Islamic Extremism and Subversion in South Asia
3288 persons were killed in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the year 2000, making this by far the bloodiest year since the beginning of the campaign of terror that seeks secession of the Muslim majority State from the Indian Union. Within India, Kashmir is perceived as a theatre of a proxy war launched by Pakistan to secure the territories it has failed to seize through open warfare on three occasions in the past.1 After the nuclear tests at Pokhran and Chagai in 1998, Western analysts saw it as a potential flashpoint for a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, and these fears were heightened during the ‘undeclared war’ in the Kargil sector of J&K in 1999, when the Pakistani leadership issued veiled threats of an exercise of the ‘nuclear option’.2 Increasingly, however, the international focus has been shifting to the burgeoning danger of extremist Islamic terrorism located in Pakistan and directed against India.
The tragic toll of life in Kashmir is certainly the most visible manifestation of the threat of extremist Islamist terrorism in the South Asian region at this juncture, but is far from an adequate index of its magnitude. The danger is equally great, and perhaps more urgent within Pakistan itself, as it becomes increasingly uncertain whether its leadership is "master or victim"3 of the militant fundamentalism it fuelled for its campaign against the Russian presence in Afghanistan through the 1980s, and continues to stoke in pursuit of its strategic ambitions in Kashmir. Ahmed Rashid notes the devastating potential of Pakistan’s flirtations with ‘fundamentalist’ mass mobilization:
In the late 1990s the repercussions were much more pervasive, undermining all the institutions of the state… law and order broke down as Islamic militants enacted their own laws and a new breed of anti-Shia Islamic radicals, who were given sanctuary by the Taliban, killed hundreds of Pakistani Shias between 1996 and 1999. This sectarian bloodshed is now fuelling a much wider rift between Pakistan’s Sunni majority and Shia minority and undermining relations between Pakistan and Iran. At the same time, over 80,000 Pakistani Islamic militants have trained and fought with the Taliban since 1994. They form a hardcore of Islamic activists, ever ready to carry out a similar Taliban-style Islamic revolution in Pakistan.4
Beyond Pakistan’s disintegrating borders to the North and West lies the anarchy of the collapsed state of Afghanistan and the Taliban regime, sustained by the drug trade and by aid – overt and covert – from countries that share, or seek to harness, its Islamist agenda.
Out of this unstable vortex, the ‘warriors of (extremist) Islam’, the mujahiddeen, reach out into the fratricidal confrontations of the Balkans; into the new and volatile realities of Central Asia, and beyond, into the peripheries of China; from Pakistan, through Kashmir, into every theatre of existing or emerging conflict across the Indian sub-continent; and far into South East Asia – wherever ‘Muslim grievances’ and ‘oppression’ can be discovered or invented, and wherever there is violence to be exploited to further their totalizing vision of an all-conquering Islam.
Terror is at the heart of this vision, conceived of, by the ideologues of extremist Islam, not merely as a transient tactic, but as the essential objective of their ‘war to advance God’s purpose on earth.’
Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy (sic); it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.5
It is unsurprising, consequently, that the idea of a "geographical shift of the locus of terror from the Middle East to South Asia"6 is being increasingly and vigorously propounded, identifying Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir as the new loci and primary sources of extremist Islamic militancy. There are, however, some difficulties with this notion. The first and more obvious is the fact that there is no evidence of any sudden or abrupt ‘shift’, or a radical discontinuity in the situation at or around the time this thesis was propounded – Afghanistan’s spiral into chaos has been an inexorable fact for over a decade, as has Pakistan’s complicity and steady decline; even a cursory glance at fatalities in Kashmir would confirm, moreover, that terrorism has been at comparable levels in this theatre for over a decade.7
More significantly, however, it is dangerous to focus inordinately on the transient geographical location or concentrations of terrorist incidents, activities and movements, to the exclusion of their ideological and material sources, their state sponsors, or their intended targets and proclaimed goals. The error here is the belief that the threat of Islamic terrorism is contained within the regions of its most visible manifestation. Extremist Islam must be recognized for its essential character as an ideology, and terrorism as a method that it accepts and justifies. A method will be adopted wherever it is perceived to have acceptable probabilities of success. An ideology extends wherever it has believers. These are the actual limits or foci of extremist Islamic terrorism.
