Al-Qaeda Goes Local In India
For decades, India’s security agencies boasted that there was ‘zero’ local recruitment to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. This claim seemed to be corroborated by the fact that none of the terrorists involved in plots across the world were Indian nationals, not even from the one state in the country where resort to Islamist violence has been endemic: Kashmir. Even there, for more than a decade, the ongoing insurgency has been manned by recruits from outside—mostly from Pakistan, but also from the Middle East, Sudan, Chechnya, and even Xinjiang.
Such immunity from the siren song of terrorism was attributed to India’s democracy, and to its secular Constitution. The first was seen as giving ample—and peaceful—outlets for dissent, while the other was held to ensure that the country’s 155-million Muslim minority didn’t feel persecuted or disempowered, the way they do in Gaza, for example.
Certainly, India‘s huge Muslim community has been as peaceable as the other religious groups in the country. In particular, the 12 per cent of Indian Muslims who are Shiites are similar to the Jains and the Buddhists in almost never entering into violence against people of other faiths. Almost all outbreaks have involved the small Wahhabi segment of the Sunni community. One reason is the fact that in Sunni mega states such as neighbouring Pakistan, Muslims are given a higher status relative to people of other faiths, exactly as they are in parts of the Middle East and in Malaysia. As a consequence of the positive discrimination shown to Muslims in these locations, a small segment of the community in India is dissatisfied with the fact that a similar superior status for Sunnis is absent in secular India.
The other reason behind the increase in recruitment to India’s extremist groups is Gujarat. The indefensible 2002 pogrom against the Muslim community in that state, which was launched in retaliation for a previous terror attack on Hindu pilgrims travelling by train in that state, has been the single most effective recruitment factor in al-Qaeda’s drive to bring into its fold not just Arabs, North Africans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, but Indian nationals as well.
Gruesome accounts of Muslims being battered and burnt to death in Gujarat proliferate on social networking sites. The fact that there has thus far been almost no punishment meted out to the principal actors behind the 2002 violence hasn’t helped douse Muslim rage at this attack on their co-religionists in Gujarat, which many believe to have been sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party government of the state.
The BJP has consistently refused to censure those within it who were—at the least—negligent in preventing more than 2,000 Muslims from being killed in the spasms of violence in Gujarat that followed the Godhra train attack. (Editor’s note—However, the Manmohan Singh government informed Parliament officially in 2005 that 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed in Gujarat in the post Godhra riots of 2002. Thus it is clear that in the Gujarat riots both Muslims and Hindus were killed). Such a refusal to accept responsibility and ensure accountability converted the 2002 Gujarat massacres into a catalyst that has—for the first time—led to growing Indian recruitment into al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Since it came to office in 2004, the Manmohan Singh government has worsened the situation by going slow on enforcing legal accountability for the Gujarat riots, while simultaneously being in denial about the proliferation of local networks active in facilitating terror attacks.
Take as an example the November 2008 carnage in Mumbai. The investigation into that outrage deliberately bypassed leads that pointed to local involvement in the reconnaissance that preceded the Mumbai attacks. Almost certainly, such a turning away from facts was motivated by an official desire to protect the police and others who had been negligent in fending off the attack, and in properly tackling it once the Pakistani attackers began their three-day orgy of bloodshed. Because of the continued refusal to acknowledge that there’s now significant local involvement in al-Qaeda, certain localities in cities such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Lucknow that are known to host pools of radicals had—in effect—been declared as ‘no go’ areas, with the police having been directed to look the other way because of the involvement of key politicians and officials in tolerating such extremist nests.
Why such nonchalance? The reason lies in the multi-billion dollar hawala trade in South Asia that ensures the conversion of rupees into hard currency. Much of this trade is carried out precisely by the groups that facilitate narcotics smuggling and terror. By protecting these networks because they are used to launder political and official slush funds, terror networks obtain access to large amounts of cash that can be employed in the planning and execution of terror attacks as well as in expanding their networks.
This policy of denial continued despite several terror attacks in Mumbai, but it was finally discredited once the 2008 attack took place. Because foreign nationals were among those killed, the international response to the Mumbai incident was far more robust than those to previous attacks (which involved only local casualties). Since then, some effort has gone into uprooting terror networks, although as yet the kingpins behind their financing have largely escaped police attention. The three improvised explosive devices that exploded in Mumbai a little after 7 pm local time on July 13 have further hacked away complacency about the extent of al-Qaeda penetration in India.
Today, the world’s largest democracy has become as much a base for operations of that international entity as countries in North Africa, even as at present Pakistan and Bangladesh host a much bigger al-Qaeda presence than India. However, the fact that nationals of the country are getting recruited to the global war being waged by the organisation is a disturbing development, one that calls for greater efforts at creating psychological firewalls to prevent penetration of this pernicious ideology into the broader community in India.
Why has Mumbai been a particular target of the terrorists? The principal reason is the corruption in its police force, including at the higher levels. This has made it easy to set up safe houses in the city, and to launch recruitment drives without interference. Indeed, the business empire of Dawood Ibrahim—who was responsible for the 1993 bomb blasts and is believed to be behind several other attacks—flourishes in Mumbai, managed by family members resident in the city.
That Dawood has substantial influence within the higher ranks of the Mumbai police—as well as local politicians—is no secret. And he is not alone. For years, the movie and construction industry in the city has been forced to pay tithes to terror networks, or else have their executives face extermination. No other city in India is as riddled with mafia influence as Mumbai. Add to this the fact that the city is still India’s predominant financial and commercial centre, and the reason why it has been the victim of numerous terror attacks becomes clear.
Protection given to hawala operators; graft within the police; a growing pool of extremists given motivation and training by elements abroad that seek to derail India’s growth story. It’s a poisonous cocktail, and one that seems set to take more innocent lives before its effects are through.
By MD Nalapat