By: Bruce Riedel
The suicide bomber who killed dozens near the Wagah crossing probably intended to blow himself up at the beating retreat ceremony, where he could have killed even more innocents. The attack is the latest indicator that the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan is audacious and wants to create a crisis between the two nuclear-weapons states in South Asia.
The Wagah crossing exemplifies both Indo-Pakistani competition — through the stylised ceremony at closing time — and cooperation — it is the only road crossing between the two countries. By striking at Wagah, a terror group would put New Delhi and Islamabad on a collision course. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would undoubtedly have called on Pakistan to crack down on terror infrastructure, including groups patronised by the Pakistan army, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. So far, three groups have claimed credit for the attack; all have links to al-Qaeda.
Fortunately, the Pakistan Rangers security perimeter at Wagah prevented a worse disaster. This is the second time this year that good Pakistani security measures have stopped a very dangerous high-profile terror attack. In September, alert guards at the Karachi navy base prevented a plot to hijack a frigate, the PNS Zulfiqar, and use it to attack American navy ships in the Arabian Sea. That plot was the work of al-Qaeda’s new franchise in South Asia.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born amir of al-Qaeda living in Pakistan, released a 55-minute video before the Karachi attack, announcing the formation of a new al-Qaeda organisation to “return Islam’s rule” to the Indian subcontinent. The videotape is his first this year and threatens a wave of jihadist attacks in India. The new group is called the Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya or Organisation for the Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent. Zawahiri named Asim Umar, who has previously written messages threatening India for al-Qaeda, as its leader. Last year, Umar reminded Muslims in India that they “ruled India for 800 years” and that it was time to return to Islamic rule and law in the subcontinent. This ideological fantasy of restoring the Mughal empire in India is not unique to al-Qaeda — other terror groups in Pakistan, like the LeT, share it.
Zawahiri has long been interested in India, and his propaganda since the 1990s has portrayed Hindu India as part of the Zionist-crusader conspiracy against Islam. He also has long-standing ties with the LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed. Al-Qaeda worked closely with the American, David Headley, who helped plan the 2008 attack on Mumbai for the LeT and a plot to attack Copenhagen in 2009, which was foiled when the FBI arrested him in Chicago.
This May, four heavily armed LeT terrorists attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, in an attempt to kill and capture Indian diplomats on the eve of the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The plot was foiled by the consulate’s bodyguards and Afghan security forces.
Modi is an attractive enemy for al-Qaeda. His controversial role in the riots that swept Gujarat in 2002 has made him a hated figure in Pakistan and among some Indian Muslims. Zawahiri made several references to Gujarat in his video message. The Indian government has rightly taken the threat seriously. Many Indians believe the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has been helping al-Qaeda for years and provides protection for Zawahiri’s hideout in Pakistan.
What is striking about the three attacks in Herat, Karachi and Wagah is the audacious and bold nature of the plots. Attacking an Indian consulate on the eve of Modi’s inauguration, which Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended, was an effort to create a major crisis at the very moment that Indian democracy was handing power over from one elected government to another. Had it succeeded, Modi and Sharif would have faced very tough decisions.
The Zulfiqar attack was even more fantastical. It may have been a mission impossible, but with the help of insiders in the Pakistan navy, al-Qaeda hoped to use the frigate’s cruise missiles to attack US navy ships working in the multinational counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The planning was certainly creative and audacious.
Now, the Wagah attack on the beating retreat ceremony and the only road crossing between India and Pakistan is another audacious plot. Striking at the symbol of national pride of two countries is a plan intended to go beyond just murder and mayhem. The plotters wanted to create a crisis and perhaps even a war.
The attacks come as the Pakistan army is engaged in its most serious campaign ever, to fight at least one part of the terror infrastructure in the country. After decades of patronising terror groups, the army is finally taking on the Pakistani Taliban’s multiple factions and cells in a serious way. While the ISI still patronises many other groups, the offensive is a step in the right direction. Attacks like Wagah are a consequence.
The extremists in al-Qaeda, the LeT and other jihadi groups are shifting their focus to the east after years of fighting in Afghanistan. The drawdown of Nato forces in Afghanistan has removed their favourite target in the west. India has known years of extremist attacks, of course, but it is likely to be even more in the crosshairs of the global jihad in the years ahead.
Which makes Wagah all the more important. What India and Pakistan urgently need is a dozen more crossing sites like Wagah, where Indians and Pakistanis can cross the border to trade and socialise. The more interaction between average Indians and Pakistanis, the less likely that another terror attack could create confrontation and war. Modi and Sharif should respond to the audacious plots of the jihadi Frankenstein with their own bold plans to open the border between India and Pakistan, expand trade and communications links and build a stable and prosperous subcontinent for all its peoples. A dozen beating retreat ceremonies every night would be the right answer to Zawahiri.
The writer is director of the Intelligence Project, Brookings Institution, US