South Asia Still Beset By Violent Extremism

By International Institute for Strategic Studies

As a major focus of jihadist activity, threatening not just the states of the region but also Europe and increasingly the United States, South Asia has endured high levels of violent extremism over the past year. The assassination of the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province in January 2011 revealed growing support in that country for radical views. While India recorded counter-terrorism successes, the key to regional stability is the India-Pakistan relationship, which remains tense. In 2010 US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of a 'syndicate' of terrorist groups, operating under the umbrella of al-Qaeda and working to destabilise South Asia by provoking a war between India and Pakistan. The evidence is unclear, but relationships between militant groups do appear to have grown closer. And while improved regional intelligence cooperation has begun to have an impact on the activities of jihadists, it is still in its infancy.

India: ISI moratorium brings relative calm

India to some extent bucked the regional trend with only one major act of jihadist violence during 2010 (though it was still plagued by high levels of Naxalite violence in the north, and there were renewed troubles in Kashmir). This was a bomb attack in February in Pune on a bakery popular with foreign visitors, which killed 17 people. Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, claimed responsibility. But a much-anticipated spate of attacks in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi in October, did not materialise. This may reflect an improved performance on the part of India's security and intelligence agencies, aided by much-enhanced levels of US assistance, with 13 jihadist plots having been disrupted during the course of the year. It may also reflect efforts on the part of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to discourage further anti-Indian activity by LeT.

Interrogations by the US and India of David Coleman Headley (also known as Daoud Gilani), a US national of part-Pakistani parentage arrested by the FBI in late 2009, have offered important insights into the origins of the Mumbai attacks, in particular the extent of Pakistani official complicity. Headley had been involved in extensive reconnaissance of Mumbai targets on behalf of LeT and has told his interrogators that, at an operational level, ISI had advance knowledge of the operation.

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According to Headley, who has pleaded guilty to the charges against him and is cooperating with the FBI, the ISI had seen the Mumbai attacks as a means of restoring the jihadist credentials of LeT. Many of LeT's members, frustrated by the restrictions imposed on them by ISI, had been leaving to join more extreme Pakistani jihadist groups which, in contrast to LeT, had turned against the Pakistani state. However, Headley's account suggests that the top leadership of ISI were not aware of the operation, indicating that ISI's command structure may be less efficient than has been supposed. According to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the ISI's chief, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, admitted to then-CIA Director Mike Hayden that at least two retired Pakistani Army officers had been involved in planning the Mumbai attack. This is hardly reassuring given that ISI's 'S Wing', the department responsible for relations with jihadist groups and for operations outside Pakistan, is known to consist solely of retired military officers so that the government can deny responsibility for its actions. Shuja Pasha reportedly told Hayden: 'It was rogue ... There may have been people associated with my organisation who were associated with this. That's different from authority, direction and control'.

The wealth of detail that has emerged about the Mumbai operation may have created pressure on ISI to impose a tighter moratorium on further such operations - though in late December 2010 the Indian government issued an alert relating to threats from LeT elements which had supposedly already infiltrated the country.

However, LeT does not appear to have been involved in an increase in violence in Kashmir, which for some years had been in an uneasy state of relative calm guaranteed by a pervasive Indian security presence. In June 2010 the death of a teenager in one of a series of stone-throwing confrontations with security forces led to rioting, which brought the Indian army out of their barracks and onto the streets. A curfew was reimposed. Although Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram initially accused LeT of fomenting unrest, the government has since acknowledged that the violence, which resulted in more than 60 civilian deaths, was in effect a popular uprising with no structure or leadership. The real causes of the unrest are both political and economic - an unrequited desire for independence and frustration with heavy security measures and alleged human-rights abuses, coupled with high levels of youth unemployment. The Indian government has partially acknowledged the validity of some grievances and has sought to minimise the use of force in controlling demonstrations.

