Osama Bin Laden surprised everyone in late 1990s when he escaped from the Gulf to hide at an unexpected place: Sudan. Is it that the al-Qaeda chief is repeating history by choosing South Asia’s least likely place to hide?
Osama bin Laden’s disappearance since late 2001 despite a massive high-tech military and intelligence hunt involving assets and agents across several regions is strengthening a conclusion reached by many analysts that the al-Qaeda leader might have sought an unexpected hiding spot—India.
CIA has established an advanced information and intelligence gathering network in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the past nine years. The operation in Pakistan has reportedly recruited tribal men, garbage collectors and even doctors in hospitals in Pakistani towns and cities in the hope that an ailing bin Laden might be spotted somewhere. The failure to uncover any leads is forcing some analysts to dust off old pieces of information that were dismissed or not pursued for a variety of reasons.
India’s name came up frequently in intelligence briefs on the bin Laden hunt in the early months after the rout of the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan in November 2001. This information was dismissed by the US intelligence community on the suspicion that the Pakistanis might have planted it to defame archrival India. There was also concern the information might have been planted by Al-Qaeda members as a diversionary tactic, meant to create breathing space for their hunted leader.
But a small breakthrough last summer refocused attention on India.
Before the Indian connection is explained, a word on the authenticity question of recent bin Laden tapes is necessary.
At least four different audio tapes surfaced last year carrying messages from Osama bin Laden. The year 2010 was not good for these bin Laden podcasts. Compared to each year since 2001, this was the first time that bin Laden tapes were met with widespread public skepticism inside and outside the United States. Never before were al-Qaeda leader’s voice and video releases so scrutinized and questioned. One reason for this was Osama fatigue. The news media and public opinion had lost interest in bin Laden ‘new tape’ releases. It no longer generated the same excitement. But there was a bigger issue this time. Eight years into America’s Afghan war, more and more Americans and others had begun questioning the credibility of the tapes. At question was not just how these tapes were produced but also the full cycle of their release, methods of delivery, and final airing.
BIN LADEN TAPES IN 2010
Bin Laden released four tapes in 2010. On 29 January, he came out with an audio tape blasting President Obama’s hazy position on climate change. This was a major departure for bin Laden. Climate change debate is hot in the United States and parts of Europe but hardly attracts any popular interest in the Middle East and Asia. For bin Laden to make this statement would not have won him any new admirers in the Middle East. But what it did was to embarrass the antiwar liberal camps in the US and Europe who largely also oppose US government’s position on climate change. Another new aspect in this audio release was bin Laden offering praise to an antiwar American activist, Noam Chomsky, who is a renowned critic of US government, CIA and the US military. Never before had bin Laden praised US persons by name in his audio and video tapes. The move, he would have certainly known, could have hurt Mr. Chomsky in the eyes of ordinary Americans and provided easy fodder in the hands of US hawks to discredit Chomsky’s antiwar message. The tape was aired by Al Jazeera in Qatar and the channel refused to explain how it obtained the tape.
A week earlier, bin Laden released an audio tape praising an attempt by a Nigerian citizen to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit on 25 December 2009. The one-minute audio tape, aired by Al Jazeera, endorsed the act but stopped short of claiming responsibility for it. The said incident was an amateur act by all standards of terror acts, poorly organized and with little chance of succeeding. It was not clear why bin Laden would want to be associated with it. Mr. bin Laden also showed a sense of humor in the purported audio tape, saying his was a message ‘from Osama to Obama.” This play on the name was strange. It served no purpose except to embarrass President Obama in front of American extremists who have been accusing him of being a closet Muslim.
In March, Bin Laden released another tape warning the US government it would kill American hostages if the accused in the 9/11 attack jailed in Guantanamo were executed. The irony in this tape, which many US commentators did not miss, was that al-Qaeda had already killed Americans whenever a chance offered itself, so how was this threat really a new threat? The progress in the trial of Guantanamo detainees was slow when this tape came out. Reports suggested that President Obama was resisting pressure from US military to expedite the trials because of legal and constitutional reasons. Bin Laden’s tape served to renew pressure on Obama to resume the trials.
