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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

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.

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.

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