By MADHAV NALAPAT | NEW DELHI | 22 November, 2015
Radicalisation of the middle rungs of the Pak agency has created a situation in which ‘linkages have been formed with units of Daesh operating within Europe’.
Counter-terrorism specialists based in West Asia and North Africa claim that units of the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), also called Daesh, are in “regular contact” with mid-level elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Rawalpindi GHQ, who are unhappy with what they regard as their leadership’s “policy of acquiescence” to US demands. Such a radicalisation of the middle rungs of the ISI has created a situation in which “linkages have been formed with units of Daesh operating within Europe”. In particular, the latter have been given training in communications security and safety by their ISI sympathisers, who “spend weekends and holidays teaching (ISIS elements) the essentials of communications safety”. The ISI officers, aware of the close cooperation between their organisation and the US intelligence complex (specifically the Defense Intelligence Agency and Centcom) “have been careful to avoid getting directly involved in any communication or operation of Daesh cells in Europe”, confining their assistance to training within safe locations in communications, in the identification of safe houses and routes, and to sharing of intelligence on local security agencies. These ultra-Wahhabised ISI officers have been careful “not to meet with any Daesh cell in the US”. However, those in Europe who have been given the benefit of training by what analysts describe as “out of control” officers of the Pakistan armed forces, are, of course, “free to impart such knowledge to cells based in the US”, whose members come to Europe on reconnaissance and training visits.
Experts familiar with ground realities warn that western counter-terrorism agencies, habituated to the formal linkages common in that part of the globe, are “still clueless” about exactly who is or is not a member of Daesh or part of an organisation within that terror constellation. Since early 2014, Daesh, through its sympathisers within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has set up several intermediary organisations, several of whom are off any terror radar, who in their turn have spawned affiliates functioning in plain sight of the authorities. They have become expert in the smooth morphing of supporters from “extremists” to “radicals” to “moderates”, looking for assistance from the US, France and the GCC. In particular, these experts warn that “several field operatives of the secret services of Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been heavily influenced” by the ultra-Wahhabi ideology of Daesh, and have begun recruiting individuals who are secretly affiliated to the constellation of terror groups reporting to the Raqqa HQ. Of course, since the Russian bombing of this town, “most of the leadership elements of ISIS (Daesh) spend several hours each night moving from location to location in two or more groups” to avoid detection by hostile agencies.
The sources talked to say that since August, western agencies have, in effect, “ceased to rely on the security systems of Turkey and the GCC countries and instead rely entirely on their own networks for information” on Daesh. This switch was made “after several false leads were given to them during 2013 and 2014 by regional security agencies” whose cadres have fallen prey to ultra-Wahhabi ideology after 2011, when the smooth takeover of power in Libya by jihadist elements gave rise to a belief among vulnerable (to Daesh indoctrination) sections of the population that this extremist ideology was the wave of the future within the Arab world. However, as yet, “few western agencies are examining the informal links that have developed since 2013 between ISIS and security agencies of countries where ultra-Wahhabism has gained significant traction”, including (in their recital) Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. According to a senior policymaker with two decades of experience as a field operative, ISIS (Daesh) recruits have mastered explosives, communications and logistics “not by being trained by Al Qaeda operatives in the desert, but by training under those within infected security systems who have received training for years by the very countries which are being targeted” (by the terror constellation). Some of those given such training leave the operations modules and remain in safe areas to train more volunteers in such essential skills. According to a source, “mid-level elements in the ISI, who are outside the 24/7 control of top officers, have since end-2014 become an important means of developing attack and survival skills in the growing band of ISIS recruits”.
A former official warned that India was “very much within the target list of ISIS because of the informal and clandestine connections between that terror constellation and ultra-Wahhabist mid-level officers in the ISI”, who are eager to ensure a major strike in India “so as to do further damage to the social and economic fabric of the country”. His former colleagues (who are still in service) said that “it may become necessary for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take personal charge of the defences against ISIS”, including by having the security services and the military “work out swift responses to a possible mass terror attack” by ISIS, rather than “tread the path of previous governments by being slow off the mark, so that the impulse to retaliate gets diminished and ultimately, only symbolic steps (such as Operation Parakram) get taken, as during the A.B. Vajpayee period or follow the Manmohan Singh pattern of foregoing retaliation completely, substituting action with words and diplomatic gestures”. They pointed out that the most important reason why the US was not being subjected to mass terror attacks, unlike Europe “was not because of the so-called influence of the American Way of Life” on putative jihadis, but “fear within terror networks of a repeat of the post-9/11 wholly disproportionate retaliation” for any such strike. Although his critics say that he has been weak on terror, the record will show that President Barack Obama has been as harsh on terror networks as his predecessor George W. Bush, and has thereby succeeded in keeping the US safe thus far during his years in office.