And finally, in October, bin Laden released an audio tape warning to kill five French citizens kidnapped in Niger if France does not withdraw troops from Afghanistan. This was a bizarre message from the Al-Qaeda leader. The reason is simple. The Frenchmen were kidnapped by a little known local group in Niger that calls itself Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghrib. US intelligence officials refer to it by the acronym AQIM. The problem is that no one knows where this AQIM is really based. The best explanation coming from US sources is that this is a group of militants who, according to one American source, used to ‘roam the Sahara desert’ before coming together and ‘pledging allegiance’ to Osama bin Laden. How intelligence professionals can blindly accept the ‘Al-Qaeda credentials’ of any group coming forward and ‘pledging allegiance’ to bin Laden while sitting in another continent is a question that remains unanswered.
The strange part is that the kidnappings actually neatly fitted with the international competition over uranium mines in Niger where these kidnappings occurred. Imagine five Frenchmen kidnapped from a uranium mining town in Niger, where they were in fierce competition, and then the justification for the kidnapping comes from Al-Qaeda chief in an audio tape released some 2,000 miles away. This is eerily similar to Chinese engineers kidnapped or killed in and around the new strategic Pakistani port city of Gwadar in 2006 and 2007 where countries like India, Iran, UAE and the United States were and continue to be opposed to Chinese presence and involvement for strategic reasons. When the Chinese were targeted, the responsibility was conveniently shouldered by a new group called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as TTP or Pakistani Taliban. This new Pakistani Taliban, which borrowed its name from the original Afghan Taliban, gave a clumsy explanation for why it decided to attack Chinese interests in Pakistan while claiming to fight a jihad against United States. It said it did it in order to embarrass Pakistan’s pro-US government. The skeptics were not sure Pakistan’s pro-US government was embarrassed. What is for sure is that this was part of efforts to keep China out of a strategically important nation.
WHO RELEASES THESE TAPES?
There is a full delivery cycle to Osama bin Laden’s tapes. They are recorded, edited, copied and then transported to reach their final destination on the screen of a television news channel. Al Jazeera has received most of these video and audio tapes, with few going to other Arab and western networks.
For some reason, the government of the United States and its allies in the war on terror never pursued this trail as hard as they pursued terror financing, for example. Not that it would be easy. In most cases, unknown individuals dropped the tapes at the residence or at the local offices of Al-Jazeera correspondents in Islamabad or Peshawar.
But there has been another very prolific source of Al-Qaeda tapes other than al-Jazeera. This second source is SITE. It is short for Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute. It was founded in 2002 as a private intelligence group by Rita Katz, an Iraqi born Israeli and US citizen. She served in the Israeli military. In 2008 she closed the institute and established SITE Intel Group. Its website describes the company in the following words: ‘Rapid, Full Translations of Primary Source Jihadist Media and Access to Jihadist Videos.’ This is a marketing niche that no one has thought of before and perfectly suited to the post-9/11 US security and military doctrines. In short, she combs the Internet for sites and chat rooms where al-Qaeda and Islamic groups post messages, press releases and audiovisual material. She does not reveal the identity of her clients but the company has been engaged by the Clinton and the Bush administrations.
Many have accused SITE and Ms. Katz of turning terrorism into an industry. Her strong links to the Israeli military and intelligence community provide context to her work.
Israel’s threat perception is very simple: Muslims pose a threat. Period. There are many Israelis who wish their security and military establishments would change this threat perception because all Muslims cannot be a threat. Interestingly, Ms. Katz and SITE has carried this paranoia to Washington DC. In 1999, when FBI and CIA could not find enough evidence to say al-Qaeda posed a global threat, terror experts in the government hired SITE to build a case against al-Qaeda. This case helped in propelling Al-Qaeda, a little known group in the Middle East before 9/11, into the coveted position of America’s main adversary in the world, a spot previously occupied by the former USSR.
There is one more country besides Israel that shares a similar threat perception as Israel. This country is India.
