- By Stephen TankelStephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior adviser for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenTankel.
When Zabiuddin Ansari was handed over to the Indian authorities several weeks ago, it was big news – at least in India – as a result of the information he was expected to provide to the authorities there about the 2008 Mumbai attacks. As previous posts have illustrated, his story also provided valuable insights into the nature of the jihadist threat to India, the state of India-Pakistan relations, and the importance of international counterterrorism cooperation to contain the threats posed by Pakistan-based and supported militants. The most important angle according to some observers, however, was the fact that Ansari was arrested by the Saudi authorities, who subsequently handed him over to India despite Riyadh’s historically close alliance with Islamabad. While at first glance this could suggest a wider geopolitical realignment, the reality is more nuanced. Though Pakistan is in no danger of being completely abandoned, its continued tolerance of militant groups makes even its staunchest allies skittish.
Pakistan remains the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation and, crucially, it’s a Sunni Muslim nation, which makes it an essential Saudi ally in the event that Shi’a Iran acquires a nuclear capacity. Furthermore, the Saudi royal family has depended directly on the Pakistan Army for protection at times and Pakistani soldiers continue to play an important role in Saudi Arabia. It’s very difficult to imagine India supplanting Pakistan in these areas. Saudi engagement with India began as part of a wider endeavor in which it sought to develop new markets for oil, expand economically where possible, and forge stronger political ties in Asia to augment the traditional U.S.-Saudi relationship and balance against Iran. However, it would be naïve to think India is ready to line up in lock-step against Iran any more than Saudi Arabia is prepared to abandon its alliance with Pakistan.
Nevertheless, Riyadh’s decision to hand over Ansari despite his possessing a Pakistan passport and over the vociferous objections of the Pakistani authorities is a significant event and indicative of several important trends. First, it marked an important turning point in Saudi-India counterterrorism cooperation that could only have occurred amidst improved bilateral ties between the two countries. Second, it suggests increasing concerns within the Kingdom about Pakistani militants in general and Lashkar-e-Taiba specifically, as well as Pakistan’s ability to control them. This is related to a more troubling trend for Pakistan in which its continued support for militant proxies has put strains on relationships with even its closest allies who fear the repercussions for their own internal security.
Playing the Field
In January 2006, Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud visited India as part of a four-country tour that also included a stop in Beijing. This was the first visit to India by a Saudi king since 1955, after which bilateral relations quickly froze as a result of Cold War politics. At the time of the landmark 2006 visit, Saudi Arabia provided only a trickle of oil to India, but soon after became its number one crude oil source. Although oil remains the lifeline of the relationship, the two countries’ interests now extend beyond black gold. Trade between them has boomed, as have Indian investments in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1 million Indians work, making them the biggest expatriate community in the Kingdom. There is significant cultural exchange as well owing largely to the fact that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, many of who are interested in Saudi Arabia as the host of Islam’s two holiest sites.
The Delhi Declaration signed during King Saud’s visit heralded a "new era in India-Saudi relations" in which both countries would develop a broad strategic vision. As such, it served as a major building block for the relationship, which has since expanded to include notable security-related issues. In 2006 the two leaders initially intended to sign a mutual legal assistance treaty pertaining to criminal matters, which often serves as a precursor to an extradition treaty. Instead, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Combating Crime designed to deal with terrorism and transnational crime. Although it appeared comprehensive on paper and covered a range of issues, perceptual disagreements over the concept of terrorism meant that in reality there would be limited cooperation.
By 2010, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia, bilateral relations had improved significantly. Prime Minister Singh and King Saud signed the Riyadh Declaration, which set the stage for actual counterterrorism cooperation, as well as signing a separate extradition treaty. Earlier this year the two countries boosted defense ties and further deepened counterterrorism cooperation when Indian Defense Minister AK Antony visited the Kingdom. According to Indian officials, Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism issues has improved significantly in the past six months. By this time, Saudi officials had already had Zabiuddin Ansari in custody for more than half a year.
