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    South Asia
     Aug 22, 2006
India awakens to al-Qaeda threat
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The United States Embassy in New Delhi issued a warning on August 11 of likely terrorist attacks, possibly by al-Qaeda, four days ahead of India's Independence Day. Although the warning was a routine travel advisory, it was the first time the US had warned of an al-Qaeda threat in India.

The US alert also came a day after an alleged terror plot targeting trans-Atlantic airliners was apparently foiled in Britain.

"The embassy has learned that foreign terrorists, possibly including al-Qaeda, allegedly intend to carry out a series of bombing attacks in and around New Delhi and Mumbai in the days leading up to India's Independence Day on August 15, 2006," the US advisory said.

The US State Department subsequently clarified that the "warning

message" was put out by the embassy for US citizens in India, and that it spoke in "somewhat more hypothetical terms in saying 'possibly including' members of al-Qaeda" and that it was not based on "definitive information".

The warning might have been routine, but the alert to a possible al-Qaeda attack has been taken note of in Delhi. A week after the US warning, police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh received a letter purportedly sent by al-Qaeda warning of an attack on the Taj Mahal.

The US warning came amid increasing reports of al-Qaeda presence in India. After the serial blasts on trains in suburban Mumbai in July, a news agency based in Srinagar received a call from an unidentified person announcing that the "Jammu and Kashmir al-Qaeda group has been formed with Abu Abdul Rahman Ansari as its chief", expressing happiness over the Mumbai blasts and calling "Indian Muslims to rise in jihad in favor of Islam and freedom". More recently, newspapers have drawn attention to "intercepts of communications between Lashkar-e-Toiba cadres about the presence of al-Qaeda members".

Reports of al-Qaeda sightings in Kashmir or intercepts of al-Qaeda chatter are not new. These have in the past been routinely dismissed by the government as hoaxes. Calls warning of terrorist attacks have often been traced to "pranksters".

In recent months, however, the Indian government has been taking the calls and alerts more seriously. This is because India has begun figuring in Osama bin Laden's speeches (India had figured earlier in the speeches of other al-Qaeda leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri). In a message broadcast in April, bin Laden for the first time referred to a "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu conspiracy against the Muslims" and to the Kashmir issue.

India's new closeness to the United States and Israel and the visit of US President George W Bush to India in March seems to have "brought India in the al-Qaeda's crosshairs", an Indian intelligence official told Asia Times Online.

Officials have often bragged that no Indian Muslim figured among those captured in Afghanistan in 2001-02 or being held in prison camps such as Guantanamo Bay. Indian Muslims - the growing radicalization of some sections notwithstanding - were not drawn by calls of global jihad. "Al-Qaeda is not active in India, and neither have Indian Muslims joined al-Qaeda," is a refrain that the Indian establishment has chanted often.

Now that might be changing. India's intelligence community seems divided on the issue of al-Qaeda presence in India. Outlook, a weekly newsmagazine, cites Intelligence Bureau sources as saying that al-Qaeda operatives are present in the upper reaches of Kupwara, Handwara and the Macchil sector in Kashmir, but there isn't hard evidence to support this. Al-Qaeda operatives of Sudanese origin are said to be operating in Kashmir.
Even if al-Qaeda is not operating in India, organizations such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, which are known to have very close links with al-Qaeda, have been active in India. These organizations are constituents of the International Islamic Front (IIF) - an umbrella organization founded by Osama bin Laden in 1998 - of which al-Qaeda too is a part.

They share ideology, vision and strategic objectives, and they have dipped into one another's resources and networks. "So while al-Qaeda might not have an Indian arm, organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba have acted as such," points out the Indian intelligence official. "The Pakistani constituents in the IIF have acted as Osama's elves in India."

B Raman, a former director of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external-intelligence agency, warned that the Pakistani members of the IIF - LET, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami - "could turn out to be the Trojan horse of al-Qaeda". And in a recent interview on television, Indian National Security Adviser M K Narayanan warned that LET is the "most visible manifestation" of al-Qaeda in India.

Of all bin Laden's Pakistani elves active in India, it is LET that has undergone the most dramatic growth. It operates today not only in India but across continents. Although LET is banned in Pakistan, it continues to function openly in that country under the name of Jamaat-ud Dawa.

LET has been designated a terrorist organization in several countries, including the US, Britain and Australia, but their "war on terrorism" has focused on dismantling only those terrorist groups that threaten Western interests.

In getting Pakistan to act against terrorism, the United States adopted a piecemeal approach, twisting Islamabad's arms to act against groups, such as al-Qaeda, that directly threatened US interests, while turning a blind eye toward outfits like LET and Jaish-e-Mohammed that were seen to be primarily anti-India and therefore of little concern to the West.

LET and others were tolerated so long as they steered clear of the US and Europe. This shortsightedness, or rather hypocrisy, on the part of Washington in its approach to Pakistan-based terrorist outfits allowed LET to spread its tentacles quietly across continents.

The investigation into the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners has laid bare the hand of Jaish-e-Mohammed and LET among others. Even if the plot was masterminded by al-Qaeda, as Pakistan claims, the key links in carrying it out were operatives of LET and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

What were dismissed as anti-India jihadist groups are now striking in the West. The US and Britain are now discovering that Osama's elves are no "guided jihadists". They might have trained their guns on India for years, but they are now ready and willing to train them on the US and Europe.

What is more, as the US travel advisory to Americans in India indicates, they could, on bin Laden's behalf, direct their guns on Americans and US interests in India.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

India running out of patience (Aug 17, '06)

Pakistan's double win over terror (Aug 15, '06)

The enemy within India's army (Aug 1, '06)


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