Al-Qaeda 'hijack' led to Mumbai attack
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
MILAN - A plan by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that had been in
the pipelines for several months - even though official policy was to ditch it
- saw what was to be a low-profile attack in Kashmir turn into the massive
attacks on Mumbai last week.
The original plan was highjacked by the Laskar-e-Taiba (LET), a Pakistani
militant group that generally focussed on the Kashmir struggle, and al-Qaeda,
resulting in the deaths of nearly 200 people in Mumbai as groups of militants
sprayed bullets and hand
grenades at hotels, restaurants and train stations, as well as a Jewish
The attack has sent shock waves across India and threatens to revive the
intense periods of hostility the two countries have endured since their
independence from British India in 1947.
There is now the possibility that Pakistan will undergo another about-turn and
rethink its support of the "war in terror"; until the end of 2001, it supported
the Taliban administration in Afghanistan. It could now back off from its
restive tribal areas, leaving the Taliban a free hand to consolidate their
A US State Department official categorically mentioned that Pakistan's "smoking
gun" could turn the US's relations with Pakistan sour. The one militant
captured - several were killed - is reported to have been a Pakistani trained
by the LET.
A plan goes wrong
Asia Times Online investigations reveal that several things went wrong within
the ISI, which resulted in the Mumbai attacks.
Before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the ISI had
several operations areas as far as India was concerned. The major forward
sections were in Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir,
which were used to launch proxy operations through Kashmir separatist groups in
The next major areas were Nepal and Bangladesh, where both countries were used
for smuggling arms and ammunition into India and for launching militants to
carry out high-level guerrilla operations in Indian territory other than
After 9/11, when Islamabad sided with the United States in the "war on terror"
and the invasion of Afghanistan was launched to catch al-Qaeda members and
militants, Pakistan was forced to abandon its Muzzafarabad operations under
American pressure. The major recent turn in the political situation in Nepal
with the victory of Maoists and the abolishment of the monarchy has reduced the
ISI's operations. An identical situation has happened in Bangladesh, where
governments have changed.
The only active forward sections were left in the southern port city of
Karachi, and the former Muzzafarabad sections were sent there. The PNS Iqbal (a
naval commando unit) was the main outlet for militants to be given training and
through deserted points they were launched into the Arabian sea and on into the
Indian region of Gujarat.
At the same time, Washington mediated a dialogue process between India and
Pakistan, which resulted in some calm. Militants were advised by the ISI to sit
tight at their homes to await orders.
However, that never happened. The most important asset of the ISI, the
Laskhar-e-Taiba (LET), was split after 9/11. Several of its top-ranking
commanders and office bearers joined hands with al-Qaeda militants. A
millionaire Karachi-based businessman, Arif Qasmani, who was a major donor for
ISI-sponsored LET operations in India, was arrested for playing a double game -
he was accused of working with the ISI while also sending money to Pakistan's
South Waziristan tribal area for the purchase of arms and ammunition for
The network of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which was a major supporter of
the ISI in the whole region, especially in Bangladesh, was shattered and fell
into the hands of al-Qaeda when Maulana Ilyas Kashmiri, chief of Harkat, a hero
of the armed struggle in Kashmir who had spent two years in an Indian jail, was
arrested by Pakistani security forces in January 2004. He was suspected of
having links to suicide bombers who rammed their vehicles into then-president
General Pervez Musharraf's convoy on December 25, 2003.
He was released after 30 days and cleared of all suspicion, but he was
profoundly affected by the experience and abandoned his struggle for Kashmir's
independence and moved to the North Waziristan tribal area with his family. His
switch from the Kashmiri struggle to the Afghan resistance was an authentic
religious instruction to those in the camps in Kashmir to move to support
Afghanistan's armed struggle against foreign forces. Hundreds of Pakistani
jihadis established a small training camp in the area.
Almost simultaneously, Harkat's Bangladesh network disconnected itself from the
ISI and moved closer to al-Qaeda. That was the beginning of the problem which
makes the Mumbai attack a very complex story.
