Politics & Policy

Been Here Before

Familiar faces of terror.

With at least 174 dead and 485 injured, Mumbai has again been the victim of mass terror. The attack, which consisted of seven bombs detonating within an 11-minute span on the mass transit system, has shades of London a year ago, and the Madrid attacks of 2003. But for Mumbai, there are also echoes of Black Friday and the inter-communal violence that preceded it.

#ad#On March 12, 1993, on what is now known as Black Friday, 11 bombs detonated across the city — including at the new stock exchange. The death toll was 257, with over 1400 injured. The investigation led Indian security to Mumbai crime lord Dawood Ibrahim and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The ISI is frequently linked to radical Islamist groups, particularly in Kashmir, where they are a proxy against India. In December 1992, Hindu extremists had destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. This was follwed by waves of Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai in which over 900 people were killed — most of them Muslim.

Muslim-Hindu relations in India remain tense. There have been waves of deadly communal violence since the 1993 bombings. There is a danger that this bombing could spark further violence. There is also the looming specter of the radicalization of India’s Muslim population. Although they are only 12 percent of the nation’s population, the 140 million Muslims of India are the second largest Muslim population in the world. If even a tiny percentage of them are becoming radicalized they could be a tremendous danger to India and beyond.

India’s relationship with its Muslim minority is different from the Europeans. India’s Muslims have been present for centuries, and their equal presence as citizens is essential to India’s vision of itself as a secular democratic state. Unraveling these values could be very damaging to India’s democracy.

The March 1993 bombings cast another shadow over yesterday’s horrors. The Indian government argues that the bombing was organized by Dawood Ibrahim, with support from the ISI in order to retaliate for the destruction of the Mosque and the related violence. The Indians claim that Ibrahim is now based in Karachi and have been pressing the Pakistanis to turn over Ibrahim. The Pakistanis insist that they do not know anything about Ibrahim’s whereabouts. The U.S. Treasury Department declared him a terrorist in October 2003 – in part because India informed the U.S. that Ibrahim was linked to Pakistani terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and possibly to al-Qaeda.

Since the U.S. declaration, Ibrahim hass kept a relatively low profile, until June, when Pakistan’s The News reported that Ibrahim had plastic surgery and had relocated to either Pakistan’s tribal areas (where OBL and Zawahiri are believed to be hiding) or to Afghanistan. The report cited that Ibrahim was concerned about a rival’s plot to assassinate him.

Renowned Indian analyst, B. Raman of the South Asia Analysis Group wrote, three days ago, that his sources told him that the shift was due to ISI concerns that Ibrahim might accidentally reveal his presence in Karachi and embarrass Pakistan.

It is tough to evaluate the veracity of this information, but Raman notes that Ibrahim had been out of the public view for some time. That he resurfaces again, just before this recent bloody attack – so similar to his previous operation 13 years ago – seems like more than a coincidence. If Ibrahim were involved, it is unlikely that he would be acting as a free agent…

Pakistan has much to gain from greater Muslim-Hindu violence in India. Pakistan defines itself as the homeland of the Indian subcontinent’s Muslim population — a view fundamentally at odds with India’s self-definition as a secular democracy. India’s Muslim minority, which is larger than the entire population of Pakistan, undermines Pakistan’s position. Violence against Muslim’s in India strengthens Pakistan’s claims that Muslims cannot live under Hindu rule and need protection from them.

Time and again in the history of terrorism, the attack itself is not where the greatest damage to the fabric of free societies occurs — it is in the society’s reactions. If the bombings provoke a wave of new communal violence that begins to shred India’s patchwork of ethnic and religious identities then the terrorists of Mumbai will have won.

— Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations, and he researches terrorism at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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