A senior official claimed that “an arms dealer based in London and another who is Mumbai-based have sabotaged efforts at India signing CISMOA, LSA and BECA with the US”, for fear that such a move would “open the gates for the US to become bigger weapon system sellers to India than all the other present suppliers combined”. A junior associate of the officer said that the two arms dealers had “huge influence over four top names” in the UPA and that “even within the NDA, they have decisive influence over two very influential individuals, who have been close to them since 1998-99 and who still meet them frequently in Delhi, Dubai, Singapore and London”. According to them, signing these agreements would “open the door” for Indian retaliation against ISIS in West Asia, should that constellation launch an attack in India because of the instigation of ISI elements.
However, there exists a substantial group of policymakers within North and South Blocks “who are wary of the transformational effect on India-US military ties should CISMOA, LSA and BECA get signed and who prevailed on (former Defence Minister) A.K. Antony to constantly put off a decision on the same”, a situation that does not appear to have changed much since the NDA took office. However, a senior officer pointed out that “Prime Minister Modi does not allow any influence to come between him and national interest”, and hence is optimistic that the PM himself will soon get into “decision mode on what retaliatory action needs to get taken in the case of an ISIS attack on an Indian city”, and what needs to be done in advance to ensure that such a response serves to inflict unbearable pain on the terror network. It needs to be repeated that the closer military to military cooperation between the US and India after the three India-US “foundation agreements” mentioned here are signed, would be a nightmare to General Raheel Sharif.
These sources say that they are “concerned at the underestimation by security agencies of the threat posed by ISIS (Daesh)”, as in their view, the number of ISIS sympathisers is “in the thousands and not the hundreds” in cities across India. However, according to them, “just like the juvenile home authorities, who believe that a dose of de-radicalisation therapy can cure the psychotic impulses of the killer of ‘India’s Daughter’ (and who will be a free man next month), the (security) agencies believe that doses of such psychological counselling will remove the poison from the minds of those believing in ISIS ideology and methods”. A mid-level official pointed out that “terrorists are experts in camouflage”, and therefore releasing known sympathisers of ISIS back into the general population is a mistake, “as such persons could be the nucleus for future modules”. They laugh at suggestions that local police units would keep an eye on such elements after release, pointing out that “there are too many in the lower levels of that service who are amenable to financial or other pressures” that would get them to look the other way. A former official pointed out that “the psychological remedies and mind cures for terrorists that are being recommended to our agencies by their western counterparts have by now proved ineffective in France, Germany and Belgium and have not even been tried in the US”.
These sources warn that the “danger signs of the success of ISI efforts at softening national resilience have multiplied”. They point to the 12,000 strong Kashmiri crowd assembled on 28 October in Budgam to publicly mourn Abu Qasim, an LeT terrorist from Bahawalpur in Pakistan, and say that “this is the first time in more than a decade that pro-Pakistan elements have come out in such force”. Another worrying development for these sources has been the election on 10 November of the killer of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh as Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest religious body of the Sikh community, and an inflammatory address by two Jathedars during Diwali, a never before event in the sometimes tortured history of the Punjab. They claim that since 2011, several individuals from the US, Canada and the UK, known to have funded the Khalistan movement during the 1980s, have visited Punjab repeatedly and made contact with elements believed to be vulnerable to their propaganda, and that “several such individuals are regular visitors to VVIP homes during their mischief-making trips” to the border state. They are also concerned about reports that the NSCN(K) is regrouping within Myanmar for fresh strikes, while “the Maoists have been quiet for a long time” and that “such a pause is usually the prelude to a major strike”. They also expressed concern over efforts at creating a distance between communities in India, with a mid-level official pointing out that “in parts, the Hindu-Muslim discourse has become as toxic as was the case in the early part of the 1930s”, when M.A. Jinnah was engaged in building up the Muslim League as a counter to the Congress party. Certainly the lunacy of some ultra-Hindu activists has not helped in stopping such a slippage in relations between two communities whose co-existence is core to the security of India. However, they are optimistic that in Prime Minister Modi, the country has a leader with the will to act against terrorists, rather than just posture or talk the way his predecessors have done, and are hopeful that the PM himself will lead efforts at ensuring that ISIS gets a fitting and debilitating response in their very lair, in case the terror constellation fulfills the wish of elements in the ISI and launches a mass terror attack on India.
They say that the “bad example” of token or absent retaliation set by Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have “emboldened terror elements throughout the globe”, and it is vital that the next time around, India under Narendra Modi retaliate “in a crushing manner” against the terror groups seeking to weaken the country, including “taking the fight to the territorial heart of the enemy”.
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