NEW DELHI – The bombing of a popular restaurant last Saturday evening in Pune, second in importance to Mumbai in the western State of Maharashtra and among the fastest growing cities in India, has left investigators wondering why the terrorists chose this particular target. This is the first major terrorist strike outside the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir after the Mumbai carnage of November 26, 2008, in which 173 people, including nine Israelis, were killed.
The restaurant in Pune, called the German Bakery, attracts many foreigners looking for a place to lounge around over good food and drinks. It is possible that the terrorists believed high casualties among foreigners would fetch them worldwide media coverage. The attack on Café Leopold in Mumbai, also patronized by foreigners, on November 26, 2008, had served this purpose.
But there is reason to believe that Pune’s Chabad House, which is located across the road from the German Bakery, and where many Jews visiting the city stay, may well have been the intended target of Saturday’s attack. The terrorists who carried the bomb (an improvised explosive device made of RDX and ammonium nitrate) could have panicked at the sight of heavy security at Chabad House and just dumped the bag at the German Bakery.
The bomb exploded when a waiter was asked to open and check the bag, which had been left behind under a table. Nine persons were killed in the explosion, including an Iranian and a Nigerian. At least 40 people, among them many foreigners, have suffered serious injuries.
Investigators are scanning CCTV footage collected from a hotel across the German Bakery. They are believed to have zeroed in on two men for their “suspicious movements.” Sketches have been released and a hunt is on for those involved in the attack.
What lends credibility to the view that Chabad House and not the German café was the intended target is the fact that David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani American who has been arrested by the FBI and charged with being a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s (LeT) Chicago cell, twice visited Pune in 2008 and 2009 to scout for potential terror targets. Headley’s associate, Pakistani Canadian Tahawwur Hussein Rana, has also been arrested and charged with fronting for the LeT.
Headley, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American mother, who was known as Daood Gilani before he changed his name to avoid scrutiny by Indian visa officers, seemed to have focused on the Osho Ashram, also a short distance from the German Bakery, which he visited in 2009. Osho Ashram is a commune set up by the colorful and controversial late Indian guru Acharya Rajneesh; its members are largely wealthy Westerners looking for nirvana.
In hindsight, that was a red herring. Headley’s real interest lay in the Jewish cultural and prayer center. He is believed to have mapped the exact location and terrain of the Chabad House in Mumbai, as well as the Chabad House in Delhi, apart from the Chabad House in Pune. The ease with which terrorists gained access to the Chabad House, located in a densely populated byway of Mumbai, on November 26, 2008, is attributed to details provided to the LeT by Headley.
Nine Jews, including Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, were killed in that attack. Their toddler son Moshe had a miraculous escape – he was rescued by his Indian nanny.
After the travel details of David Headley and Hussein Rana were provided to Indian intelligence agencies by the FBI, it emerged that he had mapped the terrain of Israeli and Jewish establishments in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and other cities he visited. This has resulted in increased security cover for Israeli establishments, especially Chabad Houses which keep their doors open to all. The Chabad House in Pune is now heavily guarded. This may have deterred the terrorists.
Islamist radicals have long accused India of forging a Hindu-Jewish-Christian alliance by strengthening relations with Israel and the US. This is cleverly aimed at fomenting discontent among India’s Muslims, comprising nearly 13-14 percent of the population. A vast majority of these Muslims would want to shun violence. But there is a sector that is swayed by anti-Christian (American/Western) and anti-Jewish (Israeli) hate speech heard during Friday prayers in many mosques and found in propaganda in community publications published in Urdu, Arabic and English.
What has emerged on the basis of initial investigations is that last Saturday’s attack was planned by the LeT leadership in Pakistan. India has provided Pakistan with several dossiers containing evidence of the involvement of the LeT leadership, especially Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, in the Mumbai massacre. The men who planted the bomb at the German Bakery may have been members of the Indian Mujahideen, an LeT front which carried out the devastating bombings in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Delhi, apart from cities in Uttar Pradesh, in 2008.
Interestingly, a senior Indian Mujahideen operative, Shahzad, who escaped a police raid on a terrorist hideout in Delhi in 2008, was recently arrested in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Azamgarh, a Muslim-dominated district of India’s most populated state, has acquired the dubious distinction of producing the largest number of home-grown Islamic terrorists.
The terrorist strike in Pune comes soon after Abdul Rehman Makki, a top aide of Hafiz Saeed and considered the number two in the hierarchy of the LeT which is now known as Jamaat-ud-Daawa’h, threatened jihadi attacks on Delhi, Pune and Kanpur (an industrial city in Uttar Pradesh) in early-February as part of the Islamist campaign to “liberate Kashmir.”
Pakistan, which faced international pressure and a UN Security Council resolution after the Mumbai attack to crack down on the LeT and other terrorist organizations whose linkages with the government and military are well established, has yet to initiate decisive and demonstrative measures. Instead, there appears to be a move to revive the Pakistani government’s policy of promoting cross-border terrorism.
The Congress-led federal government of India, which had suspended bilateral dialogue with Pakistan after 26/11 – the Mumbai terror attack – has offered to resume talks. The foreign secretaries of the two countries are scheduled to meet on February 25. The Pune bombing could have been directed at either scuttling the meeting or setting the agenda on Pakistan’s terms.
India’s main opposition party, the BJP, during whose tenure in power
from 1998 to 2004 relations with Israel blossomed, has opposed the
resumption of dialogue. The BJP, pointing out that “terrorism and talks
cannot go hand in hand,” has said the Obama administration is pushing
for the talks as part of its AfPak policy, and the government of India
should instead demand visible action against Pakistani terrorist groups.
Kanchan Gupta is associate editor of The Pioneer, a 146-year-old English newspaper, based in New Delhi.