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Al Qaeda: The threat to India
May 21, 2003
The recent bomb blasts at Riyadh (May 12) in Saudi Arabia and Casablanca in Morocco (May 16) have proved, if proof was needed, that despite the successes scored by the international coalition led by the US in the war against terrorism, the motivation of various jihadi terrorist groups inspired by Osama bin Laden remains strong and that they suffer from no dearth of volunteers for suicide missions.
The Islamic jihadi terrorist groups active in different parts of the world today can be divided into three categories: Al Qaeda itself, which is an exclusively Arab organisation led by Laden; the International Islamic Front, which is a coalition of likeminded jihadi organisations of different countries formed by Laden in 1998; and other jihadi organisations inspired by him, which, however, operate autonomously without becoming members of the IIF.
Laden has deliberately kept the strength of Al Qaeda small (about 500 at present) and excluded non-Arabs to block the attempts of foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate it. The smaller and more tightly controlled a terrorist organisation, the more difficult it is to penetrate. Laden depends on Al Qaeda for his own physical security, for some of the spectacular strikes carried out against US interests, and for training the cadres of other jihadi organisations and motivating them.
Amongst the spectacular terrorist incidents carried out by Al Qaeda were the explosions in Saudi Arabia in 1996; those outside the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998; the attack on the USS Cole off Aden in October 2000; the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US in 2001; the explosion outside a synagogue in Tunisia in April 2002; and the recent explosions in Riyadh. Amongst its operations, which did not succeed, one could mention the failed attempt to blow up a French oil tanker off Yemen last year.
The IIF consists of 13 organisations -- Al Qaeda itself, the Taliban of Afghanistan, five from Pakistan, three from Egypt, two from the central Asian republics and one from the southern Philippines (Abu Sayyaf). The five Pakistani organisations are the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and its newly created international wing called the HuM (Al Alami), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), the Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Of these, the HuM, HuJI, LeT and JeM have been active since 1993 in Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India. The LeJ is a Sunni extremist organisation whose activities are confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Laden is the amir of the IIF in addition to being head of Al Qaeda.
Even after the losses suffered by them in US air strikes in Afghanistan after October 7, 2001, the various constituents of the IIF put together are currently estimated to have a total strength of 30,000-plus well-trained and motivated cadres, the majority of them belonging to the five Pakistani components.
Amongst the post-9/11 terrorist incidents carried out by IIF members -- mainly by its Pakistani components -- one could cite the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist in Karachi; the explosion outside a Karachi hotel killing 13 French engineers working in a submarine construction project; the explosion outside the US consulate in Karachi, which killed some Pakistani civilians but no Americans; the hand-grenade attack inside an Islamabad church, which killed the wife of an American diplomat and their daughter; and the attacks on a foreign-run Christian educational institution near Islamabad and on a bus carrying German and other Western tourists to Xinjiang along the Karakoram Highway in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. All these incidents took place last year. On May 15 this year, there were minor explosions caused by timed explosive devices at 21 gas stations in Karachi, which are also attributed to these Pakistani organisations.
While Al Qaeda itself has not been active in India, four of the five Pakistani components of the IIF have been active in our territory and have been responsible for 80 per cent, if not more, of the terrorist incidents by jihadi elements in India. The HuM is a founding member of the IIF and had signed Laden's first fatwa (edict) of 1998 against the US and Israel. The other Pakistani organisations joined it subsequently.
There was no suicide terrorism in J&K before 1999. It has been imported into our territory since these organisations joined the IIF. Since 1999, there have been 46 suicide attacks on Indian territory, of which 44 are believed to have been carried out by these Pakistani organisations. Indigenous Kashmiri groups, not members of the IIF, were suspected only in the remaining two incidents.
In the past, a number of Arabs who had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet troops were caught in J&K. They were operating on our territory as members of the Pakistani and Kashmiri organisations and not as members of Al Qaeda. Till now, Al Qaeda, as an organisation, has not come to notice for any direct activities in our territory, but it has over the years trained and motivated, at the instance of or with the connivance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the cadres of the Pakistani components of the IIF.
While there is as yet no evidence of an Al Qaeda presence in Indian territory, Abu Zubaidah (a Palestinian), then No 3 of Al Qaeda, who was caught in an LeT hideout at Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab in March last year and handed over to the USA, was reported to have undergone computer training in a private institution in Pune in the 1990s before crossing over into Pakistan and joining Al Qaeda. It would , therefore, be reasonable to assume that he might have developed a sleeper network in India during his stay here, which might be available to Al Qaeda for any operations directed against US and/or Israeli interests on our soil.
Since the beginning of this year, a number of messages attributed to Laden have been circulating in the Islamic world. One of them described Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Nigeria and Yemen as countries ruled by apostate regimes, which need to be liberated from American control. Another cited the alleged US support to India on the Kashmir issue as one of the reasons for Muslim anger against the US.
In the past, Laden used to cite mainly the Palestinian issue and the presence of US troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia as the main reasons for Muslim anger against the US and Israel. His recent reference to the US and Kashmir throws open the danger of a terrorist strike against US and Israeli nationals/interests on Indian territory either by Al Qaeda itself or by one of the Pakistani constitutents of the IIF. The danger is particularly high from the LeT, which is believed to be doing the co-ordination and control on Al Qaeda's behalf.
Amongst the jihadi organisations inspired by Laden but not members of the IIF, one could refer to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of the southern Philippines, the Jemma Islamiya of southeast Asia, the Salafi Jihadi of Morocco, and the organisations active in Somalia, Xinjiang in China, and Dagestan and Chechnya in Russia. These organisations have office-bearers and cadres trained in Afghanistan, who maintain close contact with Al Qaeda and the IIF and extend logistics help to them, but are not members of the IIF.
Amongst the terrorist strikes attributed to them are last year's explosions in Bali (Indonesia) by the JI and in Mombasa (Kenya) by a Somali group and the attacks in Moscow and Chechnya by the Chechens. Present indications are that the Casablanca blasts were also probably the work of Moroccan elements allied to the Salafi Jihadi and other domestic groups.
The US has made some headway in the war against terrorism. A number of important Al Qaeda leaders and cadres have been eliminated or captured. Many incidents have been thwarted by timely intelligence and arrests. The command and control of Al Qaeda has been disrupted. But its motivation remains strong and its infrastructure in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia largely intact, despite some damage inflicted by the US-led coalition. The reluctance of the Bush administration to act against the Musharraf regime in Pakistan for sheltering the terrorist infrastructure has reduced the effectiveness of the counter-terrorism operations.The widespread anger in the Islamic world at the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq has added to the bitterness against them. A respite from the terrorism of Al Qaeda and other organisations inspired by it is, therefore, unlikely in the short and medium term. India cannot remain unaffected by this.
While it is still uncertain if Laden is dead, there are more indicators suggesting that he is probably alive than the other way round. Even if he is dead, his removal from the scene will not bring an immediate disruption of the activities of his followers, who will be able to keep up the tempo of their terrorism for some years to come. Of course, there will be less centralised direction and co-ordination and more independent, unco-ordinated strikes, but there will be no decrease in the brutality and unpredictability of their violence.
The writer was additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. At present, he is director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and convenor, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai chapter.