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IDSA COMMENT

Could Pune be a Future Terrorist Target?

August 17, 2006

Pune, the Oxford of the East and the cultural capital of Maharashtra, is known for its educational institutions and manufacturing industries and as a home for retired service personnel. Lately, it has also become the hub for the automobile and IT sectors in western India. At the same time the city has now emerged as a link in the terrorist chain after the recent 7/11 Mumbai blasts. Given that terrorists have turned their attention on the emerging Indian IT sector, there is a possibility that Pune may become the future target of terrorist attacks perpetrated by foreign terrorists worryingly in collusion with local support.

Over the last few years, India has been witnessing the dangerous trend of Pakistan-based terrorists operating in cities across its territory. Terrorist targets are no more limited to only attacks on the security forces and government establishments but have expanded to include strikes against India's economic and strategic assets. This fact was testified to by the busting of a Delhi based Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) cell, which with the help of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had planned to attack the IT centres of India. In fact, on December 25, 2005 there was an attack by the LeT members on the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore, which led to the arrest of the south Indian commander of the LeT, Abdul Rehman. It was found out that the arrested terrorists were also planning to attack the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun.

In a seeming continuation of this trend, National Security Advisor M K Narayanan stated on July 29 that there was a serious threat from the LeT to nuclear installations in the country. Security has consequently been strengthened at the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka, and in the last few days at Kalpakkam as well. All these indicate an expanding terrorist network in the southern part of the country and the targeting of the symbols of 'emerging India' including the IT sector, scientific establishments and sensitive installations like nuclear power plants.

The question that therefore arises is whether Pune could emerge as a future target for terrorist attacks. Pune, among others is fast emerging as a major IT centre, with sprawling software parks being established all over the city as well as in the suburbs. Over the last two years the city has overtaken Mumbai in software exports and over 110 new units were registered for software products and services in 2005-2006. Software exports from Pune have soared from Rs. 5 crores worth in the late 1990s to about Rs. 9,000 crores today. It has over 200 major software companies (including Infosys Technologies, Wipro, IBM and Hewlett Packard, Tata Consultancy Services, and Cognizant Technologies), four private IT parks and three governmental IT parks.

Pune could be a potential target given that terror networks have developed deep roots in Maharashtra. In the past few months, Maharashtra has seen terrorism-related events in towns such as Nagpur, Nashik, Aurangabad, Beed, Malegaon, and Kolhapur. The increased vigilance exercised by the Maharashtra police and its Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) led to the arrest of the alleged western India based LeT commander, Faisal Seikh on July 27, 2006. He went to Pakistan in 2004 and 2005 for weapons training and has also been accused of having links with the ISI operative, Azam Chima. Security agencies are now publicly acknowledging the presence of "sleeper cells" in Maharashtra and estimate that as many as 200 youths in the state are undergoing training to carry out terrorist activities. In addition, an LeT spokesmen has declared that at least a dozen Muslim youths from Maharashtra are active in the LeT terror network.

Reports also suggest that a number of terrorists are operating in Pune with the support of local SIMI activists. On March 11, 2001, police arrested Sajid Sundke, the Pune unit chief of SIMI, and four of his associates for suspected involvement in the communal riots in Ganj Peth and Ghorpade Peth areas of the city. SIMI has been accused of playing a key role in several incidents of violence in the country, including the October 2005 bomb blasts in Delhi. This organization, which was formed at Aligarh on April 25, 1977, now has a strong base in Maharashtra (Aurangabad, Malegaon, Jalgaon, Thane and Pune districts), Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It has some 400 full-time members and 20,000 ordinary members. SIMI activists became good targets for the LeT's recruitment campaign in the 1990s. An official report has indicated that the organisation has established links with terrorist outfits and is supporting militancy in J&K and other places.

Pune was indeed a target of terrorists' plans as revealed by the arrest of Sohail Shaikh on July 25, 2006 in connection with the 7/11 Mumbai blasts. He is reported to be a resident of Bhimpura near Pune Camp, was trained in explosives at a terror module in Pakistan in 2003 and had close links with Pakistan's ISI. The presence of LeT in the city was established when three youths were arrested from Pune Cantonment and Kondhwa areas in June 2002 in connection with the 1993 Mulund Blasts. There are reports that key LeT operatives are living in the city and are establishing terror modules in the state. A resident of Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, Mujaheed Geelani is suspected to be the key operative in the recent 7/11 Mumbai blasts. He surrendered to Pune police on July 27. It was revealed that he was in Pune on the day of the blast and went underground thereafter. Intelligence sources further claim that both Sohail and Geelani are suspected to have provided 'transit' to people with suspect backgrounds in the past.

Given the above, it would not be surprising if a terrorist strike were to occur in Pune in the foreseeable future.