On November 26, 2008, a group of infiltrators bearing assault rifles and grenades attacked multiple targets in the Indian city of Mumbai, killing 164 people. Soon afterwards, NDTV described the incident on 26/11 as “one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of India.”
Although the perpetrators received training in Pakistan, the funds for the attack came from Saudi Arabia. In 2010, The Guardian, citing leaked documents, revealed that then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had signed a memo pointing to Saudi-based donors as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The highlight of the report was Saudi funding of Lakshkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group responsible for 26/11 attacks.
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Last month, during Modi’s visit to Riyadh, India and Saudi Arabia discussed a number of issues. But as expected, the focus was on counterterrorism. Needless to say, if New Delhi wants to be effective in tackling terrorism, a partnership with Riyadh holds the key. Unless governments challenge the ability of terrorists to plan and operate from foreign bases, measures to fight terrorism remain incomplete and deficient. Saudi Arabia is one such base.
There have been reports that members of Indian Mujahideen, known as IM, have traveled to Saudi Arabia, mostly on Pakistani passports. There, they have found recruits and raised funds. Further, the Kingdom has been a safe-haven for jihadists targeting India and other countries – including members of the Pakistan-based LeT.
Apart from this, with a pious and wealthy populace, Saudi Arabia is also a major source of funds for jihadists worldwide. Terror outfits targeting India have received aid from donors residing in the Kingdom. There are numerous means through which these funds travel from Saudi Arabia to India. A recent investigation by India Today revealed that funds for Indian terror groups are sent through Hajj pilgrims. Previously, India had asked the authorities in Saudi Arabia to keep a close watch on them. Today, there are also concerns that these pilgrims could become a target of radicalization. Groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and IM could hunt for potential recruits among the 150,000 devout Indians visiting Mecca every year.
Thus, an active partnership with the Kingdom holds the key to enhancing the effectiveness of India’s counterterrorism drive. New Delhi needs Saudi help to challenge the recruiting and fund-raising activities in the kingdom that have sustained these groups targeting India.
Getting Beyond the Traditional Impediments
Although a recent development, counterterrorism cooperation is not a new facet of the bilateral relationship. In 2010, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh, leaders of both countries signed the pivotal Riyadh Declaration. Among other things, they agreed to “develop joint strategies” to combat terrorism. Ever since, both countries have shared information leading to the arrest and deportation of terror suspects wanted in India – including Abu Sufiyan, one of seven LeT operatives sought by New Delhi. Further, soon after the attack in Pathankot earlier this year, the Saudi leadership expressed its readiness to cooperate with the investigation – a gesture seen by many as signalling the Saudi desire to collaborate against terror.
Nevertheless, certain impediments have constrained the room for cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi alliance with Pakistan and its position on Kashmir are chief among them.
Although the counterterrorism partnership between India-Saudi Arabia is highly touted, the picture is not as rosy as many commentators would have us believe. Groups like LeT and IM that target India are nurtured and sustained by the Pakistani military. Their operatives have traveled to Saudi Arabia – possibly with the connivance of Saudi authorities – on passports supplied by their patrons in Islamabad. Although the deportation of terror suspects – more or less frequent since 2011 – is cited as evidence of a growing partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh, it must not be ignored that these moves are a result of sustained pressure.
On many occasions, Indian diplomats have decried Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to act against terror suspects. Recently one Indian official complained, “Though Saudi Arabia does not wish to be seen as sheltering terrorists, it is also unwilling to annoy Pakistan by handing over suspects with first-hand knowledge of the Inter-Services Intelligence’s links with terrorist groups targeting us.”
The Saudi-Pakistan alliance has long raised concerns in New Delhi. Well before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Riyadh and Islamabad had forged an active partnership based on common interest, geographic proximity, and shared Islamic values. A Saudi official once described the alliance as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries.”
Since the 1960s, Pakistan has trained the Saudi security forces. Today, the military/intelligence partnership between both countries runs very deep. Pakistan has been a dependable ally for Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s “best bet for a long term security guarantee.” Recently, Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Rasheel Sharif declared that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” In return for its service, Islamabad gets billions of dollars’ worth of aid from the coffers of Saudi state, which has been a relief for the cash-strapped republic.
