War of many fronts

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

At the blast site in Sarojini Nagar on October 30, the day after the explosion. - SHANKER CAKRAVARTY

At the blast site in Sarojini Nagar on October 30, the day after the explosion. - SHANKER CAKRAVARTY

The serial explosions in Delhi show that terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba have no intention to stop their `war' on India, notwithstanding the ongoing peace talks with Pakistan.

TO his neighbours in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Solina in southern Srinagar, Tariq Ahmad Dar must have seemed a remarkable young man. Unlike most other young people in the area, 31-year-old Dar had done well. After obtaining a Master's degree in chemistry from Kashmir University, he found work as a local representative for the pharmaceutical firm Johnson and Johnson. Within a few years, this son of a mason had a three-storey house built, where he lived with his extended family. He acquired all the emblems of a successful middle-class existence: a car, a house, a wife, and enough money for a Haj pilgrimage.

In April, Dar was detained by the Jammu and Kashmir Police on charges of having acted as a courier for funds sent from Saudi Arabia to terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir. However, he obtained bail soon after. While some of his neighbours began to mutter darkly about Dar's sources of income, there were plenty of people willing to believe the cash the police had found was intended, as he claimed, to set up a business. Dar just did not seem like the kind of person who would play a key role in a terror bombing which would claim 71 lives, many of them of women and children.

Intelligence Bureau personnel who listened in to Dar's cell phone conversations after the October 29 serial bombings of New Delhi came to discover a very different person: a key figure, they say, in one of the several Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) cells engaged in extending the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir to all of India. As Dar's trial proceeds and further arrests are made, a clearer picture may emerge of the men who fabricated the three bombs, which went off in New Delhi to catastrophic effect. We shall, most likely, know who put together the low-grade explosives, where the chemicals used to manufacture them were procured, and whether the attack was carried out to avenge a jailed LeT operative who was to be sentenced that day. To one question, however, an answer is already available: Dar is not the first educated young person to kill for the Lashkar's cause and he will, most certain, not be the last.

LYING on his hospital bed in Srinagar's Government Medical College, recovering from bullet injuries, which ripped apart his body, Manzoor Ahmad Chilloo evokes pity. To those who know his story, fear would seem a more appropriate sentiment. Last year, the student of medicine was a central figure in a LeT operation to attack the Bombay Stock Exchange, using a car bomb. Had the operation succeeded, the death toll might well have made the serial bombing casualties in Delhi look trivial. Ever since the Delhi bombings, the media have been saturated with reports on the Lashkar's probable role in them. Few, however, have understood the full scale and intensity of the organisation's all-India operations: or the hatred that drives it.

Chilloo's story gives some insight into the organisation's pan-India operations. A long-time Lashkar operative, Chilloo was detained by the Jammu and Kashmir Police in 2002 on the suspicion of ferrying funds to the terror group. He was later released without any charges framed against him. He subsequently moved to Pune to pursue studies in medicine. Much of his time, however, was spent on building up a pool of contacts for the Lashkar, drawing on young Pune residents who had been active in the proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India. At around the same time, the Lashkar was restructuring its operations in Srinagar. Shahid Ahmad, a Pakistani national who operated using the code-name `Zulu', had registered considerable success in running an assassination squad jointly with the Hizbul Mujahideen. He was now given charge of Lashkar operations outside the State.

In early 2004, Ahmad contacted Chilloo, hoping to draw on the resources the student had put together to execute an attack on the stock exchange. What neither knew, however, was that their operation had been compromised from the outset. A carefully crafted Intelligence Bureau operation - which also led to the controversial elimination of a woman Lashkar operative, Ishrat Jehan Raza, in an encounter in Ahmedabad - eventually led to the exposure of the `Zulu' cell. Chilloo himself, however, remained at large until he was injured in the course of the attempted murder of a Srinagar-based politician earlier this year. Chilloo had masqueraded as a friend of the politician, winning his confidence, to carry out a near-successful assassination. If a chance firefight had not led to his capture, Chilloo might well have been involved in the networks which carried out the Delhi bombings.

Similar networks have been active over the past two decades. All of them trace their ancestry to three key operators - Abdul Karim `Tunda', Jalees Ansari and Azam Ghauri. With a shared experience of communal violence, the three had set up the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen, or the Organisation for the Rectification of Muslims, a militia that sought to impart self-defence skills. After the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, however, their activities turned more violent. Ansari was arrested soon after he executed a series of bomb explosions in 1993, but Ghauri and Karim expanded the Lashkar network significantly. With them was Amir Hashim, a New Delhi resident who carried out a series of now-forgotten bombings in Delhi, Rohtak and Jalandhar in 1996 and 1997. Growing numbers of Pakistani nationals, such as Mohammad Salim Junaid, Amir Khan and Abdul Sattar, also participated directly in the Lashkar's pan-India operations from 1998.

Most of these leadership-level LeT cadre, just like Chilloo or Dar, defied the stereotype of the madrassa-educated fanatic: most knew the modern world only too well, and came to be repelled by it.

FROM 2003, both the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) attempted to harness the widespread anger provoked by the state-organised pogrom in Gujarat, to set up new cells. Neither organisation had great success - most Indian Muslims seem to believe democratic institutions can address their grievances - but they did succeed in establishing that there was a small pool of local supporters available for the Islamist militant project in India. While it is tempting to see the Lashkar's operations as driven by revenge - against communal violence or the conviction of members involved in earlier terrorist strikes - its objectives are more elemental. In its vision, there can be no peace with India: the only means of engagement with India, a predatory Hindu entity, can be through a jehad-without-end.

