July 21, 2006

7/11: Infinite Patience?

Even the PM agrees that "in the backdrop of this ghastly tragedy .. we reflect on our relations with Pakistan ... We will look at whatever options that are there." What are those options?

On July 11, 2006, more than 200 persons were killed and 714 others injured in seven bomb blasts that targeted seven locations on the local railway network in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, between 18:24 and 18:35 (IST) (an eighth device was located and defused at the Borivili station). Peak traffic on first class compartments of trains at Mira-Bayandhar, Jogeshwari, Mahim, Santacruz, Khar, Matunga and Borivli stations was targeted, as commuters returned from work. While this stands out as the second largest terrorist outrage in India's history in terms of fatalities, repeated attacks in the past have been engineered to provoke communal polarization and riots in Maharashtra and across the country, and to disrupt the economic progress of the nation.

Mumbai is now the only city in the world to have been attacked by terrorists twice with mass casualty soft targets. It first came on the the terrorist radar on March 12, 1993, when a series of 13 explosions killed 257 persons and injured 713 others. Dawood Ibrahim, prime protagonist of these blasts, is ‘safely' ensconced in Pakistan and is, according to reliable sources, constantly on the move, particularly after he graduated to the US list of ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists' in 2003.

Since March 12, 1993, there have been several terrorist attacks in Mumbai that have targeted civilians and state installations.

An analysis of patterns of activity and of disclosures by subversive modules neutralised in Maharashtra since January 30, 2006, indicates that terrorists were planning to carry out a high-intensity attack in the state. On June 1, an attempt to attack the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organisation, was foiled at Nagpur, when three suspected LeT terrorists were shot dead in an encounter with the police while trying to enter the heavily-guarded premises. Between May 11-14, 2006, police neutralised three Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist modules in Aurangabad, Manmad and Malegaon in the state. While there were 11 LeT operatives among those arrested, a large quantity of arms and ammunition, including almost 60 kilograms of explosives, 16 AK-47 assault rifles, over 3,500 rounds of ammunition, and 100 hand grenades were seized.

No official determination has been made thus far regarding the group responsible for the serial blasts, but an analysis of preliminary evidence and past trends – including the various arrests and seizures in Maharashtra in the recent past – point unfailing to one or another of the many terrorist groups based in Pakistan. Sources told SAIR that the attacks were engineered by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) with possible logistic support from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI's activities and connections with the LeT, including its network in Maharashtra, had been reviewed in some detail in the July 10 edition of SAIR, a day before the 7/11 attacks.

Meanwhile, on July 15, the Lashkar-e-Qahhar (LeQ, Army of the Vanquisher), an LeT front, claimed responsibility for the blasts. Its e-mail to the Aaj Tak Television News Channel stated that the LeQ had organised the serial blasts with a module of 16 people who it claimed were all safe. The blasts, according to the e-mail, were in retaliation to the ‘ground situation in Gujarat and Kashmir' and were part of a series of blasts planned on targets that included the Mumbai International Airport, the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, among others. The LeQ was first heard of after it claimed responsibility for the serial blasts in Varanasi on March 7, 2006.

It has no existence on the ground, and is essentially a fake identity put forward by the LeT, which has traditionally sought to distance itself from high-casualty civilian strikes, such as the Mumbai blasts and the attacks at Varanasi.

The cumulative thrust of available evidence clearly indicates that the 7/11 outrage at Mumbai was engineered by the LeT. That the LeT remains the most lethal jihadi group with strategic networks across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and its headquarters in Pakistan, is now clear. More certain is also the level of protection and patronage it secures from the Pakistani state and its covert agencies. In what was a clear give-away, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri held out what sounded, to Indian observers, like a thinly veiled threat, on July 12, in the immediate aftermath of the 7/11 attacks, that such incidents could be expected to continue unless "outstanding disputes" were resolved, "particularly the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir."

Indeed, the latest Mumbai serial blasts confirm "the strategic continuity of Pakistan's broad orientation towards India, and its sustained enterprise of encirclement, penetration and subversion, with an objective to do as much damage as is opportunistically possible, under the cover of (no doubt diminishing) credible deniability." It is also abundantly clear that the ongoing peace process has encouraged Pakistan to simultaneously keep a twin track of negotiations and terrorism open, even as it reaps the benefits of augmenting international aid which rewards the legitimacy secured through the charade of negotiations and the pretence of participation in the "global war on terror".