Afghanistan: the key link

One reason for the relative lack of jihadist activity inside India may be that jihadism has moved westward, with many Pakistani extremist groups now increasingly focusing their efforts either on operations inside Afghanistan or against the Pakistani state, both in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or the settled areas, including Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

This shift is part of a complex series of moves in anticipation of an endgame in Afghanistan, which is widely expected at some point to involve a negotiation between the Afghan government and the main insurgent groups. Pakistan has sought to insert itself into any such negotiation by manipulating its relationships with some key jihadist groups: the Afghan Taliban, also known as the 'Quetta Shura'; the Haqqani network; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami; as well as LeT. According to General Michael T. Flynn, the senior US military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, LeT operatives are coming to Afghanistan in increasing numbers to gain combat experience and are active in eight Afghan provinces. Much of the focus of these groups, in particular the Haqqani network, has been on countering an Indian presence in Afghanistan which represents a constant source of strategic concern for Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistani politicians have begun to talk about the resolution of the Afghan conflict as more important than Kashmir in terms of defining their country's relations with India.

Pakistan's ultimate aim is a reasonably stable Afghanistan not inimical to Pakistan and in which Indian influence is limited to a point where it presents no strategic threat. Pakistani political leaders appear to have modified their position to a point where they talk publicly of not wishing to 'repeat the mistakes of the 1990s' - a reference to Pakistan's role in enabling the Taliban to assume power in 1996. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani has been increasingly open in discussing with US counterparts Pakistan's interests and ability to help achieve a negotiated settlement. At the same time, Pakistan has shown itself ready to act forcefully to ensure a seat at the negotiating table for itself, as demonstrated by its arrests of a number of high-ranking members of the Quetta Shura - including Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar - who were suspected of pursuing negotiations with the Afghan government independently of Pakistan.

Referring to it as a 'national interest', Pakistan has also been more ready to acknowledge the nature of its relationship with the Haqqani network, an organisation with close links to al-Qaeda that has been at the forefront of attacks against both the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Indian interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan's increasingly thinly disguised support for the Haqqani network represents a source of increasing frustration to ISAF commanders, who have determined until now that hot-pursuit operations inside Pakistani territory would prove counterproductive. The nearest ISAF has come to such operations was in September 2010 when US forces killed two Pakistani border guards who were providing covering fire for Haqqani fighters escaping back from Afghanistan into Pakistan. This incident led Pakistan temporarily to close the Torkham Gate border crossing in Khyber Agency through which 1,000 trucks, carrying 25% of ISAF non-lethal supplies, cross each day into Afghanistan, and served as a reminder of ISAF's dependence on Pakistan's goodwill.

Lashkar al-Zil: alliance of jihadist groups
Meanwhile, links between a variety of jihadi groups spanning both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border appear to have grown closer. In 2009, ISAF sources in Afghanistan began to talk of the emergence of a new umbrella group, known as 'Lashkar al-Zil' - Shadow Army - comprising al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been waging war against the Pakistani state in Pakistan's tribal areas and Swat. The commander of Lashkar al-Zil is reported to be Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior commander in the Pakistani jihadist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), who is also thought to have replaced Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, killed in a CIA drone strike in May 2010, as al-Qaeda's military chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kashmiri has also been identified as the driving force behind a number of recent al-Qaeda plots aimed at Western European targets.

Characterised as a replacement for al-Qaeda's Afghan-based guerrillas known as 'Brigade 055', it is far from clear how structured this new entity is. But ISAF commanders have cited evidence of increasing collaboration between jihadist groups which until recently had pursued their own agendas. Meanwhile, senior US officials have claimed that al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is now limited to as few as 100 fighters. Its leadership in Pakistan's tribal areas has been subject to a ferocious campaign of attrition by means of CIA drone strikes. Lashkar al-Zil may, therefore, enable al-Qaeda to have a greater impact in Afghanistan than the small numbers quoted might suggest. But it is clear that an exclusive focus on al-Qaeda as an organisation may be increasingly meaningless as other related groups take up the al-Qaeda baton.