In October, the LeT had served public notice of its intentions. In its September 23 issue, the Lashkar-affiliated magazine Ghazwa in an editorial called for a renewal of Pakistani state support for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. India, it claimed, was working to divide Pakistani society by "cunningly using the slogan of friendship". Ghazwa demanded that President Pervez Musharraf abandon the detente process and work instead "to fortify the jehad". "Now is the right time for Pakistan to support the jehad in Kashmir", it said, "because America has entangled herself in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and in addition is suffering from severe afflictions like Katrina and Rita.".

"Pakistan should remember," the magazine asserted, "that even a so-called superpower like the United States has been badly worn at the hands of the mujahideen. Remember what happened to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and then think about India: how can it resist the jehad?"

Understanding the Lashkar position requires an engagement with its core position: that the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir is not a battle over territory, but a part of an irreducible conflict between Islam and unbelief. Committed to the eventual creation of a caliphate to rule over all the world's Muslims, the Lashkar asserts that the jehad must continue "until Islam, as a way of life, dominates the whole world and until Allah's law is enforced everywhere in the world". As the noted scholar of Islam Yoginder Sikand perceptively pointed out, the Lashkar's vision of Islam is one that leads it to represent the Koran itself as a manifesto for jehad. Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir is, in this construction, necessarily evil and oppressive, because "the Hindus have no compassion in their religion". "In fact," Saeed had declared some years ago, "the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers, who crushed them by force."

India is part of a global system of oppression that must be overthrown by force. As the Lashkar spokesperson Nazir Ahmad bluntly stated - "through the jehad that the mujahideen have launched in Kashmir, Islam will become dominant all over the world". Lashkar cadre have fought in Iraq; cells have also operated in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Despite considerable global pressure on Pakistan to dismantle the Lashkar, its infrastructure is largely intact. After British investigators found that terrorists involved in the recent bombings of the London underground had visited Lashkar facilities, there was little doubt that its activities posed a global threat. Australia and the U.S., too, have demanded of Pakistan that it act against the Lashkar. Yet, the organisation's fund-raising activities, as well as recruitment of personnel and the military training of cadre, continue apace.

ALL of this begs the question: Why? Analysts of Pakistani state policy have offered several possible answers to the question as to why the country's military establishment has been so reluctant to act against the Lashkar and groups like it. One explanation, favoured by many Western commentators, is that the tail wags the dog. In this analysis, Pakistan's President simply does not have enough support within his military to act against those it gave birth to during the Afghan jehad and remains tied to by links of ideology and faith. Another plausible theory, advocated among others by the scholar and academic Husain Haqqani, is that continued jehadi activity actually suits Musharraf. Maintaining a covert alliance with jehadis while publicly railing against them allows Musharraf to represent himself to the Western regimes, which finance his continued rule, as the dam that blocks an Islamist deluge.

Whatever the truth, the Lashkar knows that, like Oedipeus, it can realise its destiny fully only by murdering its father - in this case the Pakistan Army's control of the state. Founded with assistance from the ISI during the jehad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the Lashkar went on to become a founding constituent of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders. While it moderated its posture in response to pressures on the Pakistani state after the events of September 11, 2001, its recent operations in the West suggest those restraints are now weakening. In recent months, the Lashkar has begun to flower as a state within a state. Apart from running a wide network of schools and colleges, the Lashkar's parent body, the Markaz Dawa wal'Irshad, had set up a parallel system of arbitration courts in Hyderabad, Bahawalpur and Multan. After the recent earthquake, it has emerged as one of the principal non-governmental actors in relief, winning enormous public support.

Given the strength of its infrastructure and its deep links to Pakistan's military establishment, the Lashkar is without doubt the principal terrorist threat to India today. It is, however, far from the only one. Bilal Ahmad Beig's Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front, which bombed Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market in 1996, has shown signs in recent months of recovering from its deep penetration by Indian counter-intelligence. Both the JeM and the Hizbul Mujahideen, have carried out operations outside of Jammu and Kashmir in the past. The Delhi bombings have once again made clear the fact that as long as terrorist groups possess the capability to carry out violent acts, they will sooner or later use what is available. Of groups with the intention and the ability to carry out terror attacks across India, there is no shortage.

Continued operations of groups such as the Lashkar, as well as their growing post-earthquake clout in Pakistan, pose a significant challenge to Indian policy-making. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has on more than one occasion warned that continued terror activity could jeopardise the peace process. However, New Delhi has not so far found a means by which it can pressure Pakistan to end state support for terrorism. Despite a welter of independent media reports as well as official acknowledgment by the U.S. that Pakistan harbours Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar, the mafia figure who carried out the 1993 serial bombings of Mumbai, India has been unable to secure his extradition. Lashkar operative Karim, who intelligence officers believe financed the cell which carried out the Delhi bombings, has been spotted at the organisation's offices near Lahore on more than one occasion - but, again, efforts to push Pakistan to hand him or other key terror suspects over have met with no success.

Now investigators have found the Delhi bombings trail leads to Lahore. Manmohan Singh will have the difficult task of demanding justice against the perpetrators while ensuring that the peace process does not fall apart.

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