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Major terrorist groups operating in India

India lost over 53,000 lives to terrorism and extremism over the last decade. This is certainly cause for alarm, and creates an image of widespread breakdown of law and order – and this is an accurate picture of at least some parts of the country. Across most of its geographical expanse, however, India has remained by and large free of the modern-day scourge of terrorism, as of insurgency and other patterns of extremist political violence (see map).

A review of data relating to civilian fatalities as a result of social and political violence in the country over the period September 1, 1999 – August 31, 2001, (Graph 1) indicated that nearly 36 per cent of all such fatalities occurred in parts of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) alone as a result of the separatist proxy war in that State. Over 33 per cent were accounted for by a range of insurgencies and terrorist movements in India’s Northeast – and these were overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of districts in four of the seven States in this region. A little less than 21 per cent of civilian fatalities resulted from Left Wing Extremist (referred to as Naxalism in India) and retaliatory violence in some areas of the States of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. Barely 10 per cent of the total civilian fatalities were spread across the rest of the country, and only a small fraction of these were concentrated in the economically vibrant metropolii.

Separatism constitutes a primary demand of the movement in J&K, and of many of the groups active in India’s Northeast (some Northeast groups do not have clearly defined separatist goals). There has been a proliferation of militant groups in recent times, with as many as 33 identified in J&K, and over 104 in India’s Northeast. Most of these are insignificant gangs and some are now dormant.

J&K is currently the most significant internal security challenge faced by the country (Graph 2), and three Islamist fundamentalist groups – all of them head-quartered in Pakistan – constitute the gravest threat in the State: Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen (HuM). All three seek integration of J&K with Pakistan, and they have entirely replaced groups, such as the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), that sought Kashmiri Independence and who dominated the earlier phase of the militancy. Intelligence sources estimate that 55 per cent of the approximately 4,000 terrorists currently operating in the State are foreigners, primarily Pakistanis, though several other nationalities have also been identified.

The LeT is the terrorist arm of the Markaz-ud-Dawa-Wal-Irshad (MDI), with its headquarters at Muridke in Pakistan. Its entry into J&K was first recorded in 1993 but it was after 1997 that it rose in the priorities of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The LeT has a specialised ‘suicide’ cadre, the fidayeen, who undertake high-risk missions against security forces. The first of these attacks targeted a residential complex of the Border Security Force (BSF) in Bandipore near Srinagar on July 13, 1999. The most spectacular of these missions was the attack on the headquarters of the Special Operations Group (SOG) at Srinagar on December 27, 1999. LeT operations are characterised by a level of brutality that surpasses that of other terrorist groups in the State. Cases include the cold blooded murder of 23 people in Wandhama on January 23, 1988; the June 19, 1998, massacre of 25 members of a wedding party in Doda, Jammu; and, during President Clinton’s visit to South Asia, the Chattisinghpora massacre of 35 Sikhs on March 20, 2000.

The JeM was set up in Pakistan in February 2000, by Maulana Masood Azhar. Azhar is closely connected with the Binori Seminary, the largest Deobandi madrassa in Pakistan, and was released on December 31, 1999, from an Indian prison in a hostage swap after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The rise of the JeM has been rapid. The first of its more dramatic strikes occurred on April 23, 2000, when a youth rammed a car laden with explosives at the gates of the local army headquarters at Badami Bagh in Srinagar. The attack was the first suicide bomb attack in J&K. The Jaish has also claimed credit for the rifle grenade attack on the J&K Secretariat building in Srinagar on June 28, 2001; and the attack on the State Legislative Assembly complex at Srinagar on October 1, 2001, using a car bomb – 38 people, including four fidayeen were killed in the latter. The JeM and the LeT are both closely connected with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

The HuM is numerically the largest group in J&K, accounting for up to 60 per cent of the total terrorist cadres in the State, though Indian intelligence considers it to be responsible for only about 10 to 20 per cent of current terrorist strikes. The HuM was founded in 1989 as the militant wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami on the prodding of the ISI, as an Islamic counter to the relatively indigenous and secular JKLF. The group is headed by Syed Salahuddin, who is located at Islamabad, Pakistan. The HuM was responsible for setting fire to the Muslim shrine of Charar-e-Sharif in 1995 and collaborated with the LeT in the Chattisinghpora massacre. It has also killed several moderate Kashmiri Muslims. The HuM has indicated a willingness to accept a negotiated solution to the Kashmir problem, and had declared a short-lived unilateral ‘ceasefire’ in J&K in July 2000. It has increasingly been marginalised in the terrorism profile of the State.

Among the proliferation of terrorist organisations in India’s troubled Northeast, two stand out in significance: the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) that seeks the seccession of Assam, and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN-IM] that has taken over the leadership of the longest insurgency in the region, seeking Naga independence. While violence by both these groups has seen a recent decline, their influence in the region is overwhelming. They run widespread networks of extortion, drug smuggling and other criminal activities, and also control substantial ‘overground’ business operations. The NSCN-IM has been engaged in negotiations with the Union Government under a ceasefire agreement that has been in place since August 1997. The ULFA has consistently rejected possibilities of a negotiated settlement. The ULFA and the NSCN-IM have, however, continued to extend their spheres of influence in the Northeast region through low-grade violence as well as by training and arming a large number of other terrorist and proxy groups, and are supported by the ISI in their activities. However, no Northeastern terrorist organisation has, till now, sought to extend its sphere of operations outside the region.

The Islamist groups operating with Pakistani support in Kashmir, however, do have a clear pan-Islamist agenda, and are known to have created a network of terrorist cells in a number of other States in India. While an occasional and dramatic strike has been engineered in various cities, including notably, Delhi, Bombay, Coimbatore and Hyderabad over the past decade, they are yet to secure any noticeable and persistent impact on normal life in any of these areas.

LeT, JeM, HuM, and ULFA were among the 23 organisations banned under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance promulgated on October 24, 2001. The immediate consequences of this Ordinance are expected to be negligible.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, November 16, 2001.)





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