Intelligence officers around the world must have winced as the camera-phone images from Mumbai showed the only terrorist left alive being beaten by a vengeful crowd. Not, of course, through any sympathy for this AK-47-wielding murderer, but through professional concern that the only live source of information about the planning and execution of these audacious attacks was about to die. Police officers intervened and the injured attacker survived to face the trials of the interrogation room.
The detainee, 21-year-old Azam Amir Qasab, is reported to have told his captors that he comes from the small village of Faridkot, in Pakistan’s Punjab Province. He has admitted, it is said, to being a member of the Pakistani militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba – “the Army of the Pure” – which has been blamed for similar well-planned guerrilla attacks carried out by heavily armed men. It was Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters who tried to storm the parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001, spraying automatic gunfire and killing nine guards and parliament stewards. According to the terrorism analyst Sajjan Gohel, this kind of assault by fedayeen fighters is the hallmark of LeT. In the past, al-Qaeda has favoured human, car and truck bombs or plots involving planes, but Gohel says that the two groups are now affiliated, and also notes that “Lashkar-e-Toiba even gave al-Qaeda leaders sanctuary when they fled Afghanistan in 2001”.
Early reports from India suggest that Azam Qasab has limited formal education and yet apparently speaks fluent English. Strange for a man from rural Pakistan. This, among other factors, has prompted speculation that he may have connections to Britain. A senior minister suggested that two of the terrorists were UK passport holders – and then seemed to backtrack. Other sources tell me that MI5 has conducted financial records checks on a British citizen of Pakistani origin who is believed to have taken part in the attacks, though I have no confirmation of this.
Were Britons involved in the attacks? It is entirely logical that, if a connection is suspected, much would be done to suppress any details to play for time on the ground. Confirming a story of this magnitude would prompt camera crews to overrun communities. This happened to Beeston, in Leeds, home town of three of the four 7 July 2005 London bombers. So much interest could damage a counterterrorist investigation, especially if journalists ended up knocking on doors before the police. On the other hand, all this speculation may be untrue. The test will be whether we see police raids in the coming weeks; only then will the full story emerge.
It is quite possible that even if all the terrorists are traced back to Pakistan there will still be a British connection of some kind. They may not be British citizens but they may have studied here or have family ties. Britain has a large Kashmiri population and while the vast majority reject terror, there are those willing to fund extremist groups in Pakistan or even to volunteer as operatives. The dispute over Kashmir has long driven extremism. Once again, some of those claiming to have been involved in these latest attacks raised Kashmir as justification for their acts.
Slowly, the world is recognising that Britain has a huge problem with home-grown support for violent Islamic extremism; in fact, it has the biggest problem of any country in the west. If these latest atrocities are shown to have substantial British links, Britain risks being viewed as an international pariah state, a country whose children export terror across the globe. The shame of this would cut deeply into the national consciousness and its effect on community cohesion would be disastrous.
MI5 has estimated that 4,000 British Muslims may be a threat to national security; thousands of young men born in these islands have trained in camps overseas, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The secretary for US homeland security, Michael Chertoff, has warned of the threat that British Muslims travelling under the visa waiver programme pose to US borders. A source of mine who has spent many years at the heart of Britain’s intelligence apparatus says that more than 50 per cent of the CIA’s counterterror effort has been directed at extremists with links to Britain. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, it would represent an astonishing state of affairs for America’s closest political ally. No wonder the visa waiver programme is to be changed.
In India, Azam Qasab has apparently said that the terrorists’ aim was to kill as many people as possible and to murder US and British citizens. Eyewitness reports corroborate this, telling how the attackers demanded that British and American passport holders raise their hands. This approach bears more resemblance to al-Qaeda than Lashkar-e-Toiba, which used to concentrate only on Kashmir, and therefore Indian targets. It is possible that al-Qaeda has sought to co-opt LeT, just as it has sought to enter into agreements with formerly nationalist jihadist movements in North Africa. This cross-fertilisation, if proved, would be deeply worrying for the west, but for al-Qaeda it is a pragmatic approach, especially at a time when the core leadership is under tre mendous pressure in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are other clues about the motivation of the Mumbai terrorists. Unsurprisingly, they were seeking to create waves of publicity for their cause. The planners would have been watching on TV as their recruits played out their murderous theatre. That the world watches these attacks on television is part of the message.
