Terrorist violence has once more ripped through Mumbai, India’s largest city and its commercial hub. Three bomb blasts, exploding over a span of 30 minutes in central and south Mumbai during the evening rush hour, yesterday killed at least 18 people and injured more than 130. The bombings are the latest in a string of major terror attacks in Mumbai over the last two decades, including, most recently, the brazen November 2008 strike by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based jihadi group, that resulted in more than 160 deaths and is often regarded as “India’s 9/11.” In one way or another, all of these attacks have a connection with Pakistan, and an immediate concern is whether yesterday’s bombings will increase tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, perhaps plunging South Asia into another dangerous military crisis.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks and Indian authorities have not named any culprits. Based on present evidence, the most likely possibility points toward home-grown Islamic extremists, specifically the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Believed to be the latest incarnation of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), IM has taken credit for a gruesome litany of bomb attacks over the last few years: the February 2010 bombing in Pune that killed 17 people; the September 2008 series of five blasts in New Delhi that killed over 30; the July 2008 series of 21 explosions that killed 56 in Ahmedabad; and the May 2008 series of nine blasts that killed over 60 in Jaipur. SIMI is also implicated in the July 2006 train bombings in Mumbai that killed over 200 and in the September 2006 series of blasts in Malegaon that resulted in 37 deaths.
IM has sworn to avenge the deaths of some 800 Muslims in the February 2002 communal riots that occurred in Gujarat state, an event that remains a subject of acute controversy. At least two of the explosions in Mumbai appeared to target the city’s prosperous Gujarati community. Importantly, a day before the blasts, police in Mumbai arrested two alleged IM operatives who had supplied the stolen cars used in the blasts in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, as well as in a number of failed bombing attempts in the Gujarati city of Surat a few days later. According to media reports, Indian intelligence had gotten wind of a possible IM strike that was to occur this month, and the ingredients of yesterday’s blasts are similar to earlier bombings associated with IM. It might also be noted that the Mumbai bombings fall two days after the fifth anniversary (July 11) of the 2006 train attacks.
IM and SIMI have been linked to the so-called “Karachi Project” (see analysis here and here), an anti-Indian confederacy involving Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, LeT and Indian jihadis. Important light was thrown on the project by FBI interrogations of David Coleman Headley (formerly known as Daood Sayed Gilani), a Pakistani-American who pled guilty in March 2010 to charges of conspiring with LeT in the 2008 Mumbai attack.
A second, though less likely, possibility exists that the Mumbai explosions were the direct handiwork of LeT itself. The group is one of the largest and most active jihadi networks in South Asia, and U.S. officials have even claimed that it is capable of attacks in the United States. LeT was behind the commando-style assaults against the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001 and in Mumbai in November 2008, as well as the March 2006 bombings that killed some 30 people in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. Intriguingly, yesterday’s explosions occurred on the birthday of Ajmal Kasab, the lone LeT operative captured in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai and who is now awaiting a death sentence in an Indian prison. (There was a great deal of media confusion yesterday regarding the actual date of Kasab’s birth, but the Washington Post reports that it is indeed July 13.)
A third, even more unlikely, possibility is that Mumbai’s Muslim-dominated criminal underworld was behind the blasts. Mafia don Dawood Ibrahim and his lieutenant Tiger Memon are accused of orchestrating the March 1993 series of 13 bomb explosions in the city that killed 257 people and injured over 700. The blasts are thought to be in retaliation for the Hindu-Muslim riots that occurred in Mumbai in the wake of the December 1992 demolition by a Hindu mob of a Mughal-era mosque in northern India. Ibrahim and Memon are currently believed to be residing in Karachi, sheltered by ISI.
Whichever of these possibilities plays out, Pakistan will be implicated in some manner. So, what’s the likely fallout for India-Pakistan relations? And what is the probability that New Delhi could launch retaliatory military action?
The December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament triggered a prolonged military standoff between India and Pakistan in which outright war seemed nigh and the possibility of nuclear weapons use appeared ominous. (Concerned that tensions were reaching a boiling point in June 2002, Washington and London actually evacuated their embassies in New Delhi.) In the wake of this crisis, the Indian army formulated the “Cold Start” doctrine, which emphasizes the threat of large-scale but calibrated punitive actions in order to deter Pakistani support for terrorist attacks, and has subsequently poured major resources into operationalizing the concept. And most recently, following the U.S. commando assault against Osama bin Laden, Indian military leaders threatened to undertake their own cross-border raids.
Yet, there is little chance that New Delhi will use yesterday’s attacks as an opportunity to strike out violently at Pakistan. As earlier posts argue (read here and here), India lacks the military capacity and political appetite for retaliatory operations. Even as the Indian army and air force chiefs were rattling sabers in the wake of the Abbottabad raid, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dismissed calls for strikes against terror camps in Pakistan as “a line of thinking mired in a mindset that is neither realistic nor productive.”
Another factor that will bear on Indian decision-making is that Pakistan-based jihadis have now slipped beyond Islamabad’s control and are pursuing their own unsanctioned agendas. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is an informal adviser to the Obama administration on South Asia policy, raises the possibility that the December 2001 attack upon the Indian Parliament was a jihadi effort to divert Pakistani military attention from the Afghan border precisely when bin Laden and hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were fleeing out of Afghanistan following the Taliban regime’s demise. Likewise, the November 2008 Mumbai assault may have been aimed at derailing the intensive back-channel peace negotiations that India and Pakistan undertook in 2004-07, which reportedly came tantalizing close to fruition. Similarly, yesterday’s bombings could have been an attempt to disrupt the recently revived peace process between New Delhi and Islamabad.
A final factor inhibiting Indian desires for military vengeance is what Colin Powell a decade ago termed the “Pottery Barn Rule” of foreign policy: If you break it, you own it. Given the infirmities of Pakistani state institutions, military action may inadvertently bring about their very collapse, begetting a maelstrom of chaos and violence that leaves Indian security even worse off than before.
A more probable casualty from yesterday’s bombings, especially if Pakistan’s hand can be demonstrably proven, is the just-restarted diplomatic negotiations between the two countries. Prime Minister Singh has waged a lonely battle inside his Cabinet in favor of reaching out to Islamabad. The next round of talks is scheduled to take place shortly but political pressure may force the Singh government to postpone them.