The U.S. State Department announced yesterday that it had “designated the Indian Mujahideen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” a decision that makes it illegal under U.S. law to provide material support or resources to the group, and freezes all its assets in the U.S. The new designation may not, by itself, make much difference in the fight against the Indian Mujahideen, or IM, who have been blamed or have taken responsibility for “dozens of bomb attacks throughout India since 2005,” according to the State Department. There is little evidence that the IM has ever gotten funds from the U.S. or that it has ever involved Americans; security experts and Indian authorities say that it is made of Indian recruits, with support from jihadi networks operating in South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
The new designation is more important as a signal that the U.S. and India are taking the IM much more seriously as a threat and that the U.S. will be using its intelligence-gathering capabilities to help India trace the cross-border sources of the IM’s funding, organization and training. It describes the IM as a group with “significant links to Pakistan” including ties to other designated terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which Indian and U.S. authorities blame for the deadly three-day siege of Mumbai in November 2008.
Still, it would be a mistake to think that this change signals that the IM is simply another iteration of a Pakistan-sponsored jihadi group or a well-defined, military-style outfit with a clear hierarchy, leadership or base of operations. It is, instead, part of the “new ad hoc template for jihadist operations” that has evolved in response to the intense pressure put on more traditional groups, according to a report released this week by the security consulting firm Stratfor.
The Student Islamic Movement of India/Indian Mujahideen network was useful in recruiting and co-opting operatives, but it is a misconception to think these indigenous Indian groups worked directly for LeT. In some cases, Pakistanis from LeT provided IED training and other expertise to Indian militants who carried out attacks, but these groups, while linked to the LeT network, maintained their autonomy.
Stratfor speculates that the two most recent attacks in India, in Delhi on Sept. 7 and in Mumbai on July 13, are probably the work of the IM network, with some help from LeT, but Indian authorities have yet to find any clear evidence of that. In the Delhi High Court blast, investigators have arrested two men whom they believe sent emails after the attack claiming responsibility, but so far they have made no progress in tracing either the source of the explosives used or the people who planted them. The Indian press have understandably been full of criticism for the Home Ministry and the Delhi Police for failing to prevent the attack on the High Court and for struggling to establish any physical evidence.
But the difficulty of cracking this case is also an indication of the resilience of the “ad hoc” jihadi template. After a series of bombings in 2007 and 2008, Indian authorities arrested dozens of suspected IM activists; after that, 2009 was quiet. “This created a false sense of security as the Indian home ministry believed that the Indian Mujahideen had been wiped out,” writes Shishir Gupta in his recent book, Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within. That calm was broken by a new series of attacks beginning in February 2010 in Pune, at a cafe popular with foreign tourists. Several suspected IM operatives are still at large, and they may be directing the activities of a new batch of young Indian recruits who are not yet on the radar screens of local police. The new designation of the IM may give India a useful tool in disrupting its flow of funds; stemming the tide of recruits will be much more difficult.