By Hiranmay Karlekar
June 30, 2012
By handing over Abu Jundal, Riyadh has demonstrated its firm commitment to fighting the global menace of terrorism and strengthening ties with India.
The arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari underlines the increasingly cordial relations between India and Saudi Arabia and the growing cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the two countries. Ansari, aka Abu Jundal and Abu Hamza, wanted in connection with the 2006 Aurangabad arms haul, 26/11 attacks in Mumbai when he was in the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s control room directing the terrorists about media statements, targets and killing of hostages, and the German Bakery blast in Pune in 2010, was extradited and put on a flight to New Delhi, where he was arrested on June 21.
The development doubtless followed American intercession with Saudi authorities who had arrested Ansari last year in Saudi Arabia where he was travelling on a Pakistani passport under the name of Riasat Ali. It was also preceded by India proving his status as a national of this country by providing Saudi authorities with samples for DNA comparison and voice samples from telephone intercepts during the 26/11 attacks. Clearly, a great deal of work had to be done before the Saudis acted. But the fact they finally deported him is significant in the light of Riyadh’s long and close ties with Islamabad, which too had sought Ansari’s custody on the plea of his being a Pakistani citizen. It is a most significant development behind which lies several years of growing proximity between the two countries.
The first, and obviously the most significant, development in the process was the visit by the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz to India in January, 2006, when he was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. The visit, which saw the signing of what has come to be known as the Delhi Declaration, providing a comprehensive roadmap for the unfolding of bilateral relations, was a ground-breaking development. Other important visits followed. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, came on a follow-up visit in February, and again in February and December, 2008. Mr Pranab Mukherjee visited Saudi Arabia as Foreign Minister in 2008 and Finance Minister in 2009, when he led a 10-member official delegation and co-chaired the Eighth Joint Commission Meeting held in Riyadh on October 31, 2009.
Several ministerial visits between the two countries followed, leading to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s landmark visit to Saudi Arabia in February-March, 2010. His discussions with King Abdullah led to the signing of the Riyadh Declaration, which outlined a “new era of strategic partnership” between the two countries in security, defence, political and economic areas. King Abdullah felicitated Mr Singh with the King Abdul Aziz Sash of the First Order.
Of particular relevance in the present context is growing cooperation in the area of intelligence gathering and sharing and national security. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin, visited India on January 15-16, 2009. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Secretary General of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council, visited India on March 28, 2011, and met Prime Minister Singh. Three factors have contributed to the cooperation — America’s efforts to bring the two countries closer as a part of its global war against terrorism; India’s efforts to reach out to Saudi Arabia for developing mutually advantageous economic ties and coordinating mutual response to global terrorism; and Saudi Arabia’s need to cope with the growing terrorist threat it faces.
Al Qaeda is the most important source of that threat. Over the years, Osama bin Laden had come to develop a searing hatred for the established regimes of the Arab world — some of which have been toppled by the ‘Arab Spring’. His hatred, as reflected in several of his messages and interviews, was most intense when it came to Saudi Arabia. For example, he said in his message of December 16, 2004, entitled Depose the Tyrants, “The Government of Riyadh has entered into a global alliance with crusader unbelief, under the leadership of Bush, against Islam and its people, as it happened in Afghanistan, and the conspiracies in Iraq, which have not yet ended. They opened up their bases to the American forces so that they could conquer Iraq, which helped the Americans and facilitated their occupation. Then the Saudi Minister of Defence got up one day and scorned the religion, the blood and the minds of Muslims by admitting that his Government had opened to the airports to the Americans for their allegedly humanistic objectives.” (Translated by Bruce Lawrence in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited and introduced by him)
Al Qaeda’s efforts to overthrow the Saudi monarchy have led to several bomb attacks directed at Americans and Westerners as well as others, including Saudi nationals, by its affiliates/front organisations. The more prominent outrages included an explosion on November 13, 1995, in the parking lot of a building in Riyadh housing American civil and military personnel that left six dead and 60 injured. On May 12, 2003, explosions in front of three compounds housing American and Western nationals killed 36 and wounded over 160 in Riyadh. On January 9 the same year, a suicide car bombing of a Riyadh housing complex killed 17 persons and wounded 122.
Saudi security forces have responded effectively and, in the years since then, Al Qaeda affiliates have found the going increasingly tough. A particularly successful crackdown in 2008 compelled the organisation to urge its followers to flee to Yemen. In 2009, Al Qaeda elements in Yemen and the Saudis who had come formed the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including an attempt to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism chief on August 27, 2009.
In February 2009, the Saudi authorities made public a list of 85 most wanted terrorism suspects, of whom 26 were believed to have been in Yemen, and 11 were released inmates of the Guantanamo Bay prison. AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia, Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, and Al Shabaab, their counterpart in Somalia, are doubtless being forced to retreat, the first two by US-backed Yemeni forces and Al Shabaab by troops of the African Union, also helped by the Americans. But given the instability in the Arab world, which can be exploited by Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Saudi Arabia can hardly take chances, particularly given its porous border with Yemen and the latter’s proximity to Somalia. Not surprisingly, its fight against terrorism is an important factor in its growing ties with India.