INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR—PAPER NO.484
(Written exclusively for “India and Global Affairs” magazine. Can’t be reproduced in any other journal or website till it appears. )
The terrorist strike in Mumbai from November 26 to 29,2008, sent a shiver right across the world not just because it was spectacular, but because there was a fearsome brain, which had planned the entire operation to the minutest details and had it carried out through remote control from Pakistan with the help of not more than 10 terrorists. There might have been many more terrorists involved in various peripheral roles such as intelligence collection, reconnoitring, logistics etc, but the core group, which carried out the strike, was not more than 10 in number, but it managed to have an important corner of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, under its control for nearly 60 hours. This was asymmetric urban warfare of a kind not seen in India before.
It was a mix of urban warfare and terrorism, a mix of old terrorism involving the use of hand-held weapons, hand-grenades and explosives and of new terrorism involving the use of modern technological gadgets such as the global positioning system for finding their way by sea from Karachi to Mumbai and a satellite phone for protected communications with their controllers in Pakistan, and a mix of sea-borne and land-based terrorism.
One also saw a mix of attacks on human beings and economic capabilities, a mix of attacks on Indians and foreigners and a mix of various strategies. A strategy to disrupt the peace process between India and Pakistan was mixed with a strategy for reprisal against the expanding strategic co-operation of India with Israel and the Western world. A strategy for discrediting India's political leadership and professional national security managers in the eyes of the Indian public was combined with a strategy for discrediting them in the eyes of the international community and the international business world. These strategies focused on a mix of targets----the man in the street and the elite.
India has had three instances of mass casualty terrorism involving fatalities of more than 150. All the three of them were in Mumbai and carried out by jihadi terrorists trained and armed in Pakistan. In March, 1993, a group of Indian Muslims belonging to Mumbai, who were got trained in secret camps in Pakistan by Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian mafia leader then living in Dubai and now living in Karachi, carried out a series of explosions directed against carefully selected economic targets killing 257 civilians. In July,2006, a mixed group of Indian and Pakistani Muslims, allegedly trained in Pakistani territory by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), a Pakistani terrorist organization, carried out a series of explosions in some suburban trains killing 181 commuters. The latest terrorist strike---the third one—has been carried out by a group of 10 Pakistani nationals belonging to the LET, killing 160 Indians and 25 foreigners.
Anger over the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by some Hindus in December,2002, and over the alleged excesses of the Mumbai police against some local Muslims, who took to violence in protest against the demolition, was clearly the trigger for the March,1993, explosions. The terrorist strikes of July,2006, and November,2008, seem to have been caused not by heat-of-the-moment anger over any issue, but by carefully worked out strategic calculations to target India’s emergence as a major power thanks to its galloping economy and its growing strategic partnership with the Western countries and Israel. A desire to provoke Hindu-Muslim clashes was a part of the motive, but not the sole motive.
These have always been among the strategic calculations of the State of Pakistan, in addition to its desire to force a change in the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) through the use of terrorism, without the Pakistani army getting directly involved. Since 1993, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been using four jihadi organizations of the 1980s Afghan vintage in an attempt to achieve these objectives. These are the LET, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM). Of these, the HUM is a founder-member of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People formed by him from Kandahar in 1998. Its then Amir, Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, was a co-signatory of bin Laden’s first fatwa of 1998 calling for jihad against the US and Israel. The remaining three organizations joined the IIF subsequently.
Of the four jihadi organizations infiltrated by the ISI into J&K in 1993, the LET has maintained the closest links with the ISI. It is the clandestine arm of the ISI for achieving Pakistan’s strategic objectives against India. It has never been involved in any act of terrorism in Pakistani territory---- against Pakistani personalities or foreign nationals.
US intelligence agencies, which paid no attention to the LET in the past, started monitoring its activities in December,2001, after its involvement, along with the JEM, in the attack on the Indian Parliament building. The US State Department designated the LET and the JEM as foreign terrorist organizations. Under US pressure, Musharraf banned the LET and the JEM----but not in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir--- on January 15,2002, arrested their leaders and sealed off many of their offices. Subsequently, he took advantage of the increasing US dependence on the ISI and the Pakistan Army for its war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda to release the arrested leaders, without provoking any adverse reaction from the US. Prof.Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, the released Amir of the LET, floated a new organization called the Jamaat-ud-Jawa (JUD) and projected it as a charity organization with no links to the LET.