A closer analysis would indicate that it is more accurate to speak of the spread or expansion of the sphere of terrorism, rather than any dramatic 'shift'. Indeed, as terrorists and their state sponsors secure even limited successes in one region, their methods are adopted in others, threatening an ever-widening spectrum of nations and cultures. It is, now, increasingly clear that no nation in the world is entirely free of the threat from extremist Islamist terrorism – and this includes not only the affluent, or ‘decadent’ as the Islamist would have it, West, but also Muslim majority ‘Islamic’ nations that do not conform to the extremist Islamist’s notion of his Faith and its practices. The extremist Islamist vision is not limited to its current sphere of militancy, or to the economic and political jockeying for control of Central Asia that some ‘Great Game’ theorists believe, but to God’s ‘universal empire’. "The world is divided into opposing forces,"8 Altaf Gauhar insists, adding that, "there is no common ground between secularism and Islam." Allah Buksh Brohi is even more explicit:
Many Western Scholars have pointed their accusing fingers at some of the … verses in the Quran to be able to contend that world of Islam is in a state of perpetual struggle against the non-Muslims. As to them it is sufficient answer to make, if one were to point out, that the defiance of God’s authority by one who is His slave exposes that slave to the risk of being held guilty of treason and such a one, in the perspective of Islamic law, is indeed to be treated as a sort of that cancerous growth on that organism of humanity, which has been created "Kanafsin Wahidatin" that is, like one, single, indivisible self. It thus becomes necessary to remove the cancerous mal-formation even if it be by surgical means (if it would not respond to other treatment), in order to save the rest of Humanity… The idea of Ummah of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, is incapable of being realized within the framework of territorial states much less made an enduring basis of viewing the world as having been polarized between the world of Islam and the world of war. Islam, in my understanding, does not subscribe to the concept of the territorial state…9
The "surgical" removal of the "cancerous malformation" that is the non-Islamic world is what the Islamist terrorists believe they are engaged in.
Islam in South Asia
South Asia comprises the largest concentration of Muslims in the world, with over 395 million people professing Islam as their Faith. Indeed, India has the second largest population of Muslims – after Indonesia – for any country: nearly 142 million.
Table 1: Total and Muslim populations of South Asian countries.10
As a region, South Asia has a long history, both of communal confrontation and violence, on the one hand, and of co-existence within an eclectic culture that has accepted differences, on the other. This dualism is ingrained in the unique and diverse set of practices and beliefs that particularly comprise Indian Islam. There is, consequently, a clear note of caution that must be sounded here. There has been a long and widely acknowledged process of the demonization of Islam over the years – indeed, perhaps over the centuries. John Esposito rightly warns against "the temptation to view Islam through the prism of religious extremism and terrorism," and identifies the "demonization of a great religious tradition due to the perverted actions of a minority of dissident and distorted voices" as "the real threat."11
The total strength of extremist Islamic terrorists in India would number a few thousand in a population of 142 million. The number of those who sympathize with their cause would certainly be many times greater, and those who are ambivalent in their responses could be a significant proportion of the total population. The fact, however, remains that even the sum of all these would only be a very small fraction of those who seek to live in peace, within the culture of coexistence that has become the essence of the Indian Weltanschauung.
This is not the case with India alone. Even in Pakistan, the country marked by the most rabid and widespread extremism in this region, the constituency of militant Islam is small in proportion to the total population, and this has repeatedly been borne out in the occasional elections that have been held in that country between its extended periods of military rule. Despite decades of military patronage, a continuous flow of governmental and international funding, and a political discourse dominated by Islam, the electoral performance of religious ‘fundamentalist’ political parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-e-Ulema Pakistan (JUP), has been dismal. In 1988, they won 11 seats out of 207 in the National Assembly, claiming a mere 6.6 per cent of the vote. In 1990, they slipped down to 10 seats, with 5.4 per cent of the vote. In 1993, the Pakistan Islamic Front (PIF), headed by the JEI, bagged 3 seats, and electoral support for all religious parties was a bleak 3 per cent. The JEI and the JUP boycotted the 1997 elections, and not a single seat was returned in the National Assembly to the JUI (Fazlur Rahman faction) that participated.
This said, it must also be emphasized in the strongest terms possible that moderate Islam is, today, under deep, penetrating and sustained attack in every concentration of Muslim populations throughout South Asia, and there is a a 'hardening' of beliefs that may lend itself to the extremist jehad in an uncertain future. The demonization of Islam is loudly protested, both by neutral scholars and by the apologists for extremist Islam. But there is a neglect of an even more vicious process of the demonization of all other Faiths and nations among the people of Islam – and this goes beyond the ‘Great Satan’, America, or the ‘Brahminical conspiracy’ of ‘Hindustan’, or the visceral anti-Semitism of the Arabs, to embrace all Kafirs or non-Muslims, and also all Muslims who do not conform to the perverse vision of extremist Islam. There is a profound ideology of hatred that is being fervently propagated through the institutions of Islam, particularly the madrassas or religious schools and seminaries that are proliferating rapidly across South Asia, and it is winning many ardent converts. As stated before, these are still a minority among South Asia’s Muslims; but this is a vocal, armed, well supported, extremely violent and growing minority. The majority, by contrast, has tended to passivity and conciliation, and there is little present evidence of the courage of conviction or the will for any moderate Islamic resistance to the rampage of extremist Islam.
