Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley's testimony could cast light on who carried out the bombings in the city — and why.
Four weeks after a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone ended his life on May 21, 2010, Said al-Masri's spoke to his followers from the grave, through a posthumous audio tape his followers posted online.
“I bring you the good tidings,” al-Qaeda's third-in-command declared, “that last February's India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries — a fact that the enemy tried to hide — and close to 20 Jews were killed in the operation, a majority of them from their so-called statelet, Israel.”
“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 correct name] in Kashmir, under the command of Commander Illyas Kashmiri, may Allah preserve him.”
From the text, it is clear that al-Masri had little detailed knowledge of the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune, where 17 were killed in a still-unsolved bombing in 2010 — the second of the five urban terror attacks which preceded Wednesday's horrific carnage in Mumbai.
Pune is not, of course, to the west of New Delhi; it is not Jewish-owned; no Israelis were killed there.
But al-Masri words — the first explicit al-Qaeda claim of responsibility for an attack on India — are unlikely to have been inventions: the Egyptian Islamist was a veteran of the jihadist movement, having served as al-Qaeda's finance chief and as a ranking member of its legal committee. He was senior enough to have been one of just three commanders — along with Sheikh Mahfouz Ould al-Walid and Saif al-Adl — to dispute the wisdom of bin Laden's 9/11 plans.
In 2008, Indian investigators dismantled much of the infrastructure of the Indian Mujahideen — a Lashkar-e-Taiba affiliate drawn from the jihadist fringes of the proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India, which carried out an urban bombing campaign that claimed hundreds of lives after 2005. More than 70 of its operatives were arrested.
Key leaders — among them the network's top organiser, Abdul Subhan Qureshi, its ideologue Iqbal Shahbandri, operational commander Riyaz Shahbandri and bomb-maker Ahmed Yasin Siddibapa — escaped the police, though. Sheltered, India's intelligence service believe, in Karachi and Kathmandu, the leadership sought to rebuild the shattered group. But, after Pakistan came under intense international pressure in the wake of 26/11,
From 2010, though, the attacks resumed again — building up to Wednesday's bombings. India's intelligence services believe that al-Masri's words may hold out clues to what is going on. Evidence for this proposition lies in the worlds of a man the world has come to know well in recent weeks.
The twin Karachi projects
Last summer, the Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, who carried out surveillance operations for the Lashkar before the 26/11 attacks, provided India's National Intelligence Agency (NIA) a detailed insider account of Pakistan-based jihadist operations targeting the country.
Headley told the NIA there were in fact two distinct, competing jihadist projects targeting India, both headquartered out of the port city of Karachi. The Lashkar itself ran one, using dozens of cadre recruited from the ranks of Islamist groups in India.
The second, NIA documents reveal him to have said, was run by a retired Pakistani military officer called Abdur Rehman Hashim, also known by the code name “Pasha.” This second group of Indian jihadists, Headley told the NIA, was a “personal set-up of Pasha, and it is independent of the LET.”
Major Hashim, according to Headley's account, had served with the 6 Baloch Regiment until 2002, when he refused to lead his troops into combat against Taliban fleeing from the Tora Bora complex in Afghanistan — the last stronghold of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in that country.
For his actions, Major Hashim was demoted to captain, resigned from service, and joined the Lashkar as an instructor — training, among others, the men who attacked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's rally in Srinagar in 2004.
But Major Hashim later fell out with the Lashkar — incensed, like many jihadists, by its refusal to take on the Pakistani state and western forces in Afghanistan. Following the 2007 siege of jihadists hold up inside Islamabad's Lal Masjid in 2007, Headley was to recall, Major Hashim even contemplated assassinating Pakistan's former President, General Pervez Musharraf.
The Lal Masjid events, Headley recalled, sparked off an ideological war, leading to “splits in many of the outfits.” The Lashkar's top military commander, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, even faced a “serious problem in holding [on to] the LeT [cadre] and convincing them to fight for Kashmir and against India.”
In spite of energetic efforts by Lakhvi and the ISI, Headley said, the “aggression and commitment shown to jihad by the several splinter groups influenced many committed fighters to leave Kashmir-centric outfits and join the Taliban.” “I understand this compelled the LeT to consider a spectacular strike in India,” Headley surmised. Headley himself turned to Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, a former jihad volunteer with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen who fought in Kashmir before forming the al-Qaeda affiliated Brigade 313, to fund his plans to execute a bombing in Copenhagen. He railed against Lashkar, who backed out of the project after initially supporting it, of having “rotten guts.”
Major Hashim was eventually arrested by Pakistani investigators in October, 2009 — but was never brought to trial. Pakistan's government has been less than forthcoming, though, about what it found out about his India networks.
Headley said, for example, that the Mumbai assault team training in Muridke initially included an “Indian, possibly from Maharashtra.” The Indian, “was finally dropped as Sajid [Mir] wanted to use him elsewhere.” He also said another Maharashtra resident, who used the alias Abu Ajmal, trained with him at the Lashkar's intelligence-tradecraft in August, 2003. Both figures are of considerable interest to 26/11 investigators, since at least one of the men who guided the attack team to its targets using a voice-over-internet line had a strong Mumbai accent. Pakistan's own investigation into the attacks, though, has provided no insight into who he might be.
The Pakistani-American Lashkar operative also met with several men involved in earlier attacks in India: among them “Abu Hamza,” who along with Uttar Pradesh resident Sabahuddin Ahmad, executed the shoot-out at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 2005.
Little is known about operations these men are now engaged in — or the activities of other Lashkar-linked Indian jihadists like Fayyaz Kagzi, Rahil Sheikh, and Zabiuddin Ansari involved in earlier terror operations.
In January, the fugitive Mumbai organised crime figure Rajendra Nikhalje claimed to have assassinated the Indian Mujahideen's Riyaz Shahbandri in Karachi — an enterprise intended to bolster his popular credentials as a nationalist. Photographs he released to police as evidence of the killing, though, turned out to have digitally manipulated, casting doubt on the claim.
Al-Masri's 2010 audiotape, though, gives at least some reason to believe some Indian jihadists have gone the same way as Headley — losing patience with the Lashkar, and its apparent unwillingness to act on its promise to back transnational jihadist attacks, and turning to al-Qaeda for support.
In April 2006, bin-Laden himself spoke of a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims.” His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned Pakistanis in September 2003 that General Pervez Musharraf was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.” In the wake of 26/11, al-Masri himself released a statement warning India of attacks if it struck against Pakistan.
Locked in a competition for legitimacy as authentic representatives of the jihadist movement in Pakistan, both the Lashkar and al-Qaeda have reason to escalate their operations against India. That could mean the five attacks seen since 26/11 could prove precursors to further horrors.