This was an interview I did with the security expert B. Raman days after the US warning that India could be on Al-Qaeda's radar. B Raman is a retired bureaucrat and has been a former member of the National Security Advisory Board (2000 to 2002) and the Special Task Force on revamping the intelligence apparatus in the country.
Does the Al-Qaeda have a presence in India?
As far as I know there is no presence of Al-Qaeda as an organisation in India. It is an exclusively Arab organisation because Osama bin Laden does not admit non-arabs for the sake of his own security. He hires only those people whose loyalty he is certain of. But there are a number of other organisations that are associated with the Al-Qaeda in the international Islamic front through the United Front of Jihadi organisations of the World formed by him in February 1998. Four of them are very active in India - the Lashkar e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-jihad-al-Islami and Jaish e-Mohammed. These four are associated with Al-Qaeda.
After 9/11 when America attacked Afghanistan the command and control of Al-Qaeda were considerably disrupted. At that time Osama bin Laden asked LeT to take over responsibility of co-ordinating the work of the international Islamic front.
Also, since April this year Osama bin Laden has started taking more interest in India. He made a broadcast on April 23rd where he projected global jihad as a conspiracy of Christians, Jews and Hindus against Islam. So since April he has included Hindus as well.
To answer your question - Al-Qaeda itself does not exist in India, but it has links with several organisations and individuals here.
What was the immediate provocation for him to include the term 'Hindus' in his April broadcast?
It happened immediately after George W. Bush's visit to India. He made a broadcast through an audio tape released through Al-Jazeera. There he said that Bush has allowed himself to be pressurised by the government of India to exercise pressure on Pakistan to stop assistance to Jihadis in Kashmir. So the immediate provocation is the close relationship between India and the US.
Al-Qaeda is becoming an ideology. So does it become just as dangerous that they have links here, even if they dont exist in India?
Al-Qaeda is an ideology which they have borrowed from Pakistan - what they call international Islamism, where they say that the first loyalty of a Muslim is to his religion and then only to the country of which he is a citizen. They claim, Muslims do not recognise national frontiers - so they have the right to make jihad anywhere where Muslims are in danger and their human rights are being violated.
Previously Al-Qaeda was content to act through organisations like LeT, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen etc. They had left it to them - they just provided money, arms and ideas. Since April the Al-Qaeda has taken a more direct interest in India.
Indian Muslims have kept themselves away from the Al-Qaeda and a small number supports groups like the LeT. As a result Indian muslims are not under suspicion - for example a Pakistani Muslim can't get a visa easily to go to the US and Europe. They can't transfer money easily - even through legitimate banking channels it takes a long time because enquiries are made, whereas Indian Muslims are not yet under suspicion - they have kept away from Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is very keen to organise another major terror strike against the US. So he is looking for people who have not come to the adverse notice of the western intelligence agencies and thats why they are trying to recruit Indians - not only for terror against India but also for terrorist operations in the West. Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda think they can travel much more easily. For example, Bilal al Hindi - a Muslim of Gujarati origin (he was a Hindu Gujarati convert to Islam from East Africa and has been arrested in the UK) was sent to the US because he would not be viewed with as much suspicion as a Pakistani Muslim.
Then will bin Laden find his human resource here?
Well, one has to make a distinction between radicalisation and pan-Islamisation. The radicalisation of Indian Muslims started after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Dec. 1992. Earlier you had communal riots but there was never an act of jihadi terrorism. The first act on Indian territory outside Kashmir took place after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. While they became radical they were not supporting the Al-Qaeda. If Al-Qaeda is to have a base here, it has to have some support from Indian Muslims. Till April this year they did not have support unlike in some parts of south east Asia where you'll find Osama bin Laden caps and T-shirts being sold openly. But in April, when Bush came there were a number of demonstrations in Bombay, Delhi and Lucknow. I read in newspapers that in Bombay people shoulted pro-Osama slogans. Its a very small number but there is that small number that is getting attracted to his pan-Islamist ideology, whereas, previously they were just radicalised. They did not look upon it as part of a global movement. Their problem was with the government at the centre and the state. Now Al-Qaeda is trying to make them feel that they are part of a global movement.