Pakistan: The Will to Death
What Pakistan achieved in Afghanistan was, indeed, extraordinary. The ‘tactic of a thousand cuts’ produced such an unbearable ‘haemorrhaging of men and money’12, that the wounded Soviet superpower eventually withdrew before what the world saw as a rag-tag army of ‘the lunatics of Allah’. The billions of dollars and the unlimited supplies of arms and ammunition that were pumped in by an unlikely coalition of backers,13 the unrelated unraveling of a corrupt Soviet system, and the fact that it was the Afghans themselves who did most of the fighting, cannot detract from the triumph of the Pakistani architects of the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan.
This is the second tainted triumph that has brought inconceivable misfortune upon Pakistan. The first occurred when it was forged as a separate nation out of a philosophy of hatred and exclusion, an ideology that denied the possibility of the coexistence of communities with any significant differences of culture, belief or values under a single political order. Less than 3 per cent of the population of Pakistan now comprises non-Muslims, and the proportion declines each year. But the intolerance and the rage that created the nation must constantly find new enemies. It was this bigotry that resulted in its first dismemberment and the creation of Bangladesh. It is the same malevolence that seeks out new victims among subgroups of the Muslims themselves – such as the Ahmadiyas and the Shias. Today, as sectarian divisions inevitably compound themselves, every regional and cultural group in Pakistan – the Punjabis, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns, the Baluchis and the Mohajirs – sees the other as an enemy.14
This is the fractious milieu within which General Zia-ul-Haq created the Taliban, and to which they now victoriously return after establishing their ‘control’ over most of Afghanistan. Olivier Roy succinctly defines the Frankenstienian dilemma that confronts Pakistan:
The apparent victor, Pakistan, could pay dearly for its success. The triumph of the Taliban has virtually eliminated the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On both sides, Pashtun tribes are slipping towards fundamentalism and becoming increasingly implicated in drug trafficking. They are gaining autonomy, already small fundamentalist tribal emirates are appearing on Pakistani soil. The de facto absorption of Afghanistan will accentuate centrifugal tendencies within Pakistan.15
At the heart of the crisis is the network of increasingly powerful marakiz (Centers) and madrassas that has now established itself as the source, not only of international ‘pan-Islamic’ terrorism, but of an overwhelming proportion of internal strife as well. Its roots can be traced back to General Zia-ul-Haq’s vigorous use of Islam as a tool of regime legitimization, a trend that was first introduced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1971, and that has been variously reinforced by every succeeding regime. The growth of these madrassas is, indeed, an accurate index of Pakistan’s mounting difficulties. In 1947, there were 137 madrassas in the entire country. By 1971, this number had grown to 900. But, with Zia’s policy of generously funding "madrassas of all sectarian persuasions…. by the end of the Zia era in 1988, there were 8,000 madrassas and 25,000 unregistered ones, educating over half a million students. As Pakistan’s state-run educational system steadily collapsed, these madrassas became the only avenue for boys from poor families to receive the semblance of an education."16 Sources indicate that by the middle of the year 2000, the number of madrassas had grown to nearly 9,500, and some commentators in Pakistan estimate the current number of unregistered madrassas at between 40,000 and 50,000.17 The mind-blunting curriculum of most of these madrassas entirely neglects all branches of secular instruction, including the basics of mathematics and science, and comprises 16 long years of purely theological education, recitation of the Quran, Fiqah (interpretation of the Sharia), and indoctrination for jihad. The inevitable consequence of such an education has been the chronic "inability to produce reality-based theories of change"18, extraordinarily narrow and exclusionary perspectives, and deepening sectarian divisions that spill over into increasing violence. With an estimated 60 per cent of funding emanating from abroad, these schisms are magnified further by the ideological and strategic contests of foreign funding agencies and states. Afzaal Mahmood, for instance, notes that, "By allowing Iran and Saudi Arabia to fund, influence and use some sectarian organizations of their liking, we have virtually encouraged Teheran and Riyadh to fight a proxy war on the soil of Pakistan, with serious consequences for sectarian harmony and law and order in the country."19 Funds have also come from Libya, Iraq and several other Gulf countries, creating an intricately nuanced web of conflict.20 Shia and Sunni madrassas have spawned rival terrorist forces that visit gratuitous slaughter on sectarian rivals – most prominently, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) (Sunni); and the Tehrik-e-Jafria (TeJ) and Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) (Shia). There is also a deep schism between Sunni Deobandi and Barelvi madrassas, and a large number of Ahle Hadis madrassas have also emerged recently in Baluchistan, Sindh and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Most sectarian bombings and shootouts originate from or occur at mosques housing these schools, and a significant proportion of those killed are madrassa students.21 Patterns of international rivalry are also visible in the some retaliatory killings. Thus, Iranian diplomat, Sadiq Ganji, was gunned down in Lahore following the assassination following the assassination of SSP founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi in March 1990. Similarly, the 1997 assassination of Jhangvi’s successor, Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi and 26 others in a bomb blast at the Lahore Sessions Court, saw the alleged revenge killing of Iranian diplomat Muhammad Ali Rahimi and six others in an attack on the Iranian Cultural Center at Multan.22
