During the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which Pakistan-based handlers from Lashkar-e-Taiba provided instructions via voice-over-internet protocol communications, Indian intelligence heard an individual speaking with a Mumbai accent directing some of the gunmen on the ground. Last year that same voice was heard again - this time in Saudi Arabia. It belongs to Zabiuddin Ansari (a.k.a. Abu Jundal, a.k.a. Abu Hamza) who Saudi forces arrested in May 2011 and finally turned over to the Indian authorities two weeks ago.
Ansari is proving to be a treasure trove of information regarding past attacks against India, most notably the 10-person assault on Mumbai for which he also helped to prepare the attackers. This understandably has been big news in India, as has Ansari's connections to the Indian Mujahideen network that has claimed a slew of bombings since 2005. However, his story, which began in a small village in Maharashtra's Beed district and reached a crescendo with his arrest by Saudi authorities and subsequent deportation to India, despite significant Pakistani protestations, has wider implications.
To begin with, this development comes amidst a warming in India-Pakistan relations. Early indications suggest that New Delhi will leverage information from Ansari's arrest to pressure Pakistan, albeit with minimal expectations of a positive result. However, the Indian government appears intent that the fallout should not stand in the way of progress on issues such as economic integration, even as territorial disputes and Pakistani support for militancy help keep full normalization out of reach. While it is unclear how long such an approach can last, it is notable that this thaw has been accompanied by intensified counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and various regional actors. Indeed, the most significant aspect of Ansari's arrest and deportation may be that it came at the hands of one of Pakistan's most reliable allies, Saudi Arabia. Such cooperation is intrinsically connected to Pakistan's increasing isolation at a time when India is an emerging global player with growing clout.
Thus, Ansari's arrest provides a prism through which to examine several inter-related issues: the variegated nature of the jihadist threat confronting India today, and the roles that both a small number of Indians and Pakistani state support play in it; how incidents such as this one impact the renewed India-Pakistan engagement; the feasibility of containing Pakistan-based or supported militants via enhanced international counter-terrorism cooperation in the absence of a serious commitment by the Pakistani state to dismantle the jihadist infrastructure on its soil; and Pakistan's increasing international isolation, primarily as a result of growing concerns about its inability or unwillingness to dismantle that infrastructure. This is the first of four articles intended to address these issues and it aims to contextualize the jihadist threat facing India today.
The full story behind Ansari's entrance into militancy is still obscure, but in the words of one Indian journalist, "it is likely that part of the answer lies in the communal violence which formed an organic part of the cultural fabric of his early life." Thus it appears he was part of a small number, in relative and absolute terms, of Indian Muslims motivated to wage jihad against their homeland as a means of exacting revenge for socio-economic deprivation and communal pogroms perpetrated by elements of the Hindu majority.
Some of these would-be Indian militants linked up directly with Pakistani groups like Lashkar, while others began joining India-based cells that simply benefited from Pakistani support. Since 2007, these Indian modules have been known as the Indian Mujahideen, which is best understood as a label for a diffuse and protean network rather than as a proper organization. While one can distinguish between Indians who join Lashkar and those that belong to an IM-branded module, in practice there is significant interplay between the two. Most of the jihadist attacks against India in recent years have been executed either by Indians working directly for Lashkar, those belonging to the IM, or a hybrid of the two. Incidents of expeditionary terrorism, in which Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar deploy Pakistanis to execute terrorist strikes such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, may be the highest profile threat to India. But these attacks are also the most rare.
There are several reasons for this. First, in some cases Indians may be acting almost entirely on their own, albeit possibly with some form of foreign support, which means they strike when the opportunity presents itself. Second, in those instances when they are working with Pakistan-based actors, Indian operatives are able to move more freely than their Pakistani brethren and so provide greater operational utility. Third, interlocutors in the U.S. and Indian governments believe the ISI is putting pressure on Lashkar to refrain from deploying Pakistani operatives, particularly since the international opprobrium that followed Mumbai. Fourth, according to one Lashkar official interviewed by the author in Pakistan in July 2011, a growing number of Indian Muslims are assuming operational roles in the group, enabling greater collaboration with indigenous actors in India. Hence, it is not surprising that Ansari was arrested in Saudi Arabia, where more than a million members of the Indian diaspora live, while on a mission to recruit more of his countrymen for future attacks.
The domestic grievances motivating would-be Indian militants pose difficult questions for India. However, it is impossible to overlook Pakistan's role in promoting and sustaining these actors. Indian authorities assert that ISI support for Indian militants includes the provision of training, financing, explosives, and logistical support such as false passports like the one Ansari was carrying when arrested. It also entails providing safe haven for Indian operatives, again like Ansari, who fled to Pakistan via Bangladesh in 2006 and allegedly confirmed that others like him are still sheltering in Karachi and continuing to plan terrorist operations.
Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram, among others, has admitted the country can no longer point to cross-border modules as the source of all jihadist violence in India, and must acknowledge the role a small number of its own citizens play. Yet India also points to Pakistan's continued support for these actors and assert that its willingness to provide safe haven to some of them enables the ISI to exert direct influence over the Indian Mujahideen. Thus, Chidambaram admitted Ansari was an Indian radicalized in India, but also called on Pakistan to admit he was given safe haven there and played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Notably, Ansari claims his initial task was to provide Hindi lessons to the Mumbai assault team in order to pass off the operation as the work of Indian jihadists.
True or false, this allegation contributes to the belief among many Indian officials and analysts that Lashkar and its ISI patrons are cultivating Indian operatives in part because they provide a greater level of deniability for Pakistan. It also helps to explain why many Indian officials with whom the author spoke during the past several weeks make only a minimal distinction between the IM and Lashkar, viewing both as tools of the Pakistani state. Ansari's revelations regarding the involvement of officers allegedly working with the ISI in the planning and execution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks have reinforced this perception. Yet contrary to the evidence, Pakistani officials insists no state actors - rogue or otherwise - were involved in Mumbai and that such accusations are designed to malign the ISI.
India has stated publicly that Pakistani action against all of the Mumbai perpetrators would be the greatest confidence-building measure, but when the author spoke with high-ranking officials in New Delhi following Ansari's arrest, none expressed any hope that such action would be forthcoming. Such low expectations did not keep the argument over Ansari and the information he has provided from overshadowing other bilateral issues when foreign secretaries from the two countries met several days prior. Still, despite the Ansari issue clouding the talks, the two managed to touch upon additional topics and to pursue limited progress in improving bilateral ties. The next piece in this series will explore this process and the impact events like Ansari's arrest have on it.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently returned from an extended research trip to South Asia examining internal security issues and is spending the summer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a public policy scholar.