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Terror threat to India rising again

six years after Mumbai attacks
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
Jason Burke in Mumbai-Wednesday 26
November 2014
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 Pakistanbased 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.

F memorial to the victims of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Photograph: Divyakant
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etaAl-Qaida, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently announced
btenthe foundation of a new affiliate in the Asian subcontinent. An attempt by
oerd
militants to take over a Pakistani navy frigate in port in Karachi shortly after
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that
announcement failed – but only just, western officials in Delhi said.
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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.

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at the scene of a bomb blast in the Dadar financial district of Mumbai on 13 July
ix2011. Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar were also targeted in attacks which left a total of 26
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cinppeople dead. Photograph: Reuters
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btenOther legal documents seen by the Guardian underline the importance of
oerdPakistan-based groups in providing critical expertise and resources to
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otherwise
amateur Indian networks. Veteran Indian militants who have
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tfound 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