THE INDIAN LINK
The Bush administration worked hard and quite successfully in convincing the Indians that China posed a threat to India and that countering China will propel India to a superpower status. But despite Indian military buildup to counter China, it is Pakistan and Islamophobia that drives Indian policymakers. Hindu religious fundamentalism and inaccurate notions about geography and history force the Indian ruling elite to consider Pakistan and Muslims as a major threat. Historically, of all the foreign invaders of India, Muslims are the only ones to rule India for more than ten centuries until it was ‘liberated’ by the British Empire. This history weighs heavily on the Indian psyche and drives Indian policy toward Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.
During the 1990s, and thanks to this common threat perception, India and Israel started working closely to counter Islam. How paranoid these two countries are can be gauged from the fact that Islam is not a monolith political force. Muslim countries and nations are diverse and do not constitute a single force that would threaten either Israel or India. But despite this fact, ruling elites in Israel and India have used the ‘Islamic threat’ as a rallying cry for ideological and military buildup.
Israel had a long history and experience in dealing with Muslim religious groups. It learned how to infiltrate them, understand them, and negotiate with them. It also established schools to train agents in Quran and Islamic Sharia, and devoted resources to studying fault lines inside Islam that can be exploited to work Muslim groups against each other.
Israel passed this training and experience to India for use in occupied Kashmir to quell a pro-Pakistan popular movement there. So strong was the Israeli help that at one stage, in summer 1999, Indian military requested assistance from Israeli Special Forces to help stop the advance of Pakistanis. Even today, Israeli diplomats in New Delhi often remind their hosts about how Israel helped turn the situation on the ground in Kashmir.
India learned Israeli lessons in dealing with Muslim groups fairly quickly. Many freedom groups that operated in Indian-occupied Kashmir during the 1990s were fronts for Indian intelligence. India used these groups for various purposes. Some of these groups committed atrocities to discredit the genuine pro-freedom groups. Others acted as Trojan horses, spying from the inside on the pro-freedom Kashmiri movement.
After 2001, India established an elaborate intelligence setup in Afghanistan. But the purpose here was three-fold: Spy on Afghan Taliban, export terror into Pakistan’s western regions under the guise of Taliban, and exacerbate misunderstandings between Pakistani and US militaries. The last two were of special interest to the Indians. Disguised as Taliban, the Indians established contacts with militants and guns-for-hire inside Pakistan’s tribal region. Pakistani militants were recruited for training to commit terrorist acts inside Pakistan. The Indians were also keen to demonstrate that US soldiers are under threat from militants inside the Pakistani tribal belt. Establishing a direct link between attacks on US soldiers and Pakistan’s tribal belt was of paramount importance to the Indians. In some cases, this meant funneling weapons and funding to criminals and terrorists to mount attacks on US soldiers in Afghanistan and magnify links to Pakistani tribal belt.
INDIA AND BIN LADEN
All countries in the region have established contacts with Al-Qaeda at different times when it served their interests. Topping the list is the United States. Osama bin Laden started out as a CIA asset. Later, he established contacts with the Pakistanis and the Saudis. After 9/11 and the US war against Afghanistan, bin Laden established ties with Iran. This was a clear example that the impossible can happen. Who would have thought that two opposing religious schools, Iran’s Shias and al-Qaeda’s hard liners would become friends of convenience and circumstance? This relationship went as far as bin Laden trusting Iran with his sons and daughters and other senior lieutenants who were provided safe havens inside Iran.
The only country in the region whose name never appears in the list of countries that tried to contact al-Qaeda is India. But that is not because India did not try to establish such contact.
Indian intelligence agency, RAW, approached al-Qaeda immediately after the group’s defeat in Afghanistan. Such contacts date back to 2002 and 2003. The Indians are known to have kidnapped Pakistani and Afghan militants and transported them by air to India for training and indoctrination.
The first signs of Osama bin Laden’s contacts with the Indians emerged in early 2002, barely four months after the collapse of Taliban government in Kabul, and three months after the last sighting of bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. At the time, India had amassed half of its military on Pakistan’s borders and there was a heightened possibility of war. Pakistanis knew Washington was using India to blackmail Islamabad in Afghanistan. The Indians tried to convince Washington that Osama bin Laden might be hiding with a pro-Kashmir group in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. New Delhi was hoping this would get Washington to go after pro-Kashmir freedom groups based in Pakistan.
