Recent revelations pointing to links between Al Qaeda and the Indian Mujahideen have surprised many counter terrorism experts. These revelations have largely come in the form of a charge sheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India, stating that the Indian Mujahideen leadership has been on the lookout for an opportunity to establish links with Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban.
This alliance, if it takes shape or has already materialized, will have huge ramifications for the security and stability of the South Asian region as a whole. Unequivocally, this development would be pertinent to policymakers in India as it would directly impact the country’s internal security. However, apart from India, there would be another country with cause for concern: Pakistan.
Pakistan has been at the center of the war on terror owing to its proximity to Afghanistan. It is also home to different fundamentalist and terrorist constituents who have varied interests and objectives. They are can be broadly divided as follows:
Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have used Pakistani territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) for sanctuary or as a strategic retreat when faced with NATO operations in Afghanistan. Their primary objective is to overthrow the Afghan government.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), better known as the Pakistan Taliban, is based in and around the Waziristan area. Their main objective is to overthrow the Pakistani state.
Groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are some of the more prominent groups whose interest is geared towards jihad in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. Their principle objective is to “liberate” Kashmir from India.
Given the existence of groups with such divergent objectives, Pakistan has been known to support some groups with various ideological bents in one way or another. However, Pakistan has more consistently supported non-state actors from the Kashmiri coterie as an unofficial foreign policy measure against India.
On the other hand, Pakistan was instrumental in supporting the Afghan Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the only countries which recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan’s honeymoon with the Taliban ended soon after the 9/11 attacks; even if elements within the Pakistani armed forces are still sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda cause. An ample testimony to this is the discovery of Osama bin laden in Abbottabad, located in northeastern Pakistan. Common sense dictates that this would not have been possible without some official Pakistani help. These instances point to assistance from certain influential pockets within the Pakistani government, who are opposed to the US-led war on terror and have tacitly supported these groups in all forms.
The US focus is predominantly on the Afghan region and areas dominated by the Pakistan Taliban in Pakistan’s western frontier. US cooperation with the Pakistani government is against Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistan Taliban, all of which threaten US interests. At the same time, The United States has outlawed Kashmiri Jihadi groups like LeT, HM, and JeM. Notwithstanding the ban on Kashmiri groups, these outfits have continued to thrive thanks to tacit support from elements of the Pakistani government.
Given this backdrop, the current nexus between Al Qaeda and Indian Mujahideen is bound to upset Pakistani plans towards India. The underlying principle buttressing this theory is manifold, including: the clash of ideology between various jihadi outfits in Pakistan; lower recruitment for Kashmiri-based jihadi groups; non-availability of plausible deniability or arms-length alibi; and the burden of breeding a new homegrown group in India.
Pakistan has been riddled with conflicts between various jihadi groups due to their ideological divide. On one side of the ideological divide are groups fighting in Afghanistan like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and deobandi-driven Pakistan Taliban, which aids and abets the former two. On the other side are the groups like LeT, JeM and HM which fight in Kashmir. The most prominent among the Kashmiri groups is the LeT which is driven by Ahl-e-Hadith ideology of Islam, in direct contrast to the deobandi school of Islam practiced by the Afghan groups. These ideological divisions have led to deep schisms on whether to participate in the Kashmiri jihad or the one in Afghanistan.
These divisions have intensified the attrition levels of hardcore jihadi fighters from the Kashmiri conflict to the Afghan theatre. For instance, two important LeT members, namely Major Abdul Rahman who was heading the Karachi setup in LeT and Major Haroon in charge of training LeT cadres, deserted LeT in order to fight in the Afghanistan conflict. Both have served in the Pakistani army and have refused to fight the Taliban during the war on terror. Such insubordination stands testimony to their hardcore jihadi mentality which is by no means exhaustive in the Pakistani army establishment. Thus, this ideological divide expedited the process of jihadi exits from Kashmir-centric groups. This in turn diluted the strength and focus of the existing Pakistan-supported Kashmir-centric groups like the LeT, JeM, HM, thus negating the leverage which Pakistan has over India on the Kashmir issue. Such was the desperation of the LeT and Pakistan’s ISI, that in order to hold LeT together, spectacular attacks such as the 26/11 Mumbai assault were orchestrated. LeT scaled up the enormity of the 26/11 Mumbai assault from a two-member team to a ten-member team, choosing multiple targets instead of the original solitary target. This was done in order to appeal to the jihadis, lift their sagging morale, and also veer them away from the Afghan conflict. Another benefit which Pakistan reaped from the Mumbai attack is that the spectacular nature of the attack diverted attention away from Pakistan’s own domestic issues.
Pakistan has been using the Indian Mujahideen to fill the gap created by these jihadi outfits and regain lost momentum against India. While the Indian Mujahideen has been instrumental in conducting at least ten attacks across India in the last eight years, LeT has conducted only three attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai assault, and JeM only one.
Al Qaeda, considerably weakened by US operations, has outsourced its terror strategy to a series of affiliates. Reports indicate that Al Qaeda may train Indian Mujahideen cadres in return for their facilitation in moving arms to Myanmar. Al Qaeda would gain access to a new theatre in Myanmar by using Indian Mujahideen as a bridge. In turn, Indian Mujahideen could gain from Al Qaeda’s tactical expertise.
Pakistani nervousness over such an alliance is palpable. According to the interrogation statement of David Coleman Headley, Pakistan has been preventing the integration of Kashmiri jihadi outfits like LeT with Afghan-based outfits. This is again corroborated by Yasin Bhatkal, the co-founder of Indian Mujahideen, who was arrested last year. Bhatkal in his interrogation report has stated that Pakistan’s ISI has warned Indian Mujahideen against any connections with Al Qaeda. A possible explanation to this could be to insulate Kashmiri-based groups from a possible US action by virtue of their association with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The alliance between Al Qaeda and Indian Mujahideen is a marriage of convenience, where al Qaeda needs a new theatre and the Indian Mujahideen needs new expertise to escalate its attacks. This is consistent with Al Qaeda’s principle of integrating new theatres like Iraq, Syria and Somalia etc. If it bears fruit, this would be Al Qaeda’s first ingress into the Indian subcontinent. In return, Indian Mujahideen would gain strategic depth. Hence, the nexus between Al Qaeda and Indian Mujahideen is a definite force multiplier for both these entities.
The Bodh Gaya (a sacred place for Buddhists) blasts last year in India appear to tacitly reflect such an arrangement, though it cannot be confirmed independently. This could be a retribution attack arranged under this alliance, protesting the suffering of Rohingyas in Myanmar. Regardless of whether the alliance is in place now or in future, it would leave policymakers in India desperate to break it up as quickly as possible. At the same time, even more so than in India, it would be Pakistan hoping that the alliance falls apart.