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Islamist Terrorist Threat – No Respite

On January 22, 2002, an obscure group claiming an Islamist agenda made a dawn attack at a police picket guarding the United States Information Centre at Kolkata in West Bengal. Five policemen were killed, and another 13 injured, and though the perpetrators were shortly identified – two conspirators were subsequently killed at Hazaribagh in the neighbouring State of Bihar, and a gaggle of associates were arrested – controversy over the motives and intent of the attack refuses to die. Nevertheless, whether the objective was a symbolic attack on an American establishment or vengeance against the Police, its execution, claimed by a marginal ‘terrorist’ group – the Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF) – has exposed linkages across the globe. These include direct connections through Bangladesh, Dubai and Pakistan, as well as operational connectivities that lead right up to ‘9/11’. As one American counter-terrorism official said shortly after the incident, "The terrorists who are targeting Indians are the same people who are trying to kill Americans."

The ARCF is the brainchild of Aftab Ansari alias Aftab Ahmed alias Farhan Malik, a Dubai based mafiosi, who operates an extortion and abduction network in India with the active support of Pakistan and Bangladesh-based terrorists and the ISI. Ansari was the financier of a large consignment of arms and ammunition, including 14 kilograms of RDX, which was seized in Gjuarat’s Patan district in November 2001. The seizure followed the arrest of Asif Reza Khan and a Pakistani accomplice, Arshad Khan in New Delhi on October 29, 2001. Asif Reza Khan – after whom the ARCF is named – was killed at Rajkot in Gujarat on December 7, 2001, in an alleged attempt to escape from police custody. Revenge for this killing was one of the possible motives for the Kolkata attack.

Asif Reza Khan’s arrest had led to disclosures of international linkages with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), based in Pakistan. His primary link with these outfits was through Ahmed Omar Sheikh, whom he met in Tihar Jail at Delhi in 1999, while undergoing a sentence under the Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987. Sheikh was one of the terrorists who was released – along with Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the JeM – in the hostage swap after the hijack of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 to Kandahar in December 1999. Omar Sheikh subsequently operated out of Pakistan, and was identified as being responsible for the transfer of US $ 100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the key conspirator in the multiple terrorist attacks in USA on September 11, 2001. Asif Reza was delegated by Omar Sheikh to execute a series of terrorist strikes in New Delhi, when he was arrested.

Aftab Ansari and Asif Reza also played a key role in the July 25, 2001, abduction of a Kolkata-based businessman Partha Pratim Roy Barman, who was released on July 30, 2001, after reportedly paying a huge ransom in Dubai through the hawala (illegal international financial transfers) network. According to intelligence sources, Ansari has established bases at Kolkata, Agra (Uttar Pradesh), Mumbai and Malegaon (Maharashtra), and Surat (Gujarat).

The Kolkata incident reflects an important transformation in the pattern of terror in India, and suggests an increasing role for organised crime networks. Visible state sponsorship is becoming progressively unsustainable – the American and media microscope now focuses unwaveringly on the traditional patrons of the politics of mass murder. Terrorist organisations, as well as sponsoring states who seek to maintain deniability, will have to depend more and more on the criminal underground for both finance and logistics support, and will not only establish mutually useful connections with established Mafia, but will also progressively take organised criminal activities under their own wing. This has, of course, been the case in the past as well – and the complex of drug barons, gun-runners, extortionists, hawala operators and ‘political’ terrorists is already well established. It will, in the foreseeable future, become the mainstay of terrorist activity, creating new challenges for law enforcement and new imperatives for international co-operation and legislation for effective counter-terrorist responses.

These trends further complicate and intensify the very substantial threat of Islamist terrorism confronting India. The Kolkata incident and the December 13 attack on India’s Parliament are indications of both a widening of the sphere of terrorism and an escalation in intensity. Moreover, as Jasjit Singh, the former Director of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), notes, the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan has resulted in "the dispersal of the soldiers of the religious extreme rather than the winding down of the ideological and operational command and control core… the most favourable location for the Al-Qaeda to regroup would be the tribal areas of Pakistan and PoK. From now on it would be Al-Qaeda that we (India) will be fighting against, regardless of the name bestowed on the outfits." These apprehensions are reinforced by reports of the formation of a new group, the Shoora-e-Furqan (Assembly of Believers) reportedly comprising thousands of Pakistani fighters who were airlifted by Pakistan from Kunduz during the siege of that Afghan town by the Northern Alliance-US combine. This operation was, indeed, one of the inexplicable ambiguities in the US "war against terrorism", and is an issue that was recently raised by India’s National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, at an international conference on security at Munich. Mishra disclosed that over 5,000 Pakistani regulars and volunteers supporting the Taliban were airlifted by Pakistan from Kunduz in a day-night operation in late November, before the city fell to Northern Alliance Forces. Though both India and the Northern Alliance brought these operations to the notice of the US and UK Coalition forces – and these movements cannot have been missed by the US radar and satellite cover – they chose to look the other way. The rescued Kunduz fighters, along with other Pakistani stragglers who escaped the Afghan campaign are now being relocated in PoK and the Northern Areas, and it is expected that their main force will be directed against India.

Despite the Pakistani dictator, General Pervez Musharraf’s "historic" speech on January 12, 2002, and his declared resolve that "Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity anywhere in the world", and that "No organisation will be allowed to indulge in terrorism in the name of Kashmir", cross border terrorism in the beleaguered province of Jammu & Kashmir shows no signs of abatement. The cosmetic arrests of leaders of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan notwithstanding, both extremist rhetoric emanating from Pakistan and continuous infiltration across the border remain unaffected, though there has been some decline in the incidence of terrorist attacks in the latter half of January. A declining trend in violence, is, however, usual for this time of the year, with heavy snowfall making operations difficult and blocking escape routes across high mountain passes.

Musharraf’s subsequent statements, including his Kashmir Day address at Muzaffarabad in PoK, where he reiterated Pakistan’s "political, moral and diplomatic" support to the "freedom struggle" in J&K, suggest that there is no present evidence that Pakistan proposes to de-escalate the proxy war against India. In the coming summer – traditionally a period of escalation in J&K – Pakistan can consequently be expected to raise the stakes of its covert campaign. Regrettably – beyond massive and aimless troop movements along the border and its double-edged diplomatic offensive across the world – India does not appear to have evolved any consistent and coherent strategy to counter this onslaught.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, February 8, 2002.)





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