What happened next is that the Americans and the British found leads indicating the possibility that bin Laden did indeed come to the region but only as a stopover to cross into India. Moreover, there were signs the Indians were in contact with the al Qaeda leader, or at least some of the Indians since not everyone in the Indian government knew about it. This divide between Indian intelligence and political establishment was proven eight years later when Indian intelligence officers admitted to running clandestine programs outside the purview of Indian politicians. One of these programs groomed Hindu terror groups to conduct a bombing campaign inside India that would be blamed on Pakistan, ISI and Kashmiris.
Washington and London quietly convinced New Delhi to allow foreign troops into the Indian occupied part of Kashmir to trace bin Laden’s trail. The Indians were extremely reluctant. They were concerned if they approved the measure and word got out, then India’s long held position of avoiding the ‘internationalization’ of Kashmir dispute would stand nowhere. In the end India allowed a 40-man team of US and British special forces – US Delta Force and Britain’s SAS – to enter Indian occupied Kashmir to hunt for bin Laden. When Britain’s daily Telegraph’s defense correspondent broke the news, Indian officials were in a fix. They denied the presence of Delta Force and SAS inside India or in Kashmir. “There is no question of allowing American or British or any foreign troops into J&K. The report is totally incorrect and baseless,” an Indian Defense Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the Indian media.
No trace of the terror leader was found. But it was a year later that information started trickling in about the possibility that bin Laden had availed Indian contacts and visited India. The information first reached the Pakistanis. Multiple contacts inside Afghanistan and among the Afghan Taliban talked about reports that bin Laden left the region for India. It seemed farfetched at the time. But four years later, new evidence showed that the Indians have actually moved terrorists involved in bombings inside Pakistan to India via Afghanistan. Among them was Brahamdagh Bugti, a Pakistani warlord from Balochistan, and terrorists who formed the so-called Swat Taliban that overran the scenic Swat region in 2009 before the Pakistani military defeated it.
There were three routes that bin Laden could have taken to India dodging the Pakistanis, knowing that Pervez Musharraf’s government would not hesitate in turning him over to the Americans having backstabbed pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban officials, like the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. Bin Laden could have been flown from Afghanistan to India via Dubai. Or via Uzbekistan. A third possibility is that he slipped into Indian-occupied Kashmir from Pakistan.
The reports at the time said bin Laden visited two cities in southern India: Hyderabad and Bangalore. Pakistani intelligence officials tried to ascertain whether bin Laden slipped into India covertly or with help from elements in the Indian intelligence. A conclusive answer never materialized. But Pakistanis said this visit was not possible without the involvement of Indian intelligence. Yet there were no buyers in Washington and London for the Pakistani information. It is important to remember that this was 2003. Bin Laden’s family members were yet to be found hiding in Iran with Iranian intelligence help, and India was yet to be accused of supporting terrorism on the Pak-Afghan border and inside Pakistan using Afghan soil.
Pakistani officials shared this information with American and British journalists and were surprised to see them protecting India and giving it maximum benefit of the doubt. These journalists were ready to print unproven theories about Pakistan and its nuclear weapons but will not even hint at the possibility that bin Laden might have used the Himalayas to cross into India.
Myra McDonalds, a Reuters journalist, did muster the courage to mention bin Laden’s India link in a passing way in May last year. But the reason it came up was fresh developments in the India-bin Laden story.
Apparently, al Qaeda chief’s audio tape of March 2010 came from India. Security officials in the Gulf traced the tape to a courier service that booked the parcel in Bangalore. This is the same city identified by information floating in 2003 indicating bin Laden was there.
Al-Qaeda is almost decimated. There may not be more than fifty current and former al Qaeda associates in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border region. But the Americans continue to use it as a scarecrow. Since it came into being, al Qaeda and its chief have been played by various countries according to their interests. Even now, bin Laden continues to be played to some extent by one or more strategic players. It is not possible for a wanted man in an unstable region to sustain himself for a long period of time without a hiding place protected by the sovereign powers of a spy service.
Back in late 1990s, when all doors were closed for bin Laden, he surprised everyone by taking refuge in an unexpected place: Sudan. A decade later the al Qaeda chief seems to have repeated history by going in hiding at an unexpected place.