Friday, November 28, 2008

Scramble to identify Mumbai attackers

Some terrorism experts see hallmarks of India's homegrown extremist groups rather than Al Qaeda


Al Qaeda. Pakistani jihadis.

An offshoot of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

As Indian intelligence agencies scrambled yesterday to identify the perpetrators of Wednesday's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, terrorism experts said the Deccan Mujahideen, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack, was likely a name invented by the real perpetrator to sow confusion. That perpetrator, they said, could be any of several disparate organizations – possibly inside India, possibly outside.

Tom Quiggin, a Canadian expert in jihad who has studied terrorism in India, said he would "bet a year's pay" the terrorists belong to the Indian Mujahideen, an offshoot of the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India. The IM has credibly claimed responsibility for several multiple-bomb attacks in India in 2007 and 2008, and several other international experts identified the group as the most likely to have orchestrated the co-ordinated Mumbai assaults.

"It's consistent with their methodology, consistent with their past, and it's also consistent in that there's nobody else in India who's ever carried out an attack like this before," Quiggin said. "There's no indication there's another group that would have this type of capability and invention."

But security and intelligence expert Wesley Wark said it is not yet possible to rule out Al Qaeda, which is best known for suicide attacks that do not involve guns.

"The signature of this attack is the scale of it: the number of people involved, the decision to attack a multiplicity of targets, what seems like the relatively professional timing that went into that assault – the targets were all struck more or less simultaneously," said Wark, an associate of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.

"One could say that that is kind of Al Qaeda's hallmark, the notion to launch a co-ordinated offensive against a number of targets to achieve a real symbolic and economic effect."

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed "external forces" for the attack. Indian politicians typically use such language to refer to Pakistan, with which it has battled since the partition of British-controlled India in 1947.

Pakistan's powerful and unwieldy intelligence agency, the ISI, contains rogue elements the country's government has struggled to rein in. Indian officials have, in the past, routinely blamed the ISI for domestic disturbances.

Some Indian papers, meanwhile, quoted "intelligence officials" who said the Mumbai attack was likely committed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, or "Army of the Pure," the armed branch of a radical Pakistani religious group. It has denied responsibility.

But The Hindu newspaper reported today that three of the militants confessed they are members of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"It would be mildly surprising if this were other than an Islamic extremist undertaking given the nature, scope and extent of it, the targeting, and various other features almost too obvious to mention," said David Harris, former Canadian Security Intelligence Service chief of strategic planning and now director of the international and terrorist intelligence program at Ottawa's Insignis Strategic Research.

The nature of the attack was unusual for India, which faces threats from not only Muslim but left-wing and autonomist radicals.

The Mumbai terrorists used firearms, not crude bombs. Where other attacks by Islamic extremists have targeted the country's Hindu majority, the terrorists who struck Wednesday sought out foreigners, Jews and symbols of wealth.

India's approximately 150 million Muslims were once thought to be largely immune to jihadist ideology despite their long-standing grievances with Hindus over disputed Kashmir, economic inequalities and other issues.

"They had never shown any interest," Quiggin said. But violent radicals have found a more receptive audience for their message in the last five years, he said.

SIMI was founded in the late 1970s to promote Islamic teachings. It became increasingly extreme in the 1990s, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, and it was banned as a terrorist organization in 2001. Experts believe the group, or at least members of it, now operate under the Indian Mujahideen banner.

After previous attacks in Uttar Pradesh and Jaipur, the IM sent emails to media outlets claiming responsibility. It has not claimed responsibility for the Mumbai attacks.

Wark said the Indian Mujahideen, which the Indian government has previously accused of working with Lashkar-e-Taiba, could be responsible. But he urged caution in the identification of any group as the perpetrator.

"A lot is at stake," he said, particularly with regard to precarious India-Pakistan relations.

"Lots of people are guessing.

"My own comment on that is that the guessing game is very dangerous. We've already seen the ways in which it's dangerous in terms of the Indian prime minister ... who is willing to play politics with this question in a potentially very volatile way by essentially pointing the finger at Pakistan."

Scramble to identify Mumbai attackers
Toronto Star, Canada