Extremist Islamic Mobilization in India Must be Countered

A high degree of sentimentality and sensationalism has characterized much of the reaction, both in the media and among experts, to the involvement of a group of educated Indian professionals, including at least one engineer and one doctor, in the failed bombings in Glasgow and London.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has informed the country that he "couldn't sleep at night" after he saw on TV the family of Mohammad Haneef, who has been detained in Australia on suspicion of involvement. On the other, there are a number of commentators who have been trying to whip up hysteria in India, crying "Al Qaeda is coming, Al Qaeda is coming" on every available channel and medium. 

There is need to subject the issue of the involvement of qualified Indian professionals in an act of terrorism in Britain to a somewhat more sober assessment. First, the only element of novelty here is the fact that this is the first act in which Indian nationals have been involved in terrorism abroad - and this is shocking only because of the irrational and excessive emotional capital invested in the unsustainable idea that Indian Muslims are somehow mystically immune to mobilization by international Islamist terrorism.

Islamist extremist mobilization and terrorism have been a reality in India for decades now, and there was, consequently, no rational constraint, other than the incidental absence of specific mobilization to such an end, that necessarily excluded the possibility of their involvement in acts of terror abroad. Given the scale and continuity of radical Islamist mobilization in India, there should be little surprise if future incidents abroad also include Indian cadres and participants.

Further, the astonishment at the involvement of apparently successful, well-off and trained professionals, and particularly doctors, in terrorism, is again utterly unfounded. Both international terrorism and terrorism in India have seen a significant number of educated, prosperous and apparently successful individuals engage in terrorist acts, and the notorious Dr. Tanvir Ansari, charged with engineering the July 11, 2006, serial bombings in Mumbai which killed 181 people, and Dr. Jalees Ansari, convicted for orchestrating a series of bomb blasts in trains across the country in 1993, are just two cases in point.

The leadership of insurrectionary and terrorist movements, through history, has always vested in discontented elites; the stereotype of the semi-literate and fanatical terrorist is based essentially on a profile of the foot-soldiers and cannon fodder that these movements mobilize to bulk up their cadres.

There are several aspects of the argument that, through the involvement of Indian conspirators in the UK plot, the abrupt arrival of Al Qaeda in India has been demonstrated. First, it must be recognized that Al Qaeda is essentially a group of Arab terrorists who do not admit non-Arab membership, except in the rarest of cases.

However, Osama bin Laden has set up a loose confederation of organizations, the International Islamic Front (IIF), all members of which share in Al Qaeda's ideology and objectives. While the Arab core of Al Qaeda does not operate directly in India (though there are occasional reports of a failed plot, for instance, to target the Israeli embassy in New Delhi), affiliated members of the IIF - including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami among others - have long been operating here. Consequently, it must be clear, there is no sudden shift, no abrupt augmentation of the threat in India, manifested through this latest series of failed attacks in the UK.

Further, it needs to be asked, what is the magnitude of real threat that has been manifested in the UK? Is this the terrifying 'Al Qaeda' that the world trembles at - a group of evidently and contemptibly incompetent amateurs who rigged three explosive devices, every one of which failed to explode? Do the capacities reflected in these operations - if directed against India - manifest a greater threat than, for instance, those of the combination of Indian and Pakistani terrorists who executed the Mumbai train blasts in 2006? Or of the criminal-terrorist organization that executed the 1993 Mumbai blasts in 1993?

Drumming up panic over Al Qaeda's 'arrival' in India distracts from the realities and imperatives of the ground: intelligence and enforcement agencies need to focus on any Islamist terrorist group that has actual capacities to provoke and execute terrorist acts here, not on monsters largely conjured out of an international fiction. Unless there is clear evidence of operational links between Al Qaeda and Indian groups - links that result in a manifest augmentation of capacities to engage in terrorism - invoking the Al Qaeda bogey serves no useful purpose.

A related question arises on the principal agencies of subversion and mobilization of Islamist extremist terrorists in India and in the Indian diaspora. The cumulative evidence currently available suggests that the Indian participants in the UK plot were, in fact, recruited in the UK, but their mindsets had substantially been prepared in India. Here again, crying 'Al Qaeda' is of no practical use. Extremist Islamist mobilization in India has been ongoing for decades, well before the Al Qaeda had any significant presence here, and a range of Pakistani state-backed groups and agencies have been responsible for the principal thrust of such subversion.

Further, in this, a number of other fundamentalist Islamic organizations are also indicted - although these are not known to have played any role in terrorism or to advocate terrorism. In the present case of Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed, the brothers involved in the failed UK bombings, mention has been made of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e-Islami, and their influence in their radicalization.

There are many such organizations in this country, preaching an orthodox, puritanical Islam and creating a fanatical mindset that is then easily exploited by more extremist groupings. Here, one of the principal dilemmas of democracy operates, limiting the action the state can take, as long as no crime is committed. There is a need, nevertheless, to recognize the role that is played by such organizations, and to engage in a dialogue that could help mitigate the risks of terrorist recruitment from their ranks.

There is another issue that has been brought to the fore by commentaries on the UK bombings: the role of apologists, fellow travelers and grievance peddlers, who exhort us to "understand basic issues" and attend to "root causes", instead of focusing on the challenge of terrorism. Such advocates now provide the primary justifications of terrorism in the liberal democratic community, and have come to represent what Fouad Ajami describes as the "political traditions of belligerent self-pity", which fuel terrorism across the world. A focused challenge to this class of 'intellectuals' needs to be mounted wherever the threat of terrorism is manifested.

(Ajay Sahni is the Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached at ajaisahni@gmail.com)  


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