A previously unknown radical Islamist militant group, Lashkar-e-Qahar (Army of the Conquerors), claimed responsibility for the deadly series of bomb attacks in India on March 7 that struck Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan temple—one of Hinduism’s holiest sites in Hinduism’s holiest city—and Cantonment Railway Station. The attacks killed at least 14 people. A man introducing himself as Abdullah Jabbar, alias Abu Kahar, alleging to be the spokesman for Lashkar-e-Qahar, claimed responsibility for the attacks. He threatened more devastating attacks against India if Delhi did not put a halt to what he labeled as “atrocities” committed against Kashmiri Muslims. A staff member of the TV channel that received the call said that the caller spoke in Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent (Hindustan Times, March 9). One Indian police source refutes the claim of responsibility by the obscure group. Instead, he blames Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure, LeT), a group known to have links to al-Qaeda in South Asia.
Police officials say that the bombs at the temple and railway station were planted in pressure cookers and placed in bags. The perpetrators responsible for the 2005 attacks in Delhi also used pressures cookers to encase explosives. Preliminary investigations show that the timers used to detonate the explosives also resemble the timing devices used in previous attacks. An abandoned car described as a white Ambassador with false government license plates was found parked near the railway station. Importantly, an abandoned white Ambassador was also found near the site of last year’s attacks in Delhi (The Telegraph, March 9).
Just a few hours after the explosions, Indian security officials claimed to kill three members of LeT, including one believed to have planned the recent attacks (The Statesman, March 8). Investigators gained clues to the identities of the alleged attackers from the owner of the shop where the bags were purchased, as well as through discussions with a shopkeeper located near where one of the bombs was defused in another part of the city, including physical descriptions that led to the release of sketches of the suspects. According to Navneet Sikera, Varanasi police chief, the alleged attackers spoke broken Hindi with Kashmiri accents (Hindustan Times, March 8).
Local security officials are also in the process of scrutinizing video footage of a wedding ceremony that was taking place at the Sankat Mochan temple at the time of the attack (The Hindu, March 9). One source claims that security officials are focusing on a bearded man and a woman dressed in a blue sari, both of whom appear to be moving suspiciously among the wedding guests and seem to have left the area before the blasts. Police are investigating the possibility that the woman may have placed the bomb among the wedding gifts. They are also analyzing fingerprints on a magazine that appears to have been left behind by the man (The Telegraph, March 9).
LeT is regarded as one of the largest militant organizations operating out of Kashmir, although some sources allege that the group has split into numerous factions in recent years. Others argue that attacking outside Kashmir is uncharacteristic for the group, and instead point to another set of possible perpetrators, including Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which is also known to have links with al-Qaeda (Terrorism Monitor, November 17, 2005).
Unlike the LeT, which has traditionally been fixated on Kashmir, the JeM is known to operate a more expansive agenda including the targeting of Pakistani and Indian interests, making it a closer fit with al-Qaeda’s international scope of operations (Terrorism Monitor, November 17, 2005). The JeM has also advocated striking directly against U.S. interests in South Asia and beyond. At the same time, reports of LeT’s decline may have prompted former members to join other organizations with more ambitious agendas including attacking targets outside Kashmir.