Jihad Finds a Home in India

Police found 10 unexploded bombs in the western Indian city of Surat yesterday, three days after a devastating series of blasts across the same state killed 45 people

The recent serial blasts, in Bangalore as well as Ahmedabad, have raised the always-present inclination to blame Pakistan, and particularly the Pakistani government’s notorious Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI. But in fact Indian intelligence officials have a new and ominous concern that the bombings, on consecutive days, would have been impossible to carry out without the involvement of local operatives, giving a new dimension to terrorism and forcing the government to look afresh at the situation. Until now India has largely been free from the menace of the jihadi action that has wracked much of the Muslim world. Despite having the world’s second largest Muslim population and occasional communal outbreaks, Indian Muslims have generally not been radicalized. But things appear to be changing though the reason could still be external.

Certainly a good deal more than a fresh look is crucial. Although the bombers are growing increasingly tech-savvy and are acting in coordination with each other, investigations are faltering at best because of a lack of coherent national response in India, where maintaining law and order is the responsibility of individual states. This lack of coordination among states and the woeful shape of the intelligence network are turning out to be serious impediments

A little-known outfit calling itself Indian Mujahideen took responsibility for the earlier bombings, stating that Indian Muslims have decided to wage jihad, or holy war. To justify its actions it is using perceived grievances including penalties against those accused in blasts in Mumbai in 1993, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and assaults on arrested Jaish-e-Mohammed suspects by lawyers.

Security analysts theorize that the ISI has been encouraging Pakistani groups to attempt to establish an Indian chapter of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) after creating one for Bangladesh, and that the chapter, consisting of Indian Muslims, has become sufficiently strong to act on its own. That has combined with the influence of Wahabi Islam, the ultra-conservative brand of Islam that has been imported from Saudia Arabia, which is on the rise, the analysts say. They theorize that the serial blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad were executed by a network of Wahabi fundamentalists. The terror network earlier organized blasts at holy places of rival Barelvi Muslims like the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun, in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Certainly, the ISI has been up to a certain amount of continuing mischief. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that a top CIA official confronted senior officials in Islamabad over the ISI's ties to militants operating in Pakistan's tribal areas and the militants' increasing activity in Afghanistan. According to the Times report, the CIA. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said. Indian intelligence officials say increasing activity in India can be laid at the ISI's door as well.

Gaining strength over the last five years, wahabis have have carried out an intensive propaganda war within the Muslim community against so-called un-Islamic practices. However, Barelvis have also brought out publications countering the wahabi ideology, which is believed to provide a theological justification for terror. In Mumbai, maulanas like Saeed Noori have been leading the campaign against wahabism.

The blast at Ajmer Sharif provoked widespread reaction among the Barelvis against wahabis, who had backed the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Fearing their isolation, the wahabi elements are now seeking to project themselves as Indian Muslims fighting against injustice to Muslims as a whole. Interestingly, however, the email sent by Indian Mujahiddin is silent on the blast that took place at the Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti shrine.

There may be confusion over the name of the terror group involved in the attacks, but its nature is very clear. The Indian Muhajadeen are operating under a larger jihadi agenda that has nothing to do with the years-old Gujarat riots or Babri Masjit demolition, which are only being used to legitimize the bombings.

The emails start with typical fundamentalist references to Islamic tradition, urging war on infidels with violent remarks about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and RSS. The emails offer a jihadist view that rejects democracy as being incompatible with Islam.

In a similar message before the Jaipur bombings the attackers stated that the attack was in retaliation to India supporting the US and Britain on "international issues" and warned that if this alliance continued, more strikes would follow.

These frequent terror attacks are causing large numbers of casualties. A report last year by the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, DC concluded that from January 2004 to March 2007, the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq during the same period. Since 2005 Diwali bombings in Delhi that began the bombing campaign, nearly 550 people have been killed in 11 well-coordinated terrorist attacks. But not one has been solved and not one terrorist arrested.

Although the recent terror attacks have raised demands for a federal agency to deal with the menace, any solution is difficult as the police forces in the country are highly politicized and the intelligence system tends to be used as a tool against political rivals. This results in a lack of actionable intelligence.

The attacks, however, will add to pressure on the Congress party-led ruling coalition to improve its record on security with only months to go before a general election. They will also alarm foreign investors. The world's biggest technology companies, investment banks and global consultancy firms employ thousands of people in Bangalore and other cities.

The 1993 Mumbai blasts were seen as aberration, but things appear to be changing. Although there previously were significant time gaps between such incidents the gap is diminishing, with the last two serial blasts occurring on consecutive days in two different cities. Surat, another Gujarati industrial hub, apparently also was targeted but bombings there were foiled by an alert common public.

Secondly, bombers are increasingly hitting "soft" targets in the heart of the country.

The question which comes to ones mind is why terrorists have decided to act now and with such ferocity. Its answer comes from looking at the subcontinent as a whole.

In the last two months several important things have happened. The democratically elected government in Pakistan, after coming to power, signed peace deals in its tribal areas, a hotbed of Islamist terror. This was done despite serious protests from the US and Afghanistan. These pacts were a means to buy peace for Pakistan from internal attacks. The Pakistan army, battling growing desertions, wanted to take the focus away from itself and Pakistan. The peace deals were signed with this objective though it was fully understood that it will work against the interest of Afghanistan, the NATO forces and weaken the war on terror.

The Pakistan army and ISI were successful in bringing some relief to Pakistan with these deals. But the large number of jihadis present in the Northwest Frontier Province cannot be expected to sit idle. This is believed to have resulted in the recent attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan and increased infiltration in Kashmir.

Communal violence in India at this juncture would thus be useful to redirect the jihadi forces, who in recent times have turned towards Pakistan, giving its security forces a very tough time. If the ISI succeeds in giving an Indian face to it, that would free it from the blame which comes after such attacks. This may also bring India into the morass in which Pakistan now finds itself.

Pakistan is also uncomfortable with the Indo-US nuclear deal, which now appears to be headed for a successful conclusion. It is also attempting to create tension between the two nations so that the international opinion could be swayed against the deal.