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Lethal IM doesn't solely depend on Pakistani support

February 06, 2014 15:29 IST

A new report says Indian jihadis, including the Indian Mujahideen, are significantly more lethal as a result of external support, primarily from Pakistan. Aziz Haniffa reports.

The Indian Mujaheddin is a loosely organised indigenous Islamist militant network that represents part of a larger universe of Islamist extremist entities operating inside India, many of them connected to external organisation such as the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayiba, a new study authored by South Asia security specialist Stephen Tankel has said.

During a conference launching his report Jihadist Violence, the Indian Threat, attended by US administration officials, Congressional aides, and policy wonks specialising in security and terrorism, Tankel said, “Indian jihadis, including the Indian Mujaheddin, are significantly more lethal as a result of external support, primarily, but not solely, from Pakistan and Pakistan-based actors”.

The study is published by the Woodrow Wilson Centre that is partially funded by the US Congress. Tankel traveled for weeks in India and Bangladesh to undertake extensive research for the report under the aegis of the centre as one of its public policy scholars.

Tankel, who is slated to join the Pentagon as a policy analyst in the South Asia bureau where he will focus on insurgency, terrorism, and the evolution of non-state armed groups, is currently an assistant professor at American University in DC and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “For years, because of the external support of Pakistani-based external actors, these were seen as attacks by Pakistan or Pakistani operatives”.

“They were not seen as domestic terrorism and so the domestic drivers and the involvement of locals who were self-activating rather than being recruited from the top down were overlooked and that would continue to be the case till probably about five years ago”.

But Tankel acknowledged that besides Bangladesh and some Gulf countries, Pakistan was “certainly still providing safe havens to certain Indian Mujaheddin leaders. In the past there has been training in explosive material and money from Pakistani militant groups”.

“But more importantly, one of the big areas of debate is whether the support equals command and control,” he said, and noted, “there is anecdotal evidence of both encouragement and restraint by the Pakistani intelligence services vis-à-vis the IM, but that’s anecdotal and we really don’t know where the instructions are coming from”.

Tankel, paying special tribute to the late Indian terrorism expert B Raman, whom he described as “an excellent Indian analyst,” recalled how Raman would always make the point that ‘there is a lot of retired ISI running around, there are people who are posing as ISI but come from another intelligence service or maybe from a militant group.’

He said, “There are also people who are from ISI, who say they are retired, and so, it’s very difficult for people at such low levels -- and that’s what Indian operatives are -- to really know who these people are talking to and how high the level of direction goes. So, that’s important to keep in mind”.

Tankel said even though the US has designated the IM as a terrorist organisation, “it remains a low priority,” but acknowledged that if the India-Pakistan competition keys up in Afghanistan post US and NATO troop withdrawal, “that leads to proxy competition and then the IM will be another arrow in Pakistan’s quiver”.

He explained that “neither India nor Pakistan have ever engineered an indigenous movement in the other country from scratch -- rather what they’ve done is cultivated these entities.”

Tankel said, “We saw that in terms of Indian support for separatists in Pakistan and we’ve seen that in terms of Pakistanis for separatists or other violent movements in India”.

“And, as a nascent network of would-be Indian jihadists outside of Indian-administered Kashmir, where the conflict erupted in 1988-89 began to activate, both Pakistani state and its jihadist proxies were there to promote its growth”.

Tankel said, “It’s a symptom of bilateral issues with Pakistan, which remains defined by zero-sum competition, and in India, it’s a symptom of poor internal governance, political malfeasance, economic inequality, and a sense of injustice among some Indian Muslims”.

At the outset, since most in the audience and the general perception in the US, according to Tankel had been conditioned by Indian officials always boasting over the years that unlike other parts of South Asia, and in particular, India was not infested with jihadism, the security expert took pains to explain in detail the genesis of jihadism in India, that continued to be alive and well in India.

“Indian jihadism,” he said, “are a network of networks. We are talking about lots of different individual actors. But what those actors share in common is that they are motivated by common domestic grievances”.

