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Is Al Qaeda setting up shop in Kashmir?

A phone call after the Mumbai attacks trumpeted a new Al Qaeda franchise; but police, other militants are dubious.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2006



SRINAGAR, INDIAN KASHMIR

Last Wednesday, barely 18 hours after the railway blasts in Mumbai (Bombay) that claimed some 200 lives, a mysterious caller phoned up local journalist Rashid Rahi to praise the attacks and to proclaim the arrival of a new militant group, Jammu and Kashmir Al Qaeda.

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With its call for Indian Muslims to join the struggle for "complete liberation and dominance of the religion of Islam," the caller hinted darkly of a heightened confrontation with America's chief ally in South Asia, India.

"I'm Abu al-Hadeed, spokesperson of Al Qaeda Jammu and Kashmir and Abu Abdur Rehman Ansari is our chief commander here," the caller said, according to Mr. Rahi's report. "Soon we will make public our organizational structure and motives."

While Indian police hinted that the call may have been a hoax, it has been taken seriously by Indian investigators, and has shaken the confidence of many Kashmiris here. The call comes at a time of escalating attacks against tourists and civilians, and a sluggish Indo-Pakistan dialogue over Kashmir that has now been put on hold. After a year and a half of negotiation, momentum is shifting toward the militants.

"Personally, I believe this is a red herring, but the desperation is to such an extent here, that whosoever is ready to support people, whether it is Al Qaeda or anyone else, people are receptive to them," says Sheikh Showkat Hussein, a professor of law at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar.

Noting that only 300 Indian Kashmiris have managed to take the much-touted bus service from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Mr. Hussein says, "Whatever you try to project as a success, you can do so, but for the ordinary man there has been no change."

Yet, with multiple attacks on civilians in both Mumbai and Srinagar on July 11, and a recent speech by Osama bin Laden that mentioned the militant struggle of Muslims in Kashmir, Indian police are not taking any chances.

Indian police and Army commanders in the highly militarized valley – where perhaps 600,000 Army and paramilitary forces have been based since the insurgency began in 1989 – say that they have heard intelligence chatter about Al Qaeda's presence in Kashmir as far back as 2002. But any such branch of Osama bin Laden's network has not been active, they add.

"Let them act and do something, we'll act accordingly," says Lt. Gen. S.S. Dhillon, the commander of the 15th Corps for the Indian Army in Srinagar. "The Indian Army is professionally trained and efficient enough to deal with it and its men."

General Dhillon told reporters that India estimates that there are only about 1,300 to 1,400 active militants in the Kashmir valley, nearly 1,000 of them local Kashmiris. But while local militant organizations like Hizbul Mujahideen and Jamiatul Mujahideen enjoy broad local support, foreign militants are seen as much more active.

Since July last year, militants of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-i Tayyaba and Al Badr were blamed for 100 grenade attacks, killing 38 people, mostly civilians and tourists. Lashkar, however, denies responsibility for these attacks.

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