Has al-Qaeda Landed?

NEW DELHI – As tens of thousands of policemen in India fan out to guard "sensitive" sites and installations in preparation for Tuesday’s Independence Day celebrations, a climate of anxiety and fear has descended over the country.

Central to this climate is the speculation that the fanatical al-Qaeda global network may carry out strikes in India in collaboration with local terrorist groups.

Following the discovery of an alleged plot late last week in London to blow up 10 passenger aircraft, the Indian government raised the level of the anti-terrorism alert to the highest ever, turning vulnerable installations into fortresses and rounding up scores of people for investigation.

Crucial to this decision was a warning issued by the United States’ embassy here about plans of foreign terrorists, possibly including al-Qaeda, to "carry out a series of bombing attacks in or around New Delhi and Mumbai in the days leading up to Independence Day."

The U.S. State department has since said that the "warden message" about possible terror attacks in India must be understood in "somewhat more hypothetical terms" and that it is not based on "definitive information."

However, the Indian government has raised, not lowered, its threat-assessment level. It continues to impose severe restrictions on the hand baggage that passengers traveling abroad can carry.

Most important, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan has firmed up his view that al-Qaeda has entered India through certain well-known groups active in Kashmir. He has aired this on television and briefed senior officials along similar lines.

Several newspapers in India have carried reports in the last few days claiming that "intelligence sources" have obtained "intercepts" of wireless messages and calls between terrorist "modules"; and they have reports of "tall men speaking an alien language and demanding food and shelter through gestures."

Based on selective but unverified media briefings, they conclude that al-Qaeda has arrived in Kashmir, where it was invited by the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), a notorious terrorist group led by Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed and based in Lahore, Pakistan. Other reports claim that a "30-member al-Qaeda module is on the prowl in south Kashmir."

The stories quote intelligence "sources" who claim they have "definite reports" about al-Qaeda joining hands with groups like LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Hizbul Mujahideen.

However, this assessment is open to question, say analysts who believe the government may be grossly exaggerating the likelihood of al-Qaeda’s involvement in India and the imminent threat from it. The exaggeration and police hyperactivity based on misperception could result in the harassment of large numbers of innocent citizens, especially Muslims.

India, officially a secular state, is home to the world’s second largest community of Muslims, after Indonesia. In a population of 1.1 billion people, an estimated 105 million follow the Islamic faith.

More than a thousand Muslims were rounded up by the Mumbai police after the serial bombings of July 11 on suburban trains, which killed nearly 200 people. There have been numerous reports of Muslims from different social classes being detained for questioning although there is no evidence against them. The police say they have only made eight arrests.

The targeting of Muslims has evoked protests not just from civil rights groups, but also the National Commission on Minorities (NCM), a statutory official body.

The NCM, last week, wrote to the Maharashtra government that it "views with serious concern the targeting of a particular community in the investigative process and the impression being created that a whole group is stigmatized, and is required to prove its innocence."

"People have every right to be skeptical of the official line that al-Qaeda is about to launch murderous terrorist attacks in India," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. "The government has produced no documentary evidence to back its assessment. In the past, it proved wrong on numerous occasions."

Chenoy argues that the wireless "intercepts" which the police and intelligence agencies often cite are unreliable and subject to misinterpretation. Besides, the sight of "tall men" speaking foreign language in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual state like Kashmir does not constitute convincing evidence.

It is also known that some of the militant groups who are allegedly al-Qaeda’s collaborators in its new Indian venture are often at loggerheads with one another. For instance, LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) see each other as rivals. The Hizbul-Mujaheedin is largely composed of "indigenous" militants from the Kashmir Valley and regards the LeT and JeM as "outsiders," drawn from Arab and ethnic-Afghan groups.

The new assessment may be based audio messages said to be aired by al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden on al-Jazeera on April 23, in which he explicitly named "Hindus" as targets along with Jews and "Crusaders" (Christians). When asked for concrete evidence, many "intelligence experts" sympathetic to the official line cite al-Qaeda’s "changed" nature as a "virtual network."

"It is of the utmost importance that the authorities collect unimpeachable evidence based on documents and reliable witnesses before they publicly state that al-Qaeda is indeed involved," says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "Anything less rigorous cannot substitute for real proof."

India’s past record in establishing the involvement of terrorist groups in acts of violence is indifferent, even questionable. There have also been numerous instances of staged or "fake encounters" in which security forces claim to have killed militants who were about to "escape" or to attack them.

Narayanan, a former director of the Intelligence Bureau (India’s sleuthing agency), does not appear free of bias. In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he addressed a conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Toronto, Canada, at which he made questionable remarks about "religious terrorists, especially of the radical Islamist variety" who targeted India "for many years."

These terrorists, he said, "are driven by different value systems. Violence for them becomes a sacramental act, a divine duty executed in response to a theological imperative. Terrorism assumes a transcendental dimension, and its perpetrators are undeterred by political morality or practical constraints. The religious terrorist tends to be more sanguinary, since religion acts as a legitimizing force."

Narayanan warned of an "arc of crisis," which "spans many countries. An intricate network exists to support these radical Islamic terrorist outfits. The network provides recruits from the Islamic diaspora of more than a score of countries."

Narayanan concluded by evoking a Hindu "mantra":

"In extraordinary times, we need unusual remedies – religion not excluded. Every religion has a salient mantra. For the Hindus (the religion to which I subscribe), the ‘Gayatri’ is considered to be the supreme mantra. The ‘Gayatri’ mantra may be summed up as that ‘mantra, which protects him who chants it.’ It is a purificatory mantra believed to create powerful vibrations beneficial for one’s well-being. In these perilous times, may the chanting of the ‘Gayatri’ protect and guide us to defeat the many forces of evil."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.