The intent of terrorist spectaculars is far more sophisticated than simply generating support for their cause among a few disaffected youths. After all, cold-blooded mass murder is a hard sell for all but the most psychopathic (or brainwashed) supporters of Islamist revival, whose proponents dream of a new world order in which Islam rules supreme. The terrorists’ approach is more subtle. They hope the revulsion and anger that these acts have generated could foment regional instability as ordinary Indians start to call for unmanned drones to target as yet unidentified training camps in Pakistan. Deep-seated suspicion of Pakistan threatens to boil into rage. It is already happening. There is loose talk of war from ordinary citizens, and India is just weeks away from state polls and, indeed, a national election. When Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Toiba launched the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, both sides massed troops on the border while the world looked on nervously; both states are nuclear powers. Now tension is once more rising fast.
The British human rights lawyer Shahzadi Beg, one of the most insightful observers of Pakistani politics, says relations between the two countries are “deteriorating alarmingly fast”. She says that “the incoming US president, Barack Obama, had expressed a desire for a regional solution that would acknowledge Pakistani security concerns over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This approach will now be undermined as India argues there can be no negotiation with Islamabad following the Mumbai attacks.”
The language of confrontation is intensifying. India’s deputy home minister Shakeel Ahmad has said it is “very clearly established” that all the terrorists were from Pakistan. If this is true, it makes it likely that the attacks were planned in Pakistan, possibly with help in Mumbai from an indigenous jihadist group such as the Indian Mujahedin, which has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Indian cities this year. Local helpers may well have checked in as hotel guests in Mumbai, planned routes of attack, assessed targets and stashed ammunition. However, the west would see any build-up of troops or conflict on Pakistan’s eastern border with India as a disaster for the fight against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda on the western border with Afghanistan.
Even if the attacks prove to have been orchestrated from within Pakistan, that is not the same as official involvement. Contrary to suspicions in India, it is unlikely that Pakistan’s civilian administration, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, knew anything at all. Zardari has far too much to lose. He has sided, tacitly, with the Americans by ignoring drone attacks on alleged al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan’s western borderlands, though routine denunciations about breaches of sovereignty are fired off as diplomatic cover. The Mumbai attacks, by promoting a crisis between India and Pakistan, have weakened Zardari, in an already weak position, and strengthened the military who are the true power brokers in Pakistan. He is losing the battle to rein them in and a string of decisions that would have allowed him to exert more control has been reversed.
It is Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex that will be the focus of most anger from India. If Lashkar-e-Toiba turns out to have been involved, awkward questions will be asked about where the terrorists trained and who paid for the operation. The problem for Pakistan is that its intelligence service, the ISI, is known to have supported jihadist camps in the past. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedin and Jaish-e-Mohammed have created a production line of volunteer fighters for the conflict in Kashmir and beyond. The British Muslim extremists who received training in these same camps include Omar Khyam, leader of the fertiliser bomb plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre as well as nightclubs and bars.
Not long ago I was sitting in Newsnight‘s office with a former jihadi from Pakistan. We were comparing detailed military maps with Google Earth images on my computer. We zoomed in to the locations of several of the training camps in Mansehra District, close to the Kashmir border. In a recent court case in the US, witnesses spoke of passing official army checkpoints close to one of the camps I was shown near the town of Balakot. Some of the camps are less than 20 kilometres from garrison towns where there are huge concentrations of troops. It is virtually inconceivable that Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex was not aware of these training grounds. Many say that they were partly run by the ISI, though this has always been denied.
What relevance does all this have for Britain? Well, whatever facts emerge about the backgrounds of the Mumbai attackers, the conflict in Kashmir will continue to be used to radicalise young jihadi sympathisers from the west. It does not take much imagination to realise that, for young men groomed for a cause, the idea of travelling to a mountain redoubt and learning to fire guns could be intoxicating, especially when you have been taught to believe that the world is divided neatly in two, between the Dar-ul-Harb, or the land of war, and Dar-ul-Islam.
