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Al-Qaeda threat adds to volatile India-Pakistan mix

Pakistan’s armed services and spy agency could provide logistical and intelligence support to aid al-Qaeda’s ambitions on the Indian subcontinent, India’s ruling party has warned.

Words by Dhairya Maheshwari
 

The suspicion is focused on the potential for unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir as authorities in New Delhi seek to come to grips with al-Qaeda’s stated ambition of expanding its network throughout the region.

Seshadri Chari, the national convenor of the foreign policy unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that a highly-radicalised army such as Pakistan’s was certain to contain sympathisers for terror outfits such as al-Qaeda.

“It would be easier for al-Qaeda to operate against India from Pakistan with a willing army . . . and an obliging ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence),” he told The Citizen in an email response to questions. 

Before joining the party, Mr Chari was a senior leader in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ultra-nationalist Hindu organisation considered to be the ideological fountainhead of the BJP.

He said that the Indian government was collecting information about the new group and would take “appropriate action at the right time”.

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A former member of the party’s national executive, Mr Chari also cautioned the US to be ready to re-work its relationship with Pakistan should the latter’s security agencies be found to be supporting al-Qaeda’s newest division in orchestrating acts against India.

His comments on Washington’s role in the subcontinent came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded his historic visit to the US.

Global terrorism and the future of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the wind-down of the US-led presence featured in bilateral discussions between Mr Modi and President Barack Obama.

The al-Qaeda chief Ayman-al-Zawahiri had recently announced in a video address the creation of the newest tentacle of the global terrorist organisation as a means of expanding  its presence across the subcontinent.

Reports in the Indian media suggested that the video and Zawahiri’s references to the Indian states of Gujarat and Assam, as well as to Kashmir, were being taken seriously by India’s intelligence services.

Gujarat was the site of bloody communal riots in 2002 in which more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Mr Modi, who was then leader of the state, was accused of not doing enough to prevent the violence.

Successive Indian governments have accused the Pakistan Army and the ISI of supporting radical Islamist organisations in carrying out terrorist acts against India, an accusation Islamabad denies.

Mr Chari’s fears about Pakistan’s involvement were echoed by experts who noted that Pakistan’s security agencies could become involved in “duplicitous” behaviour to pursue their strategic objectives in the disputed mountainous state of Kashmir, where Muslims constitute the majority.

Both countries claim the state in its entirety but India has controlled the major part of it since Partition in 1947. The neighbours have fought three brief wars over the region since independence.

“Al-Qaeda could be an asset to the Pakistan Army in the Kashmir region,” said Dr Christopher Snedden, an Australian analyst and founder of the consultancy Asia Calling. “The terror group could tap into the fringe support base comprising those people who are severely disenchanted by the Indian regime in the state,” he told The Citizen

Michael Kugelman, the senior program associate for South Asia and South-East Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, agreed. “There is a possibility that the Pakistan Army could involve the Al-Qaeda in the Kashmir dispute,” he said in an interview via Skype.

Mr Kugelman warned that the threat of al-Qaeda to carve out a new division focusing on the region should not be taken lightly as Asim Umar, its designated leader, had been “fixated on India right from the beginning”.

“Al-Qaeda could be an asset to the Pakistan Army in the Kashmir region. The terror group could tap into the fringe support base comprising those people who are severely disenchanted by the Indian regime in the state.” —Christopher Snedden, Asia Calling

In a video that surfaced in June, Umar exhorts Kashmiri Muslims to join the global jihad movement and wage war to “end the Indian occupation in Kashmir”.

One of the major promises of the recently-elected Modi Government was to repeal Article 370, a provision of the Indian Constitution that confers autonomy on Indian-administered Kashmir due to its disputed status. The repealing of the contentious clause would put the state on a par with other Indian states.

Critics of the move include Pakistan, the present state government and anti-India separatists, with the latter arguing that scrapping the clause could further alienate the Muslim majority who do not wish to remain within the Indian union.

Mr Chari said that al-Qaeda’s meddling could reinvigorate the separatist movement in the region.

The senior adviser reiterated that his party would not compromise on its stand on Article 370. “The BJP stands by its promise of conducting a nationwide debate on Article 370 and eventually get it totally scrapped from the Constitution,” he told The Citizen.

Despite the imminent threat foreseen by experts in the creation of an “unholy alliance” between the terror group and the Pakistan Army, Dr Snedden noted that the latter was “occupied” in anti-terror operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, and could not afford heightened tensions with India in the east – at least for now.

Mr Chari believed that in the long run the “Pakistan army would not like to be tied to the apron strings of al-Qaeda”. “When such a point comes it would be interesting to see how they extricate themselves from the clutches of terror outfits,” he said.

Mr Kugelman also cautioned that any tacit support for al-Qaeda could backfire for other countries of the region, including Pakistan itself. Soon after its formation, al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for a raid on a Pakistan Navy ship at a dockyard in Karachi.

Commenting on the future US-Pakistan alliance in the decade-long ‘War on Terror’, Mr Kugelman said that the US was unlikely to need Pakistan as badly as it had done in 2008.

“After the November 26 attacks in Mumbai, the US deepened its engagement with Pakistan despite direct involvement of state actors from Pakistan having been established,” he said. “But now with the US pulling out of the region, Washington would simply tell the Pakistan Army that it stop providing support to the terrorists.” 

Pakistan’s national security and foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, did not respond to requests for comment.

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