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'Very serious risk of a spectacular terrorist attack by ISI-backed groups'

By Nikhil Lakshman
Last updated on: January 03, 2016 12:33 IST
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'The combination of the LeT and the ISI is the most dangerous terrorist challenge in the world because it carries a real and present danger of provoking nuclear war.'

The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in flames, November 26-27, 2008.

IMAGE: The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in flames, November 26-27, 2008.


Last year, former Central Intelligence Agency official Bruce Riedel made the startling revelation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Al Qaeda.

Speaking at one of several conferences held on the eve of Modi's visit to the US in September 2014, Riedel, who was part of the CIA for over three decades, said, "Prime Minister Modi, his very persona, his past, the histories about him, perceptions for and against him, attract Islamic extremist thinking."

"Modi as an extremely successful Indian politician, known to be a strong nationalist, known to be a strong believer in the BJP ideology, is going to attract the attention of extremist movements like Laskhar-e-Tayiba, like Al Qaeda," Riedel, now a Senior Fellow and Director at the Washington, DC think-tank, the Brookings Institution's Intelligence Project, added.

"It is inevitable in who he is that enemies of that are going to try to take him down," Riedel warned.

"The attack underscores the determination of jihadist groups in Pakistan to sabotage any attempt at detente with India," Riedel replied when Nikhil Lakshman/ sought an interview soon after the Indian Air Force station in Pathankot was attacked.

"These groups have very powerful friends in the Pakistani army who want to see the Lahore process collapse," he added.

After the bon homie of Christmas Day in Lahore, were you surprised that the Pathankot airbase attack occurred so quickly?

No, I was not surprised. An attack was very predictable by jihadists wanting to sabotage the Lahore process. A high profile target like an airbase was the jihadists' choice to buttress their claims to be warriors.

Could such an attack have occurred without the Pakistan military's approval?

Do you believe the Pakistan army no longer controls terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, and these groups have become independent, sort of like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan?

The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, almost certainly knew an operation was coming.

The ISI closely monitors JeM and LeT. They control their leadership and facilities, and have agents inside these and similar groups. They are not independent actors.

Some commentators felt that since Pakistan's new NSA was a former general who enjoyed General Raheel Sharif's backing, the Pakistan army was on board with the current India-Pakistan rapprochement-of-sorts process. Did you think so?

Who are the forces in the Pakistan military determined to thwart a better relationship with India?

Is it historical baggage that motivates these forces -- payback for 1971 -- or something else?

I'm sceptical the army supports Prime Minister (Nawaz) Sharif's foreign policy. They certainly don't back him on Afghanistan where he has backed the peace process and the army has backed military action by the Taliban.

It is even less likely the army supports detente with India. A detente would undermine their privileged status as the defenders of Islamic Pakistan.

It's not about 1971, it's about the military's perks.

There is a feeling the terrorists have been asked to target security establishments in India, rather than civilian targets, perhaps to avert the kind of worldwide opprobrium that ensued after 26/11. Do you agree?

Do you see a new pattern emerging in the targeting of Indian security establishments in India and diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan?

The terrorists and their patrons prefer military targets to shore up their credentials as mujahideen. But I doubt any prohibition is in place on civilian targets.

If that is the most practical target available, they will target Mumbai like soft targets again.

The terrorist groups and the ISI are confident the nuclear arsenal will prevent a significant military response.

Has radical Islam penetrated the upper reaches of the Pakistan army? Or are the generals insulated from this phenomenon? Are brigadiers and colonels with such a mindset weeded out before they reach the ranks of generals?

How would you describe the current state of Pakistan military leadership? Are they more austere, more devout than the men who preceded them, men more like their counterparts in the Indian Army, who enjoy their sundowners?

Radical Islam penetrated the highest ranks of the army decades ago when Zia-(ul Haq) came to power. The army is not a simple homogeneous officer corps, like any army.

But radical extremists have been in the senior ranks for years and that will not change until the civilian authorities have real control of the officer corps. That is not likely.

How do you see the ISI's current role in the Pakistan army? Is covert operations against India, and in Afghanistan still its exclusive domain? Has it grown even more powerful in recent times or was it put on a leash of sorts after 26/11, so as not to incite the Americans?

The ISI is run by the COAS (Chief of the Army Staff). There is no credible evidence it has abandoned terrorism as an instrument of policy.

The generals believe the nuclear umbrella precludes an Indian response using force. They also believe it constrains the Americans. So far, they have been proven right.

Do you foresee an ISI-inspired major terror attack in India like 26/11? Or is that kind of terror op deemed too expensive for Pakistan internationally?

There is a very serious risk of another spectacular terrorist attack in 2016 by ISI-backed groups.

Do you see the possibility of an India-Pakistan short duration war, as some observers believe? Or is that extremely unlikely?

Is the ISI the most dangerous organisation of its kind in the world? What operations have you seen its involvement in that has startled you?

They tried in 2014 at Herat (when the Indian consulate was attacked on the eve of Prime Minister Modi's swearing-in). They have now struck in the Punjab.

I'm sure there are many plots foiled by R&AW we don't know about.

The basic rationale for using terrorism against India is unchanged, and the ISI is not reformed.

As I have said before, the combination of the LeT and the ISI is the most dangerous terrorist challenge in the world because it carries a real and present danger of provoking nuclear war.

Why have the Bush and Obama administrations ignored the ISI and the Pakistan army's perfidy?

Unlike Bush, Obama is well aware of Pakistan's complicated politics and the dangerous thinking in the army. That is why he launched the Abbottabad raid without informing Islamabad or Rawalpindi.

He doesn't trust the (Pakistan) army, but he knows it's important (the same applies to Hillary Clinton). It's no accident Obama has never traveled to Pakistan.

What are the five things you expect from Pakistan and its army in 2016?

I expect the army to devote even more resources to accelerate the growth of their nuclear arsenal with the goal of becoming one of the world's largest nuclear powers. That is what they see as their jewel in the crown.

In Afghanistan, they believe victory is now a matter of time, Kabul will fall to their proxies. They will try to make this happen sooner not later.

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Nikhil Lakshman