The timing could not be worse.
India is preparing to reopen peace talks as security agencies brace for an attempt by terrorists — Pakistanis, with the help of Indian radicals — to recreate 26/11, and as radical Pakistan groups on Thursday called for a new jihad.
Peace and economic growth prevail, but the tension in India’s intelligence agencies is evident as they work overtime, monitoring jihadi chatter, gleaning information on an impending attack.
Last month, the Americans warned India things were “getting serious”, as one official put it, on condition of anonymity.
“They (terrorists) have the intent, they have backing, and they certainly have the resources. It may just be a matter of everything coming together.”
That unease has percolated through to police forces.
“There is a serious apprehension that terrorists will make a desperate attempt to strike again,” Maharashtra’s police chief A. N. Roy told HT.
Sources in Indian intelligence and police agencies said domestic support is evident.
First, a continuing radicalisation on the fringes of Islamic communities by recruiting agents using the no-justice-no-peace tack. That involves strengthening the perception that the justice system does not work for Muslims, and pointing to the absence of action against the perpetrators of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.
Second, the difficulties in dismantling jihadi “sleeper cells” across the country.
“Let’s be very clear, they (the cells) are there,” said one official, requesting anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media. “Lashkar and company are desperate to do it again, and they can tap into these domestic resources.”
Home Minister P. Chidambaram has previously contended that India suffered no attack since 26/11 in 2008 primarily because at least 10 sleeper cells — secretive two-three person teams of terrorists silently integrated into the communities around them —were identified and “dismantled” last year.
“The cells are very difficult to penetrate,” said Maharashtra’s Roy. “One member does not know about the other, that’s how modules work.”
Coordination has improved since Chidambaram sparked a revamp of the security set-up, but that process is ongoing and there are at least 20 domestic terror suspects at large who could be used by Pakistani jihadists or it’s Inter Services Intelligence.
“Some may be in India, some may be abroad,” said Girish Kumar, Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh, of terror suspects from Hyderabad who are “still absconding”.
These missing men, mostly from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, were associated with the proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and later with the Indian Mujahideen (IM), the group responsible for a series of bombings in Indian cities in 2008, since it first came to light.
The IM is seen to be an amalgam of former SIMI cadres and operatives of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyebba.
With Pakistan either having direct control over or tangential links to key Indian radicals, spread over Pakistan, Dubai and, increasingly, the Far East, the danger to India, officials contend, is clear and present.
(Tomorrow: Small towns to global jihadis — the missing men)