In a travel advisory on its Hebrew language web site, posted on December 13,
2006, Israel's Foreign Ministry had said: "Within the framework of al
Qaeda's terror threats in India, there is now a concrete threat focusing on the
Goa region where multitudes of visitors, including Israelis, gather... in late
December. Israel's Counter-Terrorism Authority has recommended that Israeli
citizens stay away from sites in Goa popular with Westerners and Israelis over
the next few weeks."
On December 15, 2006, DEBKA, a well-known non-governmental Israeli think-tank, which disseminates information and analyses relating to terrorism, posted the following comments on its web site : "Information has reached Jerusalem that al Qaeda is in an advanced stage of preparing coordinated attacks on the big, end-of-year seasonal parties held by Western and Israeli tourists in the Indian province. Israeli travelers are advised to cancel their trips to Goa or at least stay away from the big parties. Some 4,000 Israelis have booked flights to India for the winter season. They will be joining the thousands living there. A standing terror warning is still in force for Egyptian Sinai and Turkey."
Before the Christmas and other holiday seasons, the Israeli authorities generally issue a general terrorism threat advisory for the benefit of Israeli tourists traveling abroad. In the past, such advisories used to cover places such as Turkey and Egypt. The pre-Christmas advisory issued in December 2006, covered Goa too. The advisory received more than the normal attention because it characterised the threat as "concrete" and identified Al Qaeda as a possible source of the threat.
Ever since the terrorist strikes by the pro-Al Qaeda Jemmah Islamiya (JI) in the Indonesian tourist resort of Bali in October ,2002, and again in October, 2005, the Indian security agencies in their plans for strengthening physical security have been taking into account the vulnerability of the Indian tourism infrastructure--and particularly in places such as Goa. A greater physical security alert is now maintained in places such as Goa, even in the absence of specific information of a planned terrorist strike.
There was a greater alert during 2006 following the reported arrest on March 11, 2006, of Tarique Jalal alias Tarique Batlo, a Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen cadre, from the Margoa railway station. It was reported that one kg of RDX, two Russian-made hand-grenades, two electronic detonators, two cameras and a mobile phone were seized from him. This was followed by the arrest on March 30, 2006, at Jelenabad in Gulbarga, Karnataka, of Shamim Ahmad, a suspected activist of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), who was reportedly a resident of Goa. An AK-47, two hand grenades, a mobile phone, maps of dams and power grid installations in Andhra Pradesh, some audio-video cassettes and printed material in Urdu were reportedly seized from him. These arrests indicated the possibility of the presence of sleeper cells of Pakistani and Kashmiri jihadi terrorist organisations in Goa--not necessarily for organising terrorist strikes in Goa itself, but for providing back-up support to jihadi terrorist strikes in other parts of India.
In the beginning of November, 2006, the Goa police reportedly sought reinforcements of para-military forces to enable them to provide effective security during the International Film Festival at Goa and during the holiday season. Their reported threat perceptions particularly related to the LET and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), both Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisations aligned with Al Qaeda in the International Islamic Front (IIF) formed by Osama bin Laden in 1998.
Media reports dated November 2, 2006, had quoted Shri D K Sawant, Superintendent of Police, North Goa, as saying: "There is no specific threat to IFFI (the international film festival). The police department is taking major precautions as the (intelligence) agencies have indicated a possible threat of suicide bombing which can target pubs, Army camps and nuclear plants." He was referring to threat possibilities all over India and not specifically in Goa.
While addressing the annual conference of the Directors-General of Police organised by the Intelligence Bureau at New Delhi on November 21, 2006, Shri Shivraj Patil, the Indian Home Minister, who is, inter alia, responsible for counter-terrorism, was reported to have stated that "India's critical infrastructure is under serious threat and it's the coastline that's facing the increased threat perception. The coastal areas are coming under increased threat from groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). "While he did not refer to possible threats in Goa, subsequent media speculation talked of the possibility of a threat of maritime terrorism directed at the Goa shipyard.
The possibility of a terrorist strike in Goa by pro-Al Qaeda elements from Pakistan and India has been receiving greater attention since 2006 in the wake of the two arrests mentioned above and the Mumbai blasts of July, 2006, in which about 180 suburban train commuters were killed. The vulnerabilities of Goa to jihadi strikes arise from its attraction to Israeli and Western tourists and from the location of a shipyard there.
No major terrorist attacks have so far taken place in Goa. Nor were any attempts made. This does not, however, reduce its vulnerability. Goa has been constantly in the minds of pro-Al Qaeda organisations. In their calculation, it is an attractive place for an act of reprisal terrorism against Israel just as Mombasa was in October,2002.
