The arrest of one of the key conspirators and terrorist handlers of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, Syed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal a.k.a. Abu Hamza at New Delhi’s IGI Airport in June 2012 after being deported from Saudi Arabia not only marks a high for the Indian security agencies but also turns the focus back on Islamabad’s complicity in the attack. Abu Jundal who held a Pakistani passport at the time of his capture and deportation is an Indian national from the Beed district of Maharashtra.
During the course of his interrogation, he is reported to have disclosed that he was in Saudi Arabia at the behest of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) to raise finances for carrying out a bigger attack on India. According to him, the LeT had planned to execute a major terrorist strike in India within a year. He had also been tasked to lure Indian youth working in Saudi Arabia to join the banned terror outfit, the Indian Mujahideen. He is also reported to have told the investigators that the LeT was expanding its naval wing to carry out more terror strikes. At the time of writing it was revealed that he was planning a similar strike with an Indian Mujahideen (IM) module that he was setting up when he was nabbed in Saudi Arabia.
Two implications clearly emerge out of this interrogation – firstly Pakistan (its military establishment and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI) and the India-centric terror groups, particularly the LeT are not sufficiently deterred from executing fedayeen strikes inside India and secondly, there is no change in the Pakistani mindset of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy at least vis-à-vis India. This revelation by Abu Jundal is also likely to have an adverse impact on the Indo-Pak dialogue process. One another thing that emerges from the disclosure made is that LeT and other radical Islamic groups in Pakistan, far from being reined in, are in a position to influence Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially its India policy post 26/11. There is a strong suspicion that Pakistani military establishment will not hesitate to execute another 26/11 – type attack, of course with certain modifications and improvements so as to ensure that the attacks cannot be traced back to Pakistan or the ISI.
The interrogation of Abu Jundal must alert the Indian security establishment to the fact that groups inimical to India have been in the process of plotting and will continue to plot terror strikes against India. While the capture of a key LeT operative like Jundal may be euphoric, it is time for Indian agencies to counter and neutralize this threat emanating from across the western border. The international community expected India post-26/11 to respond appropriately to this “undeclared war”. However, India chose to rely on diplomacy rather than reprisals against Pakistan. Diplomacy and sanctions may not be necessarily successful in countering terrorism.
Post 26/11, there is very little that Pakistan has done in reining groups like the LeT. India must accept the fact that Pakistan will continue to sponsor or allow outfits like LeT to freely carry out operations against India till such time India does not respond with reprisals. While expecting a repeat of 26/11, India must realize that Pakistani ISI will try to avoid a repeat of the mistakes committed during 26/11. In other words, tactically, Pakistan while planning a strike like 26/11 will try to cover up its tracks in order to ensure that its complicity remains undetected. For one, the ISI will desist from using Pakistani nationals to carry out any future fedayeen attacks inside India. Instead, Pakistan may try to lure the Indian Mujahidden to carry out the attack thereby making it look like an indigenous terror strike. Secondly, ISI in all likelihood would avoid using a control room to give orders and instructions as was the case during 26/11. Either, there may be complete radio silence or a control room may be located in a third country. Thirdly, there is every possibility of any future attack inside India being outsourced, meaning thereby either a group with no Indian link may carry out the attack or individuals belonging to other radical Islamic groups may be assigned to carry out the attack.
Lashkar’s Maldivian connection assumes significance in this context of outsourcing any future attack inside India.
It is important to note that Lashkar’s operations have expanded over the years – it is estimated that the LeT maintains some kind of presence in about 21 countries, including Maldives.
While there are no known organized jihadi groups operating in or out of the Maldives, the country has proven a fertile ground for jihadist recruitment. Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) and al-Qaeda have both successfully recruited youth already radicalized in Islamic schools there.
The December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean provided an opening in this regard. In the aftermath of the disaster, radical Islamists gained a foothold in the country in the guise of humanitarian charities. The most significant of these was the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK), which is affiliated with the Pakistan-based Jammat ud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba. The IKK is linked to the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith sect active in the Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Ahl-e-Hadith groups are known to be involved in the jihadi struggle in South Asia, and most are affiliated with Kashmir-centric terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba and Harkat-ul Mujahideen. Its followers prefer to call themselves Salafis, in order to stress their closeness to the Saudis. Intelligence sources confirm that the IKK has spearheaded LeT’s activities in the Maldives, which prioritizes youth recruitment. The IKK claims to have spent 17.2 million Pakistani Rupees (roughly $282,000) on tsunami relief in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia during 2005 as post-tsunami relief although the Maldivian government denies that the organization provided any relief. Ostensibly as part of that aid, the IKK reportedly facilitated trips for many Maldivian youth to Pakistan, enrolling them in various radical madrassas (Islamic seminaries) there.