Al-Qaeda's leadership recently received a shot in the arm when an undetermined number of its senior figures, as well as members of the family of fugitive leader Osama bin Laden, were released after being detained in Iran since 2002. According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan, their release was brokered by Sirajuddin Haqqani, de facto leader of the Haqqani network, as part of negotiations that included the release of Heshmetollah Attarzadeh, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Peshawar in late 2008. The same report suggested that Haqqani secured a supply of anti-aircraft weapons as part of the deal.

In addition to holding a number of al-Qaeda leaders under house arrest, Iran has for some time been supplying training, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban as a relatively low-risk way of sustaining pressure on the US. The release of leaders as significant as Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian military officer, and Suleiman abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti former al-Qaeda spokesman, suggests that Iran may have decided the moment has come to up the ante. Although experience suggests that any of the al-Qaeda leaders who make their way from Iran to Afghanistan or Pakistan will be targeted by CIA drone strikes, the return to battle of some experienced fighters with good strategic skills is bound to have an impact at least in the short term.

Continuing violence in Pakistan
Within Pakistan itself, levels of jihadist violence remained high throughout 2010, though the total number of fatalities, at 7,199, was markedly lower than the 2009 figure of 11,704, possibly reflecting the slowdown in military operations in Pakistan's tribal areas. Following the operations in 2009 to clear the TTP out of Swat and South Waziristan, the Pakistani Army now has a presence in six of the seven tribal agencies with the majority of insurgents now bottled up in North Waziristan, which was the target of 104 of the 118 drone strikes launched by the CIA in 2010.

According to US Defense Secretary Gates, the Pakistani Army has transferred the equivalent of six divisions from the border with India, representing a significant departure from its previous preoccupations. It has so far resisted US pressure to move against militant groups in North Waziristan, citing the need to consolidate existing gains in the other tribal agencies and to allow its forces to rest and recuperate - a genuine necessity given the high level of casualties suffered during the 2009 operations.

Meanwhile within the settled areas, Pakistan has continued to see high levels of jihadist violence both against its security forces and other government targets, and against minority Shia and Ahmadiyah communities. Much of this violence has been perpetrated by groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammed, HUJI and Harkat-ul-Mujahedin which, together with LeT, are collectively known as the 'Punjab Taliban', a term which reflects their growing alignment with the TTP and Afghan Taliban. That such groups pose a serious threat to the Pakistani state is no longer in doubt and reflects the degree to which jihadism in Pakistan has become a double-edged sword. The growing culture of radicalisation within Pakistan was exemplified by the assassination on 4 January 2011 of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by a member of his security detail. The assassin, who was allegedly under investigation for his extremist links, was motivated by a desire to punish Taseer for seeking amendments to Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws. It is unclear whether he was linked to any specific group. The high level of public support for Taseer's murder, including among Pakistan's Islamic clergy, is indicative of the degree to which radical views have entered Pakistan's mainstream.

Green shoots?
Although South Asia remains a major focus of jihadist activity, the news from the region is not unremittingly bad. Intelligence cooperation between South Asian states has seen some cautious improvements over the past two years, notably between Pakistan and Afghanistan where intelligence relationships, though still suffering from high levels of mistrust, are starting to become institutionalised. There are faint signs that South Asian states see the need to take a more direct role in resolving regional differences, with Afghanistan possibly serving as a test case should conditions on the ground reach the point where a political negotiation is a realistic possibility. But in the long term the relationship between India and Pakistan remains the key determinant of regional stability. And for as long as the two states remain locked in an intelligence war, with India supporting Baluch separatist groups, and the TTP and Pakistan continuing to see jihadism as an asymmetric tool against India, a significant drop in violent extremism seems a remote prospect.

Copyright ©2006 - 2011 The International Institute For Strategic Studies

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