Opinion | Cynical theory of good, bad, ugly terrorists
The world must take note of India’s warnings against terror—before any further damage is done
India has been in sombre reflection this week although, disappointingly, politicking did intrude even into the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 terrorist attack on the city of Mumbai. The nation after all is in no-holds-barred election mode. It was under the previous Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance government that the Pakistan-based terrorist operation took place, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded the nation in the course of an election speech.
There is little doubt that India is a stronger and harder state today but the Congress could have—and thankfully didn’t—pointed out that attacks upon Indian military establishments, including the Pathankot Air Force station in 2016, have all happened since the National Democratic Alliance assumed power in 2013. At times such as the 10th anniversary event, India’s political and security energies are better trained at the enemies at its gates.
Last week, India’s porous maritime borders stood horribly exposed when an American Christian adventurer was able to get near a ‘protected’ island in the Andamans before being killed by the arrows of reclusive Sentinelese tribals. He was on a proselytizing mission.
Ten years ago, the 26/11 terrorists, too, came by sea—brainwashed, trained and armed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist group under the supervision of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency and a man identified only as Major Iqbal, who could be from the ISI and/or any of a bewildering array of Pakistani state- and Army-linked units.
As India collectively remembered the toll—164 deaths, more than 308 injuries and, yes, national embarrassment—Pakistan was, quite rightly, fingered as the instigator of the attack.
This week, the US announced a reward of $5 million “for information leading to the arrest or conviction in any country of any individual who committed, conspired to commit, or aided or abetted” the execution of the attack.
“It is an affront to the families of the victims that, after 10 years, those who planned the Mumbai attack have still not been convicted for their involvement,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said. “We call upon all countries, particularly Pakistan, to uphold their UN Security Council obligations to implement sanctions against the terrorists responsible for this atrocity, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and its affiliates.”
Yet, it is not as if American authorities are entirely unaware of where to find the masterminds of the 26/11 assault, in particular Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed. Back in April 2012, the US announced a $10 million bounty on his head, and any number of journalists have met the man in the Lashkar training camp at Muridke, outside Lahore.
Saeed and LeT have been named by both David Headley, the Pakistani-American double agent who is now serving time in Chicago for his role in the attack, and Ajmal Kasab, the lone 26/11 terrorist to be captured. Before Kasab was hanged in November 2012, he gave a detailed account of his handlers, the other terrorists involved and the training they received from LeT.
Headley, too, was instrumental. Should US agencies have kept India informed of Headley’s activities and movements, and should they have taken action against him before things spiralled out of control? “It was for the US to take a call, and they didn’t take the right call,” a former senior intelligence official told me. “The Pakistanis haven’t stopped—incidents will continue to take place.”
The attack on Mumbai has to be seen in the larger context of Afghanistan, Pan-Islamism and western anti-terrorist strategies. Indian diplomats have long complained that western agencies and governments tended to turn a blind eye to the post-Cold War activities of terrorist groups that had been nurtured by western powers and their allies during the Cold War resistance in Afghanistan.
They turn a blind eye, that is, as long as these terrorist groups leave western targets alone.
This is the basis of India’s repeated and bitter warnings to the West against treating terrorists as good and bad. “Humanist forces in the world will have to put pressure so that it is decided in black and white what is terrorism,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the United Nations in July. “Since there is no definition, talk about good terrorism and bad terrorism is going on. We cannot protect humanity with this good and bad terrorism,” Modi said, adding: “Terrorism is terrorism.”
Does Lashkar fit into this pattern?
The motive behind unleashing the Mumbai assault, according to journalists Adrian Levi and Cathy Scott-Clark in their book The Siege: The attack on the Taj—the most widely cited work on 26/11—appears to have been a cynical attempt to distract public attention from a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in Pakistan and to keep Lashkar from splitting. A sizeable faction in the LeT wanted to sever its links with the ISI intelligence agency and join Al-Qaeda, moving its focus from fighting Indian soldiers in Kashmir to western coalition forces in Afghanistan, they say.
The authors say handler Major Iqbal called Headley to Lahore and told him that they were “compelled to consider a spectacular terrorist strike in India” which would satisfy those calling for attacks against the Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Indians.
Today, the evidence is that Islamabad does nothing to clip the wings of LeT and other terrorist groups that continue to operate from its soil with impunity. Indeed, last month, in the run-up to 26/11, Pakistan under its new Prime Minister Imran Khan removed two organizations run by Saeed from an international list of banned groups.
Back in December 2008, Saeed told Outlook magazine in response to a question, “It will be very unfortunate if India resorts to any such (aerial) attack (on the LeT headquarters) as Muridke is only used for educational activities.” There is little doubt that the people of Mumbai and India have succeeded in overcoming the tsunami of anger that followed 26/11. Yet, for closure, the world will have to take note of India’s warnings against good, bad and ugly terrorists—before any further damage is done.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1
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