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They are back

delhi Updated: Feb 20, 2010 22:15 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Someone in the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s sprawling Muridke headquarters, one suspects, has labeled 2009 the Year of the Lawyer. The terrorist group spent its time keeping its leaders out of jail rather than waging war against India.

Between an Indian Mujahideen killing in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, that coincided with the end of Mumbai’s carnage and the destruction of the German Bakery last week, Islamicist terror took a holiday across the Indian heartland. Even Kashmir saw its lowest levels of violence in 20 years.

One Year of Muted Terror can be explained. To expect a second one is to presume divine intervention. This is likely to be a Year of Terror Redux.

Last 14 months of peace?

The answer seems to be a combination of factors. One was a remarkable domestic run following the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Police rolled up a module of the Lashkar e Tayyeba or its indigenous ally, the Indian Mujahideen, almost every month. Last December Home Minister P. Chidambaram said a dozen cells had been taken down.

Two, Lashkar in Pakistan retracted its claws. The international outcry over Mumbai, the filing of charges against Lashkar chieftains Muhammad Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, and the presence of an unfriendly civilian government in Islamabad drove Lashkar to choose discretion over violence.

Three, Kashmiris were unreceptive when the Inter-Services Intelligence sought to turn up the temperature in Kashmir. “With Mumbai-like attacks off the books and the Indian Mujahideen proving unsuccessful,” said a senior Indian official, “Pakistan sought to stir the Kashmir pot again.” But the insurgency is past its expiry date. The Pakistani military, diverted by Afghanistan, was in no position to push the envelope.

In favour of terror?

There’s no smoking gun in Pune yet. Indian officials say “circumstantial evidence” points to a Pakistani-assisted attack. Says B Raman, ex-head of RAW’s Pakistan desk, “The modus operandi fits a standing, continuing pattern of Indian Mujahideen cells assisted by Lashkar: an absence of hand-held weapons, RDX explosives, type of civilian targets.” Pune will herald more such attacks. “After Mumbai we disrupted their command and control in India. This attack indicates command and control has been reconstituted.”

New Delhi believes the Pakistani military is much emboldened the past few months. President Asif Ali Zardari is on his last legs. Rawalpindi’s western military headaches are receding: the Tehreek e Taliban is decapitated and the Afghan tide is turning their way. Afghan developments, says Ajai Sahni, Institute of Conflict Management, “are behind much of the increasing confidence of the military.” New Delhi has noticed Pakistani rhetoric has become shriller the past few months. “Two days before India made its dialogue offer, [Pakistani Army Chief Ashraf] Kayani stated India was a natural, long-term enemy,” former RAW chief Ajit Doval says, “One should have prepared accordingly.”

One consequence: Lashkar is being let off its leash. Sayeed led his terrorist flock in prayer on the Friday India offered to resume talks. It was the first time he had appeared in public since 26/11.

Lashkar resurgent spells India bloodied. While Lashkar has shown pan-Islamic tendencies, says Stephen Tankel, author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar e Taiba, “for the core leadership, India remains the main enemy.” Another fillip for Lashkar, he says, is that despite Mumbai its infrastructure has been unharmed and it’s incurred no costs.

What to expect now?

Foreigners have not traditionally been Indian Mujahideen targets. If the German Bakery attack is shown to be their doing, it might be another indicator that a more global terror ideology is diffusing among its recruits.

This may be an inevitable result of “hybrid terror”, where interactions between terrorist groups lead them to borrow from each other. What begins as an exchange of tactics and weapons becomes something more once personnel and ideology enter the trade.

Lashkar is a growing partner in this sort of exchange. Its beginnings were almost solely about Kashmir. Today, it has the US and Israel on its roster of enemies. The Jewish facet of the Mumbai attacks was in your face evidence of how much Lashkar had become taken with Al Qaeda’s pan-jihad vision.

Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul has recorded how Lashkar began recruiting Pashtun warlords in the border tribal areas — even waging turf wars with the Taliban. Lashkar now has a strong presence in Bajaur and Mohmand, with a foothold in Waziristan. “Its Afghan fighters have a reputation for being the most tactically proficient,” says Tankel.

A claim by a splinter Lashkar e Tayyeba Al Almi that it was behind Pune is not being tossed aside completely. “I’ve never heard any rumblings about Lashkar splinters,” admits Tankel. “And what we do know is Lashkar has a history of using different names to take responsibility for an attack.”
But Lashkar has also sought to weaken its overt links with the ISI since 2006 — and the splinter claimed Lashkar original was too close to the military.

There is speculation the German Bakery attack could signify that the Indian Mujahideen, after some delay, has become infected with the Al Qaeda virus that has a hold of Lashkar.

After all, many IM leaders were taken to Pakistan for indoctrination in the ways and whys of terror. Bruce Riedel, Al Qaeda expert at the Brookings Institute, believes it’s already happened. “This is probably another joint attack like 26/11. Pune was recced well in advance. The team on the ground may have been Indian Mujahideen but guidance probably came from Al Qaeda-cum-Lashkar.”