Sectarian violence is, however, a relatively minor consequence of the proliferation of madrassas. Their primary output has been the export of international extremist Islamic terrorism, and this has created enormous internal concentrations of armed, trained and indoctrinated irregular (terrorist) forces who, at some point of time or the other, may have been supported by the government through the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) that oversaw the Afghan campaign, and that currently guides the export of terror into Jammu & Kashmir and other theatres across the world, but who do not acknowledge the power of the government to define their long-term goals and objectives. Their allegiance is commanded by the various ‘spiritual leaders’ who run madrassas that have acquired extraordinary notoriety over the past years, both as hotbeds of terrorism and as the spawning ground of the Afghani Taliban. It is here that a ‘theology of rage’ is taught, and the Talib (student) exhorted to practice a ‘sacred violence’ that is his greatest duty in Islam. These institutions include most prominently the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqani at Akora Khattak; the Markaz-ad-Da’awa-wal-Irshad (MDI) at Muridke; the Dar-ul-Uloom, Pashtoonabad; the Dar-ul-Iftah-ul-Irshad, Nazimabad; and the Ahle-Sunnat-wal Jamaat madrassa at Rawalpindi. Many of these institutions run a multiplicity of schools across the country – the Markaz-ad-Da’awa-wal-Irshad, for instance, had 137 madrassasi by late 2000.23 These, however, are only a sampling, the visible tip of the iceberg, and there are hundreds of less known ‘Jihad factories’ – the "supply line for jihad"24 – that indoctrinate their students and give them ‘military’ training, both for the sectarian war, and for international terrorism.
The apparatus of training for terrorism reflects the same curious dualism and principal-agent conflict that characterizes the growth of the madrassas. A number of training camps, especially those that fuel the terrorist movement in J&K, are still run by the Army and the ISI; most, however, function with various degrees of autonomy under the charge of quasi-independent extremist Islamic institutions and groupings; and even where active state support is lacking, their activities are fully tolerated on Pakistani soil. Occasional difficulties do, of course, crop up – and the Taliban in Afghanistan have been willing to give sanctuary and space to armed groups whose sectarian activities may have passed beyond Islamabad’s levels of declared tolerance, and whose sectarian orientation is in conformity with their own.25 This may be a highly collusive and convenient arrangement, and Pakistan has, at least on occasion, found it convenient to relocate specific training camps in Afghanistan when the international pressure becomes excessive. This happened in 1992-93, when Pakistan feared that the US would declare it a state sponsor of terrorism for its activities in J&K. Pakistan simply moved most of its Kashmiri militant groups to bases in eastern Afghanistan, and by ‘privatizing’ its support to the Kashmiri mujaheddin, making the Islamic parties responsible for their training and funding.26 The shift was temporary, and while a number of camps continue to function in Afghanistan, there has been a proliferation within Pakistan as well, and one current estimate places the number of existing terrorist training camps in Pakistan at 128.27 This is, however, a fluctuating figure, and the location of many of these camps is frequently changed. A significant number of such camps have been identified by various sources and agencies over the years, and they extend from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, through Pakistan, to Afghanistan (see Map).
The ‘privatization’ of these camps and of the jihadi armies, however, has had disastrous consequences, and there is now mounting evidence of a loss of control as the autonomous religious groups challenge, not only their Army and ISI handlers, but the government itself. No clear division now exists between various social, political, religious and terrorist organizations, and most groups that have actively participated in street violence and acts of terrorism, both within Pakistan and abroad, are also openly active on Pakistan’s political landscape. There has, moreover, been increasing penetration by extremist Islamic elements into Pakistan’s Army, and elements of ‘Islamization’ have been introduced into the Army’s training programs at various levels. In 1992, the then Prime Minister appointed a well-known Tablighi (congregationist), Lieutenant General Javed Nasir, as the Director General of the all-powerful ISI. General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, moreover, clearly lacks the capabilities and support to contain the extremist elements and has, on more than one occasion, been forced to back off on policies and reforms in the face of Islamist opposition.28 The cumulative impact of nearly two and a half decades of ‘Islamization’ has now put in doubt the Army’s ability – indeed, will – to suppress the extremist Islamist forces in case of an open confrontation with government, and it is apparent that at least some sections within the Army would side with the extremists if such an eventuality emerged.
