This article first appeared in the 28 November 2008 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The atrocities committed in Mumbai are a reminder that al-Qaeda has not gone away. It remains as determined as ever to kill, maim and terrorise to advance its cause, writes Richard Whelan.
What has happened in Mumbai represents a very serious threat to the stability of the entire region. The perpetrators have chosen an extremely effective method of diverting attention from Muslim militants under pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, inflamed the already-difficult relationship between India and Pakistan and restated their claim for the leadership of the disaffected portion of the Muslim world.
This outrage bears the al-Qaeda hallmark, and appears tactically very astute. It is a guerilla attack, not just terrorism from within. It is aimed at India, long seen as an enemy by extreme Muslims.
The Pakistani Taliban stated in August 2008 that: “India is an external enemy of the Ummah [Islamic community worldwide] and would be confronted after defeating the allied forces stationed in Afghanistan.”
This attack was aimed at a key financial/economic target at a time when the world economy is under significant pressure, and India has seemed poised for a remarkable period of growth. Al-Qaeda has always favoured attacking economic/financial nodes, particularly when they are most vulnerable.
Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is a major centre city of finance, business and tourism, and is the largest Indian city with a population of 13 million. It accounts for one-quarter of India’s output.
This attack is of a piece with those on New York, London, Madrid and Bali. Mumbai itself, a mixed Muslim-Hindu city, has been the subject of significant attacks in the past. In 1993, more than 250 people were killed in 13 bomb blasts blamed on Muslim militants. Two years ago, more than 200 were killed by bomb attacks on trains and railway stations – the latter now a target once more.
That 2006 attack was blamed on two Pakistani-based groups, the Students Islamic Movement of India and Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lashkar’s main objective is the restoration of Islamic rule in India, while the Students Islamic Movement’s stated aims are to overthrow the Indian government, “re-establish the Caliphate” (Islamic rule) and introduce Sharia-based law, while opposing democracy, secularism and nationalism.
Those names have now resurfaced in connection with the current Mumbai attack, though it was claimed by a group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. Whatever the nom de guerreemployed, we are looking at the work of the al-Qaeda extended family.
Targeting tourists magnifies the return in terrorist terms, as it did in Bali, Egypt and elsewhere. The world’s media sits up and takes notice, as does the international political system. Other “terrorism bonuses” include inflaming internal tensions between Muslims and Hindus, already a major concern for the Indian government.
Muslims make up about 14 per cent of India’s 1.1 billion population, and the Indian subcontinent has been partitioned twice in the past century. But the big prize for al-Qaeda is extending the area of instability now centred on adjoining areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan to what is seen as the enemy – the big regional power of India.
There have been previous attacks, so clearly there is an existing support network. The connection between Islam extremists and criminal elements in major Indian cities is beginning to emerge as a major problem. The novel Shantaramby New Zealander Gregory David Roberts, while purporting to be a work of fiction, explores those connections in Mumbai itself.
Mumbai is also an important port in the fast-growing Indian economy. Al-Qaeda detests western-style progress and democracy which make more difficult its task of restoring the Islamic Caliphate and imposing Sharia law. Some of the attackers came by boat, reportedly from the direction of Karachi in Pakistan. Even if this proves not to be true (though it probably is), the effect on Indian public opinion of this perceived attack from enemy Pakistan is devastating in propaganda terms.
And it seems clear that al-Qaeda has learned useful lessons from Hizbullah. The tactic of taking western hostages served it well in the Middle East in the 1980s.
The tactic we saw in Mumbai this week – where the attackers sought to isolate American, British tourists and Indian Jews – looks very like an attempt to “harvest” hostages, to be traded against al-Qaeda militants held in Guantánamo Bay and Israel.
Nothing al-Qaeda does could improve its standing among disaffected Muslims more than engineering releases like this.
Although many in the West are not convinced that all in Guantánamo are guilty, the dangers of al-Qaeda getting the credit for the release of dangerous men and women are incalculable.
Focusing the international Muslim community on Israel and Guantánamo Bay, two issues on which it has very strong views, can only lead to an improvement in al-Qaeda’s approval ratings among Muslims worldwide.
This is unfortunate but true. Al-Qaeda may also assume the political transition in the US and the pending election in Israel give it a window of opportunity to confront governments when they are somewhat “off-balance”.
Wednesday, November 26th, 2008, in Mumbai was a good day for international terrorism. And a bad day for democracy.