SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
Another bomb attack on a place of worship – this time at Hyderabad’s largest and historic Mecca Masjid – falls precisely in pattern and linkages, into the succession of such incidents over the past years. While investigations are still at a preliminary stage, there is substantial evidence that yields the considered assessment that this is another Islamist terrorist operation executed by a combination of Pakistan-backed groups operating from or through Bangladesh, with some support from local groups and operatives.
Eleven persons were killed in the Mecca Masjid explosion during the Friday prayers on May 18, 2007, and another five died in subsequent police firing on rampaging mobs of protestors who misdirected their ire against public property and the Police. Initial reports suggest that a combination of RDX and TNT was used in the improvised explosive device packed into a metal pipe, which used a cell phone for a trigger. Another two unexploded devices were recovered from the vicinity and defused by the Police. Sources indicate that the SIM cards of the recovered cell phones had recently been acquired in West Bengal, and efforts are currently being made to identify the point of purchase of the cell phones by their unique international mobile equipment identification numbers.
While details on the actual perpetrators are expected to emerge over time, it is abundantly clear that the objective of this and earlier attacks on mosques and temples has been to provoke communal polarization and violence in the target areas and across the country. In this, the Hyderabad attack has, once again, failed comprehensively, making the Islamist terrorist attacks appear increasingly gratuitous. The Mecca Masjid bombing did, of course, succeed in provoking violent protests among Muslims in the Old city – but these were essentially expressions of diffuse and directionless rage at the killing of innocents in a place of worship, and not in a single incident did they assume the character of a communal polarization or confrontation. A few mischievous reports in a section of the media sought to suggest that right wing Hindu organisations may have been behind the blast, but such an eventuality remains both improbable and inconsistent with past experience, including the preliminary intelligence relating to the character of the explosive devices used.
It is useful, within this context, to notice the chain of major terrorist attacks on temples and mosques across India (outside Jammu & Kashmir) that have preceded the Mecca Masjid bombing:
In addition, there have also been a number of attacks principally directed against a particular community, or in communally sensitive or volatile situations, that have had the same motive of inflaming communal violence. These include:
Hyderabad was a natural target of this campaign of communal escalation. For one thing, it has long been on the crosshairs of the Islamist terrorists. At a congregation of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) cadres at Lahore in 2004, for instance, the terrorist group’s ‘Amir’ (chief), Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, had declared that the ‘liberation’ of Hyderabad was among the group’s ‘top priorities’. He had also disclosed that the Lashkar had established a new unit in the city to ensure that the city reverts to "Islamic culture and habits". It is significant that over 40 per cent of the city’s four million people are Muslim, and Hyderabad has had a history of communal violence, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
Efforts to Islamist extremist and terrorist mobilisation in Hyderabad have long been in evidence, and, on October 12, 2005, a Bangladeshi suicide bomber, identified as Dalin alias Mohthasin Pilal, blew himself up at the Police Task Force office in Hyderabad killing a Home Guard. Investigations pointed to a joint operation by cadres of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and the LeT. The liquid explosive used in the Hyderabad suicide attack had been smuggled in by HuJI-B militants from Dhaka, while other parts, of the explosive device were bought from local markets in Hyderabad. The entire operation had, in fact, been finalised at the Dhaka headquarters of HuJI-B, while some extremists from Hyderabad were also involved in providing logistic support to the core strike team, which included the Pakistan-trained Bangladeshi suicide cadre.
Two and half month's later, on December 27, 2005, three HuJI-B militants involved in the Hyderabad attack were arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police. Interrogations confirmed that all of them had been trained in an Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)-run camp in Balochistan. Among their future targets were the Bangalore Software Park, the Hyderabad Hi-tech City, certain politicians, railway stations and busy places in Delhi and other parts of north India. Interrogations indicated that the ‘mastermind’ behind the STF suicide bombing was Abdul Rehman aka Shahid Bilal of the HuJI, who is also believed to be behind the planning of the Mecca Masjid bombing. Officers investigating the Hyderabad STF attack also came to learn about as many as 500 Hyderabadi Muslim youth who had undergone arms training at the behest of the HuJI-B in Bangladesh and Balochistan in Pakistan. The Andhra Pradesh police's special investigation department admits the ISI had set up what it calls a 'strategic base' in Hyderabad. Earlier, the then ISI kingpin in Andhra Pradesh, Azam Ghauri, was killed in a encounter with the police in the Jagityal town of Karimnagar District in April 2000. Ghauri had also formed some linkages with the then People’s War Group (Communist Party of India – Marxist Leninist Peoples War, which merged with the Maoist Communist Centre to form the Communist Party of India – Maoist, in September 2004). According to one report, between 1993-2006, the Andhra Pradesh Police arrested nearly 90 ISI-backed terrorists and agents who were responsible for minor and major bomb blasts, killings and communal violence in the State, and also seized several trucks carrying RDX explosives across Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad and towns like Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh, which have a large Muslim population, are believed to be targets of ISI recruitment for various Islamist terrorist outfits backed by the Pakistani intelligence agency. Significantly, in a written statement in Parliament, Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal disclosed in August 2006 that, "Available inputs indicate that some Indian youths from the States of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have been lured by ISI to carry out violent and subversive activities."
