The South Asia Channel
Sharing is caring: Containing terrorism in South Asia
This is the third in a series of four posts examining the lessons and implications drawn from the arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari, who played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The first examined the variegated nature of the jihadist threat confronting India today. The second explored the impact of Ansari’s revelations regarding the ...
This is the third in a series of four posts examining the lessons and implications drawn from the arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari, who played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The first examined the variegated nature of the jihadist threat confronting India today. The second explored the impact of Ansari’s revelations regarding the persistence of that threat as well as his affirmation of Indian allegations regarding the Mumbai attacks on the renewed India-Pakistan engagement.
As previous posts made clear, Zabiuddin Ansari is likely providing Indian authorities with all manner of information, which will be picked over and analyzed during the coming months. One fact is immediately clear, however, and that is the Pakistan security establishment remains unwilling to end its support for non-state proxies. In the absence of a policy that succeeds in convincing, cajoling or compelling Pakistan to change its behavior, it has become essential to devise mechanisms to mitigate the external threats from Pakistan-based and Pakistan-supported militants. Even if Pakistan were to make an unambiguous effort to dismantle the militant infrastructure on its soil, such mechanisms would still be necessary in the near term. While a host of states have pursued unilateral measures, calls for international cooperation to manage these threats have also increased. Ansari’s story illustrates the importance of this cooperation as well as its limits.
The U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism is more than a decade old, but counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries really accelerated after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The U.S. government only began paying greater attention to Lashkar and its Indian affiliates in the wake of those attacks, while American forensic assistance to India in building a strong case that they were planned in Pakistan catalyzed a willingness in New Delhi to work more closely with Washington. In addition to infusing the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism with new life, the two countries also launched a Homeland Security Dialogue Ministerial in May 2011. Although ample room still exists for improvement, officials in both countries agree that cooperation has increased during the last few years.
Crucially, in the last several years, the United States, India, and the United Kingdom all took steps to facilitate counterterrorism efforts in Bangladesh. Lashkar has networks throughout South Asia and stretching into East Asia, but Bangladesh has historically been the most important staging ground for attacks against India. The group began building up its networks there in the mid-1990s, and Indian operatives played an important role in this effort from the outset. The growth of the indigenous Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) provided another mechanism for supporting attacks in India, which other Pakistan-based groups (including the original HuJI) could attempt to leverage for this purpose as well. Even more important than its role as a staging point for attacks, Bangladesh became an important place of refuge for Indian operatives as well as a transit point to and from Pakistan for men, material, and money. Ansari was among those who took advantage of its role in this regard, fleeing to Bangladesh in 2006 before ultimately moving on to Pakistan.
Since the mid-1990s, control of the government in Dhaka has alternated between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, with a military caretaker government in place from late 2006 through early 2009. The Awami League historically has been friendlier to India and less tolerant of Islamist-cum-jihadist actors than the BNP, but at different times both parties have been guilty of turning a blind eye to jihadist activities aimed at India.
Bangladeshi authorities began cracking down on domestic jihadists like HuJI-B after 2005 when some of them launched a series of bomb blasts across the country. In 2008, the Awami League won a landslide election in which it campaigned on closer ties with India and a promised crackdown on Islamist militancy. Meanwhile, New Delhi was reaching out to improve relations with Dhaka, while the United States offered valuable military and counterterrorism assistance as part of its push to degrade jihadist networks in South Asia. In 2009-2010, Bangladesh counterterrorism efforts expanded to include foreign elements as well. Indian, Bangladeshi, British, and American interlocutors with whom the author met during a recent visit to Dhaka all stressed that since 2010 Bangladesh has become less hospitable terrain. Officials from India and Bangladesh also agreed that counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries coupled with U.S. assistance contributed to this improvement, a view shared by independent experts.
The Persian Gulf, however, has remained fertile soil in terms of a support base for South Asian militancy. U.S. counterterrorism efforts vis-à-vis the Gulf have focused primarily on terrorist threat financing, which is understandable given that a host of jihadist groups rely heavily on fundraising networks there. What is often overlooked is the role the Gulf can play as a logistical and recruitment hub; for Lashkar, its Indian affiliates, and other Pakistan-based groups interested in launching attacks against India. For these reasons, this author has maintained that in terms of containing and degrading the threat from South Asian militancy, particularly Lashkar and its Indian affiliates, greater focus needs to be given to monitoring and infiltrating Gulf-based networks that could be used to recruit operatives or provide logistical support for terrorist attacks.
Recruitment efforts typically focus on Indian Muslims working in the region as part of a diaspora presence that numbers over 1 million. The presence of a Pakistani diaspora, coupled with the large number of South Asians who travel annually to Saudi Arabia for legitimate religious purposes, enables militants to blend in with the masses and makes the Gulf an opportune place for operatives to meet. Several Pakistan-based militant groups have ties with Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1980s, while the Indian crime boss-cum-terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, currently sheltering in Pakistan, has provided access to additional networks in places such as the United Arab Emirates. Finally, Riyadh’s close relationship with Islamabad meant that anyone found engaging in militant activities was simply sent back to Pakistan provided he was traveling on a Pakistani passport. That is, until Zabiuddin Ansari’s arrest in May 2011.
Ansari’s arrest and subsequent deportation is an example of how such cooperation should work and the impact it can have. As typically is the case, the details of precisely how Ansari’s presence was detected in Saudi Arabia are somewhat opaque. It appears he used an alias known to Indian intelligence to set up a website to inveigle new recruits, but according to Indian officials with whom the author spoke, it was U.S. intelligence that initially zoomed in on him. If so, this suggests that information sharing between the two countries coupled with U.S. capabilities to monitor Internet traffic led to his identification. It is clear that once Ansari’s identity was confirmed, the United States asked Saudi authorities to detain him, and then worked in tandem with their Indian counterparts to ensure he was not returned to Pakistan despite carrying a passport from that country. It was more than a year before Ansari was turned over to the Indian authorities.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to deport Ansari to India came despite significant Pakistani protestations – a decision which will be explored in the final post of this series. Three points are important here. First, to reiterate, Ansari’s identification, arrest and subsequent deportation to India were the result of greater international counterterrorism cooperation. Second, Ansari appears to be providing Indian authorities with a trove of intelligence about Lashkar and IM operations in Pakistan, India, and possibly the Gulf, which they have pledged to share with the United States This is likely to enable additional monitoring and infiltration of Lashkar and IM networks as well as assisting ongoing investigations. Third, the fact that the Gulf is no longer a guaranteed safe space for operations could have an impact on how militants conduct activities there.
None of this spells the end of the threat posed by Lashkar, the Indian Mujahideen, or other militants based in Pakistan. Bangladesh is a far less viable logistical hub than in the past, but gains there are reversible without continued vigilance. Further, although Ansari’s arrest and deportation is significant, the Gulf has not suddenly become a no-go area. Finally, international cooperation is primarily a means of threat containment and mitigation. It is no substitute for action in Pakistan. Such a policy shift is unlikely in the near term, but in addition to reducing the efficacy of Pakistan-based or supported militants, international cooperation should send a message to Pakistan that it risks inviting further isolation.
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.