Such a confrontation now appears increasingly probable, if not inevitable. The madrassas and the mujahiddeen are entirely committed to the establishment of a ‘Taliban sytle’ government for Pakistan, and some of the groups recently put General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime on notice to establish ‘Islamic rule’ in the country, or to face the consequences. Maulana Samiul Haq, the chief of his own faction of the JUI, speaking at the Jamia Ashrafia at Peshawar in January 2001, declared that both the so-called democratic and martial law regimes had been tested and had failed to deliver, and that, consequently, only the Islamic Sharia could ‘solve the problems faced by the masses.’ Maulana Jalil Jan, the provincial leader of the JUI (F) added that, if the government failed to implement Islamic Sharia, the ‘religious students will resort to the use of force to do the same’.29
Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who headed the ISI through critical periods of the Agency’s campaign in Afghanistan shares the vision of the Islamist fundamentalists and argues that "Pakistan will go through its own version of an Islamic revolution…. The army is the last hope. And if the army fails – and it probably will – then people will realize they will have to do it themselves, revolt against the system… Because everything else in this country has failed, Islam will have to lead the way."30
It seems clear that, unless current trends are radically and immediately reversed, it is only a matter of time before Pakistan is sucked into the turmoil of an Afghanistan-like anarchy.
The Web of Terror: Erosion & Encirclement
The primary focus and target of the armies of mujahiddeen, and their suicidal hard core, the fidayeen, who pour out of the madrassas and Pakistani terrorist training camps, at present, is the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The leadership of the terrorist movement in J&K passed out of the hands of local militants, and to groups created by and based in Pakistan as far back as in 1993, when the most powerful terrorist group indigenous to the State, the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) led by Yasin Malik, chose to give up arms and seek a ‘political solution’ to its grievances. The JKLF still demands Kashmiri ‘Independence’, and is strongly opposed to any amalgamation with Pakistan. The Pakistan-based groups, quite naturally, are far more amenable to a merger with that country.
Terrorist groupings enjoyed substantial mass support, particularly in the Kashmir Valley,31 as long as the movement for secession remained indigenous. Progressively, however, a process of disillusionment with the activities of Pakistan sponsored militants has combined with exhaustion to diminish this base, and terrorism is now sustained purely on inputs – ideologies, material, and increasing numbers of men – from across the border. The currently most active terrorist groups in the State are each headquartered in Pakistan, and include the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen (HuM)32, linked to the JEI in Pakistan; Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the armed wing of the Markaz-ad-Da’awa-wal-Irshad; the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami (HuJI) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen (formerly the Harkat-ul-Ansar), linked to the JUP, the Pakistan Tablighi Jamaat and to the Hizb-e-Islami of Afghanistan; al Badr; and the recently formed Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). There are another score of minor and dormant groupings, also located in Pakistan. The umbrella Muttahida Jehad Council coordinates the activities of 13 of the most prominent terrorist factions (14 till the HuM was expelled for declaring a brief unilateral ceasefire in July 2000).33
The years 1997, 1998 and the first half of 1999 had seen a gradual decline in violence and fatalities in J&K, but there was a radical escalation after the Kargil War of May-July 1999. The trends underwent a further deterioration after two ceasefires – the first announced unilaterally by the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen in July 2000, and the second, again unilaterally, by the Indian Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, in November 2000 – as the possibility of an emerging peace process threatened the entrenched interests and ideological ambitions of the extremist Islamist groups in Pakistan, and of their official sponsors there. A total of 26,226 persons have died in this conflict between 1988 and 2000. These include 10,285 civilians, 12,375 terrorists, and 2,566 security force (SF) personnel. Among the civilian fatalities, 8,712 (nearly 85 per cent) have been Muslims.34 [Table or Graph 2 Appended]
Significantly, the proportion of foreign mercenaries and mujahiddeen involved in the militancy in the State has been steadily rising, from a mere 6 per cent in 1992 to an estimated 55 per cent today.35 A majority of these are drawn from Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). There is also a limited engagement of the "Afghan Alumni",36 and terrorists from Afghanistan and at least 11 other countries have been identified in Kashmir. The number of foreign terrorists killed in J&K has risen steadily since 1991, when their activities were first noticed in the State, and particularly after 1993, when the main indigenous militant group, the JKLF, came overground.
Table 3: Foreign Militants Killed in J&K
(Source: Institute for Conflict Management)
The conflict in Kashmir has been substantially documented in the context of Pakistan’s strategy and "overriding interest… to achieve internal security by provoking instability among its neighbors."37 There is, however, comparatively little understanding of the extremist or pan-Islamic agenda in the rest of South Asia, and of its integral links to the strategies and tactics that prepared the ground for terrorism in Kashmir.
As with much of South Asia, the culture and religious practices of the Muslims of Kashmir had little in common with the rigid and distorted version of Wahabbi Islam – with its ideological source in Saudi Arabia – that is the dominant ideological force among contemporary extremist Islamists. Kashmiri Islam was seeped with the mysticism and values of the devotional Sufi order, and the Kashmir Valley was, indeed, held up as a unique and inspirational example of secular values at the time of Partition and Independence, and in the decades that followed. The emergence of terrorism in the State was preceded by decades of religious mobilization and reorientation centered primarily in the mosques in the Valley, and when terror broke out in the late 1980s, it was the mosques and the madrassas that provided the motivation, the moral sanction, and the initial impetus, not only to the violence, but to the near complete ethnic cleansing of the Valley of its Kashmiri Pandit minority.38 It is interesting that, among the priority targets of the terrorists was the network of secular school, most of which were shut down under threat, especially in rural areas, progressively forcing the children into the only surviving ‘educational’ institution – the madrassa – the ‘schools of hate’39 that created new ‘supply lines’ for jihad.
