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US agents hunt for Al Qaeda in India

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Last updated on: February 14, 2006 23:51 IST
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Clandestine American intelligence operatives have been working in deep cover within the Indian territory to help track down al Qaeda operatives and other terrorist groups.

Relying largely on human intelligence, these operatives work with paid agents and also seek to infiltrate militant groups in various parts of India, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The United States believes that some at least of these groups may have been co-opted by al Qaeda to launch attacks inside and outside India against both Indian and US interests.

Indo-US intelligence cooperation scaled unprecedented heights following the attack on the Indian Parliament, just three months after 9/11. And last year's New Delhi bombings during the Diwali festival season have convinced Washington of the extent of al Qaeda infiltration into India.

Intelligence and Congressional sources privy to briefings by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation told rediff-India Abroad that as a result, intelligence cooperation between New Delhi and Washington has moved beyond the stationing of a few CIA officers or FBI agents in the US embassy or American consulates, ostensibly as defense attaches or military officers.

The sources said while CIA and FBI agents continue to work with the Research and Analysis Wing(RAW) and the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), there was now, at a much deeper level, clandestine operatives working incognito within the country.

Although such operations are not publicly acknowledged, sources said when the director of national intelligence John D Negroponte testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this month and spoke of 'Pakistani militant groups --primarily focused on the Kashmiri conflict' as representing a 'persistent threat to regional stability and US interests in South Asia and the Near East', it was on the basis of credible intelligence that these groups have now been infiltrated by al Qaeda.

"They are no more simply the run-of-the mill indigenous militant groups they always would claim they were," one source told rediff-India Abroad. "Not only have they been infiltrated by Pakistani militant groups like Lashkar-e-Tayeba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, but these groups themselves are now under the sway of al Qaeda and way beyond the control of the ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence) as they once were."

Although neither New Delhi nor Washington have publicly acknowledged that the bombings during Diwali last year were by al Qaeda, sources said intelligence sources in both countries believe on the basis of available evidence that the bombings "did not just have the hallmarks of an al Qaeda operation – they were indeed an al Qaeda operation."

While providing the annual threat assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Negroponte said 'Terrorism is the preeminent threat to our citizens, homeland, interests, and friends. The war on terror is our first priority and driving concern, as we press ahead with a major transformation of the intelligence community we represent.

'Collaboration with our friends and allies around the world has helped us achieve some notable successes against the global jihadist threat,' Negroponte said, noting that India would 'continue to be a reliable ally against global terrorism, in part because India has been a frequent target for Islamic terrorists, mainly in Kashmir.'

While making the point that Pakistani militant groups, primarily focused on Kashmir, represent a persistent threat to regional stability and US interests in South Asia and the Near East, Negroponte asserted that 'they also pose a potential threat to our interests worldwide,' and noted that 'extremists convicted in Virginia in 2003 of providing material support to terrorism trained with a Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Tayeba, before 9/11.'

LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammad are on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, and sources said these groups had declared their loyalty to al Qaeda and are now part of the al Qaeda network; their operatives were now focused beyond the Kashmir conflict to a broader level against US interests in India and Pakistan and elsewhere in the region.

Negroponte told the Senate committee that al Qaeda remains the top security concern of the US. Though much of the leadership that presided over the outfit in 2001 had been eliminated, he said, its 'core elements still plot and make preparations for terrorist strikes against the homeland and other targets from bases on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.'

Noting that 'many of our most important interests intersect in Pakistan,' Negroponte acknowledged that Islamabad 'is a frontline partner in the war on terror, having captured several al Qaeda leaders.' But, he added, Pakistan 'also remains a major source of extremism that poses a threat to (President Pervez) Musharraf, to the US, and to neighboring India and Afghanistan.'

Discussing the overall situation in South Asia, Negroponte said 'Since India and Pakistan approached the brink of war in 2002, their peace process has lessened tensions and both appear committed to improving the bilateral relationship. A number of confidence-building measures, including new transportation links, have helped sustain the momentum.'

But, 'still, the fact that both have nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them entails obvious and dangerous risks of escalation.'

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC