Some see India-Israel ties as real target in Mumbai

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Some counter-terrorism experts in India are convinced that the country’s growing ties to Israel were a prime factor behind the targeting of a small Jewish center in the deadly Mumbai attacks.

These experts, despite an ongoing investigation of the assailants’ motives, have concluded that the assault on the obscure Nariman House was more sophisticated than those on the city’s two luxury hotels, an indication that it was a prime target in the November operation.

“Their aim was to humiliate India, that is aim No. 1,” said retired Indian Vice Adm. Premvir S. Das. “Two [was to] tell the Indians clearly that your growing linkage with Israel is not what you should be doing. I think the rest is peripheral.”


Das and other members of a high-level delegation of Indian government and business leaders met in Washington in December with senior U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials, including then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and discussed the Mumbai violence, in which more than 170 people were killed.

The relationship between India and Israel has grown into one of the most important for both countries, particularly in arms sales. India has become Israel’s largest customer, acquiring about $1.5 billion in weapons every year. Only Russia sells more arms to India.

Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia analyst at the CIA, said the Indian space agency launched a highly sophisticated Israeli spy satellite a year ago, the first of what is expected to be three such launches.

Israel’s ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, declined to discuss the security relationship between the countries, saying Israel never talks about it publicly. But Sofer acknowledged that they had grown closer in nonmilitary areas in recent years, noting that Israeli-Indian trade has increased from $80 million in 1991, the year the nations established diplomatic ties, to more than $3.5 billion last year.

Israeli companies also have invested heavily in India, particularly in the real estate and agriculture sectors, and India, especially the western city of Goa, has become a prime tourist destination for Israelis. According to data compiled by the Indian tourism ministry, the number of Israelis visiting India has more than quadrupled over the last decade, to more than 40,000 annually.

Direct evidence, however, that the Mumbai attackers were targeting this increasingly friendly relationship remains piecemeal.


Early in the assault, an attacker who was part of the operation on Nariman House called an Indian TV news channel and railed against the September visit by a senior Israeli military official, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, to the divided Kashmir region. Mizrahi reportedly spoke to Indian officers about counter-terrorism strategies.

In addition, Indian media have reported that the lone suspect captured in the attacks, Ajmal Amir Kasab, has told authorities that the assailants were specifically targeting Israeli citizens at the Jewish center and had staked out the facility far in advance.

Das, the retired vice admiral, said the ruthlessness of the attack at the Jewish center indicated how important the location was to the assailants.

“They targeted a nondescript apartment building, which is known to be visited and known to be host to Israeli people,” Das said.

But not everyone familiar with the Indian investigation is convinced that the bilateral relationship was specifically targeted.

One senior New Delhi-based diplomat who has been briefed on the investigation said Indian officials were making too much of the relationship.


There are more logical explanations for attacking a facility tied to Israelis, the diplomat said, including a possible effort by militants to strike at a traditional Islamist boogeyman to defray criticism from the Muslim world of attacks on unarmed civilians.

“The Indian-Israeli relationship is not something that started yesterday,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. “It’s not something that is in the public eye right now, either.”

Still, several Indian analysts noted that the attacks came on the heels of increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from militant groups, including Al Qaeda, attempting to link the two countries in a “Zionist-Hindu war” against Islam.

The analysts said India was unlikely to change its policies toward Israel because of the Mumbai attacks.

“It was targeted at that cooperation, which was evolving and continues to evolve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, a former commander of counter-terrorism operations along the India-Pakistan border.

Several Al Qaeda leaders, particularly Ayman Zawahiri, the network’s No. 2, have alleged a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” conspiracy since the late 1990s, and attacks carried out by Zawahiri’s pre-Al Qaeda organization have hit targets it said were part of a joint Indian-Israeli effort to spy on Pakistani nuclear sites.


But the rhetoric has become more pronounced. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose initial grievances focused on Western troops in Arab lands and later expanded to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, released an audiotape in 2006 in which he referred to a “Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims” and added Pakistani resentments over India’s control of a portion of Kashmir to his list of perceived anti-Muslim grievances.

Analysts said the change in rhetoric appears to be a result of cross-pollination between the largely Arab Al Qaeda and Pakistani extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization accused in the Mumbai attacks.

Although many current and former Indian officials said they did not believe the attacks would slow India’s diplomatic embrace of Israel, they acknowledged that India’s large Muslim population and the country’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil made the relationship complex domestically.

Prominent Indian Muslim leaders have condemned the Mumbai attacks and have not raised India’s ties to Israel as a problem.

“As far as India’s relations with Israel are concerned, they have a dynamic of their own,” said Rajendra M. Abhyankar, a former Indian ambassador who helped formulate New Delhi’s counter-terrorism policies. “They stand on their own and are not hostile to the fact that we still have more than 115 million Muslims in India, the second-largest Muslim community in the world.”