Photo Credit: Carnegie Endowment
By Ian Churchill, Columnist
On February 20, 2016, four militants attacked an Indian army parliamentary convoy transiting Pampore, a city in Indian-administered Kashmir. After the initial assault, the attackers occupied a nearby government facility, using automatic weapons and grenades to keep the Indian army at bay during a protracted two-day siege that ended when Indian special forces stormed the building. Six Indian soldiers were killed and thirteen were wounded over the course of the Pampore standoff, in addition to all four militants. The attack bears the hallmarks of a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operation,[i] a Pakistani terrorist organization infamous for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 and wounded over 300 in the Indian tourism and financial hub. If true, it represents the most recent attempt by the jihadist group to destabilize the region for their benefit.
Though LeT hasn’t claimed responsibility, the Pampore operation fits with its modus operandi and advances several of its key interests. Geopolitically, the attack enflames tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, preventing progress towards a diplomatic solution that could short-circuit LeT’s ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Indian subcontinent. More immediately, the operation’s success shores up the group’s legitimacy and dedication to jihad in Kashmir, which has come under fire from other terrorist groups, including most prominently the Islamic State.[ii]
The intractable conflict in Kashmir, the source of three Indo-Pakistani wars, stretches back to the partition of British Raj in 1947. Both India and Pakistan claim sovereignty over the strategic territory at least in part to safeguard access to the vital Indus river system, since nearly all of Pakistan and parts of India are highly dependent on the Indus and its tributaries for freshwater.[iii] Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attempted to improve Indo-Pakistani relations, with talks between the respective foreign ministers scheduled to take place on January 15, 2016. The talks were derailed, however, by a separate attack in Pathankot, India by a different Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) on January 2nd.[iv] Both JeM and LeT have close ties with the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)[v], and thus the attacks by both groups may represent efforts by disgruntled elements of Pakistani security forces attempting to thwart normalization between India and Pakistan.[vi] Even without buy-in from ISI, LeT’s attack in Pampore effectively ratchets up tensions between India and Pakistan, an essential precondition that allows the group to continue its jihad to ‘liberate’ Kashmir’s majority Muslim population from Indian ‘occupation.’
In addition to serving its broader strategic aims, LeT’s Pampore attack also helps the group deflect criticism from competing jihadist outfits. In a recent issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) accused LeT and its Amir Hafiz Saeed of being “apostate agents” of Pakistan, adjusting their tempo of operations in Kashmir in accordance with the wishes and needs of the Pakistani state.[vii] This criticism is biting because it is essentially true; Pakistan’s ISI is widely believed to exercise sufficient influence over the group to “modulate its terrorist activities vis-a-vis India.”[viii] In the marketplace for jihadi ideas, funds, and recruits, LeT must respond to this critique in order to maintain its internal cohesion and minimize defections.[ix] LeT’s leader Saeed did just that during a colorful sermon praising the Pampore attacks, in which he declared “The United States and India conspired to support new militant groups in Pakistan, including the Islamic State (ISIS), so that people will join these groups. But the sacrifice of mujahideens in Kashmir struck down this conspiracy to divert militants from jihad in Kashmir.”[x]
Whether jihadis will accept Saeed’s claim that the Islamic State is the product of a joint American and Indian conspiracy to divide Pakistani Muslims and overthrow the government remains to be seen. Regardless, the attack in Pampore allows LeT to play the spoiler in Indo-Pakistani efforts at reconciliation, preserving for itself a favorable operational climate in Kashmir for future attacks, while simultaneously giving the group ammunition to respond to its critics in a climate of competing jihadi terrorist groups and ideologies. The derailment of the January 15th talks between Pakistan and India marks the third failure at rapprochement since Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014.[xi] Terrorist attacks such as those in Pampore and Pathankot have proven effective and will continue in Kashmir and India, undermining hopes of normalization between Dehli and Islamabad for the foreseeable future.
[i] Indian intelligence believes Lashkar-e-Taiba is behind the attack in Pampore, an assessment that comports with the groups history of “fidayeen” style attacks, in which martyrdom is considered preferential to capture. Shweta Desai, “Now, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed praises Pampore terrorists, leads prayers,” dna, February 28, 2016, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-let-chief-praises-pampore-terrorists-leads-prayers-2183264.
[ii] Rohan Joshi, “Is a Clash Between Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISIS Imminent?,” Business Standard, December 15, 2015, http://www.business-standard.com/article/punditry/is-a-clash-between-lashkar-e-taiba-and-isis-imminent-115121500156_1.html.
[iii] Ayesha Siddiqi, “Kashmir and the Politics of Water,” Al Jazeera, August 1, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/kashmirtheforgottenconflict/2011/07/20117812154478992.html.
[iv] Sanjay Kumar, “Talks Between India and Pakistan Postponed Until the ‘Near Future’,” The Diplomat, January 15, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/talks-between-india-and-pakistan-postponed-until-the-near-future/.
[v] Christine Fair, “Lashkar-e-Tayiba and the Pakistani State,” Survival, 53:4, 29-52, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2011.603561.
[vi] “For his part, Muneeb praised Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who is believed to have pushed back against the Prime Minister’s efforts at normalisation with India.” Praveen Swami, “After 15-year Silence, Jamaat-ud-Dawa Backs Lashkar, Tweets Praise for Pampore Attack,” The Indian Express, February 23, 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/after-15-year-silence-jamaat-ud-dawa-backs-lashkar-tweets-praise-for-attack-in-pampore/.
[vii] Dabiq, The Clarion Project, No. 13, 53. http://www.clarionproject.org/factsheets-files/Issue-13-the-rafidah.pdf.
[viii] Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 267.
[ix] Some LeT militants have defected to the Islamic State’s “Khurasan Provice,” which seeks to expand the Islamic State’s reach into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arif Rafiq, “What Happened to ISIS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Province?,” The Diplomat, February 2, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/what-happened-to-isiss-afghanistan-pakistan-province/.
[x] Desai, “Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed praises Pampore terrorists.”
[xi] Kumar, “Talks Between India and Pakistan Postponed”