A Fresh Look

The bombing of four Indian cities in as many months, including the capital New Delhi,has forced India to take a new look at its counter-terror strategies.

Claiming responsibility for these attacks was a relatively new group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen, and the name was purposely taken to give a sense that it is of Indian origin. However, the police crackdown after the Delhi blasts have unearthed a series of terror cells, the majority of whom are linked to the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Jihadi elements are working in tandem with organized crime. Notorious gangsters such as Abu Salem belong to this district and have been associated with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, now based in Pakistan, who has been declared an international terrorist by the United States.

Police have identified the Indian Mujahideen operatives killed in the September 19, Delhi shootout as Azamgarh residents Atif Amin alias Basheer Mohammad and Mohammad Fakruddin. A third man who was injured has been identified as Saif Ahmad, also a resident of Azamgarh. Investigators believe that these terrorists were key actors in an Uttar Pradesh-based network which constituted the logistical backbone of the Indian Mujahideen's nationwide operations.

Police also believe most members of these cells are foot soldiers acting on the orders of leaders based in neighbouring countries. The Indian Mujahideen group, which includes the elusive Abdul Subhan Qureshi alias Tauqeer, Aftab Ansari and others, is controlled by Aamir Reza, a high-ranking functionary of both the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islami (HuJI), from his hideout in Pakistan. The Delhi Police believes Abu al-Qama, Lashkar-e-Toiba's commander based in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) is now responsible for its India operations, and is the man who directs the Indian Mujahideen through Aamir Reza. Only lower rank commanders such as Tauqeer are actually based in India.

Tauqeer, is believed to have taken over as the leader of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) after the arrest of Safdar Nagori in March. He is also associated with the Indian Mujahiddin which is seen as a hard-line section of SIMI. Currently, both LeT and SIMI are two of the 34 terrorist organisations banned under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. Though LeT is banned in Pakistan, it is still active there, with all infrastructure intact, through its front, Jammat-ud-Dawa.

Indian security agencies believe SIMI is also working in India through its 50 fronts. While four of these fronts operate at national level, the remaining 46 are active in eight different states. The agencies suspect they are all being used for the carrying out SIMI's activities, including the collection of funds, circulation of literature and regrouping of cadres. Twenty-three out of the 46 are active in Kerala, followed by eight in Maharashtra, seven in West Bengal, three in Bihar, two in Uttar Pradesh and one each in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi.

These lower rung commanders of the Indian Mujahiddin are often well educated and are involved in recruitment of cadres for the Jihadi group. They indoctrinate youths in minority communities through videos of Osama bin-Laden and the Gujarat riots. Tauqeer maintained contact only with Atif (killed in the Jamia Nagar encounter on September 19) and Sadiq Sheikh, another IM member arrested by Mumbai police. Recruits were targeted that are suave, well spoken, sophisticated and good looking, so they do not look suspicious. Another member of the group, Sadiq indoctrinated his colleagues from Azamgarh (including Atif), and it was he who decided the targets and who would carry out terror attacks.

In the past three years Uttar Pradesh has witnessed the most terror attacks outside Jammu and Kashmir. But a majority of the cells busted were also tracked in other states - mainly Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. According to Indian home ministry figures for 2004-07, while 10 out of 39 cells were cracked in UP, the remaining 29 were based elsewhere. While this demonstrates the spread of the jihadi network, it also indicates that several cells, like those led by alleged Delhi bomber Atif, and Maulvi Bashir who was linked to the Ahmedabad blasts, escaped detection.

The wave of terror attacks in the months before the upcoming national election likely to be held in April-May 2009 has put the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in a tight spot. These attacks have allowed the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to take potshots at the government, accusing it of being soft on terror. It also blamed the government for repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which it sees as a major deterrent against terrorism.

The government knows that if such attacks are not stopped immediately, it would be seen as loosing its grip over the problem, which may cost it dearly during the elections. It is already being criticised for not having a coherent counter-terror strategy, with parties on the left claiming the current attacks are a result of India's engagement with the US and Israel. The Communist Party (Marxist) says India is now part of the US-Israeli war against "Islamic terrorism."

India has been a terror target for many years, but despite this no serious attempt has been made to streamline the unfocussed internal security structure. Intelligence agencies have failed to produce results on par with their western counterparts, and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has admitted that there are vast gaps in the country's intelligence and that needs to be overcome.

Local cells have always been involved in small-scala attacks, but never on the current scale. India now faces the challenge of how to tackle the problem without further alienating its minorities. Though tension has existed in the past, Indian Muslims have not previously acted against the state outside of Jammu and Kashmir. But the emergence of groups like the Indian Mujahideen indicate this is changing.

Meeting immediately after the Delhi blasts, the government mulled introducing tougher terror laws. It is notable that the US and the United Kingdom opted for such laws in the aftermath of the 9/11 and London blasts, whereas India has chosen to repeal its terror law. Moreover, a similar law, MCOCA, on the lines of POTA is in existence in Maharashtra and Gujarat had demanded approval for GCOCA.

However, no consensus could be reached. Divisions emerged within the Congress Party itself and many pointed out the misuse of POTA in operation. It was also feared that the imposition of such a law could further alienate India's Muslim minority.

Some also point out that terror incidents are taking place not because of a lack of POTA, but because existing laws are not being implemented efficiently. This has also raised the issue of police reforms and the strengthening of intelligence agencies. The nationwide nature of this problem has raised the demand for a "federal agency" rather than leaving it to the less effective individual states.

India also recognises the predominantly cross-border nature of the attacks, and so no effective solution can be reached without engaging Pakistan in talks. Hence Singh raised the subject with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan when they met in the US recently. But the government is under no illusion that Zardari is in control of the situation in Pakistan. It knows not even former president Pervez Musharraf, with all his power and influence, could deliver on his promises. Still, the Indian government is serious on desiring engagement with Zardari on the assumption that he may recognise moving against Jihadi forces is in his own best interest. It is also felt that an engagement with India can enhance Zardari's domestic image and give him the confidence that he needs in order to operate in the power vacuum that has developed there.

With Islamic radicalism sweeping Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Bangladesh, some spillover is not unexpected in India. But while the problem is still small-scale, it does not mean the government can afford to be complacent in its response to radicalism. The attacks have highlighted the need for improvements in the police force and a better intelligence network, and that there should be a federal agency coordinating their work and pursuing cases more vigourously involving the various different states.

The time has come for the government of India to take a fresh look at its domestic counter-terror strategy before Jihadis can find their feet and create a situation like Pakistan or Afghanistan.