THE WRITTEN WORD: Militant Groups in South Asia

By: Malladi Rama Rao is a New Delhi–based analyst and writer, and the editor of the South Asian Tribune.

A tragedy is a tragedy. Words are no compensation for the pain inflicted by terrorist bullets. Time can gradually offer some healing touch, however, and the reopened Nariman House in India's financial capital, Mumbai, provides a reality check on the events that took place there nearly six years ago.

Surinder K. Sharma and Anshuman Behera New Delhi: Pentagon Press, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) Hardcover: Indian Rupees 995/- 302 pages

Nariman House was the headquarters of the Jewish organization Chabad of Mumbai. The November 2008 assault on the six-storey building in a narrow South Mumbai lane left six people dead, including the center's directors, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivika. The couple had come to Mumbai in 2003 to serve the local Jewish community and through their dedication made the center one of the city's landmarks. When the Nariman House opened its doors once again on 26 August 2014, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L'lnyonei Chinuch, the Jewish group's education arm that helped rebuild the house, said, "We will not fight terror with AK 47s, nor with grenades. We will fight by spreading love. I had pledged rebuilding. It's a moment of tears as well as a moment of joy. We will continue their (the late couple's) legacy." 1

The bullet holes left in the walls where the Holtzbergs died serve as reminders of the tragedy that shook Nariman House and six other Mumbai landmarks, including the iconic Taj Hotel, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus, and the popular Leopold café, for nearly 59 hours from 26 to 29 November 2008. The perpetrators were 10 youth apparently connected to the Pakistani organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Enterprising TV journalists brought the horrendous mayhem they created "live" to every sitting room across the world. The assault left 166 people dead, 28 of whom were citizens of the United States, Britain, and nine other countries. Only one gunman, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive. But the real masterminds remain free in Pakistan because the police case registered against them under pressure from India and the United States has made no headway thus far. On the grounds that Ajmal Kasab was a non-state actor, Pakistan barely acknowledged the official notice of his death and refused to accept his body.2

A new book throws fresh light on the Pakistani organization, LeT, to which Kasab belonged and which allegedly prepared him and his cohort for the assault on Mumbai. Militant Groups in South Asia devotes 12 pages to LeT, which also styles itself as "Soldiers of the Pure." The authors are Surinder Kumar Sharma, who is an authority on the phenomenon of Islamic militancy in Pakistan and Kashmir with all its ramifications, and Anshuman Behera, a specialist in India's internal security who pays particular attention to religious fundamentalism and terrorism. Both are associated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a New Delhi–based think tank.

The bullet holes left in the walls where the Holtzbergs died serve as reminders of the tragedy that shook Nariman House and six other Mumbai landmarks.

In their introduction to the section on LeT, the authors note,

The Mumbai carnage of 26 November 2008 and subsequent designation of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT—soldiers of the pure) as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations (UN) and the Pakistani government's promises to control the organisation have not affected the activities of the terrorist body at all. On the contrary, the activities of the organisation have been intensified and extensified, while the UN and the Pakistan government remain silent. Pakistan's former President, General Parvez Musharraf, banned LeT in January 2002, along with four other militant groups. Within a few months of its ban, it reportedly renamed itself Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD—party of the calling) (167).

For those who are keeping tabs on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) phenomenon, the genesis, organizational structure, and footprint of LeT will be of interest, in addition to the way it changed its colors to survive the American ban. This is because, as Sharma and Behera make clear, LeT/JuD seeks to establish an Islamic state in South Asia by uniting all Muslim-majority regions in the countries that surround Pakistan: India, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. LeT/JuD further pledges "the liberation of Kashmir and the destruction of India" (169).

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, former professor of Islamiat (Islamic religious studies) at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, established the extremist group Markaz-ud Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI) on a sprawling campus near Lahore in 1986. MDI initially focused on assisting the US-inspired anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. After operating under the aegis of the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Al Barq for five years, Hafiz and his colleagues decided to form LeT "at the behest and with the support of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)" (169). The authors contend that most of the Islamist and jihadi groups working in South Asia are the foot soldiers of ISI, which is the security wing of the Pakistan Army. From this hypothesis flows their thesis:

The pre-Al Qaeda and pre-Taliban groups, like LeT, were created by state agencies in Pakistan for specific objectives, that is, to launch a protracted proxy war in Kashmir and also to help the Americans in their efforts to drive out the Soviet forces from Afghanistan through guerrilla tactics. These groups largely depended on state patronage and funds generously provided by the US and other Western nations, and also West Asian countries like Saudi Arabia, through a network of newly created banking organisations like the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.3 ... The jihadi groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region largely drew their cadres from madrassas and extremist religious groups in Pakistan which were amply supported by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate and the Pakistan Army. They relied primarily on the sentiments of religious "brotherhood," both within Pakistan and outside, and their association with the ISI to create a chain of madrassas and training grounds for recruiting, indoctrinating and training the so-called "freedom fighters" (Mujahideen) (Introduction, 3–4).