There is, today, a sustained effort – with mixed results – to replicate these processes of religious mobilization and an extremist Islamist reorientation throughout South Asia. In India, while there have been several political factors and events contributing to higher levels of communal polarization, general communal conflict – expressed in the incidence of communal riots – has been on a decline. Political parties are yet to abandon the electoral strategy of exploiting religious sentiments and insecurities, but the mass base and credibility of those who seek to do so has suffered steady erosion. Nevertheless, the intent and strategy of Pakistan’s covert agencies and extremist religious groupings is increasingly apparent in a wide range of activities intended to provoke communal confrontations, engineer terrorist incidents, and recruit soldiers for a pan-Islamic jihad in pockets of Muslim populations across India. This is compounded by a process of 'encirclement' and massive demographic shifts that deepen the danger, particularly along India's Eastern borders.
During a three-day annual congregation of the members of the Markaz-ad-Da’awa-wal-Irshad at Muridke near Lahore on February 6, 2000, the Amir (head) of the Markaz, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, declared that Kashmir was a ‘gateway to capture India’ and that it was the aim of the Markaz and its military wing, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, to engineer India’s disintegration. Saeed added that his organization’s campaign in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) and Junagadh (Gujarat) were among the highest priorities. Abdul Rahman Makki, the LeT’s ideologue, expanded on this theme, proclaiming that the group had opened a new unit in Hyderabad to liberate the Indian city from "un-Islamic Indian rule"40. These declarations are, at once, an expression of the pan-Islamic ambitions shared by all extremist Islamist groups operating in the region, and a reiteration of Pakistan’s larger strategy of destabilization beyond the scope of the supposed ‘core issue’ of Kashmir.
Within this larger design was a series of 13 bomb blasts in various churches in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa between May and July 2000,41 executed by an obscure Islamic sect created in 1924, the Deendar Anjuman. The Anjuman is headed by Zia-ul-Hassan, the son of its founder, who is based in Peshawar, Pakistan, where the sect goes by the name Anjuman Hizbullah. Hassan is also said to have floated a militant organization, the Jamat-e-Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen in Pakistan, in order to ‘capture India and spread Islam’. Intelligence sources indicate that Hassan is bankrolled by the ISI, and the Indian Union Home Minister stated in Parliament that linkages between the Deendar Anjuman and Pakistan’s covert intelligence agency had been established by investigators.42 Investigations have exposed a network of the Anjuman’s subversive activities extending across several small towns and urban centers, including Nuzvid, Atmakur, Kurukunda, Palem, Vijayawada, Khammam and Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh; and Batakurki, Ramdurg and Hubli in Karnataka.
Another series of 19 explosions had earlier, on February 14, 1998, left over 50 dead and more than 200 injured in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.43 While the Al Umma group, founded by S.A. Basha, investigations and subsequent arrests exposed the involvement of a wide network of extremist Islamist organization across South India, including the Indian Muslim Mohammadi Mujahideen, the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen, the Jihad Committee in Tamil Nadu; and the Islamic Sevak Sangh, subsequently banned and revived as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by Abdul Nasser Madani. ISI agents, including Azam Ghauri (who was subsequently shot dead in an encounter with the police at Jagityal, Karimnagar District, Andhra Pradesh, on April 6, 2000), Saleem Junaid, Farooq Ahmed and Mohammad Mansoor.