While approximately 350 people have been detained for questioning, no formal arrests have been made at the time of writing. However, Rahil Abdul Rahman Sheikh has been identified by security agencies as the principal organizer of 7/11. He is reportedly based in one of the several ‘safe houses' operated by the LeT in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The LeT and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's external intelligence agency, have adroitly exploited the functioning anarchy in conflict-ridden Nepal to advance their strategy of India's encirclement.

Praveen Swami reported in The Hindu that Sheikh, originally a resident of Mumbai's Grant Road area, handled communications between LeT cells in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi and the outfit's Pakistan-based ‘commander' for operations targeting India, Azam Cheema — the man who would have authorised and overseen the serial bombings. The ‘faceless' Sheikh (he has never been photographed), operating under the direct control of a Dhaka-based Pakistani LeT ‘commander' code-named ‘Junaid', was also responsible for funneling Lashkar recruits, raised mainly from the ranks of the SIMI, to training camps in Pakistan. Intelligence sources said Sheikh, along with Zulfikar Fayyaz Qazi and Zabiuddin Ansari, set up escape plans weeks before 7/11.

In order to maintain deniability, the ISI is reported to have outsourced part of its subversive enterprise that targets India to tightly controlled groups and individuals in Nepal and Bangladesh, and some elements in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Mumbai bombers, sources disclose, were either trained in Bangladesh or had spent time in that country after training in Pakistan. "At least three of them were Bangladeshi nationals who had entered India illegally. The rest, including those who provided the logistical support to the bombers, were either trained in Bangladesh or had entered India through that country."

In another significant development, the Chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad of Maharashtra Police, K.P. Raghuvanshi, confirmed that 11 persons arrested on July 14 by the Tripura Police while trying to cross into Bangladesh, were from Maharashtra. The Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami – Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and other Islamist extremists reportedly operate terrorist training camps at Cox's Bazaar, Bandarban, Chittagong, Rangamati and Brahmanbaria.

At least 65 Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist modules have been neutralised in India in just the last seven months, according to a senior security official. Security agencies also have evidence that many more ‘sleeper cells' have been ‘re-commissioned' to engineer terrorist attacks in the proximate future. While it is true that groups like the LeT have managed to recruit some local support, a security official disclosed, "none of the controllers is Indian."

Sources indicate that LeT modules are increasingly pooling resources with SIMI, which has strong pockets of influence across Maharashtra (as well as Uttar Pradesh and Kerala). This assessment is derived from the scale of the attacks, specific information on LeT cells and the stockpiling of arms and explosives in Maharashtra. Areas such as Aurangabad, Malegaon, Jalgaon and Thane in Maharashtra have remained SIMI strongholds. There are more than 3,000 seminaries in the state, with about 200,000 students. Approximately 500 Madrassas are located in Mumbai alone. LeT has conducted aggressive recruitments in both Maharashtra and Gujarat and SIMI appears to have provided it with manpower for this drive. The Mumbai Police are also currently probing the involvement of two lesser-known groups – the Gujarat Revenge Group (GRG) and Tableeq – in the serial blasts. While the Gujarat Revenge Group is said to be active in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Tableeq primarily consists of SIMI cadres. Riaz of the GRG and Imtiaz Batkal from Tableeq appear to be involved in providing logistics to the group that carried out the 7/11 explosions.

In Mumbai on July 14, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh declared that the peace process would now remain frozen "till Islamabad starts acting on its assurance to crack down on the terrorist elements on its soil… Pakistan has given us this assurance that its territory will not be used for any activity against India. That assurance has to be fulfilled before the peace process moves forward." He added further, "The 7/11 blasts are bound to affect relations with Pakistan." The India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks, scheduled for July 21, have been postponed indefinitely.

Evidently, even India's patience is not infinite.


Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

Post Script: At the end of his three-day visit to St Petersburg, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has today once again addressed the subject of relations with Pakistan by saying, "For the time being, I think the dialogue process has suffered, I wouldn't call it a setback ... We will look at whatever options that are there." On putting off of the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries slated for July 20-21, the Prime Minister said it was "inevitable in the backdrop of this ghastly tragedy that we reflect on our relations with Pakistan". But he indicated that he was not shutting the door for the peace process. "I have said more than once that the destiny of the people of South Asia is closely interlinked. Both our countries need peace and stability to realise our developmental ambitions," he said, but added that "anything that gives a setback to that process is not something we should be happy about".The Mumbai blasts that left 200 killed and over 800 injured was an "onsalught" that has to be met, he said, with "full force and full determination".

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