A number of ISI-backed terrorist and subversive ‘modules’ have also been identified and neutralized by enforcement and intelligence agencies in Hyderabad over the past years. The most significant among these include, over the period 2004-2007, the following:
The attack at the Mecca Masjid is an incremental attempt within a broad strategy of Pakistan-backed Islamist extremist mobilization across India, which sees Hyderabad as a natural focus of its efforts because of its religious demography and its history of communal violence. The public response to this latest terrorist outrage has demonstrated that this strategy continues to fail. But the attack itself demonstrates the determination among Islamist terrorist groups and their state handlers in Pakistan and Bangladesh to continue to push this strategy forward, despite past failure, on the calculus that some future atrocity will eventually trigger the wider conflagration that they hope for.
Even as Pakistan was reeling under the impact of the violence and disorders in Karachi, in which at least 45 persons were killed, a suicide-bomber hit the Marhaba Hotel in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), killing 25. No official determination has been made so far regarding the group responsible for the fidayeen attack, although the provincial Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam indicated that it could have been an act of retaliation for the killing of the senior Taliban ‘commander’ Mullah Dadullah two days earlier in Afghanistan. Most of those killed were Afghans, including the restaurant's owner Sadruddin and his two sons, Uzbeks of Afghan origin related to the anti-Taliban leader General Abdul Rasheed Dostum. A message inscribed in Pashto on the bomber’s legs warned that "those spying for America would face the same consequences."
The NWFP is swiftly crystallizing at the core of the Islamist militant mobilisation in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region even as radical Islamists rapidly expand their presence across Pakistan’s other provinces. It is significant that the NWFP is a region where the state’s presence has been relatively strong in the past, and the situation has never been even remotely comparable to the traditionally ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The deteriorating situation in the NWFP is also an indication of increasing political instability and insecurity in Pakistan, and of the weakening of the embattled President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, throughout 2006, approximately 163 people were killed in NWFP in more than 84 incidents. Just the first five months of year 2007 (till May 18) have already seen at least 149 people, including 100 civilians and 18 security force (SF) personnel, killed in the province, a clear index of the mounting violence. A significant proportion of these fatalities have occurred in suicide attacks, with at least six of the 10 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007 (till May 18) having occurred in the NWFP. The recent suicide attacks in the NWFP include:
May 15, 2007: Twenty-five people were killed and at least 35 injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up on the ground floor of the Marhaba Hotel in Peshawar. The attack occurred at approximately 12:50 pm when the restaurant was crowded with customers for lunch.
April 28, 2007: Thirty-one people, including five police personnel, were killed and the Federal Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao and his young son Sikandar Sherpao Khan were among several people wounded in a suicide attack, moments after the Minister finished a speech at a public rally in his hometown Charsadda. The head of the suicide bomber, who was aged between 30 and 35 years, was found at the site of the blast near Station Koroona, and Inspector General of Police Sharif Virk noted that "he looks like an Afghan".
February 3, 2007: A suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden jeep into a military convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring seven in the Barakhel area of Tank District.
February 3, 2007: A suspected militant blew himself up while planting a bomb outside a video and music shop in Lakki Marwat. The blast damaged a dozen nearby shops in the town, a settled area near Bannu District.
January 29, 2007: A suicide bomber killed three people, including two police personnel, at Dera Ismail Khan. Assistant Superintendent of Police, Captain Hamad, stated that the suicide bomber blew himself up as policeman, Abdul Halim, was searching him.
January 27, 2007: Fifteen people, including six police officials, were killed and 60 others injured in a suicide attack targeting a Muharram (Shia religious) procession near Qasim Ali Khan Mosque in Peshawar. The Peshawar Police Commissioner, Mallik Muhammad Saad, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, three other police personnel and a Nazim (local official) were among those killed.
November 17, 2006: A suicide bomber, identified as Nadeem Khan, killed himself and injured two police personnel when he targeted a police van at the Bara intersection on the Ring Road in Peshawar.
November 8, 2006: A suicide bomber blew himself up at an Army training centre at Dargai, killing 42 and injuring 39 recruits of the Punjab Regiment Centre and their instructor.
The NWFP is spread over an area of 74,521 square kilometres and is divided into 24 Districts, with a population of 17.7 million. Located on the banks of the Indus River, it stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the deserts of the south bordering the Balochistan and Punjab provinces. Afghanistan lies along its extended Western border.