India has never been a direct al-Qaeda target. This has been due in part to
Delhi's traditionally impartial policy of strategic non-alignment and in part
to al-Qaeda using India as a safe route from the Arabian Sea into Gujrat and
then on to Mumbai and then either by air or overland to the United Arab
Emirates. Al-Qaeda did not want to disrupt this arrangement by stirring up
attacks in India.
Nevertheless, growing voices from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
and from within India for the country to be a strategic partner of NATO and the
US in Afghanistan compelled al-Qaeda, a year ago, to consider a plan to utilize
Islamic militancy structures should this occur.
Several low-profile attacks were carried out in various parts of India as a
rehearsal and Indian security agencies still have no idea who was behind them.
Nevertheless, al-Qaeda was not yet prepared for any bigger moves, like the
Under directives from Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiani, who was then
director general (DG) of the ISI, a low-profile plan was prepared to support
Kashmiri militancy. That was normal, even in light of the peace process with
India. Although Pakistan had closed down its major operations, it still
provided some support to the militants so that the Kashmiri movement would not
die down completely.
After Kiani was promoted to chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj
was placed as DG of the ISI. The external section under him routinely executed
the plan of Kiani and trained a few dozen LET militants near Mangla Dam (near
the capital Islamabad). They were sent by sea to Gujrat, from where they had to
travel to Kashmir to carry out operations.
Meanwhile, a major reshuffle in the ISI two months ago officially shelved this
low-key plan as the country's whole focus had shifted towards Pakistan's tribal
areas. The director of the external wing was also changed, placing the "game"
in the hands of a low-level ISI forward section head (a major) and the LET's
commander-in-chief, Zakiur Rahman.
Zakiur was in Karachi for two months to personally oversee the plan. However,
the militant networks in India and Bangladesh comprising the Harkat, which were
now in al-Qaeda's hands, tailored some changes. Instead of Kashmir, they
planned to attack Mumbai, using their existent local networks, with Westerners
and the Jewish community center as targets.
Zakiur and the ISI's forward section in Karachi, completely disconnected from
the top brass, approved the plan under which more than 10 men took Mumbai
hostage for nearly three days and successfully established a reign of terror.
The attack, started from ISI headquarters and fined-tuned by al-Qaeda, has
obviously caused outrage across India. The next issue is whether it has the
potential to change the course of India's regional strategy and deter it from
participating in NATO plans in Afghanistan.
Daniel Pipes, considered a leading member of Washington's neo-conservatives,
told Asia Times Online, "It could be the other way around, like always happens
with al-Qaeda. Nine-eleven was aimed to create a reign of terror in Washington,
but only caused a very furious reaction from the United States of America. The
07/07 bombing [in London] was another move to force the UK to pull out of Iraq,
but it further reinforced the UK's policies in the 'war on terror'. The Madrid
bombing was just an isolated incident which caused Spain's pullout from Iraq."
Pipes continued, "They [militants] are the believers of conspiracy theories and
therefore they would have seen the Jewish center [attacked in Mumbai] as some
sort of influence in the region and that's why they chose to target it, but on
the other hand they got immense international attention which they could not
have acquired if they would have just attacked local targets."
Israeli politician and a former interim president, Abraham Burg, told Asia
Times Online, "It was not only Jewish but American and other foreigners [who
were targeted]. The main purpose may have been to keep foreigners away from
India. Nevertheless, there is something deeper. This attack on a Jewish target
"I remember when al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen [in
2000] and then they carried out attacks on American embassies in Africa, they
mentioned several reasons. The Palestinian issue was number four or five, but
later when they found that it had become the most popular one, it suddenly
climbed up to number one position on their priority list. Since the attack on
the Jewish institution drew so much attention, God forbid, it could be their
strategy all over the world," Burg said.
Al-Qaeda stoked this particular fire that could spark new hostilities in South
Asia. What steps India takes on the military front against Pakistan will become
clearer in the coming days, but already in Karachi there has been trouble.
Two well-known Indophile political parties, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a
coalition partner in the government comprising people who migrated to Pakistan
after the partition of British India in 1947, and the Awami National Party,
another coalition partner in the government and a Pashtun sub-nationalist
political party, clashed within 24 hours of the Mumbai attacks. Fifteen people
have been killed to date and the city is closed, like Mumbai was after the
November 26 attacks.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]