Not endgame yet

Print edition : January 19, 2002

The December 13 attack on Parliament could have consequences that go far beyond the event itself, but investigators have made little progress after the initial round of arrests.

HARD evidence of a Pakistani role in the December 13 attack on Parliament House is not available in New Delhi, or even Srinagar. Investigators say it is hidden away in computers in the United States and West Germany.

Security forces at Parliament House on December 13, after the terrorists struck.-R.V. MOORTHY

Two weeks ago, India handed over to the international police organisation, Interpol, records of cellphone calls made by the five terrorists involved in the attack. Although officials are tight-lipped about the details, informed sources told Frontline that the records contain information on dozens of calls made by the terrorists to contacts in Karachi, Dubai, Germany and the U.S. The records start from mid-November 2001, when the first member of the attack cell arrived in New Delhi, and end minutes before the attack. Many of the calls were made to cellphones with international roaming facilities, which means the people who received the calls may not have been in the countries in which their phone connections were obtained.

Interpol, officials say, has now passed on requests for information on just who used the numbers to which the calls were made. While experience suggests that little cooperation can be expected from the authorities in the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, the information that will most certainly come in from the U.S. and Germany may prove interesting. International roaming telephone accounts generally require some form of identification, and the bills may have been paid for with credit cards. Privacy laws in these countries make it necessary for the police authorities to obtain warrants for such computer records, which is a time-consuming process. However, when the evidence does arrive it will provide solid proof of just who ran the attack cell and where they were actually based.

Little has been thrown up in the form new information by the continuing interrogation of the four principal suspects arrested for their role in the conspiracy. Mohammad Afzal Ansari and his cousin Shaukat Ansari, the New Delhi-based businessmen alleged to have provided safehouses and transport for the terrorists, have been able to throw little light on the Pakistan linkages of the group. On the basis of their statements, officials now believe that one of the five terrorists, who used the code-name Rana, was from Liaqatabad in the Pakistan province of Punjab. Mohammad, the leader of the cell, and Raja, were also ethnic Punjabi but residents of Karachi. The Ansari cousins told investigators that Tufail and Hyder, the other members of the attack group, were relatively uncommunicative.

Another question on which the interrogations have cast some light is when the attack cell arrived in India. The Ansari cousins and the Delhi University teacher Syed Abdul Rahman Jeelani are believed to have told investigators that Mohammad claimed he had crossed the Line of Control in August 2000 and that he was engaged in at least three major encounters with the security forces, two in the forests of Ajas and Lam. The other four members came later, in August or September 2001. It is possible, given the timing of its arrival, that this second group was brought in with the specific task of attacking Parliament. There has, however, been no progress in locating the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) commander, Shahbaz Khan, better known by his alias Ghazi Baba, who issued the final orders for the attack. Nor have investigators succeeded in locating Mohammad Tariq, the go-between who handled communications between Khan and the Ansaris.

It is unlikely, of course, that the whole truth about the attack will ever become known except in the improbable eventuality of India managing to secure the extradition of JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Azhar was detained in Pakistan in late December along with three of his brothers, reportedly on charges of sedition. There is, however, no word on where he is being held. If, as some observers believe, the attack on Parliament House was intended to undermine the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf, it is hard to understand why he has been so unwilling to take more decisive action against Azhar and other key JeM leaders. Lashkar-e-Toiba(LeT) leaders have been similarly arrested on sedition charges, not for terrorism-related crimes.

Pakistan's demands for proof against the Lashkar and the Jaish are strange for more reasons than one. First, it has proved willing to bypass its judicial system to hand over terrorism suspects to the U.S. without any extradition procedure. Even if India cannot expect the grovelling reserved for the sole superpower, it does have reason to expect that suspects for whom Interpol red corner alerts exist will be detained and a case for their extradition presented before the courts. In cases like those of Dawood Ibrahim or the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, both independently documented to be in Pakistan, that has not happened. In some cases, even that is not needed. All that is required to subject Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah to the law is that Pakistan withdraw his visa, since he is an Indian national. The JeM's Syed Ahmad Umar Sheikh is a British national who holds a dual Pakistan passport, which that country is entitled to withdraw.

