The Hindu of July 7,2010, has carried an article by its terrorism analyst Praveen Swami titled “Pakistan’s Competing Jihadists”. The article refers to a message purported to have been issued before his death (confirmed by Al Qaeda) in a US Drone strike in May last by Sai’d al-Masri (al-Masri means the Egyptian) also known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. He was reputedly the No. 3 in Al Qaeda and was in charge of operations in Afghanistan.
According to Mr Swami, an English translation of this message was made available to him “by the Washington DC based Middle East Media Research Institute”. This Institute is popularly known as MEMRI. It is alleged to have close links with the Israeli Military Intelligence and the Likud Party.
Wikipedia comments as follows on MEMRI:
“The Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI for short, is a Middle Eastern press monitoring organization. Its headquarters is located in Washington, DC, with branch offices in Jerusalem, Berlin, London, Rome, Shanghai, Baghdad, and Tokyo. MEMRI was co-founded in 1998 by Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence, and another Israeli Meyrav Wurmser. It provides a free source of English language translations of material published in Arabic and Persian script, and publishes its analyses and in-depth reports on its website - although it also offers specialized content for a fee. The organization's translations are regularly quoted by major international newspapers, and its work has generated strong criticism and praise. Some critics have accused MEMRI of selectively choosing for translation and dissemination the most extreme views from Arabic and Persian media, which portray the Arab and Muslim world in a negative light, while ignoring moderate views that are often found in the same media outlets. Other critics charge that while MEMRI does sometimes translate pro-US or pro-democracy voices in the regional media, it systematically leaves out intelligent criticism of Western-style democracy, US and Israeli policy and secularism.
MEMRI's current mission statement states the organization "explores the Middle East through the region's media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu-Pashtun media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East." Until 2001, its Mission Statement stated that the institute also emphasizes "the continuing relevance of Zionism to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel." MEMRI's goals and emphasis have evolved over the years; it originally translated articles in both Arabic and Hebrew. Concerning this change in their ‘mission statement,’ Political Research Associates (PRA), which studies the US political right, notes that it occurred three weeks after the September 11 attacks, and considers MEMRI "was previously more forthcoming about its political orientation in its self-description and in staff profiles on its website." PRA considers that “MEMRI's slogan, ‘Bridging the Language Gap Between the Middle East and the West,’ does not convey the institute's stridently pro-Israel and anti-Arab political bias.” It further notes, that MEMRI's founders, Wurmser and Carmon, “are both hardline pro-Israel ideologues aligned with Israel's Likud party.”
So far as one knows, the message of al-Masri disseminated by MEMRI has not yet been authenticated by any official Western agency or non-governmental organization studying messages purported to have been disseminated by Al Qaeda, its leaders and as-Sahab, the propaganda wing of Al Qaeda, but one is subject to correction.
In its introduction to Mr Swami’s article, The Hindu says:
“For the first time, the al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for an attack in India.”
The Hindu’s reference is to the explosion in the German bakery in Pune on February 13 last. Mr Swami himself writes in his article as follows:
“For the first time, though, al-Masri referred to the Pakistan-based jihadist Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri as an official part of the Al Qaeda--and made public his role in an attack on India.”
According to Mr Swami, the message as supplied by MEMRI says as follows:
“I bring you the good tidings that last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the West of the Indian capital in the area of the German bakeries--a fact that the enemy tried to hide--and close to 20 Jews were killed in the operation, a majority of them from the so-called statelet, Israel. The person who carried out this operation was a heroic soldier from the “Soldiers of the Sacrifice Brigade”, which is one of the brigades of Qaedat al-Jihad ( the al-Qaeda’s formal name) in Kashmir under the command of commander Ilyas Kashmiri, may Allah preserve him.”
Commenting on the claim made in the message, Mr Swami says:
“From the text, it is clear that al-Masri had little knowledge of the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune. Pune is not to the west of New Delhi; it is not Jewish-owned; and no Israelis were killed there. There would thus be no reason to take al-Masri’s claims seriously-- if it weren’t for the testimony of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley.”
al-Masri was born in Egypt on December 17, 1955. Along with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s No.2, he was a founding member of the Islamic Jihad of Egypt, which was alleged to have been involved in the assassination of then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. He was arrested by the Egyptian authorities along with Zawahiri. They managed to escape and reach Afghanistan in 1988 and join Osama bin Laden. When bin Laden went to the Sudan in 1991 after his passport was reportedly cancelled by the Saudi authorities, al-Masri joined him there and was appointed by bin Laden as an accountant of a business company started by him in the Sudan. In 1996, under US pressure, the Sudanese authorities asked bin Laden to leave the Sudan. He went to Afghanistan accompanied by al-Masri. Zawahiri joined them there. The US National Commission, which enquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland, described him as the Chief Financial Manager of Al Qaeda. In May 2007, bin Laden was reported to have designated him as in charge of Al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan. In that capacity, he was responsible for co-ordination of operations with the Afghan Taliban.
In February 2009, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had received a message purported to be from Mustafa Abu-al Yazid, warning of more Mumbai-style attacks. The message, whose authenticity could not be established, sought to create an impression as if the 28/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai were carried out by Al Qaeda.