How many jihadi groups are operating in South Asia? It is difficult to arrive at a precise number because these groups, like amoebas, keep splitting, merging, dividing, and reshaping themselves, often because of internal personality clashes. Another reason is the operational requirements of the ISI, which in turn executes the strategic goals identified by the Army's General Headquarters (GHQ) Shura of Corps Commanders. According to data culled from the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there are more than 200 militant groups in South Asia today, but not all of them are currently active.4 Sharma and Behera have, therefore, chosen some 30 important groups for rigorous study, along with a few inactive groups identified on the basis of their potential to regroup and get back into action. A few smaller groups like Hizb-ul-Tahrir (HuT—Party of Liberation) are also mentioned because of their radical activities.

The book is divided into four parts.

Part A deals with two groups in Bangladesh: Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JuM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B).

Part B focuses on 18 groups that are operating in India. Nine of them, including Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, are located in Kashmir; five groups operate in the predominantly tribal northeast of India; three Islamist groups, such as Al Ummah, have a pan-India footprint; and one left-wing extremist outfit, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-M), is active in eastern, central, and southern India.

Part C is exclusively about extremist groups in Pakistan. It brings into sharp focus the activities of more than a dozen groups, including the Pakistan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, LeT, and al Qaeda (AQ), which have been operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere beyond the porous Pakistani borders. Radical Sunni groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba of Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) receive notice because they have drawn into their fold a large number of the mujahedeen who became unemployed after the Soviet flag was pulled down in Kabul in 1989.

Part D is devoted exclusively to Hizb-ul-Tahrir, which is steadily emerging as a new threat with its call to Muslim Ummah to unite and reestablish some version of the medieval Caliphate that once ruled across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by Sheikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, a Palestinian radical, HuT, unlike ISIS, is not an armed group. There is evidence that HuT cadres have infiltrated the Pakistan armed forces. It has also entrenched itself in Central Asia, particularly in the valuable and contested Fergana Valley, which is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Today, HuT has a presence in 50 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, the countries of the Middle East, and some Southeast Asian countries. In South Asia, it is active in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In 2003, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), the publisher of the present book (in association with Pantagon Press), undertook a study on terrorist groups in Kashmir titled Jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir: A Portrait Gallery.5 The present volume goes well beyond Kashmir; with data culled from open sources, it examines how terrorism has changed in the Indian subcontinent since 9/11. Sharma and Behera detail the cadre strength, recruitment and training methods, areas of operation and influence, alliances/networks, source of finances and weapons, and weapons in possession for each group, as well as its current status. Thus, their book serves as a kind of handbook on terrorist groups for the benefit of the initiated and uninitiated reader alike. In this short review, I can highlight only some of the more important groups and findings from this detailed work.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan Factor

Any study of terrorism in South Asia must undertake a critical examination of the socio-political environment in Pakistan. Sharma and Behera do so within the context of the groups in their study that are based primarily in Pakistan. The authors describe how many of these groups receive active or passive help from the agencies embedded within the Pakistani military and security establishment to carry out destabilizing activities in the region. This is "a suicidal strategy" according to the authors, but they believe it is perpetuated by Pakistan's perceived grievances vis-à-vis India. "Unfortunately, despite the recognition at very top levels that the blow-back effect of nurturing non-state terror outfits has been disastrous for Pakistan, there has not been any significant revision of this policy of nurturing terror groups for use against India" (2).

The authors' take on the group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Pakistan Taliban), and the Haqqani Network is also interesting.

The TTP has grown to be a serious threat to Pakistan as it has spread its network beyond FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area]. Its presence in Punjab and in Karachi has been a cause of serious concern to the security forces. ... On 28 December 2012, the TTP offered to hold talks with the government but put a condition that it would not lay down its arms until the implementation of their version of Sharia in the country. ... [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif, while talking to newly elected members of his party, said that "we should take the Taliban offer of talks seriously" (213).

On the Haqqani Network, which Washington sees as a major problem once US troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan, the authors make the following observation:

In spite of the US declaring the group as a terrorist organisation and the group's addition to the UN blacklist, there is no concrete proof that the Pakistan government has taken any action against the group. ...

It is unlikely that the sanctions will have a major effect on the militant activities of the outfit. This is because most of the funds collected are transferred through hawala (non-banking channels) or carried by human couriers. Further, the command of the network is now in the hands of Sirajuddin [Haqqani, son of the founder], who is believed to be one of the most strongly committed Islamists, unlike his father, whom the US has not added to the list of terrorists. ...

Among the various sections of Taliban, the HN is known to be the most conservative and opposed to any idea of reconciliation. ... In case of any reconciliation, the Haqqanis are likely to stay out and push for a military takeover of Kabul depending on the ground situation and if it suits, Pakistan intelligence agencies may help them in their military adventure (165).6

After the 9/11 attacks, the Haqqani Network became more important than any other militant group to the development and sustainment of AQ and the global jihad.

There is a long write-up on the Indian Mujahideen (IM) in the chapter on Islamist groups in India with a pan-India footprint.7 The IM has been held responsible for many terrorist strikes across India in cities like Jaipur, Ahmadabad, Pune, and Hyderabad since 2008. The United States has added the IM to the list of foreign terrorist organizations, as well as to the list of specially designated global terrorist entities.