A pro-Taliban Government headed by the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance rules the NWFP. Fugitive Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and other leaders of the Taliban schooled at the Haqqania seminary in the Nowshera District of NWFP, which is run by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, leader of his own faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e Islam and one of the most prominent patrons of the Taliban. Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly and another stalwart of the militant Islamist movement, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and his two brothers Maulana Ataur Rehman and Maulana Lutfur Rehman, reside in a compound adjacent to a madrassa (seminary) at Shorkot in the Dera Ismail Khan District of the province.
Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam, on April 18, 2007, disclosed that the NWFP Government was investigating the activities of local Taliban in some settled areas of the province to identify the leadership and masterminds behind their extremist activities. According to Azam, the Taliban were particularly active in the province’s southern Districts – Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu and Karak. Militant activity has also been reported from the Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Swat, Mardan, Malakand, Charsadda, Peshawar, Nowshera, Tank, Hangu, Kohat, Mansehra, Kohistan, Swabi and Chitral Districts. 19 of the 24 Districts in the Province are presently affected by various levels of militant mobilisation and violence. Bomb blasts, rocket attacks, forced closure of video shops, internet centres and girls’ schools, attacks on NGOs employing women, attacks on singers performing at weddings and threatening calls to barbers are some of the intimidatory activities local Taliban are engage in. The situation in Dera Ismail Khan is so grave that "outsiders – that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country – need police escorts to travel around."
The pro-Taliban militants have ensured the closure of girls' schools, bombed shops selling video cassettes and music CDs and prohibited barbers from shaving beards. The extremists punish, often by killing, anyone who disregards their social and moral codes. Moral policing has not spared even the polio vaccination campaign which the forces of radical Islam consider to be an American conspiracy to sterilise future Muslim generations. The pro-Taliban militants oppose education for females and are also against women working. Girls’ schools have not only been closed in Peshawar but also in some Districts such as Mardan.
All hair cutting saloons in Timergarah, headquarters of the Lower Dir District, and Munda have discontinued shaving services since pamphlets advising them that it was an Islamic duty to grow a beard were distributed by an unidentified Islamist group on March 13, 2007. Barbers "in both the Lower and Upper Dir districts have received pamphlets from the extremists directing them to stop shaving beards," failing which their shops would be destroyed. Fear prevails among the saloons, music and video shop owners since there have been many bomb blasts and attacks on their establishments. Threat letters and pamphlets of the Taliban-linked militants bear names such as Sunnat-e-Nabvi Movement, Islami Sunnat-e-Rasool, Amar Bil Maroof-wa-Nahi Anil Munkar and Islami Janbaaz, all unfamiliar fronts.
The minority Christians are also targeted by the militants, who have told them to convert to Islam or face dire consequences. Such intimidation has led to fear among 50 Christian families in Charsadda, 35 kilometres from Peshawar. Shahbaz Bhatti, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, on May 16, 2007, disclosed that the families received threat letters and were given a 10-day deadline to convert to Islam or vacate their homes. Several Christians, consequently, have fled Charsadda and others are living in fear.
Administrative control in Districts like Tank, Swat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Lakki Marwat, Kohat and in other parts of the Province, has gradually been taken over by the forces of radical Islam. Indeed, a demoralised Police force is clearly no longer able to maintain law and order in these areas. The Tank District, located on the border of the beleaguered South Waziristan area of FATA, is one of the worst affected. With the abdication of the state, it is the Taliban who patrol the streets. Taliban-linked militants have established kangaroo courts for settling disputes in the area and are also arresting ‘criminals’ and parading and punishing them in the streets. The police have reportedly abandoned four out of the five major police posts in Tank. On March 28, 2007, Tank town was attacked by a group of more than 200 Taliban-linked militants, the first such incident in settled areas. Two police stations, a paramilitary fort and bank branches were damaged in the attack. Again, six people were killed and 15 others injured, in clashes between security forces (SFs) and militants in Tank city on May 16, 2007. People alleged that SFs fired on civilians instead of targeting militants who were strutting freely around the city. Earlier, a paramilitary soldier and a civilian were killed and 10 people wounded in grenade and rocket attacks on troops and exchange of fire between militants and troops in Tank on May 14, 2007.
Taliban-linked militants also reportedly control Darra Adam Khel in the Kohat District. Official reports suggest that the Taliban in Darra Adam Khel, a major arms manufacturing hub, have a direct link with the Taliban in North Waziristan, where they are sending young recruits for training, while weapons are being supplied to militants in North Waziristan from Darra Adam Khel.
The provincial capital, Peshawar has witnessed 16 bomb explosions since September 18, 2006 and there have already been two suicide attacks in the city in 2007 in which 40 persons have died. While some girls’ schools in Peshawar have closed down after the administration received threatening letters, recent militant attacks have targeted, among others, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Airport and a women’s college.
