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Indian terror no longer just a man's game
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Increasing evidence is being dug up in India regarding the involvement of women in terrorist related activities. In what appears to be a gender spin in the terrorism profile, police and intelligence reports suggest that, perhaps for the first time in India, women are playing a crucial role in the implementation and coordination of terror attacks.

The facts speak for themselves. Police are hunting for two women who are the prime suspects in the August Mumbai blasts that killed 50 people and wounded 154 others, one of the worst terrorist attacks to ever hit the financial hub of India. A special task group has been formed to track women terrorists, consequent to the blasts.

One woman particularly well known to police is 45-year-old Fatima Khan, who was arrested last week. Khan is suspected to have been the fulcrum of operations for the past decade to underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel, prime suspects in the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts. Dawood and Shakeel form an extortion cartel that is allegedly used by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence to run terrorist operations in India. Police statements also say that Khan's sister-in-law, Laxmi Hanumanprasad Nai, was "ably assisting" Khan with her operations.

And it's not just a case of women joining forces with the men. Several Indian intelligence reports suggest that the Dukhtaran-e-militat (DeM), an all-women "soft terrorist" outfit with cells in Jammu and Kashmir, has become increasingly active in the recent past. The two women suspected of being behind the Mumbai blasts are believed to be members of the DeM.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the involvement of women in terrorism has been the recent compilation of a list of India's seven most-wanted women criminals. This is the first time that such an exercise has been undertaken. An Interpol alert notice has been issued against these women, in 44 countries, with a price tag attached to information leading to their arrest. Extradition or deportation proceedings can begin against the accused if they are arrested in any of these countries.

Never before has the direct involvement of women in terrorism come to the fore in India with such proportions.

In the past, women have been involved with the underworld, but more in the form of glamour dolls with the dons, a subject of tabloid frenzy. Dawood Ibrahim has been linked to top Indian actress Mandakini, most famous for her role in the doyen of Indian films, the late Raj Kapoor's Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Abu Salem, a rival to Dawood, has been arrested in Portugal along with his mole, Monica Bedi, a small-time actress for whom he wrangled roles opposite big Bollywood stars such as Sunjay Dutt and Govinda.

But times have changed. The most horrific terror attack to date orchestrated by a woman on Indian territory was the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the southern state of Tamil Nadu by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)suicide bomber named Dhanu. Gandhi and 17 others were killed at a 1991 political rally near Poonamallee when the woman offered the premier flowers, then set off plastic explosives packed with thousands of metal pellets.

Internationally, the "Black Widows" of Chechnya, as well as female suicide attackers in Palestine and Turkey, are known to be well organized, several at the instance of their male counterparts. Twenty-four Chechen women took part in the seizure of about 800 hostages in a Moscow theater last October that ended with the killing of 129 people, and the death of all the women.

The problems in Chechnya and Palestine have been ascribed to local ethnic struggles that have seen several women, as well as their men folk, as victims, forcing the situation out of hand. There are reports that al-Qaeda may be making inroads into these pockets, but this is more of an opportunity arising out of simmering discontent. Similar has been the case with the LTTE, though the Tamil Tiger indoctrination machinery is supposed to be the most efficient.

Security officials in India say that the case of Indian women terrorists is linked more to the recent large-scale success in the arrests of several terror operatives. There has been a massive crackdown on Dawood's operations in India, with several of his top lieutenants either arrested or killed. Dawood's brothers, as well as key men, have been deported to India from the United Arab Emirates, due to increased cooperation post September 11. The Indian army, too, has been leading a crackdown on terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, with outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen feeling the heat. Abu Salem is under arrest and Chhota Rajan, another underworld don, has been on the run, having barely survived an attempt to kill him by arch rival Dawood.

According to Deependra Pathak, deputy commissioner of Delhi's police, "Terror groups have realized that security forces in India traditionally focus on male criminals, while woman criminals some times get away due to their gender. They are taking advantage of this loophole."

Interestingly, another security expert, Nikhil Kumar, says that most women terrorists the police have identified are related by marriage or blood kinship to known terror operators. "This means that the main protagonists want to be on the sidelines for the time being. It could be a new strategy, or they are on the run, having been identified in police files," said Kumar, who was special secretary in the home ministry until recently.

Commentators, however, also point to a more dangerous portend. There is an increasing feeling of discontent among Indian Muslims, which might be engendering a flight of such people into the gleeful hands of terror groups, ever ready to exploit such situations. The Mumbai blasts have been dubbed by the police as revenge against the Gujarat riots last year, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were believed to have been killed. The Gujarat government, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP)Narendra Modi, has subsequently been strongly censured by the courts for having destroyed evidence of atrocities committed against Muslims. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee leads a BJP-led coalition, with right-wing Hindutva leanings, a philosophy embedded in majority rule.

Indeed, there have been several reports that suggest Indian Muslims, who number over 150 million in India and have never been linked to terror circles, are increasingly feeling disillusioned. This, if not curtailed, could mark the beginning of another internecine phase of terrorism in India.

Siddharth Srivastava is a journalist based in New Delhi, India.

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Oct 16, 2003

Mumbai blasts: Target - the Indian economy (Aug 28, '03)

Mumbai: Terror's Frankenstein on the loose (Aug 27, '03)


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