The New Face of Terror

Narendra Modi’s success in inviting the SAARC heads of states for his swearing-in ceremony was heralded as a diplomatic masterstroke. But what eluded most of the foreign policy experts was that he was possibly forced to take the decision. The fact is that in the near future talks between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are crucial.

By Vishwas Kumar

Narendra Modi’s success in inviting the SAARC heads of states for his swearing-in ceremony was heralded as a diplomatic masterstroke. But what eluded most of the foreign policy experts was that he was possibly forced to take the decision. The fact is that in the near future talks between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are crucial. obl-hafiz1

The reason: Fear of increased militant activity in the region. It is now an accepted fact in intelligence circles that with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, militancy will get a boost. In addition, the Indian prime minister is probably aware that feared outfits such as Al Qaeda, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Afghanistan-based Taliban have joined hands in several operations, including in Kashmir.

One of the biggest concerns of Modi will be increased militancy in the valley, which will challenge his ability to govern and also his wish to change Article 370 related to the state. Therefore, he needs to talk to Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, as well as Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. Sharif is the critical cog, because Pakistan’s intelligence wing, ISI, is alleged to have ideological and financial control over LeT, Taliban and even Al Qaeda to an extent.
Based on interviews with scores of working and retired intelligence officials, and experts, India Legal pieces together the grand, and fearsome, story of how the paths and objectives of Al Qaeda, LeT and Taliban crisscross each other’s, and how the trio’s key focus is Kashmir.

LeT’s networks with Al Qaeda

Eighteen months ago, the Indian security forces killed several members of the Pakis-tan-based militant outfit, LeT, in Kashmir. One of them was Umar Ahsan Bhat alias Khitab, a resident of Kulgam district in south Kashmir, who joined the group in May 2012, after he got admission to Kashmir University to study MSc zoology. Two mobile phones were recovered from him. They turned out to be a treasure trove of crucial information about LeT.

What shocked the country’s intelligence agencies, which sifted through the phones, was a huge collage image. It showed the dead Al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, with LeT head, Hafiz Saeed. Below them were two symbolic photographs of New York’s World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda, and the burning Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, which was one of the targets of 26/11 attacks. At the bottom of the collage were the photographs of India’s former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and US’ current president, Barack Obama. Al qaeda-training camps-afghan

For the officials, it was critical evidence that hinted at the growing links between Al Qaeda and LeT, which allegedly terrorized Mumbai on 26/11 and subsequent days. The collage’s purpose was to convince recruits like Khitab that LeT was different from other groups operating in Kashmir, its perspective was global, and it had connections with similar international groups. But it implied that the 26/11 attacks were either inspired by 9/11 or, worse, LeT received help from Al Qaeda.

Late last year, cellular chats between LeT commanders in Pakistan and the cadres in Kashmir, which were intercepted by Indian intelligence, regularly referred to 9/11 and 26/11. This alarmed the officers, who thought that another attack of similar magnitude was being planned in India. They figured out the mystery recently with the arrest of an LeT member, Hafiz Naveed alias Fahadullah. He explained that 9/11 and 26/11 were the last digits of the mobile numbers of his commander, Hanzia Adnan. This was another element to the theory that Al Qaeda and LeT worked in tandem.

Carlotta Gall’s new book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-14, claims that Pakistan’s intelligence wing, ISI, was in touch with Bin Laden through LeT’s Saeed and Afghanistan’s Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. Gall, a British journalist, who covered Afghanistan for the New York Times, writes: “The haul of handwritten notes, letters, computer files and other information collected from Bin Laden’s house (after he was killed)… revealed regular correspondence between Bin Laden and a string of militant leaders… including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed… and Mullah Omar….”

