NEW DELHI | The deadly terrorist attacks on Bombay last week threaten to reverse a gradually warming relationship between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed rivals.
Intelligence sources in New Delhi, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the operation that left nearly 200 dead, including several foreigners, appeared to have been planned in Pakistan.
Top Indian officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have bluntly asserted the role of Pakistan-based terrorist groups in the attacks, prompting calls for a tough response.
But Pakistani officials have not only denied involvement in the attacks, they have sought to correct the impression that any such accusations have been made against the government.
“The Indian leadership has not blamed the government of Pakistan, please be very clear on that,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who spoke to reporters on Saturday in Islamabad.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, and New Delhi responded to the Dec. 13, 2001, terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament by massing troops along its border with Pakistan.
This time the response has been far more measured.
Intelligence sources see Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba‘s fingerprints all over the operation. Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the largest militant groups fighting for the independence of Kashmir, is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department, and since coming under pressure to disband now goes by several names.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is the militant wing of the Islamic extremist organization Markaz Dawa ul-Irshad (MDI), a Pakistan-based Islamic fundamentalist organization and charity founded to oppose the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, according to the State Department. The group, led by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, seeks to “spread ideology advocating terrorism, as well as virulent rhetoric condemning the United States, India, Israel and other perceived enemies.”
This stated goal matches the actions of the Bombay attackers, who appeared to target U.S. and British citizens, as well as Israelis at a Jewish center.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the “sophistication of [the Bombay] attacks, the use of multiple teams of suicide terrorists with some training in commando tactics, the choice of targets and the caliber of the advance casing of the targets all suggest ties to the global jihadist movement.”
Mr. Riedel told The Washington Times that Deccan Mujahideen, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the Islamist terror group Indian Mujahideen are not at this level of capability, but Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda are. “The targets — India’s economic heart and the ‘Crusader/Zionist enemy’ — are the targets of al Qaeda and its allies,” he said.
K. Alan Kronstadt, a specialist in South Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said the attacks were “certainly reminiscent of previous attacks undertaken by groups based to India’s west, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, but an upsurge in home-grown Islamist terrorism in recent times suggests that indigenous elements could be involved.”
In a bid to allay India’s concerns, Pakistan’s government offered to send a top official from its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to help with the investigation in India. The move was seen as largely symbolic as the ISI is suspected of playing a role in the deadly attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July, a claim corroborated by U.S. intelligence. The ISI was also accused of assisting the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed in the attack on Parliament.
The offer, which drew criticism among opposition politicians, was withdrawn Saturday. President Asif Ali Zardari attributed the reversal to a miscommunication with Indian government officials.
Lisa Curtis, a South Asia analyst and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the strikes could heighten tensions between India and Pakistan, “especially if investigations show that the attackers received training, finances or logistical support from Pakistan-based terror groups.”
Xenia Dormandy, a senior associate at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that given the “advanced nature of the attack, [the terrorists are] very likely to have gotten assistance from some other organization at a minimum.”
Ms. Dormandy, who previously served as director for South Asia at the National Security Council, said, “The attack specifically targeted Westerners. Thus, while there has been a huge impact in India, it is more likely that the motivation was primarily against the West, rather than the Indian government or people.”
Some analysts urged India to tone down the rhetoric.
Daniel S. Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that because the militants based in Pakistan have now turned against their own political leadership and even parts of their military leadership, “India’s leaders will need to be circumspect in their response.”
“There’s no point in threatening the leaders of a weak Pakistani state that are themselves targets of terrorism,” he said.
Mr. Markey predicted that if the group that attacked Bombay ends up being Lashkar-e-Taiba, the main fallout would be that the U.S. and India would place even greater pressure on Pakistan’s government to arrest and sideline Lashkar-e-Taiba and its associates within Pakistan. But he said it was unlikely there will be a “military escalation or punitive strikes against Pakistani targets by India, mainly because it is hard to see how that would benefit India’s broader strategic interests.”
Mr. Zardari, Pakistan’s president, tried to defuse the tension Saturday in an interview with an Indian television channel.
“Whoever is responsible for the brutal and crude act against the Indian people and India are looking for reaction,” Mr. Zardari said. “We have to rise above them and make sure ourselves, yourself and world community guard against overreaction.”
Meanwhile, the future of the India-Pakistan dialogue appears to hinge on the findings of investigations into the attacks. Ms. Dormandy predicted the dialogue would continue “perhaps with a hiatus while both sides investigate.”
Mr. Kronstadt said he suspected that “an overarching sense of anxiety and suspicion could emerge as a result of these heinous attacks.”