and seizures, separately, in India, the US and Europe, in which a Pakistani link has been suspected or confirmed.
A segment of the groups sponsored and supported by the ISI -- and which had long operated as its agents and instrumentalities
-- have now turned renegade, and Pakistan is struggling to manage growing contradictions in its continued support to other ‘loyal’ groups. The situation, in fact, is far more complex
-- even as the Pakistan establishment confronts certain elements of the Taliban, particularly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), it receives unqualified support from, and extends support to, other Taliban groups, particularly the Afghanistan oriented groups who have been given virtual free rein to operate from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Relations with other groups are also complex
-- ‘loyal’ outfits, such as the LeT are also directly linked to the al Qaeda and the Taliban, who the Army claims to be ‘hunting down’. Indeed, it is within the spaces created for ‘loyal’ terrorist groups in Pakistan that the renegade and global terrorist organisations thrive as well. The ‘loyal’ groups, moreover, remain integral, both to the ruling establishment’s strategies of external policy projection within and beyond the South Asian region, as well as to domestic political management.
Despite America’s belated recognition of the threat from Pakistan, the US perspective remains highly qualified and fails -- at least publicly -- to acknowledge the duplicity of the Pakistani establishment and, instead, appears to give credence to Islamabad’s position that the tribal areas are, in fact, out of Islamabad’s control. What is missed out is the reality that the "al Qaeda mindset" has deep roots in Pakistan’s military and political establishment, despite current tactical contradictions imposed on the region by the intervention of external players. There is, moreover, no power centre in Pakistan -- military or political -- that can escape the imperatives of Islamist identity politics in its domestic policies and practices, even where personal convictions may contradict such politics.
With pressures escalating in Iraq, there has been a significant flow of radicalised and terrorist cadres towards Afghanistan-Pakistan, and this has already resulted in escalated pressures across the region. A further crystallization of these forces is inevitable, unless strategies to neutralize the safe havens of all terrorist groups in Pakistan, and to end the state sponsorship of terrorism particularly directed against Afghanistan and India are devised.
For far too long, external players directly impacted by Pakistan’s support to terrorism, and the use of Pakistani soil for terrorism, have allowed free rein to Pakistan’s persistent strategy and "overriding interest," as Mark Huband expressed it, "to achieve internal security by provoking instability among its neighbours", substantially through the use of terrorist proxies. Both the US and India are fast approaching elections and the prospects of new administrations in charge. The greatest strategic challenge these administrations will immediately face on assuming power will be the question of how to deal with Pakistan. No simple answer or crude strategy of pure force will suffice in this context. However, unless these two key nations join hands to exert inexorable pressure on Islamabad to reverse the direction of its present free fall into terrorist adventurism and anarchy, the world will confront an augmenting -- and potentially catastrophic -- threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.
K.P.S. Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab. He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management