commentary

(Financial Times)

September 30, 2003

Terrorism in India is Not Just an Internal Threat

by Rollie Lal

The car bombs that last month killed 52 people and wounded more than 150 in Mumbai are the latest and deadliest manifestation of a widening Islamic terrorist campaign in India. The campaign may signal an important new center of terrorist activity and needs to be closely watched by governments around the world.

The disputed territory of Kashmir has historically been the focus of Muslim terrorist attacks in India. But in the past two years some terrorist groups appear to have shifted their focus to India's urban centers. Kashmiri groups have, for example, attacked India's parliament building and US information center in Calcutta. At the same time, whereas the majority of past terrorist activity could be traced to Pakistan, India is now seeing the rise of indigenous Muslim terrorist groups.

Perhaps most ominously, some of the terrorists operating in Kashmir and in Indian cities are adopting the tactics and philosophies of other militant Islamic movements around the world, such as al-Qaeda. Rather than attempting to gain territory—a simple, quantifiable goal—the new breed of terrorists aim to demoralise the public and punish the government.

It is important not to overstate the links with al-Qaeda: the organisation does not have a known presence in India and very few Indian Muslims have been arrested in connection with it. However, Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based organisation, is certainly affiliated with al-Qaeda, and the group that has claimed responsibility for the Mumbai attacks—the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Group—is a splinter from Lashkar-e-Taiba. The GMRG has stated that its motive was retribution for the killing of Muslims in the state of Gujarat last year.

While it would be premature to posit any direct connection between the GMRG and al-Qaeda, the potential for increased co-operation between terrorist factions in India and international militant and criminal groups must be taken seriously.

As they expand their networks, terrorist groups can share manpower, money and munitions to launch ever more destructive operations—not just against Indian government targets, but against international targets as well.

There is no doubt that most of India's 140m Muslims—the second- largest Muslim population in the world—are moderate and in favour of a secular state. But the tactics adopted by Hindu nationalist groups are undoubtedly fuelling militancy. The Hindu nationalists believe in eroding India's secular fabric to their own advantage—and to the disadvantage of the Muslim minority.

Actions such as the 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya—supposedly built on the site of a Hindu temple—have aggravated tensions between the two communities. These culminated last year in riots in Gujarat, in which 2,000 Muslims are estimated to have died. The Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat failed to protect innocent Muslims or to prosecute the attackers.

The Indian government must tread carefully as it seeks to crack down on terrorism. It must endeavour to protect the civil rights of its Muslim population and prevent renewed cycles of revenge killing if it is to defeat the Islamic militancy. The recent decision of the Supreme Court to censure the Gujarat state government for its failure to bring the perpetrators of last years killings to justice is therefore a welcome development.

Tackling the conditions that create terrorist groups inside both India and Pakistan is also crucial. This will require attention to long-standing socio-economic problems in both societies. India's Muslims, for example, remain economically and educationally behind their Hindu counterparts.

India and the US have been co-operating closely in counter-terrorism efforts since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, and the latest attacks underline the need for expanding that co-operation. Interdicting groups operating in the uncertain territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan and in the disputed areas of Kashmir is a vital part of this effort. Increased co-operation from Pakistan will be critical to success.

Terrorist violence knows no borders, as the September 11, 2001 attacks showed. Dismissing India's homegrown terrorists as a problem for India alone would be a potentially dangerous mistake.


The writer is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on September 30, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.