Times : Analysis: a new tactic by Islamist militants

Friday, November 28, 2008

Analysis: a new tactic by Islamist militants

The group that claimed to be behind last night’s attacks on Bombay -- the Deccan Mujahideen — has not hitherto been heard of in India, let alone in the outside world. But it could be an offshoot of the Indian Mujahideen, an Islamist group that was also unknown until it said it had caused a series of multiple bomb attacks on Indian cities in the past year.

Last night’s attacks also appear to fit into a new campaign to hit busy urban targets, popular with foreigners and wealthy Indians, to cause maximum damage to India’s economy and international reputation. Many of last night’s targets — especially the Taj and Oberoi hotels — are frequented by tourists, diplomats and foreign business people as well as the city’s own wealthy elite.

The Taj is one of India’s best-known colonial buildings and is next to the Gateway of India, which was built in 1911 to mark a visit by George V and is one of India’s most popular tourist sites.

India has blamed most of the recent terrorist attacks on Islamist militant groups based in Pakistan or Bangladesh which, it says, have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. Other alleged culprits include Maoist rebels and separatist groups in India’s remote northeast, on the borders of China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. But this year, the Indian Mujahideen has said that it has carried out multiple bomb attacks that have killed more than 130 people in the cities of Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur and Ahmedabad.

In September the group threatened to attack Bombay, accusing the city’s Anti-Terrorism Squad of harassing Muslims. It is also reported to have threatened British and US targets in India.

Some terrorism experts say the Indian Mujahideen is a front for an older group called the Students Islamic Movement of India, which they say has links to Pakistan.

Others decribe it as the first homegrown terrorist group to have emerged from India’s 151 million strong Muslim population.

India’s Muslims have long complained of discrimination at the hands of its Hindu majority. Many also object to Indian rule in Kashmir, the Muslim majority region claimed by both india and Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda has repeatedly threatened to attack India in revenge for its policies in Kashmir, although Indian security officials maintain that the group has no active presence within the country.

The picture has this month been complicated by the arrest of a senior military intelligence officer on suspicion of involvement in a bomb attack by Hindu extremists in western India in September. Colonel Srikant Prasad Purohit is the first serving officer in India’s Army — seen as a bastion of secularism since the country won independence in 1947 — to be arrested on terrorism charges.

Police are now investigating whether he and other members of Abhinav Bharat (New India), a Hindu nationalist organisation, were behind other recent bomb attacks. Abhinav Bharat’s president is Himani Savarkar, the niece of the Hindu radical who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

Indian officials said that it was too early to say which of these groups carried out last night’s attacks, but the scale, complexity and targets suggested that it was the work of an Islamist group.

Rakesh Patel, a British citizen who was staying in the Oberoi, said that the gunmen had asked specifically for British and American passport-holders. “They were looking for foreigners,” he told India’s NDTV channel.

Islamic militants have been blamed for all the recent attacks on Bombay, including multiple bombings of trains and railways stations that killed more than 180 people in 2006. In 2001 an assault on the Indian parliament by Islamic militants left 12 people dead and almost led to war between India and Pakistan.

If India accuses Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of masterminding this attack, it will almost certainly cause another crisis in already tense bilateral relations.

Pressure will now increase on the Indian Government to overhaul its counter-terrorism infrastructure in time for the national elections, due before May.