While there is a considerable spill-over of militancy from the tribal areas to the settled areas of NWFP, the fact is that the state has itself ceded space for radical Islam. The ‘peace deal’ signed in Waziristan between the militants and the military regime has further emboldened the Islamist radicals and led to a greater assertiveness with militants now operating openly and without fear. The NWFP has emerged as a safe haven and area of expansion for militants from Waziristan, which they already dominate, as well as extremist elements from other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The official explanation of these developments, articulated by NWFP Governor Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, was that the Taliban was "developing into some sort of a nationalist movement, a sort of liberation war against coalition forces (in Afghanistan)." Moreover, the police force, according to provincial Chief Secretary Ejaz Qureshi, is "inadequately equipped in terms of manpower, logistics and weaponry, rendering the NWFP cities vulnerable." A retired police officer noted further, "Where law and order and justice vanish there the Taliban emerge and the public response is positive because the people want protection irrespective of who provides it."
On February 14, 2007, President Musharraf had stated that the Tribal Areas (FATA) will be amalgamated into the NWFP after the Taliban and al Qaeda elements are eliminated from the region. Musharraf added that his Government had started work towards this end in 2000 with the consent of tribal elders. "We should have amalgamated FATA into the NWFP province much earlier. We had the same idea when our forces entered the area," he claimed. While the Taliban/al Qaeda combine are nowhere close to being eliminated either in the FATA, NWFP or elsewhere in Pakistan, any such ‘amalgamation’ would only widen the existing safe havens for the militants.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
May 14-20, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
11 people killed and 64 injured in bomb explosion in a mosque in Andhra Pradesh: 11 people were killed and over 64 wounded in a powerful bomb blast at the Mecca Masjid (Mecca Mosque) near Charminar in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, on May 18, 2007. Over 10,000 people were offering prayers at the 400-year-old mosque at 1.15 p.m. when the bomb exploded. Police sources said that the explosive device, in which RDX was used, was triggered with a cellular phone and was hidden underneath a thick marble platform. Two more improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were recovered from the site and later defused by the police. Police also found a SIM card from a mobile phone attached to an IED. Five more people were killed subsequently in police firing as mobs clashed with the police.
No group has, so far, claimed responsibility for the attack, although police suspect the involvement of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Hindustan Times, May 20, 2007; The Hindu, May 19, 2007.
Maoists have nexus with militants in Jammu and Kashmir and LTTE, says Union Home Minister: On May 15, 2007, the Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil informed the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) that the Maoists were working in close coordination with some terrorist outfits operating in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and also maintain links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka. "Though the government has no documentary evidence of any memorandum of understanding signed between international terror outfits with Naxalites [Maoists] in the country, we have enough information suggesting that there is coordination between them", he said. Patil also said it was difficult for the Government to interfere in security matters in some States as the dispensation there did not take it very kindly. Times Of india, May 16, 2007.
Al Qaeda command base in Pakistan being funded from Iraq: Al Qaeda’s command base in Pakistan’s tribal areas is being increasingly funded by money coming from the group’s affiliate in Iraq, Los Angeles Times reported on its Website on May 19, 2007. Citing unidentified senior US intelligence officials, the newspaper said there had been a significant increase in the movement of al Qaeda operatives and money from Iraq to Pakistan. Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq are raising substantial sums from donations to the insurgency as well as abductions of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity, according to the paper. The report also said a major hunt for al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden launched by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2006 has produced no significant leads on his whereabouts. The CIA deployed 50 clandestine operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan for the search, the paper added. Daily Times, May 21, 2007.
25 persons killed in suicide blast at Peshawar hotel: 25 people were killed and at least 35 others sustained injuries when a suicide bomber blew himself up on the ground floor of the Marhaba Hotel in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), on May 15, 2007. A majority of those dead were Afghans, including the restaurant’s owner Sadruddin and his two sons, two women and a five year-old child. The attack occurred at approximately 12:50 pm as the restaurant was crowded with customers for lunch. NWFP Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam told reporters that it was a suicide attack. "I myself saw the suicide bomber’s two legs inscribed with two messages, one in Pushto and the other in Persian. The message written in Pashto warned that those spying for America would face the same consequences." Azam said the attack "may be a reaction to Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah’s killing two days ago in Afghanistan." DAWN, May 16, 2007.
600 combatants killed during fighting in the North in the past four months: Nearly 600 combatants have been killed in military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north of Sri Lanka in the past four months, said military spokesperson Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe on May 20, 2007. At least 541 LTTE cadres and 44 soldiers have been killed during battles in the Mannar and Vavuniya Districts, he added, saying the aim of the operation is to destroy LTTE mortar positions and to free thousands of civilians held as ''human shields'' in the outfit-held territory. News Press, May 21, 2007.