Under the heading "Alliances and Network," the authors write, "The arrest of Abu Jundal and Fasih Mohammad from Saudi Arabia has revealed the IM connection with the Pakistan-based terrorist group, LeT" (130). Notwithstanding an element of fatigue in the post-9/11 war against terror, the authors note that India is benefitting from increasing international cooperation in counterterrorism operations.

The book has a mandatory chapter on AQ, given that the group's presence is strongly felt in South Asia. It has a foothold in some 100 other countries as well, either on its own or in league with a local group. AQ is the most organized, linked, and networked terrorist group in the world. Another important group that has close ties with AQ is LeT. "The LeT commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi's association with the AQ is very special as he is the brother-in-law of Abu Abdur Rahman, one of the deputies of bin Laden. In the immediate post-9/11 period, after NATO forces attacked Afghanistan, it was gathered by the intelligence agencies that new recruits of AQ were trained in the LeT training camps" (153–54).

Sharma and Behera share the general perception that the killing of Osama bin Laden by US security forces in 2011 "weakened the strength of the AQ central to a considerable extent" (156). Yet they hold the view that the allied AQ cells in various parts of the world have been getting stronger thanks to internet-based propaganda that has boosted operations, fundraising, and cadre intake from Western countries. The authors put the number of AQ-related websites at a whopping 5,600.

In the Indian sub-continent, the AQ is looking apparently weak. But it is not out of the scene. Militant outfits like the Haqqani Network, TTP, LeT and a few others are of major help to the AQ in sustaining its strength and position. As the US prepares to withdraw its security forces from Afghanistan in 2014, one should not be surprised to see the AQ becoming more active and strong in the years to come (156).

Because I began this review with the LeT attack on Mumbai, it is fair to revisit the chapter on Lashkar-e-Taiba. The LeT runs a number of training centers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Its objective is to have an office and a center in every district of Pakistan. Three other LeT-related nuggets from Sharma and Behera's book should be cause for alarm. First is LeT's linkages with Chechen militants. Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel leader, was trained at LeT's Khost (Afghanistan) camp in 1994; he later stayed at LeT's Muridke campus. Second, LeT is actively involved in supporting the Muslim resistance in Bosnia, while raising funds and building sleeper cells in countries such as Spain and Germany. Third, LeT has recruited several persons from the United States and trained them at its camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1989 (175–77).

"Unlike the Al Qaeda, which is solely dedicated to jihad, the LeT complements ‘armed struggle' with education—da'wah and jihad—a combination which makes the LeT a ‘long distance runner' in the field of jihad," write Sharma and Behera (169). "The outfit has more than 3,000 offices across Pakistan and over two dozen launching camps for militants along the Line of Control (in Kashmir)" (171).

The authors offer insights into the genesis, history, ideology, agenda, and leadership of each group covered in this book, to "make the reader aware of the socio-political conditions as well as the ideological motivation that gave rise to the group" (9). Clinical precision in the details and an absence of patriotic blinkers are a big plus to the narrative. My main criticism is that some tight editing could have enhanced its readability. Furthermore, with their tight focus on Pakistan-based and India-centric groups, the authors pushed the extremist group Hizb-ul-Tahrir literally to the last seven pages of the book. This radical party deserves closer examination because it is deadlier than ISIS and has declared Pakistan to be wilayah—a place suitable for the assumption of power. The authors may want to fill the gaps in their discussion of HuT in a subsequent edition of the book.

These minor criticisms aside, this book is an important contribution to the scholarship on regional terrorist groups, some of which have organic linkages with extremists in the Middle East, including ISIS. It should be very useful to counterterrorism experts and anyone who wishes to better understand the highly complex and increasingly volatile terrorist situation in South Asia.

About the Author(s):

Malladi Rama Rao is a New Delhi–based analyst and writer, and the editor of the South Asian Tribune.

  1. "26/11 Terror Attacks: Jewish Chabad House Reopens after Six Years," Outlook, 26 August 2014:
  2. Jayanth Jacob, "Stubborn Pak Refuses to Take Kasab's Body," Hindustan Times, 21 November 2012: ; and "Ajmal Kasab Hanged, Buried at Pune's Yerwada Jail," NDTV, 21 November 2012:
  3. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was shut down in the mid-1990s after it was found to be engaged in international money-laundering on a grand scale. 
  4. The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) collects data from across the region. Information on terrorist groups may be found on a per-country basis on the SATP website:  
  5. K. Santhanam Sreedhar and Manish Sudhir Saxena, Jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir: A Portrait Gallery (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2003). 
  6. See also Lars W. Lilleby, "The Haqqani Network: Pursuing Feuds under the Guise of Jihad," CTX 3, no. 4 (November 2013). 
  7. See also Bibhu Prasad Routray and Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, "The Indian Mujahideen: The New Face of Jihadist Consolidation," CTX 4, no. 2 (May 2014). 
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