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The enemy within

August 28, 2003

The first bomb went off at 1:03 in the afternoon. The second exploded about seven minutes later. And by two o' clock in the afternoon, Delhi was already abuzz with the dread words 'Al Qaeda.'

I would be the last person to deny that Osama bin Laden and his acolytes have little reason to like India and even less respect for innocent lives. But aren't we being a little hasty in thus jumping to conclusion? We have, heaven knows, enough home-grown lunatics to spare!

Step back a little in time to consider what happened in Mumbai in 1993. The bomb blasts of that miserable day were no less powerful -- RDX was used then as now -- and equally well synchronised. Yet nobody even whispered that Al Qaeda was involved. It was the general conclusion that the mastermind was Dawood Ibrahim, using the Memon brothers as his henchmen.

Of course, Pakistan's ISI was suspected of providing training, equipment, and, ultimately, sanctuary, but nobody denied the presence of the local element. So what has changed in ten years?

Very simply, the rush to drag Al Qaeda into picture is a reaction to September 11, 2001. bin Laden has become the bogeyman of the world. (Remember President Bush invoking his name in a bid to justify the looming attack on Iraq?) But while it might make effective propaganda I fear that such a rush to judgement risks ignoring other facts, namely the involvement of Indian citizens.

Just how many times has Al Qaeda actually been involved in terrorist attacks around the world? It brought down the World Trade Center certainly, it was probably involved in more recent suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, and its cadres fought in Afghanistan. But the group is actually better at providing arms, money, training, and inspiration than for actual operations.

India needs to take a good hard look at militant groups within India before accusing Al Qaeda.

The history of terrorism in India would, I think, bear out my thesis. Militancy was most effective in Punjab and Kashmir when disaffected local groups were involved. According to Delhi's statistics, ten years ago a hefty chunk of the militants -- probably well over half -- were Kashmiris. Today, security agencies say it is little more than 5 per cent and falling .

The result is there for all to see. Who could have predicted ten years ago, or even ten months ago, that the prime minister would summon every chief minister in India to meet in Srinagar? But the euphoria over the successes in Jammu & Kashmir should not blind us to the fact that terrorism has attracted adherents in other parts of India.

And think about it: if a foreign foe truly wishes to weaken India, would it not do better by striking economically advanced Gujarat and Maharashtra than states on the periphery? (Which might also explain the Coimbatore blasts of 1998, and, perhaps, even the killings in Marad in Kerala more recently.)

In rushing to pronounce judgment on Al Qaeda we are also in danger of overreacting on another front. I hear suggestions that India would do well to tap Israeli expertise in tackling terrorism. I expect these to grow in volume if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposed visit takes place in September. To which all I can respond is: What expertise are you talking about?

Nobody denies that Israel's security agencies are a well-coordinated group. But who says they have demonstrated any capacity to block bombings and suicide attacks? Car and bus bombs explode with deadening regularity in the very heart of the territory controlled by Israel -- Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (The most recent attack came last week, and killed 21.) So what exactly does Israel have to teach India in this respect?

I am afraid we -- particularly those in Delhi and Mumbai -- shall continue to be prime targets for the terrorist. (After all, Al Qaeda chose to attack New York and Washington rather than, say, Peoria!)

The effort is to create panic -- not least in the markets -- and to spark off communal riots. The best answer, then, came from Mumbai itself; the jitters on Dalal Street and the money market did not last the night. As I write, both the Sensex and the rupee have continued their upward trend, and there has been nary a sign of communal violence.

I end as I began -- with a plea to exercise common sense and self-restraint. There is no need to fear Al Qaeda, the enemies we are looking for are closer home.

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T V R Shenoy

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