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December 25, 1999
Kashmir-watchers puzzled by Islamic Salvation Front's existence
Amberish K Diwanji in Delhi
Who or what is the Islamic Salvation Front? That is the question on everybody's lips ever since an anonymous phone call was made to the Air Traffic Controller, New Delhi, this afternoon. The caller claimed that the ISF was responsible for the hijacking.
His demand was simple enough: three Kashmiri extremists in jail should be set free.
The name sent officials scurrying to find details about who comprised this hitherto unknown group. And details are sketchy. The group's existence so far was unknown.
The Islamic Salvation Front, as a name, draws inspiration from the Algerian outfit with the same name, the FIS (the initials are in French) which has been involved in a seven-year battle with the Algerian army that now runs the country. The FIS is committed to setting up an Islamic state in Algeria and had won the 1992 general election. However, before it could assume office, the army stepped in and took over the country with the avowed aim of keeping Algeria secular.
However, security experts are wary of giving too much credence to the linkage between the hijackers and their Algerian counterparts. "First, just because some group here claims to be part of the Algerian outfit does not necessarily make it so," pointed out Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Moreover, the claim of the hijackers being part of the ISF was made through a local call made in New Delhi. None of the hijackers on board the Indian Airlines aircraft have so far made any such claim, and thus it cannot be take for certain.
Yet, some link "may" be possible. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, which has been overseeing the ongoing insurgency in Kashmir, has been inducting mercenaries from various countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Ethiopia, Somalia etc. In fact, from most of the countries where Islamic fundamentalists are locked in battle with the country's authorities!
Many of these countries have accused Pakistan of fomenting trouble and helping such terrorists, both morally and monetarily, supplying arms and creating a vast network of fundamentalists stretching from Kashmir in the east right up to Chechnya, locked in a bitter battle with the Russian army, in the west.
Major General (retired) Afsir Karim did not rule out the possibilities of some Algerians being present among the hijackers. "If the hijackers are from the mercenaries who have been pushed into Kashmir by Pakistan, then they could be from a variety of countries, including Algeria," he said.
If the hijackers are linked to dreaded terrorist Osama bin Laden, at present in hiding somewhere in Afghanistan, then it is quite likely that they could be foreigners. While India and the western world sees bin Laden as a despicable terrorist, many Muslims see him as a courageous man who dared to take on the might of the United States and who was fighting to create a united Islamic country.
"The whole idea of the hijacking is to create an international sensation, something that they have succeeded in doing that," said Karim.
However, it must be pointed out that among the earliest information made available was the fact that the hijackers spoke in Hindustani. This means that either the hijackers are Kashmiris or have stayed in India for a sufficient number of years. This aspect does put doubts on whether all the hijackers are Algerians.
More than being a new outfit, the key question is to which major terrorist outfit is the ISF linked? The suspicion being voiced by security officials and some security analysts is the most likely suspect is the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a militant group extremely active in Kashmir. However, in a statement today, the Lashkar has denied any involvement in the crime.
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