For the best part of 20 years, successive governments in Britain, as well as the police, MI5 and MI6, woefully underestimated the threat posed by Islamic extremists, right up to the London bombings of 2005. Extremist preachers such as Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza were given safe haven in Britain on condition that they would not threaten the security of the country in which they were living. How wrong that turned out to be as support for separatist, supremacist Islam grew from these seeds.
We are now playing a deadly game of catch-up and are struggling to devise policies to contain indigenous Islamic terrorism. We have carelessly allowed many of our towns to become segregated, with Muslim communities isolated from the rest of society. There are none more isolated than the wives of some men from strict Islamic sects in places such as Luton, Dewsbury and the old mill towns of northern England.
While researching my forthcoming film on radical Islam in Britain for BBC1’s Panorama, my researcher, Shashi Singh, and I ended up in Bradford. There we met a woman whom I shall call Shazia. She was covered head to toe in a plain black niqab; we could just see her eyes behind a slit in the fabric. This woman, in her thirties, was deeply unhappy. Born in Bradford, she went to schools there, but at the age of 18 was despatched to Pakistan to marry a cousin. She refused. Returning to Britain, she was in effect forced to marry another blood relative, and for the past 15 years has lived with her in-laws. “You have no idea what I’ve been through,” she said, in a thick Yorkshire accent. “Few people in Britain have any idea of the kind of life [I am forced to lead].”
I had to agree.
Richard Watson is a correspondent for BBC Newsnight. His Panorama film on radicalisation will be broadcast in January. He is the author of “The Rise of the British Jihad”, published in the autumn 2008 issue of Granta magazine (http://www.granta.com)
INDIA UNDER SIEGE
- 01.01.2008 Seven police and one civilian killed in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The attackers are suspected members of the HuJI, Sunni fundamentalists who aim to impose Taliban-style government on Bangladesh.
- 10.02.2008 Six alleged Islamic extremists are arrested in UP on suspicion of planning to attack the Bombay Stock Exchange. Suspects linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba, the same group thought to be behind the recent attacks.
- 13.02.2008 In Mumbai, the politician Raj Thackeray is arrested for inciting violence, after supporters attack northern Indians throughout the city.
- 13.05.08 Eight bomb blasts in Jaipur, Rajasthan, kill at least 60 people. A previously unknown group, the Indian Mujahedin, claims responsibility.
- 25.07.08 Nine bombs hit Bangalore, Karnataka, killing two and injuring 20. The attack is later linked to Indian Mujahedin.
- 26.07.08 In Ahmedabad, which has a history of violent clashes between the Hindu and Muslim populations, 45 are killed and 161 injured when at least 16 bombs, attributed to the Indian Mujahedin, explode around the city.
- 25.08.08 Violent clashes in Kashmir are sparked by plans to donate land to a Hindu shrine in a Muslim-dominated area of the disputed province. Five are killed and a strict curfew imposed.
- 13.09.08 Five bombs rip through Delhi‘s shopping districts almost simultaneously, killing at least 20 people and injuring about 90; four more bombs are defused. The Indian Mujahedin again claims responsibility.
- 27.09.08 A bomb in the market district of Mehrauli in south Delhi, kills three. No group claims responsibility.
- 29.09.08 The day before a major Gujarat festival starts, a low-intensity bomb goes off at an Ahmedabad market. Police report finding a cache of 17 crude bombs.
- 01.10.08 A triple bomb blast in Agartala, Tripura, is blamed on HuJI. At least two are killed and 100 wounded.
- 20.10.08 Chhattisgarh police are attacked and 15 killed by Naxalites, a Maoist group described by the PM, Manmohan Singh, as “the biggest single internal challenge ever faced” by India.
- 30.10.08 At least 18 blasts attributed to HuJI kill around 64 and injure 300 in Guwahati, Assam.
- 23.11.08 Security forces clash with anti-election protesters around Rajouri in the run-up to Kashmir‘s elections, a day after paramilitaries kill two youths at an anti-India demonstration.
- 14.11.08 Gun battles between Maoists and police erupt around Chhattisgarh during the state’s elections. At least two members of the security forces are killed.