TTP plot illustrates growing threat from al-Qaeda-linked group, India fears

France's intelligence services had warned of an imminent plot to attack the Indian embassy in Paris late last year, highly placed government sources have told The Hindu.

The warnings, the sources said, were issued on the basis of French intelligence surveillance of Pakistan-trained jihadist Mohammed Merah — raising the prospect that information may have long been available on the lethal intent of the man who killed seven people, including three children.

Merah was killed in a dramatic 32-hour standoff with police at his Toulouse apartment. In a videotape found in the apartment, Merah can be seen holding a little girl by her hair, calmly reloading his gun before firing. In another, he tells a soldier: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.”

Leading Paris-based newspaper Le Monde reported on Thursday that Merah told French police he had been tasked to attack by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. Indian government sources confirmed that embassy security had been tightened in the wake of the French warnings, possibly defeating the plot.

Evidence of Merah's jihadist links had, interestingly, long been available to France. In 2010, Merah was handed over to France after being captured while fighting with jihadists around Kandahar. Yet, he never faced criminal proceedings, and was able to return to Pakistan in 2011— suggesting France's intelligence services allowed him to operate in the hope of gathering more information.

Merah's family links to the jihadist movement were also well known. His step-brother, Sabri Essid, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2009, for running a safehouse for the al-Qaeda in Damascus. Brandeis University scholar Jytte Klaussen described Merah himself as “practically a prince in French jihadist circles.”

Last month, Le Nouvel Observateur reported that the Renseignements Generaux — the police-led counter-terrorism service — had determined, in 2006, that Merah was a “member of the radical Islamist movement likely to travel abroad and provide logistics assistance to extremist militants.” However, the newspaper said, the records were lost in 2008, when the new Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interieur took over the Renseignements Generaux.

French police have, however, confirmed that Merah, questioned after his November, 2011 visit to Pakistan, provided investigators with photographs that persuaded them his visit was tourism-focussed.

More than 80 French nationals are believed to be training in TTP camps around Miranshah and Datta Khel.

New Delhi's intelligence services say Merah's plan to target the embassy in Paris flags the growing threat to India from the al-Qaeda-linked TTP. In 2010, the al-Qaeda's media wing released a posthumous audio message from top jihadist commander Said al-Masri, claiming responsibility for the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune — the first of its kind by the jihadist group.

al-Masri said “the person who carried out this operation was a heroic soldier from the ‘Soldiers of the Sacrifice Brigade,' which is one of the brigades of Qaedat al-Jihad [the al-Qaeda's formal name] in Kashmir.”

Earlier, the TTP despatched Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley to stage an attack on the offices of the Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen — a newspaper that had incensed many Muslims across the world by publishing cartoons they felt were blasphemous. Headley, convicted for his role in 26/11 Mumbai attacks, joined the TTP after the Lashkar-e-Taiba refused to back his plans for spectacular operations against targets in Europe and the United States.

In an internet post, Headley said large numbers of foreign jihadists were training at TTP camps: “The bazaar,” he wrote, “is bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, some from European Union countries and, of course, our Arab brothers.”

High-level al-Qaeda leaders may be adding India to their list of targets as a means of building their legitimacy among Islamists in Pakistan. In April, 2006, Osama bin-Laden himself spoke of a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims.” His successors, Ayman al-Zawahiri warned Pakistanis in September, 2003 that their former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.” In a video released in January, the TTP described the Pakistan army as “apostates since they act on the directives of infidel forces and have been killing mujahideen.”

For its part, jihadists allied to the Pakistani State have sharpened their anti-western polemic in an effort to stem the flow of disgruntled operatives such as Headley. In April, Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed called on Muslims to “come to us; we will show you the meaning of jihad.” “This is the same jihad which caused the Soviet Union to break and now America is failing because of it,” he said.

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