By far the most dramatic serial blasts engineered by the ISI took place in Bombay on March 12, 1993, and these revealed a unique pattern of operation that has gradually consolidated itself over the years – the use of organized criminal networks to execute terrorist strikes. Nearly 1,800 kilograms of RDX and a large number of detonators and small arms had been smuggled through the West coast of India prior to these blasts, which killed over 300 persons and targeted critical commercial infrastructure, including the country’s largest stock exchange at Dalal Street. The explosions were executed by the notorious D-Company headed by Dawood Ibrahim. Ibrahim now lives in Karachi, and runs India’s largest criminal empire through aides located outside India, and primarily in the Middle East.44
India’s Northeast is another interesting area of emerging Islamist militancy, and here it combines with major demographic shifts that hold significant dangers for the future. Illegal migration on a large scale across the border from Bangladesh is the most potent single factor in the destabilisation of this region. In November 1998, the Governor of Assam, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S.K. Sinha, submitted a report to the Indian President which estimated the total volume of this infiltration at six million people. Most of this increase was concentrated in a few areas, with a dramatic impact on the local demography and, hence, politics. According to the report, four districts of Assam – Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Hailakandi – had been transformed into Muslim majority districts by 1991 as a result of this mass infiltration. Another two districts – Nagaon and Karimganj – would have had a Muslim majority since 1998 and yet another district, Morigaon, is fast approaching this position.45 This demographic destabilization, combined with the widespread violence and political instability in the region has created a unique recruiting ground for the Islamists, and there has been a veritable efflorescence of Muslim terrorist groups operating along India’s borders with Bangladesh in the Northeast. In Assam alone, there are over 15 terrorist groups operating under an Islamic banner,46 and the ISI’s role in funding and arming these groups has now been fairly well documented.47
Serial bombings and overt terrorist movements, however, cannot be a measure of the penetration that has been achieved by the extremist Islamists and their state sponsors. Acts of terror – especially on a large scale – represent the culmination of years of preparation that are reflected in motivation, mobilization and organizational development. Evidence of these processes is mounting throughout India, and is reflected in the number, both of fundamentalist and of subversive groups in existence, and the geographical spread of their activities. The most prominent of these include the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JEI Hind), the All India Milli Council (AIMC), All India Jihad Committee (AIJC), the People’s Democratic Party (PDP, formerly the Islamic Sewak Sangh), All India Muslim Federation (AIMF), Muslim United Front (MUF), Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TNMMK), National Development Front (Kerala), Tabligh Jamaat, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Students Islamic Organisations (SIO), Al Umma, Al Jihad, and the Muslim Sena Sanghathan, Ikhwan-ul-Muslameen, Islami Inqalabi Mahaz, Tanzim Isla-ul-Muslameen, and the Minorities United Front, among others.
Each of these organizations runs one or more non-governmental organization (NGO), many of which have offices abroad. Very substantial funds are received, and a range of interactions, including frequent ‘Tablighi conferences’ with foreign delegations, are organized. The flow of funds is primarily through what are known as hawala (illegal) channels, and while Pakistan largely defines the patterns of use and the beneficiaries, the preponderance of such transfers originate in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Thus, very substantial transfers of foreign funds generated under the pretext of providing relief to the Coimbatore riot victims are believed to have been used for the Coimbatore blasts.
The range, the volume and the persistence of such subversive activity throughout the country is more a measure of Pakistan’s tenacity and the intensity of the extremist Islamist vision, than it is of the present impact these activities have had on the larger Muslim community in India. The tragic loss of life, the wasted human and developmental resources, and the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that sporadic incidents of terrorism generate notwithstanding, India has the flexibility, the resilience and the political space to absorb a level of subversive and extremist Islamist activities significantly higher than the present. Nevertheless, the sheer lethality of weaponry and explosives, the possibility of an escalation to a new generation of Chemical and Biological Weapons, and the inherent uncertainty of the politics of a complex society characterized by immense religious and cultural diversity, make the existing risks and levels of activity unacceptable.
These risks are even greater and less acceptable in countries where such space is wanting, where political instability is at higher levels, and where the roots of democracy are yet to take firm hold of the soil. Islamist subversion threatens peace and regime stability more immediately in neighboring Bangladesh, where religious extremism has emerged as a major threat to the prevailing political order and to internal security. There are grave and immediate dangers to peace and stability in Bangladesh: the revival of the activities of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the return to Bangladesh and its politics of Pakistan-backed elements who collaborated closely with the genocidal campaign of 1971 in what was then East Pakistan, the rising rhetoric of Islamic Hukumat (rule), and the deepening linkages between militant Bangladeshi groups and the extremist Islamists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia. Here again, the pattern of funding, subversion and mobilization through the mosque and the madrassa is clearly in evidence. Prior to Independence, there were 1,467 madrassas in Bangladesh. Their number has currently risen to over 6,500, with more than 90,000 teachers and about 1.8 million students. A large number of these institutions have been established as a result of massive foreign aid, primarily from Gulf countries, and largely unmediated by official channels. Bangladesh’s madrassas are the chief recruiting ground for Islamic militant groups, including several that are linked to Pakistan and also to Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida. The latter category includes the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, which was established by Shawkat Osman, alias Sheikh Farid in 1992 with Bin Laden’s backing, and which has an estimated strength of about 15,000. The Harkat maintains six camps in the hilly areas of Chittagong, where the cadres are given arms training. Several hundred recruits have also been trained in Afghanistan. The cadres, recruited mainly from among students of various madrassas, style themselves as the ‘Bangladeshi Taliban.’ Reports suggest that foreign-aided religious fanatics are actively conspiring to establish ‘Islamic hukumat’ by waging war and killing progressive intellectuals, as well as various minority groups and ‘heretical’ sects, such as the Ahmadiyas.49
In addition to the JEI, the prominent fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Bangladesh include the Muslim Leagure, Tabligh Jamaat, Jamaat-e-Tulba and Jamaat-ul-Muderessin. One significant pro-Iranian group, the Islamic Shasantantra Andolan (Movement for Islamic Constitution), is also active. The subversive activities of the ISI and foreign extremist Islamist agencies in Bangladesh increased radically after Sheikh Hasina’s broadly secular Awami League came to power in June 1996, and this has contributed to an upsurge in militant and fundamentalist political activity. Superimposed over a history of military coups, a politics dominated by the rhetoric of Islam, and increasing international linkages, including networks with insurgent groups operating in India’s Northeast, extremist Islamic militancy constitutes the most serious existing internal security threat in Bangladesh.
The security agencies of the infant democracy of Nepal are also being challenged by rising extremist Islamist activity, despite the fact that Muslims constitute a bare three percent of the population. Such activity is, presently, primarily directed against India, but its linkages with organized criminal operations and the destabilization of pockets of Muslim concentrations in the Terai region bordering India are a cause of increasing concern for Kathmandu. A succession of recent reports has documented increasing activities of the ISI and by the Pakistan Embassy at Kathmandu involving strong organized criminal networks and prominent political leaders in a range of activities targeting India and reinforcing the Islamist agenda within Nepal.50 The Muslim pockets of the Terai, especially Bardiya, Banke, Rupendehi and the Parsa-Morang belt have seen increasing ‘Tablighi’ activities, and the construction of mosques and madrassas with financial flows from Pakistan – often directly from the Embassy at Kathmandu – from Saudi Arabia and from a range of pan-Islamic organizations. Over the past two decades, more than 275 mosques and madrassas have been built in just the four districts of Rupandehi, Banke, Kapilvastu and Bardiya. There are some 15 major tablighi/fundamentalist organizations in Nepal, and at least five of these are well within the ambit of Pakistan’s influence and control. These include the Jamaat-e-Millat-e-Islamia; the Nepal Islamic Yuba Sangh; the Nepal Muslim League; the Nepal Muslim Ekta Sangh; and the Democratic Muslim Welfare Association. Nepal is, consequently, emerging as an important ‘staging post’ for Pakistan’s strategy of erosion and encirclement against India, and is increasingly the preferred route for terrorists movements to various areas of low-intensity conflict in J&K and the Northeast.
In Sri Lanka, the Muslim community and emerging fundamentalist forces have generally aligned themselves with the interests of the government. The Island nation’s Muslim population is mainly Tamil, but has been driven out of the ethnically cleansed northern areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and is now concentrated along the eastern coast, the north-west coast, Kandy and suburban Colombo. Islamic fundamentalist mobilization in Sri Lanka began after a succession of attacks on the Muslims by the LTTE in the early 1990s, after which the government decided to arm the Muslim youth for self-defense. The conflict between Hindu and Muslim Tamils resulted in the polarization of mindsets on the issue of religious identity. There are, today, nearly a dozen Muslim fundamentalist organizations in Sri Lanka who are funded by foreign countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, with at least two political parties drawing significant support from Iran.
The Extremist Islamist Internationale
The threat of extremist Islamist terror in South Asia must be estimated, not just in terms of visible violence and subversion, but the unique and lethal mix of a virulent and vigorously propagated ideology; international and state support and sponsorship; the movement of experienced cadres across theatres that span the entire world; and the access to and destructive potential of contemporary weapons and information technologies. Pakistan’s experience and the Afghan war have given rise to "a kind of Islamic ‘internationale’ through the recruitment of volunteers throughout the Muslim world" and "a global network of radical Muslim terrorists."51 Among these are the experienced and ideologically motivated Arab Afghans, with their roots in West Asia.52 South Asia is, moreover, awash with small arms and lethal explosives.53 The recovery of gas masks from bunkers held by Pakistani forces and irregulars during the Kargil War,54 and recent reports regarding Osama Bin Laden’s intent to use chemical weapons,55 suggest that extremist Islamic forces and their state sponsors are, at least, evaluating the possibility and impact of the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in their low-intensity wars in various countries.
It is not necessary to belabor the obvious point that there are ‘many Islams’, and that the adherents of the murderous mix of religion and terror are only a small fraction of Muslims in the world. There is, however, a difficulty that needs to be confronted: that of the separation of legitimate religious, educational and charitable activity engaged in by Islamic religious institutions, including the madrassas, from overt or covert support to terrorism and a militant Islamist agenda. This difficulty is enormously compounded by the ideological continuity among those who currently propagate the dogmas of Islamist extremism from the fringes of Europe and through Asia and Africa, as also by the continuity of sources of finance and support through every theatre of Islamist terrorism and ‘fundamentalist’ subversion in the world. In the absence of enormous cooperation in documentation and sharing of intelligence, and the containment of terrorist funding, movement and activities, between nations who have a stake in defeating terrorism across all traditional borders of suspicion and narrow ‘interests of state’, it is not clear how this challenge can be met.
(Edited version published in NATIV, Ariel Centre of Policy Research, November 2002.)