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Few takers for India's anti-ISI campaign
B Raman
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January 12, 2009
Forty-five days after the Mumbai [Images] terrorist strike of November 2008, India has failed to convince large sections of the international community that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence had orchestrated the terrorist strike in Mumbai through the Lashkar e Tayiba. That is my conclusion after interactions with a wide spectrum of foreign counter-terrorism experts -- governmental as well as non-governmental.

The experts from the various countries whose nationals died at the hands of the terrorists are convinced on the basis of their own substantial independent technical intelligence that the terrorist attack was carried out by 10 Pakistani nationals belonging to the LeT, who came to Mumbai by boat from Karachi for carrying out the strike. They are also convinced on the basis of the voluminous evidence in their archives about the privileged relationship between the ISI and the LeT. But they claim not to have seen any conclusive evidence so far to show that the ISI -- or at least its present leadership -- had orchestrated the Mumbai terrorist attack.

A question they pose, which is logical and compelling, is whether the terrorists would have killed nationals of the US, the UK, France [Images], Italy [Images], Germany [Images], Canada [Images] and Australia [Images] if they had been deputed by the ISI to indulge in the carnage.

Some of these experts, who were earlier convinced of the ISI's hand behind the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in the first week of July 2008, when Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, the present corps commander at Gujranwala, was the ISI director-general, are prepared to allow for the possibility that Taj, before he was removed from the ISI on September 30, 2008, allegedly under US pressure by Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's chief of the army staff, might have also planned the Mumbai attack by the LeT and got its cadres chosen for the attack trained.

In this connection, it is significant that Ajmal Kasab [Images], the Pakistani in the custody of the Mumbai police, had reportedly stated during his interrogation that the attack was originally planned for September 26 but was postponed. These experts point out that Taj was still the DG of the ISI on September 26.

The Americans allegedly got Taj removed because of their conviction that he was the brain behind the Kabul attack and that Taj, who has a reputation of being rabidly anti-Indian and anti-US, had leaked out some information shared  by the Americans with him to the Taliban [Images]. It was generally presumed till now on the basis of some past reports in sections of the Pakistani media about Taj being related to Pervez Musharraf [Images] that he must be a Mohajir, but some Western experts claim that he is actually a Punjabi-speaking Kashmiri.

If this is so, the ISI had been headed by Punjabi-speaking Kashmiris twice in its history. The other Kashmiri head of the ISI was Lt Gen (retired) Javed Nasir, who headed the ISI during Nawaz Sharif's [Images] first tenure as prime minister (1990-93). The Mumbai blasts of March 1993 were orchestrated by him. He was removed by Sharif from the ISI under US pressure because of his perceived non-cooperation in the US attempts to buy back unused Stinger missiles from the Afghan Mujahideen [Images]. It was during his tenure that the Clinton Administration had declared Pakistan as a suspected State-sponsor of terrorism. This designation was removed six months later, after Sharif had removed Nasir from the ISI along with some other officers disliked by the US.

Thus, while some American experts have an open mind on the possibility of Taj's involvement in the Mumbai carnage, they are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who has been the DG of the ISI since September 30, 2008. He enjoys a good reputation in the West as a balanced person, who would not indulge in such an operation, particularly when it is partly directed against Western nationals and Jewish civilians.

Every country whose nationals died during the terrorist attack has been making a detailed analysis of why its nationals were targeted and killed. For example, the terrorists also killed the nationals of three countries in South-East Asia, one of them a Chinese woman from Singapore. According to one version that one heard in Singapore, the terrorists forced her to phone her foreign office in Singapore and request it to urge the Government of India not to send the security forces into the hotels. According to the version prevalent in Singapore, when the Singapore foreign office refused to intercede in this matter, the terrorists shot her dead. Why did they do so? What is the reason for their apparent anger against Singapore? This is a question which kept propping up.

Apart from the way the attack was planned and executed, the most significant aspect of the attack was the targeting of foreign nationals -- particularly the cream of the foreign business community who frequent these hotels. It was because of this that the Western technical intelligence agencies diverted all their capabilities to cover the conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan. It is said the US moved one of its communication satellites over Mumbai during the 60 hours that the drama lasted in order to cover these conversations.

After the drama was over and the National Security Guard had rescued the surviving hostages, the Western countries had all their surviving nationals quietly flown to Europe where they were thoroughly debriefed by special teams from their intelligence agencies. It is said the French even sent a special plane for evacuating their and other Western survivors from Mumbai to Paris. Western experts are surprised that neither the Mumbai police nor the central intelligence agencies showed any interest in detaining the surviving foreign hostages in India in order to debrief them thoroughly. If they had done so, the details collected by them would have formed an important part of the dossier prepared by the ministry of home affairs and disseminated to foreign governments. It is said that such details which could have been obtained by debriefing the foreign survivors, hardly figure in the dossier.

According to foreign experts, the Mumbai police and the central intelligence agencies were so excited by the capture of one of the Pakistani perpetrators that they seem to have devoted all their attention to interrogating him and getting as many details as possible which could help them fix Pakistan. They complain that other important aspects which might have helped them in reconstructing the terrorist attack, drawing the right lessons from it and preventing a repetition of similar attacks in future have not received much attention.

Pakistan's argument that the Government of India has been trying to divert attention from the colossal failure of its counter-terrorism machinery in Mumbai by focussing on the alleged involvement of the ISI has started having some takers abroad  due to the unprofessional manner in which the aftermath of the terrorist strike has been handled by the government. It is important to hold Pakistan accountable for using terrorism against India through concrete evidence. At the same time, it is equally important to identify the deficiencies in our counter-terrorism machinery and act quickly to remove them. This is not being done.

The Mumbai carnage has caused great concern in the Western countries for two reasons. First, the jihadi terrorists in India who had in the past showed an increasing preference for explosives over hand-held weapons, have gone back to hand-held weapons for attacking private establishments such as hotels, which have anti-explosive checks but no armed guards to foil an attack with hand-held weapons. Of the fatalities in Mumbai, only five were reportedly caused by explosives. The remaining were caused by hand-held weapons (assault rifles and hand-grenades).

This trend, of the jihadi terrorists going back to hand-held weapons, was first noticed in the Anbar province of Iraq after 1993 when the Al Qaeda [Images] killed a number of Americans and others with hand-held weapons. It was noticed in Pakistan in 2007. When the jihadis failed to kill Benazir Bhutto [Images] with an explosive device at Karachi in October 2007, they used a mix of a hand-held weapon and an explosive to successfully kill her at Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. This trend was noticed in Afghanistan in 2008. While there was reportedly a one-third increase in the use of explosive devices in Afghanistan, there was a simultaneous increase in the use of hand-held weapons for precision killings. This trend has now spread to the Indian territory outside Jammu & Kashmir.

Secondly, many Western experts feel that there was an Al Qaeda hand in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attack and that such precision planning and execution would not have been possible without the involvement of some locals. While Indian experts have been able to quantify reasonably well the threat which they would continue to face in J&K, they have not been able to quantify in similar manner the threat from sections of Indian youth outside J&K because of a fear in political circles that such an exercise for quantification might have an adverse effect on the Muslim vote in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

US Congressional committees and professional counter-terrorism organisations in the West are already examining the Mumbai carnage in order to draw lessons for themselves and to prevent a Mumbai-style attack in their country. Surprisingly, such an exercise is hardly to be seen in India. All the debate till now has been on what the options are against Pakistan. There has hardly been any public debate on what the options are against the terrorists in order to prevent another major attack.

(The writer is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi [Images] and, presently, director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

B Raman
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