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    South Asia
     Feb 26, 2009

'Conspiracies' cloud India's terror probe
By Sreeram Chaulia

After 79 days of beating around the bush, the government of Pakistan finally accepted earlier this month that "some part of the conspiracy" for last November's terrorist attack in Mumbai was planned on its soil. While Western pressure may have forced the belated admission that India's claims of Pakistani involvement in the attacks were true, it is worth probing why a denial was resorted to in the first place.

Just after the attack, Pakistan claimed there was "no credible evidence" to support the involvement of its nationals or its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. As the weeks wore on after arguably the deadliest act of urban terrorism the world has ever seen, proof piled up which implicated not only Pakistan's "non-state actors", but also their state minders. Still, the cries of "no evidence" grew louder in Islamabad.

The reasoning behind this strategy was to show the world that India had unfairly accused Pakistan of complicity in terrorism to tarnish its international reputation, and that New Delhi instinctively makes a scapegoat out of Islamabad for its "domestic problems".

To further this, state agencies planted stories in the Pakistani media claiming that the lone gunman captured alive from the sites of the attack - Ajmal Amir (Kasab) - was "kidnapped" in Nepal in 2006 and handed over to India to be pulled out like a rabbit from the hat for a Mumbai-like occasion. Nepal immediately denied this bizarre theory and the claim was not bought internationally.

Several countries agreed after a careful assessment that the attackers were indeed trained jihadis sent from Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan's security apparatus was flooding domestic newspapers and airwaves with claims that India had no credible evidence of its involvement, and that its accusations of Pakistani involvement were a demonstration of New Delhi's hostility and aggressive intent.

The more India was painted as an unreasonable and reflexive foe that instinctively searches for a Pakistani hand in every violent terrorist attack, the more a national consensus built up to back the army and the ISI's rejection of Indian demands for the handover of the terrorists harbored by Pakistan. Security professionals in Pakistan's garrison city of Rawalpindi did not have to even instigate the demonstrations which broke out in many parts of the country against India's "hostility" and "baseless allegations".

Many observers point out that the real winners of the Mumbai attack were the Pakistani army and the ISI, which were keen to find a pretext (Indian hostility) that could halt the American-backed war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The world knew the truth and saw all the smoking guns, but it still allowed the Pakistani state's denial and evasion tactics to grow bolder. One of the biggest sources of relief for Pakistan as India drummed up diplomatic pressure after November came in the form of Islamabad's all-weather strategic ally - China. The Chinese state picked up the baton when the ISI passed it and fanned the utterly absurd conspiracy theory that "Hindu fanatics" could be the perpetrators of the Mumbai horror.

Two days after the attacks, a report published in Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, quoted "analysts" as saying that "radical elements from Hinduism could have also carried out this attack, because they have long opposed the US's hegemonistic policies" as they were "unhappy with domestic and foreign policies of the Congress-led government".

Li Wei, the director of anti-terrorist studies at China's Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told official media that India was accusing Pakistan to "cover up" its own "flaws and shortcomings".

Like the last-minute obstruction China brought forward at the Nuclear Suppliers' Group in Vienna when India was about to secure the waiver for the civilian nuclear deal with the US, this mimicking of Pakistani conspiracy theories stung Indians and warned them for the umpteenth time that trusting Beijing was naive. At a solemn hour when Indians were counting the dead and trying to seek long-denied justice, China hid behind the facade of conspiracy theories.

In late December, New Delhi presented a full dossier of evidence to Pakistan's closest allies - China and Saudi Arabia - stating the culpability of the separatist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI supporters in the Mumbai attacks.

This exercise did little to change the Chinese line on Pakistan and it continued to avoid a hardline and ask Pakistan to hand over terrorists to India. What was achieved by sharing evidence with China, though, was an exposure of Beijing's false commitments to cooperating with the rest of the world to fight the "common scourge" of terrorism.

The strong political motives behind conspiracy theories such as Pakistan's are not often appreciated by people. Gossip is harmless when it is just loose social talk to spice up the banality of daily life, but when it is elevated to the point of affecting international political communications, there is more than likely a conspiracy behind the conspiracy theories.

Take, for example, the wild speculation about the "real attackers" in many parts of the Muslim world after the September 11, 2001, strikes in New York and Washington. The most memorable one, which spread like wildfire across cyberspace and Muslim countries, was that the attacks were the handiwork of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. This theory also claimed that Jews working in the World Trade Center (WTC) had been tipped off in advance not to come in on the fateful morning.

Although the theory was clearly debunked by statistics which showed that some 15% to 17% of the victims at the WTC that day were Jewish, the so-called "Muslim street" was still in the mood to ask for more "concrete proof" that the hijackers of the planes were actually jihadis.

Even after Osama bin Laden's famous videotape detailing why and how he masterminded the attacks arrived via the news agency al-Jazeera in October 2004, the skeptics and denial specialists kept up the refrain that the tape may not be authentic or that Bin Laden was taking credit for something he never did.

The political backdrop of this stubborn refusal to face the facts was the American-led "war on terror", which caused great violence and harm in the Middle East and beyond. Opposition to the "war on terror", its targets and methods was perfectly justifiable, but intelligence agencies in many Muslim states used the conspiracy theories to tell Washington that their hands were tied by public opinion - that they could not act against jihadis or serve American demands for cooperation. "Gossip" was thus indirectly turned into an excuse for government inaction against fundamentalist outfits.

Conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks do not always originate from jihadis and their sympathizers. When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred in the United States in 1995, many Americans saw a "foreign hand" in it, notably al-Qaeda, and it was a bitter pill for them to swallow when Timothy McVeigh, a white American male, was eventually convicted for the attack.

At the domestic social level, conspiracy theories often relate to stereotypes of race, religion and ethnicity that predestine individuals to suspect that, say, the detested Muslim, Christian, Jew or Hindu is the "real" perpetrator. The politicization of these social biases is achieved through intelligence agencies, which fine-tune them into arguments and foreign policy positions at the international level.

Now that Pakistan has acknowledged "partial" responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, the question remains whether all the perpetrators will ever be brought to book. The irony of the present juncture is that if India does heed the advice of strategists and opens a covert front against the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan, it will reinforce the weight of the ISI and the army in Rawalpindi and all the "Indiaphobia" they have propagated in Pakistani society.

But the price of doing nothing is worse for India, because the image of a perpetually antagonistic India has already seeped into Pakistani society and the next audacious cross-border attack may be only a few months or years away.

Recent investigative reports in Asia Times Online (see Indian army 'backed out' of Pakistan attack, Jan 20) revealed that India failed to take prompt retaliatory measures against Pakistan after Mumbai due to military under-preparedness rather than a lack of political will. Intelligence analysts have also pointed out that India's capability to perform covert actions against terrorist organizations in neighboring countries was downgraded during the brief 1997 prime ministerial tenure of I K Gujral.

Unless New Delhi reverses these self-defeating policies, attacks like last November's will keep happening, and they will again be followed by the now all-too-familiar ritualistic denials and conspiracy theories from the perpetrating side.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

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