Indian intelligence agencies looked upon this as a pure charade to enable the ISI to continue to use the JUD and the LET in its proxy war against India. US concerns over the nexus between the JUD and the LET remained, but it did not allow these concerns to make it take a strong line against the ISI’s use of them against India. So long as Musharraf co-operated with the US against Al Qaeda, it took a lenient view of his nurturing the Taliban and the JUD-LET combine in Pakistani territory for using them to achieve Pakistan’s strategic objectives against Afghanistan and India.
US concerns over the JUD-LET combine started increasing in 2003 following three developments. The first was the discovery that the JUD-LET was training a group of recruits from Malaysia and Indonesia belonging to the Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) in one of its madrasas in Karachi. The JI was involved in the Bali explosions of October 2002 and October,2005 and in the Jakarta explosion of August, 2003. Among those undergoing training was a brother of Hambali, who was reputed to be the operational chief of the JI.
The second was the discovery by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of a clandestine cell of the LET in the US homeland. The third was the role played by the JUD-LET combine in mobilizing support for Al Qaeda and ex-Baathist elements fighting against the US troops in Iraq.
For the first time, the Western intelligence agencies started suspecting that the JUD-LET combine was playing a double role---- as the clandestine arm of the ISI against India and as a surrogate of Al Qaeda against the US though it continued to refrain from any anti-US operations in Pakistani territory. These increasing concerns led to the US designating the JUD also as a terrorist organization on April 27, 2006, but Pakistan refused to follow suit insisting that the JUD was a purely charity organization with no links to the banned LET.
This was the time Al Qaeda started facing difficulties in infiltrating its Arab members into the West for organizing acts of terrorism due to the problems faced by them in traveling to the Western countries. It started depending on members of the Pakistani and Indian Muslim diaspora in the West for its operations. The JUD-LET combine and the JEM let themselves be used by Al Qaeda for recruiting volunteers in the diaspora for the operations of Al Qaeda directed against the West.
Despite the increasing evidence of the JUD-LET playing the role of Al Qaeda’s surrogates, the US was not prepared to step up the pressure on the Musharraf Government and its successor Asif Ali Zardari Government to act against them because its immediate priority continues to be its fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban operating against the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
It is in this context that the Mumbai terrorist strike of November 26 has come as a shock to the NATO countries ----not only because the JUD-LET terrorists targeted Western and Israeli nationals for the first time, but also because the terrorist attack showed that the LET has emerged as an international terrorist organization with the ability to plan and execute acts of urban warfare similar to those of the Hizbollah in the Lebanon and acts of mass casualty terrorism similar to those of Al Qaeda. Was Mumbai an isolated one-time attack or is it the precursor of more such strikes not only in India, but also in other countries? That is the question preoccupying the intelligence agencies of the world.
Has there been any external contribution to this worrisome increase in the capabilities of the JUD-LET combine----- either from the ISI or from Al Qaeda or both? Has the JUD-LET combine had any contacts with the Hizbollah? Finding answers to these questions will be an important task of the intelligence agencies in the months to come.
Mumbai---November 26 was a fresh wake-up call not only for India, but also for the US and the rest of the Western world. It heralds the emergence of a new international terrorist organization on par with Al Qaeda in its ability to plan and carry out terrorist strikes of enormous strategic significance. The US administration----whether the outgoing one headed by President George Bush or the incoming one headed by Barack Obama--- will be jeopardizing its war against terrorism if it continues to close its eyes partially---- as it has been doing till now--- to the indications of the war assuming two fronts----from the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) adjoining Afghanistan and from those of the JUD-LET in Pakistani Punjab and the POK adjoining India.
The JUD-LET is no longer a threat only to India. It is an equal threat to the international community. The war against the JUD-LET is no longer just India’s war. It is equally the war of the international community. A major threat to regional and international peace and security has arisen from the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and the JUD-LET in Pakistani territory.
However, there is still considerable ambivalence in the attitude of the US. It is worried ----- as it was when Musharraf was in power---- that intense pressure on Pakistan might destabilize the Zardari-led Government before it is able to find its feet. It is also worried that too much pressure might damage even the little co-operation which it has been getting from the Pakistan Army and the ISI against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Zardari----like Musharraf before him--- has been trying to add to US fears about Pakistan by projecting an “After me, the Jihadi Deluge” scenario.
