Reports of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists infiltrating southern India to perpetrate major attacks on airports in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in early November propelled India’s security and intelligence establishments into a state of high alert. Security was further stepped up at airports across India following a possible hijack alert issued by the FBI on November 11. The FBI told Indian intelligence agencies about an intercepted e-mail that detailed plans to hijack a plane flying to the United States or to Europe from India. As a result, flights out of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore have been put under extra security checks for an indefinite period of time (Times of India, November 12).
Separately, a written letter received by the Trichy airport authority prior to the FBI alert indicates that 10 members of al-Qaeda’s suicide squad are planning to bomb the Chennai airport. The anonymous letter also added that operatives have penetrated airports in Chennai, Trichy, Madurai, Coimbatore and Kerala. According to the letter, which was written in the Tamil language, the operatives are plotting to break the security cordon at the airports and carry out attacks using sophisticated explosive devices such as suicide car bombs (Business Standard, November 10). The most intriguing aspect of the letter, however, was that it threatened that the purported attack would be similar to the one launched against an airport in Thailand, although it is not known to which attack the letter referred. Also, it is not clear why the letter was written in the Tamil language if it indeed was produced by al-Qaeda operatives. This could mean either that the group is actually composed of Tamil separatists or that al-Qaeda is trying to convey that it has local operatives in South Asia.
It is not surprising that Islamist terrorists are trying to Indianize their agenda and are not restricting themselves to attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Until now, al-Qaeda’s presence in India has been shrouded in mystery. Certainly, its influence is evident in such outfits as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and al-Badr. Dhiren Barot, a Hindu immigrant to the United Kingdom who converted to Islam and followed al-Qaeda’s footprints, is the best example of al-Qaeda’s influence in India. Mohammed Fahad, one of two suspected al-Badr militants arrested in Mysore city, recently revealed his intention to undergo training to fly jetliners at a Bangalore flight school. One could imagine the situation if a domestic militant learns these formulated al-Qaeda tactics. India, however, has always been on the radar screen of al-Qaeda because it is a Hindu state and is criticized for its involvement in Kashmir. Immediately after the Mumbai train blasts, a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda militant, Abu al-Hadeed, said over a telephone call to a Srinagar-based news agency that al-Qaeda had created a wing in Kashmir and that “Abu Abdur Rehman Ansari” is the chief commander in the state. In his call, al-Hadeed appealed to all Muslims in India to fight for freedom and for Islam (The Tribune, July 15). Although the intelligence agencies have reportedly found the claim to be false, they could not confirm whether al-Qaeda was offering moral or material support to Kashmiri militants.
A recent disclosure by the Indian security forces revealed that al-Qaeda affiliated militant groups are devising novel, radical and spectacular plots against India’s critical infrastructure. The synchronized July 11 Mumbai train bombings carry the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style operation. Again, in late August, reports of two armed militants breaching security at the Kakarapar nuclear power complex in Gujarat prompted India’s nuclear facilities to be placed under heightened security measures (Terrorism Focus, September 12). While the threat of al-Qaeda’s presence in India looms large with every passing day, India’s security agencies are grappling with the new dangers posed by local Islamist terrorists emboldened by al-Qaeda’s tactics and ideology.