Pakistan will only continue to grow as an important partner for Saudi Arabia. Since the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz met for the first time in 1945, the United States has been the principal guarantor of Saudi security. However, with its reluctance to shore up Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – a long-time ally of the United States – Washington has demonstrated its changing interests. Further, U.S. support for the nuclear deal with Iran has provoked further concerns regarding American commitment to the security of its Gulf allies. Now with Iran rising and America reluctant, Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan more than ever. Quoting an Indian diplomat, an Indian daily reported, “Locked in an intense geopolitical struggle with Iran … Saudi Arabia has become hesitant to jeopardize its relationship with Pakistan by cracking down on the LeT.”
The nature of the Saudi state is another impediment. The ruling elites in Riyadh draw from Islamic canons to legitimize their grip on power. Thus, the Saudi leadership would recoil at the idea of targeting Islamist groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) that don’t challenge its authority. Further, JuD is a fundraising subsidiary of LeT that is registered as an Islamic charity. It would be paradoxical for an Islamic regime to clamp down on an Islamist group that enjoys widespread popularity in the Islamic world. JuD’s reputation is credited to its charity and relief works that have earned it the hearts and minds of people in the Islamic world.
Moreover, with the war raging in Yemen, JuD has been a useful ally for the Saudi government. The group has publicly defended the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, portraying the crisis there as a “result of a Jewish-Crusader alliance out to destroy the Muslim holy places.” Last year, the group also campaigned aggressively to court Pakistani involvement in the fray.
New Developments Favor India
Although there are hurdles, Saudi Arabia is a valuable partner for India and vice versa. India is on course to become the third largest consumer of oil. As one of the largest consumers of oil and a country with fast-growing demand, India is a prized market for Saudi oil.
Further, now that Saudi Arabia has set out to diversify its economy, courting foreign investors has become a priority for the regime there. Unlike Pakistan, India has the necessary expertise and capital to invest in the Kingdom. Thus, being a major market for Saudi oil and a potential investor, India could trump Pakistan in the Saudi calculus.
Apart from these, recent developments in Saudi-Pakistan relations are also reassuring for the advocates of closer ties between India and Saudi Arabia. In March 2015, Pakistan’s parliament rejected the Saudi request for participation in the on-going Yemeni civil war. Ever since, it is widely argued that Saudi-Pakistan ties have been headed downhill.
Pakistani reluctance is due in part to its concerns over domestic security. As a nation with the second-largest Shia population, Pakistan understands the cost of provoking Iran. Moreover, Pakistan’s growing ties with Iran help explain its reluctance to fight a supposed Iranian proxy.
After Iran reached a framework agreement with P5+1, last year, Pakistan has publicly sought out Iranian partnership in a number of areas. Earlier this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was invited to Islamabad for talks. Pakistan and Iran share common ground over a number of issues, and as Pakistan’s demand for natural gas and electricity go up, its dependence on Iran is expected to scale higher. A natural gas pipeline from Bushehr in Iran to Punjab in Pakistan is awaiting completion. Further, Iran has agreed to supply Pakistan with 3,000 MW of electricity at a competitive price – vital for a country frustrated with power crises. A partnership with Tehran would yield tangible benefits for Islamabad and the leadership there is aware of that.
However, despite all these factors, it is not safe to assume that Saudi-Pakistan ties are moving downhill. Both countries still need each other and their alliance will only take a minor blow from Pakistan’s growing interest in Iran. It will not be easy for Saudi Arabia to find a suitable partner who could substitute for Pakistan. Nevertheless, now that Islamabad has begun flirting with Tehran, it offers Saudi Arabia better leeway to maneuver in its relations with India – including on counterterrorism.
Room for Cautious Optimism
Apparently, talks on counterterrorism stole the limelight during Modi’s Riyadh visit last month. It is likely that both countries will continue to cooperate along the already established lines. During Modi’s visit, India and Saudi Arabia converged on the need to tackle terror financing. However, it remains to be seen if the Saudi leadership will clamp down on groups like JuD, which are popular Islamic charities and useful allies. Unless and until it challenges the ability of these groups to recruit and raise funds in the Kingdom, the counterterrorism partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh will remain hollow.
In the end, despite the broad convergence of views, it must be noted that the core interests of both countries diverge in places. Saudi Arabia may find useful some of the groups that India shuns. Further, Riyadh’s dependence on Islamabad means that the Saudi leadership would hesitate to target organizations with links to ISI.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, some of the recent developments could pave the way for better cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia on the counterterror front. These offer room for cautious optimism.
Issac James Manayath is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he pursued MSc. in History of International Relations. He is currently a researcher focusing on Inter-State Relations in the Persian Gulf.