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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.

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Rashid Rahi's office in Srinagar has long been a central clearing house for militant groups contacting the press. More than 30 local newspapers subscribe to Mr. Rahi's Current News Service (CNS), and "with one phone call, they can talk to 30 newspapers and their work is done," says Manohar Bhat, a reporter at CNS.

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But the call on 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, the day after the Mumbai blasts, was different. Rashid Rahi, editor of CNS, seems nervous as he describes – yet again – the alleged call from Al Qaeda. "As Kashmiris, we can tell by phone who is a non-Kashmiri, so to me, the caller was a Pakistani. He spoke in pure Urdu."

If Al Qaeda has arrived in Kashmir, they should expect no welcome party from other militant groups, who have fought for separation from Indian control since 1989.

"Kashmir is not conducive for Al Qaeda," says Junaid-ul-Islam, spokesman for the Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, in a phone interview with the Monitor. "Their men and material are busy fighting US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given the sophistication of Al Qaeda, they inform people through the press and Osama Bin Laden, their chief, to [trumpet new franchises]. But in Kashmir's case, there has been no announcement or a statement from Osama."

"So, we have strong reasons to believe this whole episode is concocted and fabricated," says Mr. Islam, who condemns the blasts in Mumbai. "Kashmiri armed struggle needs manpower, resources, finances, arms – but all is locally available. Why should Al Qaeda come here?"

Furthermore, Al Qaeda's agenda of international jihad is different from the Kashmir issue, Islam says. "So far as Al Qaeda is concerned, it is a thing of yesterday.... But the freedom struggle of Kashmiris is as old as 1931."

He also strongly condemned the recent spate of grenade attacks on tourists in Kashmir, saying, "Every single Kashmiri, innocent civilian, and tourist is dear to us. Tourism is the backbone of our economy."

Police traced the call placed to Rahi to a public phone booth business in Srinagar's Lal Chowk district, and brought the owner of the phone booth in for questioning. The owner says he cannot remember anything about the caller, but he only remembers Kashmiri customers that day.

"The ideology of Kashmiri Muslims is entirely different from what is preached by Mr. Osama Bin Laden," says Farooq Ahmad, deputy inspector general of J&K Police in Srinagar, Kashmir zone. "And as it is there are plenty of militant groups here, Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-i Tayyaba and Al Badr. They are enough to create trouble here. I don't think Al Qaeda needs to come here."

Recent attacks in Srinagar

April 14: Seven grenades kill five people, wound 24.

May 25: During visit of India's prime minister, four tourists were killed in grenade attacks.

May 31: One tourist killed and several injured in a grenade attack aimed at a tourist bus.

June 24: Grenade attack kills one and injures eight civilians.

July 11: Six grenade blasts in a span of three hours kill eight civilians, including six tourists.