Global terror's India connection
The Glasgow attack is the first known act of global terror involving an Indian Muslim.
NEW DELHI and LONDON — When President George Bush visited this country of 150 million Muslims last year, he introduced his wife to the prime minister with a fact surely intended to amaze: "Not one Indian Muslim has joined Al Qaeda," he said.
At a time when Muslim nations from Algeria to Indonesia have emerged as incubators for anti-Western extremists, India – by some estimates the world's second-most-populous Muslim nation – has remained a unique case.
Yet reports from Britain suggest that, for the first time, an Indian Muslim is likely to be implicated in an act of international terrorism. Khafeel Ahmed, the man who police say crashed a Jeep into Glasgow's airport on June 30, is an engineer from Bangalore, a city previously known only as the high-tech capital of the new India.
Until now, Indians' disinterest in the global jihad had been largely taken for granted, experts say. In recent days, however, the nation has been left to try to piece together why a man who holds a PhD in aeronautics from India's golden city was driven to such rage against the West – and whether there will be more to follow.
"There may have been some small-scale radicalization of some communities in India more recently," says Paul Rogers, a global-security expert at Bradford University in England. "If you are looking at the overall situation, the ongoing problems in Iraq and Afghanistan are having a radicalizing effect."
Law enforcement officials working in Britain and India have slowly begun to provide some clarity about the men they have in custody as well as the intent of the plot.
To this point, British authorities have filed charges against only one suspect, Iraq doctor Bilal Abdullah. It is now thought that Dr. Abdullah, a Sunni whose family was hit hard by the Iraqi war, planted the London car bombs and then drove to Glasgow to try and blow up the airport by ramming a Jeep filled with gas canisters into the terminal.
His principal accomplice is thought to be Mr. Ahmed, who is in critical condition following the attack. British police refused to comment on an ongoing investigation, but it is thought that Ahmed told his parents before the attacks that he would not be contactable for a week as he had to go away for a project on global warming. After the London attacks had failed, and before the Glasgow attack, he reportedly told his mother that his first "presentation" had failed and they should "pray for him this time."
Khafeel's brother, Sabeel, was detained in Liverpool. Another relative, Mohammed Haneef, was arrested in Australia.
The thread that connects these three dates back at least to 2005, investigators in India have said, and begins with Khafeel moving to England to pursue a PhD in aerodynamics and electrical engineering. While in Birmingham, he lived in a predominately Muslim neighborhood and met Abdullah through Sabeel.
An FBI spokeswoman said Friday that Haneef and a Jordanian doctor named Mohammad Asha had made inquiries last summer about working in the US, but did not follow through with the application process. Dr. Asha and his wife were arrested on a highway in England hours after the airport attack.
When he returned to India, according to reports by investigators, Khafeel had let his goatee grow into a full beard. On Feb. 19, 2006, he organized a meeting in Bangalore for World Chechnya Day – highlighting the plight of Muslims in the Russian state.
It was unusual behavior for an Indian Muslim, observers say. Indian Muslims have certainly been caught up in domestic terrorism – angered by the perception of prejudice in India and injustice in Kashmir. But the strain of political Islam so prevalent in other parts of the world, which seeks to take religious stands on global policy, is largely absent from India's Muslim community.
This is partly because the Indian government will not allow it. Since Muslim Pakistan split from Hindu India 50 years ago, the state has been quick to stamp out any movement that even hinted at politicizing Islam.
Moreover, the trauma of partition, in which as many as 1 million Indians and Pakistanis died, means that "on the whole, Indian Muslims don't like to stick their neck out on these issues," says Omair Ahmed, a former political adviser to the British High Commission in New Delhi.
Indeed, some suggest that for this reason, such indoctrination is far more likely to happen to young men abroad than in India. These suspects "were out of their normal pool of people who can keep them under control," says Mr. Ahmed. "If they mouth off in India, their uncle will take them aside and talk to them."
What is perhaps more likely, says Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at Kings College London, is that the young men only became radicalized after they moved to Britain, where Indian Muslims tend to mix with their coreligionists rather than their compatriots.
"They would live in Pakistani areas, not Indian areas," says Professor Neumann. "Even though geographically they are from India, culturally they are much closer to Pakistani communities." In that sense, he says, the emergence of an Indian-Muslim link should not come as a surprise.
As of yet, it is unclear whether the attacks in Britain – or any of the suspects – are connected to Al Qaeda. Unconfirmed reports have linked Abdullah with extremists in his home country, where he lived until three years ago. But the fact that the attacks seemed poorly executed could suggest that there was no link.
"If there had been strong input from Al Qaeda in Iraq, surely they would have come up with a better working device," says Neumann. "If anyone can do car bombs, it is Iraqi insurgents."