The question of al Qaeda’s presence in Kashmir is quickly becoming a critical issue in both the U.S. war against al Qaeda and the India-Pakistan conflict. Washington will have to find ways to deal with al Qaeda’s forces in Kashmir despite both Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s unwillingness to let U.S. forces operate there. If a war breaks out between India and Pakistan, the first front would be in Kashmir, where al Qaeda’s participation in anti-Indian resistance would complicate matters further. Kashmir is also where al Qaeda hopes to improve its strategic position vis a vis the United States.
STRATFOR sources from several countries have confirmed that al Qaeda is indeed present in both Pakistan-controlled and India-held parts of Kashmir. All parties involved, from Washington to Islamabad to New Delhi, are aware of this, but they continue issuing conflicting statements, each for their own reasons. STRATFOR recently wrote about the rationale behind the United States changing its stance on the matter.
More important than whether or not al Qaeda’s presence in Kashmir is acknowledged is what al Qaeda is doing and planning in Kashmir, what forces it has there and how they are likely to be used.
Al Qaeda established a presence in Kashmir in its early years. The region always has served as al Qaeda’s recruitment base, specialized training ground and safe haven. The relative importance of these uses for al Qaeda keeps changing, but in absolute terms it remains high and has increased especially after the Taliban regime was overthrown in Afghanistan. But the chief importance al Qaeda is attaching to Kashmir now is that it is where the United States will become bogged down while trying to stop an India-Pakistan war — and if it becomes the grave for the pro-U.S. Musharraf regime, all the better.
Kashmir has been important in al Qaeda’s recruitment function since the early 1990s. The network there consists of a few full-time and many more part-time members. Even its senior leaders alternate their efforts and time between contributing to al Qaeda proper and other militant organizations with more limited goals, such as Kashmiri separatist groups. Among such part-time senior officers have been several Kashmiris who not only helped Osama bin Laden build this network but also brought scores of other Kashmiri militants to operate in various part-time al Qaeda assignments throughout the world.
Al Qaeda actively uses both native and foreign-born Kashmiris. Known as industrial entrepreneurs, Kashmiri emigrants have successfully integrated themselves by the thousands into Western societies. Al Qaeda has taken advantage of this fact. Some support al Qaeda financially via elaborate networks of NGOs while others are al Qaeda field operatives in Europe and North America.
Kashmir has been very important for al Qaeda as a training ground for specialized terrorists. Certainly Afghanistan used to be al Qaeda’s main military training base, but as a training ground for terrorists, Kashmir has always been more important.
In Afghanistan, terrorist training in al Qaeda-run camps lacked real-life conditions because the students did not have the opportunity to put into action what they learned there. It was a conventional war, not a terrorism campaign, that the Taliban and al Qaeda led against their enemies in Afghanistan until last November. In Kashmir all terrorist training has been real in the sense that the training course in Pakistan-held Kashmir has always included as its “final exams” the penetration through the Indian border and sabotage actions on the other side.
Since al Qaeda lost Afghanistan, Kashmir has become invaluable as a training ground. The group now conducts both military and terrorist training, including real-combat encounters with Indians and subversion acts against them. One other type of training is also a Kashmir specialty for al Qaeda: the practical training of command cadres. It is in Kashmir that selected militants undergo extensive training and become either troop leaders or the heads of sabotage cells.
The United States, with the help of the Pakistani government, is fishing for al Qaeda in western Pakistan’s tribal areas, but it will mostly find former Taliban soldiers and local militants with little or no connection to al Qaeda. Having foreseen that President Pervez Musharraf would bend under U.S. pressure, many of the al Qaeda members proceeded to the then-safe Pakistan-held Kashmir rather than stay in the west. Now Kashmir serves as a major regrouping base for some al Qaeda operatives: They can prepare themselves for new orders while their leaders use Kashmir for planning operations.
Kashmir plays another role here as well. If Kashmir becomes a major battleground for India and Pakistan, the United States would be distracted by the regional war and the possible ensuing collapse of Musharraf’s regime. Al Qaeda is working hard to facilitate a sharp rise in Islamic militant attacks on India to provoke some retaliation. Although al Qaeda knows India would then attack the training camps, it also knows that the Pakistani army would inevitably get involved and New Delhi would have to switch its major efforts to defeat Pakistan rather than al Qaeda and the militants.
Whatever follows — either Pakistan’s military defeat or Musharraf’s retreat due to U.S. pressure — the assured mess in Pakistan could lead to Musharraf’s fall and the installation of an Islamic fundamentalist regime. Changing a regime from pro-U.S. to fundamentalist in a major Muslim country such as Pakistan, the second-most populous Islamic nation, has been al Qaeda’s strategic goal for years. Such an event might also dramatically turn the tide in the global war between al Qaeda and the United States.
STRATFOR sources indicate that al Qaeda forces in Kashmir may amount to only between 20 and 30 full-time people, with some being senior leaders and the rest being mid-level field operatives. There is no information that bin Laden is in Kashmir, but it cannot be ruled out. However, there are several hundred part-time militants associated with al Qaeda operating in Kashmir, some acting behind front lines in India-held parts of the region. Highly skilled and extensively trained, they lead incursions against Indians and continue running training programs for new recruits.
The small number of full-time al Qaeda members and the absence of al Qaeda-only units are deceptive because their strength is in their close links with the local Kashmiri militant groups. While al Qaeda does not exclusively own a single training camp in Kashmir, its part-time members run the camps for, and belong to, both al Qaeda and Kashmiri militant groups.
Al Qaeda’s strength in Kashmir is in this duality: Though some senior staff are foreign to Pakistan and Kashmir, the local militants willingly cooperate with them because the foreign operatives also belong to the local militant groups. Among the latter, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed Mujahideen e-Tanseem and Al Jehad Force most closely collaborate with al Qaeda in the region.
Al Qaeda — due to both the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the major help it gives in training local militant groups — has a great deal of authority in the Kashmiri and Pakistani radical Islamic movements. It has the capability to lead the events in Kashmir in the direction it needs and to lead the Islamic militancy there, if necessary, from behind the scenes. If India strikes, the heaviest losses will likely be to the local militant groups in the training camps, while those 20 to 30 senior leaders staying out of the training camps will escape.
Their mission will not be to fight advancing Indian troops but to perform the most important task for al Qaeda in the region: help Pakistani clerics organize Islamic masses and servicemen to topple Musharraf. Many of the sabotage specialists whom al Qaeda has trained under live-fire in Kashmir are already out of the region preparing to attack the United States and elsewhere. Al Qaeda will do its best to get the remaining ones out of Kashmir before the start of any war.
Washington, New Delhi and Musharraf’s regime still need to invent effective ways to deal with al Qaeda in Kashmir. The small abatement in Indo-Pakistani tension has not disrupted al Qaeda’s grand plan to have both nations clash in Kashmir. Nor did it disrupt al Qaeda’s operations in Kashmir. For that, the Pakistani army should not just block the border but liquidate the joint al Qaeda-Kashmiri militant training camps — something that may well prove deadly, more so for Musharraf than for al Qaeda.