LeT’s links with Taliban

Past incidents have hinted at linkages bet-ween Saeed’s outfit and Omar’s Taliban. According to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, LeT was behind the attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat (Afghanistan) on May 23 this year. According to an intelligence official, the intention of the militants, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, was to take hostages to embarrass the Indian and Afghanistan governments. The attack was timed just bef-ore May 26, when the newly-elected Prime Minister Modi was scheduled to take oath in the presence of heads of SAARC nations, which included Karzai and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.HERAT, MAY 23:- Afghan security forces take their position at the scene of an attack by insurgents on the Indian consulate in Herat province May 23, 2014. A handful of heavily armed insurgents, including suicide bombers, launched the rocket propelled grenade and gun attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan's western city of Herat hours before dawn on Friday, officials said.   REUTERS/UNI PHOTO-13R

In 2008, a suicide car bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul (Afghanistan) killed 60 people, including Indian staffers. The embassy was hit by another attack in 2009. The next year, militants targeted two guest houses in Kabul, which were popular among Indians, killing six Indians. In August 2013, nine Afghans, including several children, were killed in a bomb attack on the Indian Consulate in Jalalabad. The finger of suspicion in all these cases pointed at the Pakistan-based LeT.

According to the London-based Guardian newspaper, LeT has been “active in Afghanistan in recent years, often teaming up with insurgent groups operating in the eastern part of the country near the frontier with Pakistan.” And despite the US army presence in Afghanistan, Omar’s Taliban has revived itself, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is logical to assume that there are logistics, ideological and human resources connections between LeT and Taliban.
For example, immediately after the 2010 attack on the Kabul guest houses, the Taliban claimed responsibility and said that its targets were Europeans and Americans, and not Indians. A few days later, Afghan intelligence officials maintained that LeT was involved, and said that it had evidence to prove this. US Intelligence found that LeT cadres train with similar organizations in Afghanistan. New Delhi and Kabul felt that LeT wished to undermine the relationship between the two nations.

Laden’s links with Kashmir

Years before he was killed by the US Special Forces in Pakistan’s Abottabad, Osama Bin Laden had shown sympathy for the cause of militant organizations in Kashmir. He dub-bed India as an enemy of Islam, and clubbed her with other foes like the US and UK. In the late 1990s, he exhorted the mujahids to save the religion in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Kashmir. He urged the various pro-Kashmir militant groups in Pakistan to join hands, and asked the Pakistan government to allow the setting up militants’ camps in the country to stage jehad in Kashmir. HERAT, MAY 23 :- (UNI):- Side view of a killed militant in Afganistan by  ITBP trying to enter inside Indian Consulate in Herat on Friday. UNI PHOTO-82U

In the decade gone by, Bin Laden said that waging a jehad against India was an “Islamic duty” of the Muslim world, and that the Kashmir issue couldn’t be resolved without a holy war. He blamed the US for its support to the Hindus in Kashmir. Taliban’s Omar too said that the United Nations was a “western tool” to suppress the Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, and Chechnya, among other places. He maintained that the “true terrorists” and “Islam’s enemies” were the US, UK, India, Israel and Russia.

The Indian intelligence agencies first got evidence about Al Qaeda’s presence in the country with the arrest of Sudanese national, Abdul Rouf Hawash, in New Delhi in 2001. An alleged cadre of Bin Laden’s outfit, he hoped to attack the US Embassy in the
capital’s Chanakya Puri.

Three years later, the outfit killed 22 people, including 10 Indians, in Kobar, Saudi Arabia. A website claimed on Al Qaeda’s behalf that “the 10 Indians killed were murderers of our Muslim brothers in Kashmir.”

Kashmiri journalists received CDs in 2006, which announced the launch of Al Qaeda India, headed by Abu Abdul Rehman Al Ansari. The message, read by a masked man with a gun at his side, said that the struggle in Kashmir had turned into a dispute over a piece of land between two nations (India and Pakistan). Hence, it was different from Islamic struggles in Chechnya, Afghan-istan, Somalia, Iraq and Palestine, where the objective was to establish an Islamic rule that transcended the national borders.

Clearly, the intelligence agencies are worried that in the near future, Al Qaeda, LeT and Taliban may conduct joint operations against their “common enemy”, India, in Kashmir. Even the rise of right-wing icon, Modi, may propel them to do this sooner than later. Thus, Modi has to talk to Sharif and, unlike the previous NDA PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the new PM must demonstrate that it can no longer be business as usual.

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