The fact that the jihadis continue to evince interest in Goa in their thinking, if not planning, for their future terrorist strikes has been highlighted by the reported interrogation of two terrorist suspects presently under the custody of the Karnataka Police. These are Riyazuddin Nasir alias Mohammad Ghouse of Hyderabad and Asadullah Abubaker of Hospet in Karnataka, both in their early 20s. Nasir is reported to be a drop-out from an engineering college and Asadullah was a student of the Karnataka Institute of Medical Sciences in Hubli. Another student of the same Institute by name Mohammad Asif has also been picked up by the Police for interrogation on the basis of the interrogation of Nasir and Asadullah.
Nasir comes from a family with jihadi connection. His father Maulana Naseruddin is presently in a jail in Gujarat facing trial in connection with his suspected involvement in the murder of Haren Pandya, the Home Minister of Gujarat, in reprisal for the anti-Muslim incidents in Gujarat in 2002. The charge against his father relates to his role in motivating those who assassinated Pandya.
Interestingly, Nasir and Asadullah were initially picked up by a Head Constable of the Devangere District Police in Karnataka last month on suspicion of being members of a gang of motor cycle thieves, who, they suspected, stole motor cycles in Karnataka and Goa and sold them. When they were produced before a court by the Police for seeking police custody for further investigation, Nasir argued his own case for bail. It is stated that the Police were struck by his intelligence, ability to articulate and knowledge of law and procedure. They suspected that he may not be just a motor-cycle thief. Further interrogation by the Police brought out his links with the world of jihad and his training in a training camp of the LET of Pakistan from May, 2006, to January, 2007. There is no indication so far of any Pakistani links in the case of Asadullah and Asif.
Nasir, who reportedly has the gift of the gab, has been bragging a lot of during the interrogation reminding one of Mohammad Afroz arrested by the Mumbai Police after 9/11, who claimed to have undergone flying training in Australia in order to carry out in Australia a 9/11 type terrorist strike against Melbourne's Rialto Towers on behalf of Al Qaeda. Verification of his inflated claims did not corroborate what he had stated. The Mumbai Police went to town with sensational stories of having arrested an Indian Al Qaeda operative, who was planning a terrorist strike in Australia. Though the Indian intelligence agencies took his claims with a lot of salt and considered him to be a braggart and coneyed their skepticism to the Mumbai Police, the latter kept feeding one sensational story after another to the media about his alleged Al Qaeda links. Their credibility was damaged when his claims were not corroborated by the Australian Police.
It could ultimately turn out that Nasir and Asadullah have been making similar tall claims about their various plans to carry out terrorist strikes against Israeli and Western tourists in Goa and against American and other foreign IT companies in Bangalore. However, Nasir's claims have to be taken more seriously than those of Afroz because he is the son of a a known jihadi. If his claim of having undergone training in Pakistan is proved correct, then it should be a cause for concern. Nasir is reported to have admitted during the interrogation that he was a regular reader of the articles on the activities of Pakistani jihadis appearing in the South Asia Terrorism Portal of New Delhi, a well-known terrorism analysis web site. One has to look into the possibility that many of the names and other details which he has been rattling off might have been picked up by him from the web site and may not be from his personal knowledge.
While there is thus a need for caution while evaluating the statements and claims of Nasir and his two associates, they should not be treated lightly unless and until they are proved to be exaggerated. Presuming that whatever they have stated are factually correct, the following should be of concern:
All the three members of the cell arrested so far are educated Indians. This brings to mind the case of the two Indians from Karnataka--one an engineer and the other a doctor-- who were involved in the attempted terrorist strikes in London and Glasgow in June last year.
The two Indians involved in the incidents in London and Glasgow and the three now under interrogation in Karnataka seem to have been motivated not by any anger against the government of India over issues such as Kashmir or the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the anti-Muslim incidents in Gujarat, but by anger against Israel because of its policy towards the Palestinians and the US because of its invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Even in the past, there were reports of the LET wanting to carry out a terrorist strike against IT companies in Bangalore, but its motive had nothing to do with Iraq. it was mainly interested in disrupting the Indian economy at the instance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This is the first time one is coming across Indian jihadis motivated by their anger against the US policies in Iraq.
All the three of them seem to have had links with the Students' Islamic
Movement of India (SIMI), which is in the process of undergoing transformation
from a purely indigenous terrorist organisation into a pan-Islamic organisation
identifying itself with global jihadi causes. The police are searching for Adnan,
a former regional convenor of the SIMI.
This may please be read in continuation of my earlier article, The Indian Angle
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.)