The supposed crackdown on terrorist groups in December in Pakistan needs to be read against this wider context of continued state support for terrorist groups. Consider, for example, the fact that the LeT's website and Muridke campus remain open despite the arrest of its chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. In a December 6 article, the organisation proclaimed that the "arrest of Jihadic (sic) leaders in Pakistan has failed to dampen the Jihadic spirit of the Mujahideen who have stepped up their activities". The article claimed that the organisation's Fidayeen-e-Kitab-o-Sunnah (beloved of the holy book) had attacked an Army firing range in Kangra, near the Punjab town of Pathankot. It also proclaimed responsibility for three other attacks in late December, all on Indian military targets. It is significant that a Pakistan-based organisation has claimed responsibility for acts of war against the Indian state at a time of escalating military tension.

Nor does Musharraf's much advertised crackdown on the finances of terrorist groups seem to have hurt them in any significant way. Action was ordered after the Islamabad-based newspaper The News reported on January 1 that "the frozen accounts had a balance of $190,554 and close to (Pakistan) Rs.10 million until December 20". An official decision to freeze the accounts in phases ensured that the money could be moved out. In the end, two frozen accounts of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen were found to have just Rs.4,742, of the JeM Rs.900, that of the Al Rashid Trust, which handles finances for the Taliban and the LeT, Rs.27 lakh and $30. Contrast these figures with the $33.7 million frozen in the U.S., 63 million frozen in the United Kingdom and the 2.7 million frozen in France.

Conventional wisdom has it that Musharraf simply does not have the power to act against the Islamist Far Right, and is doing the best he can under the circumstances. While the arrests of terrorist cadre have been widely reported, it has gone almost unnoticed that many of those detained have been let off following pressure. A day after the Faisalabad Police picked up over two dozen cadre activists of the Tehrik-i-Jaferia Pakistan, the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and the LeT on the orders of the Provincial Home Department, all were released unconditionally. Release orders were issued after Tehreek and Sipah leaders met the Punjab Governor, a sign of their political clout and official influence.

Others, however, believe that Musharraf's apparent post-December 13 volte-face is deceptive. Writing in the Friday Times' May 24 issue, its Editor Najam Sethi argued that the "Musharraf model seeks to covertly ally with the jehadi groups while overtly keeping the mainstream religious parties out of the power loop". "This," he suggested, "is to enhance and sustain its covert external agenda, while internally maintaining an overtly moderate anti-fundamentalist stance for the comfort of the international community whose economic support is critical to Pakistan's financial viability." As security analyst and former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) official B. Raman has pointed out in a recent article, this is of a piece with Pakistan's standing tactics. After former U.S. President Bill Clinton placed it on the watch list of suspected state sponsors of terrorism, Pakistan clamped down on jehadi groups. Once off the list, it was business as usual for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

In important but little-understood ways, this strategy makes complete sense. Pakistan's support to and sponsorship of terrorist groups have given it a strategic edge over India, imposing significant military and political costs on the latter. As Musharraf pointed out in his intercepted conversations during the Kargil War, violence in the region had ensured rapid internationalisation of the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. The attack on Parliament House has led a confused Indian government to seek U.S. assistance to curb Pakistan. In time, the bill shall be presented for any assistance extended by the U.S. That may come in the form of demands for India to make significant political concessions on Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan. Most important, India's well-founded policy of rejecting third-party mediation in the Kashmir issue has been undermined significantly.

December 13, then, could have consequences that go far beyond the event itself. So far India has sought to put pressure on Pakistan for the extradition of suspects by means of the threat of military action. Few people, however believe that the execution of the threat is even possible, let alone desirable. For all the public bravado, Army officials privately make clear that there is little prospect of obtaining the kinds of decisive territorial gains that would compel Pakistan to accept India's political demands. Politicians also accept that in a nuclear South Asia, the risks of such a confrontation spiralling out of control are just too high. Musharraf will, for the moment, make enough concessions to keep the U.S. happy. Should he choose, however, to call India's military bluff by refusing to extradite the December 13 suspects, the political and strategic establishment could find it has no further cards to play.

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