I had commented as follows on that mesaage :
“His warnings of more Mumbai-style attacks should be factored into our security arrangements and that means, strengthening physical security not only for possible Indian targets, but also for possible foreign targets such as those of Israel and the US. A rule of prudence is don’t ignore a threat unless and until it is proved to be false. The message needs careful analysis in co-operation with Al Qaeda experts in the US. The message suspiciously serves the Pakistani agenda of projecting the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai as executed by an international jihadi group based in Europe and inspired by Al Qaeda. There are suspicious elements in the message. Why was it disseminated through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and not initially through Al Jazeera? Why has it not yet appeared in the web sites associated with Al Qaeda? Why there was no reference to the Mumbai attack in the one message of Osama bin Laden and two of his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri disseminated by Al Qaeda since the beginning of this year? Why the message has not been disseminated through As Sahab, the official propaganda organ of Al Qaeda.”
Subsequently, in April, 2009, another message purporting to be from al-Masri circulated through the Internet. It read as follows:
“We send a short and succinct message to the Indian Government. The Mujahideen will never allow you to invade the Muslims and their lands in Pakistan. If you beguile yourselves into doing this, know well that you will pay a very heavy price, which you will regret much. We will call upon our whole Muslim nation, its Mujahideen and its martyrdom squads against you. We will strike your interests and your economic lifelines wherever they may be until you are demolished and bankrupt as America is being demolished and going bankrupt today. The Islamic nation which produced the audacious and heroic martyrs of Bombay, who struck you in the midst of your homes and humiliated you, is able to produce thousands more like them. You cannot be more powerful or have more ability than the Soviet Union which was destroyed on the rocks of the Afghanistan mountains nor Americans whose nose we rubbed in the dirt of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.”
This message added to the suspicion that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence might be behind the dissemination of these messages in order to draw suspicion away from the LET for the terrorist strikes of 26/11 in Mumbai. After the Pune Bakery attack, Syed Saleem Shahzad , the Karachi correspondent of Asia Times Online, received an e-mail message purporting to be from Ilyas Kashmiri threatening terrorist strikes in India during the World Cup Hockey League and IPL cricket matches as well as during the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. In his dispatch to the Asia Times on this, Mr.Shahzad reported as follows:
“Asia Times Online has received a message from top guerrilla commander Ilyas Kashmiri, whose 313 Brigade is an operational arm of al-Qaeda. The message arrived on Monday morning (Feb.15), shortly after the deadly weekend bombing of the German Bakery in the western Indian city of Pune. The message does not specifically claim responsibility for the bombing, but implies the Brigade's involvement.”
Even after the July, 2006, explosions in the Mumbai suburban trains, a person, who gave his name as Abu al Hadeed, had rung up the office of the Current News Service (CNS) in Srinagar claiming responsibility in the name of what he described as Al Qaeda of J&K. However, indigenous Kashmiri organisations ridiculed the claim and said that there was no such organisation in the state.
On June 8, 2007, the same news agency is reported to have received a statement in Urdu recorded in a CD in the name of one Abu Abdal Rehman al-Ansari, described as the Amir of Al Qaeda fil Hind (Al Qaeda in India). The statement was read out by a masked gunman, who gave his name as Abu Ibrahim al-Asim before a camera. Whereas the 2006 statement was in the name of Al Qaeda of J&K, the statement of June 8, 2007, was in the name of Al Qaeda of India. Both the statements had referred to al-Ansari as the Amir of Al Qaeda. The June 8 statement pledged to wage jihad not only on India, but also against all infidels, apostates and hypocrites and against "enemies masqueradng as friends" . It criticised both the factions of the Hurriyat Conference and the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council headed by Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
There are two types of messages purporting to be from Al Qaeda relating to India. The first are video or audio messages of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri relating to the global jihad and the global intifada in which there are references to India, including Kashmir. These have been authenticated by Western intelligence agencies on the basis of voice recognition. They are in the form of general criticism of India or general threats and not specific.
The second are messages claiming responsibility on behalf of Al Qaeda for specific acts of terrorism in India such as the Mumbai suburban train explosions of July 2006, the Mumbai terrorist strikes of 26/11 and the Pune German bakery explosion and warning of future acts of terrorism against global sports events in India. These are messages circulated through the Internet or through phone calls by persons whose voices could not be identified. There is no way of establishing the authenticity of these messages. We must take them seriously for further investigation and strengthening physical security. At the same time, we should take care not to walk into any trap of the ISI to divert suspicion away from the LET and other Pakistani jihadi organizations and from the ISI for serious acts of terrorism in Indian territory by creating an impression that those were carried out by Al Qaeda.
It is quite possible that there was an active role of Al Qaeda in acts of terrorism in Indian territory, including Jammu & Kashmir. It has been particularly keen to attack Jewish targets in India, including the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who had orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, had admitted to have once visited India and had told US interrogators of Al Qaeda’s intention for an attack on the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. But it is doubtful whether Al Qaeda is as yet in a position to organize a major strike in Indian territory on its own without the collaboration of the LET and other Pakistani organizations. We should not walk into any ISI trap for creating an impression that Al Qaeda has supplanted the ISI’s surrogates such as the LET.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.