Sporadic incidents of jihadi activity within the Maldives have also occurred. In April 2005, for example, Indian police arrested Maldivian national Asif Ibrahim who allegedly frequented the Indian state of Kerala to procure arms and ammunition for the LeT's Maldives operation. Ibrahim confessed to planning to blow up a government-run mosque and assassinate then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. An official release from the Maldivian government indicated that Asif Ibrahim had become a member of the UK-based extremist Islamic group Jama'ah-tul-Muslimeen in 2001. In the early weeks of February 2010, nine alleged Maldivian terrorists arrested in Pakistan’s troubled South Waziristan tribal region in March 2009 were repatriated to the Maldives. According to national police, the nine have ties to the bombing that took place in Malé’s Sultan Park in September 2007, and may have left the country for Pakistan via Sri Lanka for further training and indoctrination.
The Maldivian government admitted that Pakistan-based terrorist groups have successfully recruited hundreds of Maldivian Muslims to fight against government forces in Pakistan. The bin Laden network has done so as well; an al-Qaeda video circulated in November 2009 featured Ali Jaleel, a Maldivian national who fought alongside pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan. Soon thereafter, another recruitment video featured a previously unknown al-Qaeda cell operating in the Maldives, and exhorted jihadists to travel to the country, stating "Your brothers in the Maldives are calling you.”
International concerns over the growth of Islamic extremism in the Maldives have risen since the May 2002 arrest of Ibrahim Fauzee. Fauzee, a Muslim cleric (now heading the Islamic Foundation of Maldives), was arrested in a suspected al-Qaeda safe house in Karachi, Pakistan and subsequently held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp until his release and repatriation to the Maldives in March 2005. The incident sparked concerns about the spread of radical Islam and the penetration of international terror groups like al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba into the social fabric of this Indian Ocean archipelago.
The Fauzee case was not an isolated event, however. There is growing evidence of Maldivian youths frequenting Pakistan for reasons unknown or suspicious in nature, though enrollment in various madrassas (Islamic seminaries) is usually cited as the prime reason for their travel. Intelligence agencies of the United States and India have noted this development with concern, and believe that growing religious extremism in the Maldives is a Pakistani import.
Another significant aspect which Indian security establishment must look into is the recent reports of three African terrorist groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria seeking to “coordinate and synchronize” their operations. Since the groups in question are affiliated to the Al Qaeda and with reports of Somalis being trained in terrorist training camps in Pakistan, the possibility of using African nationals to execute an attack cannot be ruled out. It is also important to bear in mind the fact that in August 2010, a blast in the Somali capital Mogadishu left ten Al Shabaab terrorists dead while they were trying to assemble a suicide car bomb. Two of the suspected terrorists were Indian nationals according to the Somali Ministry of Information. A co-operation of this nature is not unknown amongst international terror groups. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-08-23/india/28291614_1_islamist-terror-al-shabaab-jihadis
One of the recommendations made to the US policy makers contained in the report titled “The Menace that is Lashkar-e-Taiba” prepared by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is to destroy the LeT for, left unchecked, it would eventually evolve into a formidable threat. Together with its allies, the US should use all available means to eviscerate the LeT – with or without Pakistan’s help. The US has realized albeit, a bit too late that LeT has assumed dangerous proportions and use of force is the only viable option available to it and its allies to neutralize the Pak-based terror outfits.
India irrespective of the action initiated or proposed to be initiated by the US and its allies must itself draw up a plan of action to counter and neutralize the ISI-backed LeT and other groups. For India, the best option is use of covert operations. While India’s experience in this area is limited, there is now an urgent need to penetrate Pakistani society and carry out subversive activities aimed at disrupting/undermining the ability of ISI and its proxies to carry out terrorist activities against India. Special Forces may also be tasked to carry out limited but punitive strikes across the Line of Control with the objective of destroying terror training camps and launch pads located in the border regions. Briefly put, India needs to wrest the initiative from Pak by its limited offensive actions. India has countered Pak actions on Indian territory since the time proxy war was initiated by Pakistan. It is time to turn the tables now.