30 November 2014

Terror threat to India rising again six years after Mumbai attacks

26 November 2014

Drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, weakness of Pakistani government and surge of Islamic State mean risk of attack is highest in years, officials and analysts say 

An Indian border security force soldier stands guard in Tripura state a week after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Photograph: Parthajit Datta/AFP/Getty Images

India is facing a period of heightened terrorist threat due to internal, regional and global factors, security officials say. Six years on from the bloody attack on luxury hotels and other targets in the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, local and international officials say a pause in spectacular attacks in India could be broken at any moment.

“There are storm clouds gathering,” one western official told the Guardian, echoing warnings from others based in the US and the UK this year.

The forthcoming drawdown of US combat troops in Afghanistan, the weakness of the elected government in neighbouring Pakistan, the radicalising effect of the surge of Islamic State in the Middle East, as well as competition between local groups including al-Qaida, have all combined to raise the risk of a new strike to its highest for many years, the officials said. “There is a pause [but] this is a more challenging situation now,” one senior police officer in Mumbai told the Guardian.

One new trend is sympathy for Islamic State among a small segment of local Muslim youth. Estimates of how many Indians have travelled to join the Isis vary from around 50 to 200. “There are a growing number of youngsters who want to join jihad. It was there before but they went only to Pakistan. Now there is a global element,” the Mumbai-based officer said.

This year four men from the northern Mumbai suburb of Kalyan travelled to Iraq to join Isis. The total number of Indians who have tried to travel to the Middle East to fight is unclear as many local police forces prefer not to officially register cases against individuals but to rely on family pressure to “dissuade and deradicalise” them, a senior Mumbai policeman said.

The policy of avoiding criminalising prospective Isis volunteers is opposed by national-level intelligence agencies who believe it may encourage extremism by allowing aspirant militants to avoid any sanction. Supporters of the policy say it avoids further radicalisation and involves communities in the fight against radical influence.

The Taj Hotel in Mumbai engulfed in smoke during the November 2008 attacks. Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters

In one recent case, a young man was stopped from boarding a flight to the Middle East at Mumbai airport and returned to his family without legal proceedings being initiated, police officers in Mumbai said. “His father worried that if he was charged his sisters could never get married due to the social stigma, so we are using family pressure to make sure he is kept in line,” one involved in the case explained.

In Hyderabad two weeks ago a software engineer suspected of planning to join Isis was detained and then “asked to desist from such things,” according to the local PTI news agency.

Some aspirant militants are believed to have avoided surveillance by Indian authorities. Many are thought to have travelled from countries in the Gulf, where large numbers of Indians are working on temporary contracts.

MK Narayan, a former national security adviser, recently claimed that up to 150 Indians were fighting with Isis, though security officials in Delhi said this was exaggerated. They said claims by Isis leaders that there were large numbers of Indians in their ranks were also untrue.

All interviewees stressed that the numbers attracted by extremist ideologies remained negligible compared to India’s Muslim population of 180 million, around 14% of the country’s overall population of 1.26 billion. “It’s a wake-up call but in a larger perspective it doesn’t indicate that a lot of radicalisation has taken place,” a senior police officer in Mumbai said.

However, there are other factors combining to raise fears. Many officials are concerned that existing militant groups, mostly based in Pakistan, who have been active against international troops in Afghanistan over the 13 years of the conflict there may turn their attention to India once most of the international forces have left. Only about 12,500 troops, comprising mostly US trainers and advisers, will remain next year. “There is a huge trained manpower that they will not know what to do with and this will unleash acts of terror and we are a good target,” the officer said.

Groups active in Afghanistan include Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based organisation behind the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Michael Kugelman, of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the Afghan factor was “the big one”. “You have all these militants who are anti-Indian at root in search of a new target. That’s the obvious threat,” Kugelman said.

Another concern is the handful of Indians who have travelled to Pakistan to join or establish new factions in recent years. These include the remnants of the Indian mujahideen, a series of linked groups that emerged around a decade ago. The network has now fractured under intense pressure from Indian security services. Both the two main remaining factions are based in Pakistan: one is reported to be based in the southern port city of Karachi and under the supervision of Pakistani security services there, and the other is increasingly close to al-Qaida, officials in Delhi believe.

A memorial to the victims of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Photograph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA

Al-Qaida, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently announced the foundation of a new affiliate in the Asian subcontinent. An attempt by militants to take over a Pakistani navy frigate in port in Karachi shortly after that announcement failed – but only just, western officials in Delhi said.

The extremists’ exact plan is unknown but one suggestion is that the warship’s missiles would have been turned on US or other shipping – civilian and military – in the Arabian Sea. The plot involved navy servicemen who hid in a storeroom that is usually left locked at the end of a day, with the aim of taking charge of the warship during the night, officials told the Guardian. They were discovered by chance and killed in a firefight. “It was pure luck that they were found. Otherwise it could have been much worse,” one of the officials said.

As Islamic State, a rival to al-Qaida within the broad movement of Sunni Muslim extremism, continues to build its influence and recognition in the south Asian region, experts say it is likely that al-Qaida will make increasing efforts to prove its contemporary credentials through spectacular attacks. Asim Umar, the leader of the new al-Qaida affiliate on the sub-continent, has repeatedly indicated an interest in attacking India, leading some to suggest he is of Indian origin.

Kugelman said: “With [the announcement] of al-Qaida in south Asia, India is definitely in the cross-hairs although it is unclear if they have the capacity to strike.”

