First published in The Hindu
“My sister, this should explain much,” begins London-raised Dhiren Bharot’s 1999 chronicle of his life as a jihadist: “cross the line,” he urged her.
Bharot’s The Army of Madinah lashed out at the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. It was a “semi-farcical” and “secondary rate jihad” for which “thousands upon thousands of guest mujahideen are being slaughtered at a phenomenal pace.” Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence, Bharot went on, were using foreign jihadists as “cannon fodder.” He suggested that the jihadists focus on targeting the West, instead of confining jihad “to the mountain-tops of foreign countries.”
More than a decade after they were written, Bharot’s ideas are finding increasing resonance among jihadists in Pakistan — posing a growing problem for Islamabad and a new order of threat to India.
Last month, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram delivered a firm message to Islamabad. Making clear that he was less than satisfied with the action Pakistan had taken so far against the perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attack, he pointed to the “mountain of evidence” indicting the Lahore-based leadership of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Not more than two of the seven arrested by Pakistan,” Mr. Chidambaram said, “are frontline people.”
Pakistan has reason not to meet Mr. Chidambaram’s demands: at least two serving ISI officers are now known to have been involved in the Mumbai attack. But the ISI also confronts a second problem that has little to do with India. The Lashkar, the state’s most durable political asset, is losing legitimacy despite its vast resources and infrastructure. In jihadist chat rooms, and through pamphlets handed out at the Lashkar’s headquarters at Muridke, the organisation has been accused of treachery for failing to join the war against the Pakistani state and the West.
Said al-Masri’s message
In coming years, the competitive power struggle could transfigure the structure of the jihadist movement in Pakistan — and with it, the nature and scope of the threat to India. Last month, the al-Qaeda’s media wing, al-Sahab, released a posthumous audio message from Said al-Masri, also known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a top operative killed in a United States airstrike earlier this summer. In his 26-minute message, translated and made available to The Hindu by the Washington DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute, al-Masri urged “the youth of our Muslim nation to inflict damage on the enemies of Allah the Exalted, the Americans, on their own soil, and wherever they are to be found.”
For the first time, though, al-Masri referred to the Pakistan-based jihadist, Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, as an official part of the al-Qaeda — and made public his role in an attack on India. “I bring you the good tidings,” he said, “that last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries — a fact that the enemy tried to hide — and close to 20 Jews were killed in the operation, a majority of them from their so-called statelet, Israel. The person who carried out this operation was a heroic soldier from the ‘Soldiers of the Sacrifice Brigade,’ which is one of the brigades of Qaedat al-Jihad [the al-Qaeda’s formal name] in Kashmir, under the command of Commander Illyas Kashmiri, may Allah preserve him.”
From the text, it is clear that al-Masri had little knowledge of the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune. Pune is not to the west of New Delhi; it is not Jewish-owned; and no Israelis were killed there. There would thus be no reason to take al-Masri’s claims seriously — if it weren’t for the testimony of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley.
Born in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 1964, Kashmiri fought with Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami. Early in 2000, Harkat leader Maulana Masood Azhar — released from jail in a hostages-for-prisoners swap that followed the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar — founded the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Kashmiri, who believed that the group was too close to Pakistan’s military establishment, refused to join. From 2007, following the use of force against jihadists who had taken control of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Kashmiri began working closely with the jihadists opposed to the Pakistani state.
Investigators in both the U.S. and India say Headley made contact with Kashmiri after the Lashkar proved unwilling to commit resources to an attack on the offices of the Jyllands Posten in Copenhagen — a newspaper that incensed many Muslims across the world by publishing cartoons they felt were blasphemous.
Having joined the Lashkar in 2000, Headley went on to play a key role in its operations, among other things collecting the video footage that helped to guide a 10-man assault team to its targets in Mumbai in November 2008. But Headley became increasingly frustrated with the Lashkar’s unwillingness to support operations against the West — the priority, he believed. He railed against the Lashkar’s leadership, saying it had “rotten guts.” “I am just telling you,” he hectored a Lashkar-linked friend during an intercepted September 17, 2009 phone call, “that the companies in your competition have started handling themselves in a far better way.”
That competing company was the al-Qaeda. Headley visited Kashmiri’s base at Razmak in 2009, and came away impressed. “The bazaar,” he wrote in an Internet post, “is bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, some from European Union countries and, of course, our Arab brothers. According to my survey, the foreign population is a little less than a third of the total. Any Waziri or Mehsud I spoke to seemed grateful to God for the privilege of being able to host the foreign Mujahideen”.
Headley told Indian investigators that dozens of mid-level Lashkar commanders had joined this influx. Evidence supports his claim. Earlier this month, the International Security Assistance Force announced the detention of a Lashkar leader in eastern Afghanistan’s Khogyani district. The Lashkar cadre had earlier been linked to a string of attacks in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. They had also fought alongside the al-Qaeda and the Taliban against the U.S. and Afghan forces, notably in a massive July 2008 assault on a combat outpost in Wanat.
For the Lashkar leadership and its allies in the ISI, this poses a real problem. If the organisation conducts large-scale attacks against India or the West, it will expose the Pakistani state to intense international pressure; if it does nothing, it will risk losing its cadre and its constituency.
In purely ideological terms, there is little difference between the anti-Pakistan jihadists and the Lashkar: it is often forgotten that bin-Laden’s ideological mentor, Abdullah Azzam, was among its co-founders. In a March 2007 speech, Saeed lashed out at Pakistan’s rulers saying they and their pro-U.S. policies had led to “reckless measures in utter contempt of the safety, security, and well-being of their people.” He also demanded that the Pakistan Army “stop fighting the war of the enemies of Islam and Muslims in Waziristan and other places.”
Prudence over valour
Pakistan’s intelligence services understand that this polemic as well as the seminaries and charitable institutions the Lashkar operates sustain the ideological firmament in which anti-state jihadists operate. But Pakistan fears that action against the Lashkar will empower jihadists hostile to the state or, worse, provoke a head-on collision with a badly needed ally. Punjab politicians, who know that their fragile party structures will not survive a confrontation with the better-organised and highly armed jihadists, have chosen prudence over valour.
No one is clear just how the pieces will finally fall. It is certain, though, that the al-Qaeda seeks to undermine the Lashkar’s status as the sole agent of jihad against India. In April 2006, bin-Laden himself spoke of a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims.” His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned Pakistanis in September 2003 that General Pervez Musharraf was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.” Now, al-Masri’s speech suggests, the al-Qaeda has found the means it needs to target India. Kashmiri’s networks may well have financed the Pune attack through Indian Mujahideen operatives earlier affiliated to the Lashkar.
The Lashkar cadre are responding. This March, they paraded with posters illustrated with images of the burning Taj Mahal Hotel, bearing slogans promising to “liberate Kashmir, Pakistan’s lifeline, from the enemy,” bring about the “freedom of the Muslims of Gujarat, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and the rest of India,” and to save “Pakistan’s parched waters” from Indian dams. Instead of acting on these objectives, though, the Lashkar has been forced to bide its time.
Put simply, the Lashkar can continue to do nothing and wither away — or act in the hope of regaining space ceded to anti-Pakistan jihadists, even if doing so exposes Islamabad to significant strategic risks.
Since November 2008, India has faced few major jihadist attacks — a consequence, in large part, of international pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Lashkar. But as competition between the jihadist companies Headley spoke of intensifies, both sides will have incentives to act. India’s strategic community must think hard on how to deal with the new lines of threat — against which its traditional diplomatic and coercive tools will be of no use.