Did the US armtwist Saudi into action?

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Is the deportation of Abu Jundal and the arrest of  Fasih Muhammad indicative of a new Saudi-Indo-US triad against terrorism? Or is it making the most of an opportune moment, asks Brijesh Pandey

India’s 9/11 Outside the Taj Mahal Hotel during the 26/11 attacks
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

THE NEWS of Zabiuddin Ansari’s arrest took many in the diplomatic and intelligence circles by surprise. One of the key players of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal was arrested by the Saudi Arabian authorities and handed over to India on 21 June 2012. Jundal was living in Saudi Arabia for the past three years on a Pakistani passport. A day after the arrest was hailed as a diplomatic victory for India, details emerged on how Indian intelligence agencies that had Jundal on their radar for over a year dealt with the Saudi authorities and how it was only after the DNA test that he was finally handed over to India.

Fasih Mohammed, an alleged Indian Mujahideen operative, has also been arrested in Saudi Arabia. Fasih is wanted in connection with the April 2007 Chinnaswamy Stadium blasts in Bengaluru. An engineer by profession, he was reportedly detained on 13 May 2012 by a joint team of Indian and Saudi officials for his alleged terror links. His wife filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court of India, claiming that Indian authorities had illegally detained her husband. The Indian government that was initially tight-lipped, later admitted that the Saudi Police had indeed detained Fasih, and that he would soon be deported to India.

In a terror-torn region, the two arrests made several heads turn. The first question on everyone’s mind was ‘what made Saudi Arabia ditch Pakistan?’ It is an open secret that Pakistan has excellent relationship with Saudi Arabia and the latter acknowledges it as a ‘brother’. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has strong links with the Saudi intelligence agencies and the Pakistani diaspora in Riyadh has funded the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) for long.

So what went wrong? Why would Saudi Arabia risk being seen as helping India? Which begged the bigger question — Is Saudi Arabia India’s new ‘strategic partner’ in its fight against terror or were these arrests the result of US pressure tactics against Pakistan?

Experts refuse to give too much credence to the recent developments and say that it is too early to claim that Saudi Arabia is cooperating with India. Counter terrorism expert Ajai Sahni credits it to American pressure tactics. “The US pressure on Saudi Arabia played a very important role in these two cases,” says Sahni. “Saudi Arabia is very closely linked to America for its own internal security, and is very sensitive to the mood in Washington. The mood in Washington currently is very ugly as far as Pakistan is concerned. Saudi understands that it cannot continue playing a double game. Now the Americans are going to use far more punitive measures against Pakistan and those who are seen to be actively cooperating with Pakistan.”

However, this new, increased Indo- America cooperation should not be seen as a harbinger of a new chapter in the fight against terror. The definition of terrorism underwent a crucial change post 9/11. The biggest shock for America was that its boundaries could now be breached. Sadly, the change was also myopic when it came to addressing India’s legitimate security concerns. The US continued believing that if they could handle the ‘bad’ Taliban, the ‘good’ one (not overtly inimical to US interests) would not be much of a threat.

Many considered the 2008 Mumbai attacks as an act of war comparable to the 9/11 attacks. The audacity with which the strike was carried out was cruder than any terror attack seen so far.

By getting Saudi Arabia to deport Abu Jundal, the US has further embarrassed Pakistan and pushed it to a corner

Hard talk US Secretary of Defence Leon
Panetta; (below) Abu JundalPhoto: (top) AFP

Following the Mumbai attacks the security establishment in India was hopeful that the US would pressurise the Pakistani government to walk-the-talk and ensure that the perpetrators of 26/11 be handed over to India. As time went by, India realised that when it came to terror in South-East Asia, the US would look through the prism of Af-Pak and its own concerns in the region.

But US-Pak ties started deteriorating with instances of several Pakistani army men losing their lives in a drone attack and the killing of Osama Bin Laden near Islamabad. The US government realised that America could also be an LeT target. Soon, a bounty of $10 million was announced on LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, but the bounty itself became a big joke.

“How do you arrest a man who is visible everywhere and is operating under state-protection?” opines a senior home ministry official. “One thing is very clear. In this fight against terror, we all are on our own. If our interest aligns with those of America, they will help us. But there is really no front that is fighting against organised global terror. Abu Jundal and Fasih are a good start, but if the US is really serious it should do something about the big fish. Only then will this cooperation have any real meaning.”

This becomes clear in the context of Jundal and Fasih. “With the probe into 26/11 attacks more or less stuck, we can’t do much about it even though we know who was behind it,” adds the official. “By getting Saudi Arabia to deport Abu Jundal, the US has further embarrassed Pakistan and pushed it to a corner. Kasab was a prize catch but at best he was a foot soldier. Jundal could well be a bonanza if he spills the beans on Pakistan.”

Do the deportations from Saudi Arabia, therefore, mean anything in terms of real cooperation in the war against terror? “Zabiuddin is an Indian and we had submitted documents, including DNA samples, to the authorities in Saudi Arabia to prove our case,” says a senior government functionary. “But it took us more than one year to make any headway. No doubt, the ties between India and America have improved a lot. The apparent cooperation is an attempt by the US to put more pressure on the Pakistani military establishment.”

ONE OF the reasons also attributed to an overt American assistance is the death of six US nationals in the 26/11 attacks. If Jundal’s testimony stands out, it can possibly spell trouble for Pakistan. According to Lalit Man Singh, former Indian ambassador to US: “There is an American law that requires them to take action if its citizens are killed. That is why we saw more cooperation in the Mumbai attacks case.”

On 1 June, former CIA analyst and counter- terrorism expert Bruce Riedel wrote in The Daily Beast: “…because Abu Jindal was actually in the control room in Karachi his accusation is even more powerful. If the press reports about Abu Jindal’s accusations are confirmed then the ISI was involved directly in the decision to murder Americans. So far the Indian government has publicly confirmed only that his testimony points to state sponsorship of the attack without providing details of his confessions.”

So where does India stand in the fight against terrorism? For the present, it finds itself in a good situation. As an Indian counter intelligence analyst puts it: “The Americans are really worried about themselves. There will be continued cooperation as long as they feel threatened. The recent cooperation is motivated by self-interest. If we gain from it, it is a byproduct.”

Brijesh Pandey is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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