Most previous al-Qaida affiliates have involved existing groups, often with proven records of violence and deep roots in a particular region. In India this has not happened. As a result, any capability would depend on establishing networks themselves, which would be difficult, using what is left of the Indian mujahideen or other similar local groups or working with groups in Pakistan. Another possibility, highlighted by Indian intelligence services in recent months, is a linkup with groups based in Bangladesh, the populous and poverty-hit state to the east, which has suffered intermittent bouts of extremist violence over the last decade.

Legal documents and an Indian intelligence dossier on Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jindal, a key figure in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, give a glimpse of how overseas groups and internal militants collaborate. Born in 1981 in a remote part of Maharashtra, the central India state which includes Mumbai, Ansari was recruited into LeT in 2005 by a local man in the city of Aurangabad.

“They discussed about atrocities on Muslims in India and also about the future plans against such atrocities. They discussed that jihad is the correct way to be adopted in this regard,” the dossier says. The men travelled to Nepal where they met other operatives of LeT, who gave Ansari explosives training and money.

A police crackdown following a bombing orchestrated by Ansari in 2006 forced Ansari to flee to Pakistan via Bangladesh. He went on to play a key role in the Mumbai attacks two years later before eventually travelling to Saudi Arabia to recruit for LeT among Indian workers there. Detained by the kingdom’s security services, he was deported to India last summer.

Policemen at the scene of a bomb blast in the Dadar financial district of Mumbai on 13 July 2011. Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar were also targeted in attacks which left a total of 26 people dead. Photograph: Reuters

Other legal documents seen by the Guardian underline the importance of Pakistan-based groups in providing critical expertise and resources to otherwise amateur Indian networks. Veteran Indian militants who have found a safe haven in the neighbouring country are implicated in some attacks as well.

However, many cases within India show how homegrown extremists carry out acts of violence without overseas assistance. Police documents show that a series of bombings in the northern city of Patna that killed six and injured 89 in October last year was the work of two new recruits to an extensive network based in north and central India that has been present for more than a decade.

The network is also behind an earlier attack on the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya, close to Patna, the documents say. The police investigation in each case uncovered an ad hoc system of local activists who could provide direction, logistical support and safehouses and run basic training camps. Militants were arrested in towns and cities across the north of India, including the capital, Delhi.

The documents also reveal how a belief that the Muslim community in India is the victim of discrimination and worse can fuel extremism in the emerging economic power. The dossier on Ansari describes how his decision to join LeT was prompted in part by violence in Gujarat in 2002 in which 1,000 people, largely Muslims, died. Following the incident “he felt insecure about Muslims,” it says.

The Patna bombings targeted campaign rallies by Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which went on to win a landslide victory in elections this May. Many Muslims in India blame Modi, who was chief minister of the state at the time, for the violence in Gujarat.

Reports filed by the police about the attack describe the confession of one leading member of the network responsible that he had instructed recruits to “take revenge against a series of rightwing figures, including Narendra Modi, or their [prayers] will not be accepted,” the document says.

A further factor was an outbreak of sectarian violence in northern India shortly before the attacks. “The communal violence of Muzaffarnagar [a village in northern India that saw extensive sectarian clashes last year] was also discussed [by network leaders]. They decided to plan and take revenge,” the document states.

Police stand by flowers outside the Taj Hotel. Photograph: Sean Smith/Guardian

Kugelman, the Washington-based analyst, said sectarian tensions were separate from jihadist militancy. “If you have increased tensions it doesn’t suggest you will have a new generation of jihadis. Since Modi took office there are more communal tensions but that’s a long way off another Mumbai,” he said.

Few in the Indian commercial capital have forgotten the events of 26 November 2008 when a team of gunmen landed by sea in a hijacked fishing boat and launched attacks on luxury hotels, a Jewish centre, commuters at the main railway station and a cafe favoured by tourists. In all, 164 people died and hundreds more were injured in four days of fighting.

Fears of communal tensions in the aftermath of the attack proved baseless and security officials and Muslim leaders in Mumbai say relations between faith communities remain good despite the unexpected success of a vocal political party representing Muslims at recent state elections.

“We are all getting on very well, better than ever in 20 years, even better after the attacks [of 2008]. We feel that in the Hindu community the majority are secular and only a handful of mischievous people are trying to create a rift,” said Gulzar Ahmed Azmi, of the Jamiat Ulama e Maharashtra, a Muslim political association in the city.

Police in Mumbai have made efforts to improve relations with the Muslim community. On Saturday, senior officers joined community leaders for an event held at the Gateway of India, yards from the Taj Hotel that was a principal target of the 2008 attacks.

However, Azmi and others said that a series of terrorist cases in recent years in which Muslims had been suspected, investigated and often incarcerated for long periods before being acquitted had damaged trust in the police and, more broadly, the government.

Ejaz Abbas Naqvi, a Mumbai lawyer who has represented men accused of terrorism, said that though “the majority of Muslims believe that anyone arrested is innocent”, there was still 100% faith in the judiciary.

He agreed with the broad consensus among experts and officials. “The blasts are down [in number] but the reality is the threats are existing … Everyone is on [the] alert,” he said.

• There will be live NDTV-Guardian Cities discussion on Mumbai’s terror threat at 1.30pm GMT (7pm IST) on Wednesday. Watch it at theguardian.com/cities

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