June 13, 2006

India's own war on terror

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on July 13, 2006.

One can accuse Islamic jihadists of a lot of things, but lacking strategic planning would not be one of them. Tuesday's horrifying terrorist attacks in India -- consisting of five blasts in Srinagar and eight in Mumbai -- are but the latest examples of two formulas employed by Islamic terrorists with devastating effect. No group has yet claimed responsibility for either set of attacks, but a lot can be surmised about the motives and identities of the attackers from closer observation.

The Mumbai attacks clearly fall into the same category as the two most notorious examples of post-Sept.11 terrorism, although the number of fatalities in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is likely to be even greater than Madrid in 2004, or London last year. In all three cases, the cities' commuter rail networks were the primary targets, with the explosions designed to take place at the height of rush hour.

On Tuesday, bombs were deliberately planted in first-class carriages, even though more casualties would have occurred had the explosives been placed in crowded second-class compartments. The perpetrators of the attacks were obviously targeting Mumbai's middle class and, by extension, the city's economy. If that was indeed the terrorists' primary aim, they appear to have failed. Yesterday, the Bombay Stock Exchange's Sensex index rose almost 3 per cent and business in the chaotic metropolis went largely back to normal.

While the Madrid bombings were evidently intended to influence the upcoming Spanish general elections and the London bombings coincided with the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the significance of the timing of the latest attacks is not as apparent. Previously, major acts of terrorism in India followed closely on the heels of communal strife between Hindus and Muslims, or tensions between India and Pakistan. The latest episode, however, comes after a period of relative calm on both fronts.

Under these circumstances, the terrorists' aim may have been to reverse the warming trend in India's bilateral relations with its Islamic neighbour, led by a man labelled a "converted agent" by Osama bin Laden. The attacks also come just as the U.S. Congress begins to probe a sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan that are clearly meant to be used in support of the "War on Terror."

Meanwhile, Tuesday's explosions in Kashmir fell in line with a parallel series of bombings of popular tourist destinations in Muslim-dominated regions, such as Bali, Casablanca, Mombasa and Sharm el-Sheikh, with six of the eight killed being tourists from within India.

The number of groups capable of carrying out co-ordinated attacks on these scales is limited. The role of an al-Qaeda affiliate cannot be ruled out. In an audio message released on April 23, 2006, a voice believed to be Osama bin Laden's speaks of the Kashmir conflict as "a Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims." Whether or not Tuesday's attacks were al-Qaeda-related operations, the terrorists would have enjoyed the group's tacit approval, if not its active support.

India has suffered from a horrific spate of terrorist attacks. In March of 1993, 13 bomb blasts on economic targets in Mumbai killed 257 people, coming shortly after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists. Dawood Ibrahim, a shadowy underworld leader based in Pakistan, is believed to have been responsible. On Aug. 25, 2003, a series of car bombs in Bombay killed 60 civilians shortly after dreadful communal riots in the state of Gujarat. On Oct. 29, 2005, two crowded marketplaces and a public bus were blown up in Delhi as part of another series of co-ordinated explosions, leaving more than 60 dead. India's parliament building and its largest mosque have also been targets of terrorism in recent years.

At one level, Tuesday's attacks are part of a regular cycle of terrorism afflicting the subcontinent, something the denizens of Mumbai have become acutely aware of. But the attacks also present a dilemma to the Indian administration.

Firstly, it must restrain itself from pointing the finger directly at Pakistan, as it has been wont to do in the past, so as not to play too easily into the terrorists' hands. On the other hand, the government is likely to face pressure from internal and external forces to take some form of punitive action. While little can be done until the responsible party is identified, international support -- starting with a joint statement by world leaders at the upcoming G8 Summit in St. Petersburg -- may come as a welcome acknowledgment of India's own war on terror.