Ansari traveled to Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport in the name of Riyasat Ali to launch a recruitment campaign for future attacks against India. As detailed in the previous post, India-U.S. counterterrorism coordination appears to have enabled Ansari’s identification and ultimately led to his arrest by Saudi authorities in May 2011. However, Riyadh was reluctant to hand him over to India for fear of upsetting Pakistan, where officials surely recognized the damage he could cause in the court of public opinion. In the past, any suspected militant traveling on a Pakistani passport would be sent back to Pakistan. In this instance, Pakistani pressure to reclaim custody of Ansari appears to have been intense, but so too was Indian and American pressure to secure his handover.
Riyadh ultimately demanded a DNA profile and other evidence from India to establish Ansari’s Indian nationality. New Delhi was able to fulfill these requirements, but Pakistan could not show credible proof that Ansari was one of its own. The ability to make a strong legal case for handing him over and improved bilateral ties between Riyadh and New Delhi were undoubtedly important factors. But baser security concerns likely also were at play.
Running Hot and Cold
Saudi Arabia proved a reluctant contributor to the international effort against al-Qaeda and associated movements after 9/11. This remained the case until the Kingdom suffered directly from al-Qaeda attacks beginning in 2003. However, it remained relatively tolerant of Lashkar-e-Taiba. This owed to Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Pakistan, but also resulted from Lashkar’s position vis-à-vis the Kingdom.
Some Lashkar leaders have ties to Saudi Arabia dating back several decades, and these men often view Saudi Arabia as the best Islamic state, even if it is not an ideal one. In other words, their attachment to the Kingdom extends beyond its mere utility as a fundraising and support base for militant activity. Similarly, Lashkar leaders’ strong commitment to spreading Ahl-e-Hadith (or Salafi) Islam via non-violent activism and their decision to eschew revolutionary terrorism in favor of pan-Islamist jihad makes the group more palatable than al-Qaeda to the Saudi state. Several Lashkar watchers, including this author, have speculated that the group distanced itself from al-Qaeda circa 2003 as a result not only of pressure from Islamabad, but also Riyadh.
Lashkar’s relationship with al-Qaeda – the Central organization and its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula – remains a dynamic one, but interlocutors in Pakistan and the United States have told the author that cooperation between the two has increased of late. Meanwhile, the wider narrative generated by the 2008 Mumbai attacks is that Lashkar is becoming a global threat. Regardless of whether one agrees with this assessment, it would be surprising if American and Indian officials did not make the case that an overly permissive environment could spell trouble for Saudi Arabia, and not too difficult to imagine their counterparts in Riyadh entertaining the notion seriously. Acute concerns about Lashkar exist against the backdrop of Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to reign in the group or others like it as well as growing disquiet over possible jihadist influences on elements within the Pakistan Army.
Putting Ansari in Perspective
Saudi Arabia broke a taboo when it handed over Zabiuddin Ansari and, as should be evident, this has significant implications. Saudi authorities are holding additional Indian militants, and they’re willingness to deport these men will be an important means of gauging the constancy of the trends highlighted in this post. However, it must be noted that all of these men are Indian – Riyadh is yet to begin evicting Pakistani operatives, much less arresting and deporting them to India. In short, this hardly spells the end of Lashkar operations in the Kingdom, though as the previous post observed the terrain there has become somewhat less hospitable.
In the zero-sum world of India-Pakistan relations, Ansari’s handover was an unquestionable win for New Delhi. In addition to the intelligence gleaned and validation offered regarding the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India also scored a diplomatic victory, albeit with U.S. support. Amidst the focus on signals intercepts and direct action, U.S. diplomatic engagement is often overlooked. In this instance, Indian officials have confirmed it was critical to securing a favorable outcome.
Finally, this event should cause concern in Islamabad and Rawalpindi about the degree to which continued tolerance of groups like Lashkar is creating unease among even its closest allies. China too has evinced concern – rarely and diplomatically, but nevertheless publicly – about the potential for Pakistan-based militants to threaten its own internal security. Saudi Arabia has now gone a significant step further. Neither country is about to abandon Pakistan, but nor is their commitment to Pakistan as absolute as some of its leaders might publicly claim or privately wish to believe.
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.