Tankel said, “In this regard, the primary grievance is socio-economic. It remains a fact that Indian Muslims on average are less well-off socio-ecnomically, have had a harder time with unemployment, lack of education, access to jobs, in the bureaucracy, in the police service, etc, that do the Hindu majority”.

“And, this is not abject poverty—this is also relative deprivation,” he added, and argued, “relative deprivation is sometimes a driver for some people to get involved in militancy”.

Tankel also acknowledged that “at the same time, this is also highlighted by the rise of Hindu nationalistic movement especially during the 1980s and 1990s that set out to do exactly what the name suggests -- promote Hindu nationalism”.

He said that although “India is a secular country, there were actors who pushed a Hindutva agenda and there was communal violence that accompanied this and in these episodes of communal violence, Indian Muslims generally got the short end of the stick”.

Tankel said some of these episodes described as pogroms by analysts and commentators “stoked a sense of injustice and grievance and desire for revenge in the Indian Muslim majority and it contributed to radicalisation, especially the Students Islamic Movement of India”.

“What’s interesting is SIMI never went far enough in the eyes of some of its members who thought the tough talk and the rhetoric -- the mood music to which these militants ended up dancing -- is not enough and so they went on to engage in jihadism”.

Tankel said, “And, as this was happening in the early 1990s -- this was evolving –the Pakistani intelligence services, the security establishment and burgeoning Pakistani militant groups like LeT were there to assist”.

He attributed the first phase of the evolution of Indian jihadism to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, where “in the riots that followed, once again, the Muslim community got the short end of the stick”.

“And, this was seen as a communal spark at which point some of the actors, some who were in SIMI at the time, or people who were associated with different organizations of organized crime began to see that they had to take matters into their own hands -- that established Muslim community leaders were not pushing back hard enough and so, this created space for them or compelled them to rise up.”

But Tankel said, “The first non-state actors to strike after the demolition of the Babri mosque were not jihadists at all—they were criminals, the D-Company. The Davood Ibrahim South Asian organized criminal conglomerate, and it was people in the D-Company with Pakistan state support that engineered the 1993 bombings in Mumbai”.

But, he noted that “at the same time, small groups were also organizing and they quickly linked up with LeT operatives”.

However, Tankel said an “important take-away was the continued interplay between the Indian organised crime and Indian jihadi movements over the years”.

Of course, he acknowledged that the Gujarat riots on top of the Babri Masjid catalysed “this desire for revenge in a whole new crop of Indian youth at this stage, and at the same time, SIMI is banned and it drives SIMI further underground”.

All of this, Tankel said, “contributes to further radicalization of more possible militants at this stage and SIMI becomes not a terrorist organization in its own right, but ac recruitment pool for IM as well as for various Pakistani militant groups at this time”.

He said that “at the end of the day, IM is an organisation driven by the desire for communal revenge primarily and so, it’s not surprising that they go back primarily to local targets --they are easier and I would say probably fits te desires of their rank and file”.

Tankel said, “If you are recruiting guys who are angry at the Hindu majority, the Hindu state, then it’s easier to get them and go hit local targets”.

Thus, he said, the German Bakery attack in Pune, patronised by foreigners was more the exception than the rule.

Tankel said it was interesting how there were differing perceptions vis-à-vis Pakistan-based terrorist groups like LeT and IM, regarding which was a bigger threat to India.

He said, “People in the Indian government and the security community, who dealt on a geo-political level, tended to see Pakistani militants groups as a bigger threat…for example LeT, and their thinking was LeT has greater capability and capacity and can do a lot more damage and it can provoke more of a geopolitical crisis. And, it’s going to be there as long as the Pakistani state wants it to be there”.

Tankel quipped, LeT ‘might be there longer than some in the Pakistani state would like it to be there because they are going to have a disposal problem even if they try to get rid of it.’

But he said, as part of his research and investigation, “When I would talk to the police -- and this actually makes sense because they are the guys on the ground to root out and investigate these attacks -- they were more worried about IM because they were looking at things from the perspective of what is easier or harder to detect”.

Tankel said, “It was more difficult for them to detect local operatives motivated by local grievances with perhaps minimal support from the outside or might be wholly indigenous”.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC