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Homegrown, yes, but ISI inspired

Much is now being made of the 'indigenisation' of Islamist extremism and terrorism in India as purportedly opposed to the earlier Pakistan-backed terrorist activities. It is crucial, at this juncture, to scotch emerging misconceptions on this count. Islamist terrorism in India has always had an Indian face -- but has overwhelmingly been engineered and directed from Pakistan, and nothing has changed in this scenario. Going back to the March 1993 serial explosions in Mumbai, which killed 257 people and left 713 injured, and were executed by the Dawood Ibrahim gang, for instance, it is useful to recall that nearly 1,800 kg of RDX and a large number of detonators and small arms had been smuggled from Pakistan through India's west coast prior to the bombings. The operation was coordinated by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, and Ibrahim and a number of his gang members have since lived under state protection in Karachi.

Similarly, Al Ummah, which was responsible for a series of 19 explosions in February 1998, which left 50 people dead in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, and which had established a wide network of extremist organisations across south India, was also aided by Pakistan, with a considerable flow of funds from Pakistan-based terror groups, often through the Gulf. The Deendar Anjuman, headed by Zia-ul-Hassan, which orchestrated a series of 13 explosions in churches in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa between May and July 2000, was, again, bankrolled by the ISI.

The then Union Minister for Home Affairs had stated in Parliament that investigators had established linkages between the Deendar Anjuman and Pakistan's covert intelligence agency. Hassan himself was based at Peshawar in Pakistan, where the sect was established under the name of Anjuman Hizbullah, and he is said to have floated a militant group, the Jamaat-e-Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen in Pakistan, in order to 'capture India and spread Islam'.

It is entirely within this paradigm that the evolution of Students Islamic Movement of India as a terrorist group is located. Absent the support and involvement of Pakistan's covert agencies and an enduring partnership with a range of Pakistan-based or backed terrorist groups, SIMI may have had an amateur flirtation with terrorism, an impulse that would quickly have been exhausted with a handful of low-grade and at least occasionally accidental bomb blasts. Instead, its leadership and cadre have had a long apprenticeship alongside Pakistani terrorist groups operating in Jammu & Kashmir, and several of the more promising candidates have crossed the border to secure 'advanced training' on Pakistani soil or in Bangladesh.

The control centre of SIMI has, for some time now, been based in Pakistan. Operational command in a number of major attacks, including the Samjhauta Express bombing of February 18, 2007, and the two serial attacks in Hyderabad in May and August 2007, was known to have been exercised by Mohammed Shahid aka Bilal. Bilal was reported to have been shot in Karachi in September 2007, and, while Indian intelligence sources remain sceptical, no confirmed sighting has subsequently been reported. Operational control thereafter has shifted to the Lahore-based second-in-command, Mohammad Amjad.

I have repeatedly emphasised the fact that Pakistan's ISI -- as an organ of the country's military and political establishment -- has been, and remains, the principal source of the impetus, the infrastructure and the organisational networks of what is inaccurately called 'Islamist' terrorism across the world. An overwhelming proportion of so-called 'Islamist' terrorism is, in fact, simply 'ISI terrorism'.

While the Indian establishment remains unusually coy about this reality -- with fitful and often quickly qualified exception -- some measure of satisfaction may now be derived from a growing American recognition of Pakistan's pernicious role as an abiding source of Islamist terrorism. Had this recognition come in the first weeks after 9/11, that could have saved thousands of lives, most significantly in Afghanistan and India, but also in Europe and across Asia.

Nevertheless, Western commentators and Governments are now increasingly acknowledging Pakistan's duplicity in the 'global war on terror', the proclivity to act as an 'on-and-off ally of Washington'. While providing fitful cooperation in US anti-terrorism efforts, The Washington Times notes, "in other ways, Pakistan aids and abets terror. US officials say that Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence... was behind the recent bombing of India's Embassy in Kabul. And the Pakistani Government's refusal to confront Al Qaeda has helped create a de facto safe haven for the group and its allies in locations like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan".

US Intelligence officials, The Washington Times notes further, compare "Al Qaeda's operational and organisational advantages in the FATA to those it enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to September 11", and warn that "Al Qaeda was training and positioning its operatives to carry out attacks in the West, probably including the United States".

These disclosures coincide with reports that President George W Bush had secretly approved orders in July 2008, allowing American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani Government. US Forces have executed numerous missile attacks from unmanned Predator drones on Pakistani soil in the past, but the September 3, 2008, attack by NATO and US ground troops at a Taliban-Al Qaeda stronghold in South Waziristan was the first instance in which troops had participated. The incident has already been followed by drone attacks on September 9 on a seminary run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, in which 20 people, including some senior Al Qaeda operatives, were killed; and on September 12 at Tul Khel in North Waziristan, in which an Al Badr Mujahideen commander was targeted. Haqqani, it is significant, was known to have engineered the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, using a LeT suicide cadre Hamza Shakoor, a Pakistani from Gujranwala district, on behalf of the ISI.

The increasing frequency of US-NATO attacks -- manned or unmanned -- into Pakistani territory, and the Bush Administration's approval of Special Operations into Pakistan without prior sanction from Islamabad, has reconfirmed the country's status as a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and an area of growing anxiety for the world. There is, however, still very little understanding of how heavy and sustained the Pakistani footprint has been in Islamist terrorist activities across the globe. The enormity of this 'footprint' is, for instance, reflected in the long succession of terrorist incidents, arrests and seizures, separately, in India, the US and Europe, in which a Pakistani link has been suspected or confirmed.

(Published in The Pioneer, New Delhi, September 24, 2008)





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