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Finger at Pakistan, Qaida

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By NISHIT DHOLABHAI WITH INPUTS FROM NASIR JAFFRY AND AGENCIES in Delhi
  • Published 27.11.08
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New Delhi, Nov. 27: The government suspects that the militants behind the Mumbai attacks may have come from Pakistan, and that al Qaida possibly had a hand in the operation, security officials said.

An al Qaida role, though, would not necessarily mean all the terrorists, or even many of them, were from the outfit, the officials added.

Only one or two team leaders need to be from Osama bin Laden’s group, believed to be operating from Pakistan’s tribal areas and neighbouring Afghanistan.

Officially, a little-known group called the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility but no one seriously believes that even if such a group exists, it can be an independent entity.

US and British agencies believe the multiple attacks on foreigners show all the signs of an al Qaida strategy: picking on Western “soft targets” in a country where it has the wherewithal to strike. They point to how al Qaida-linked terrorists planted bombs in tourist-favoured restaurants and night clubs in Bali in 2002.

Some Indian officials backed the suggestion saying it’s possible that the Taj and Oberoi hotels — where many foreign guests are believed to be among the hostages — and the Nariman House, with eight Israelis inside, were the real targets. The railway stations, hospitals, etc, could be red herrings or the militants may have been forced to attack them by circumstances.

“The well-planned and well-orchestrated attacks, probably with external linkages, were intended to create a sense of panic, by choosing high-profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted.

“We will take up strongly with our neighbours that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.”

Some Indian officials were keen to see a more direct Pakistani link. The special secretary (internal security) in the home ministry, M.L. Kumawat, said the raiders had taken the sea route from Karachi and landed at the Sassoon docks, close to the Gateway of India.

Some intelligence officials insisted the attackers were “trained Pakistani army men”, and carried sophisticated arms and night-vision devices. They added the terrorists appeared “unmistakably Pakistani” when they spoke over the phone.

Certain US analysts, however, are unwilling to blame al Qaida — and even the usual Pakistani suspects such as the militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Christine Fair, senior political scientist and South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, said the style of the attacks and the targets suggest the militants were likely to be Indian Muslims and not linked to al Qaida or Lashkar-e-Toiba.

“There’s absolutely nothing al Qaida-like about it,” she said. “Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage-taking and they don’t do grenades.”

Bruce Hoffman, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, agreed the assault was “not exactly al Qaida’s modus operandi, which is suicide attacks”.

But he said the “tactical, sophisticated and co-ordinated” attacks perhaps pointed to a broader organisation behind the perpetrators.

Western intelligence had been expecting an al Qaida “spectacular” before Barack Obama takes over as US President on January 20. Counter-terrorist experts said India would have been selected “probably because that’s where al Qaida have sufficient resources to carry out an attack on this scale”.

In Islamabad, Pakistani foreign policy analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi saw similarities with the September strike on the JW Marriott hotel in Islamabad, a favourite with foreign travellers. At least 60 people were killed when a truck bomb rammed the hotel’s high metal gate around 8pm, when the restaurants were packed with diners.