Zardari has not yet formally banned the JUD. Many of its leaders, including Prof.Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, have been kept under house-arrest, which is a farce. He continues to deny that the terrorist captured by the Mumbai Police is a Pakistani national despite respected Pakistani and British newspapers verifying his Pakistani nationality. He has taken up the traditional Pakistani position that no Pakistani suspect will ever be handed over to India for interrogation and prosecution and that the Indian Police will not be allowed to interrogate any Pakistani suspect in Pakistan.
While refusing to extend any mutual legal assistance to India, he continues to insist that it is up to India to prove that the LET was involved and that the terrorist strike was carried out from Pakistani territory. He has gone back on the assurances given in public by Benazir Bhutto before she returned to Pakistan from exile in October 2007 that she would hand over Dawood Ibrahim to India and act against all terrorists operating from Pakistani territory. If Iran or North Korea had taken a similar stand in a similar situation, the US would have by now acted against them. It continues to treat Pakistan as a case apart meriting special consideration.
Would things be different under Barack Obama after he takes over as the President? He had made some very strong statements against Pakistan during the Presidential election campaign. In fact, he had clearly indicated that if he concluded that Pakistan was unwilling or unable to act effectively against Al Qaeda, he would consider unilateral US strikes against Al Qaeda hide-outs and suspects in Pakistani territory. His warnings did not specifically refer to the sanctuaries of the Taliban. His main concern is to prevent another 9/11 in the US homeland from Al Qaeda. It is rightly the assessment of US intelligence and defence experts that such a threat could emanate only from the Pashtun tribal belt on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is also their assessment that an act of catastrophic terrorism involving the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material could arise mainly from Pakistani territory.
Obama’s interest is, therefore, in a more robust policy than was followed under Bush so far as action against Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan is concerned. Though he defended India’s right to protect itself after the Mumbai strike, he has not specified whether India would have the same right as he claims for the US. Moreover, it needs to be remembered that US political leaders take up a strong position against Pakistan when they are out of power, but tend to soften their position after they come to power under the influence of the permanent bureaucracy in the State Department and the Pentagon. One should not be surprised if this happens in the case of Obama too.
While diplomacy has its uses in counter-terrorism, it has its limitations too. While we should mobilize the support of the West in our campaign against Pakistan, we should not put all our political and operational eggs in the basket of this campaign. The search for diplomatic support should be accompanied by a more robust mix of disincentives to make Pakistan realize that it will have to pay a heavy price if it continues with its present policy of using terrorism against India. One of the disincentives could be the total suspension of the peace process and bilateral trade till Pakistan dismantles the JUD-LET infrastructure. After the outrageous attack of the JUD-LET on November 26, we should not carry on with Pakistan as if nothing has happened. It is this absence of even a strong political response that makes Pakistan think that we just do not have the stomach to retaliate.
Retaliate, we should at least against the JUD-LET even if not against Pakistan----but not in impulsive heat of the moment reactions, but through carefully worked out operational options such as covert actions against the JUD-LET operatives and infrastructure. Many operational options short of a direct military strike are available, but these cannot be discussed in a paper of this nature.
Since November,2007, we have had seven incidents of mass casualty terrorism in our territory----in three places in Uttar Pradesh, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Assam and Mumbai. In six of these cases, the planning and execution were carried out from Indian territory by home-grown terrorists----acting either alone or with the help of the LET and the HUJI of Bangladesh. In Mumbai, the operation was planned and executed by Pakistani elements from Pakistani territory. Since July,2008, we have been havng one act of mass casualty terrorism every month except in August.
It is our repeated failures to detect in time and prevent the six attacks involving serial explosions before November,2008, that have encouraged the JUD-LET to mount this outrageous attack in Mumbai. Prevention, preparedness and consequence management are the three components of any counter-terrorism strategy. These components have been found repeatedly wanting since November, 2007. The Mumbai strike has exposed the shocking state of our counter-terrorism machinery. Claims by the intelligence agencies that they had given advance warnings of the LET plans for a sea-borne attack on hotels in Mumbai may be correct, but the fact that despite this we could not prevent the terrorist strike is a sad reflection on all the organizations in our counter-terrorism community. They failed to act jointly to deny success to the terrorists.
Our habit of running to the US for support against Pakistan whenever we fail to prevent an act of jihadi terrorism will make us a laughing stock of the world and the terrorists. In the fight against terrorism, many countries----the US, Indonesia, Spain and the UK--- have had their moments of surprise, but they showed determination to see that they were not surprised again. We have been surprised again and again and again. We cannot afford to let this happen again. (17-12-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and former head of the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency )