An Oddly Small-Scale Attack in Pune

An attack on the German Bakery in the western city of Pune on Saturday might well be the first successful jihadist attack in India since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008.

Some sort of Pakistan-focused, Islamist extremists are likely to be behind the attack, given that it came a day after a date was set for talks between India and Pakistan. It is being pinned on Indian Mujahideen, a group which is presented as an off-shoot of Lashkar-e-Toiba, but whose precise relationship to its sponsors is unclear.

By attacking a tourist hang-out, the attack fits the jihadist MO, gaining international attention and hitting a wealthy neighbourhood. However, it seems oddly small scale compared with previous attacks. It killed nine people and injured 60, which is terrible obviously, but nothing on the scale of the Mumbai attacks. Previous attacks claimed by the Indian Mujahideen – in Uttar Pradesh, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi between 2007 and 2008 – have all involved a series of explosions in a short space of time. The Pune attack would represent an understated return to violence, especially when compared to the threats that have been spewing out of the Indian government for the past few months of potential plane hijackings, metro bombings and assassination attempts.

The inevitable Monday morning reports are that this is the first of many, with a number of other cities in Maharashtra as suspected targets. That might be the case, but the initiative has certainly been lost by not attacking multiple targets simultaneously since security will now be on high alert across the region and beyond.

At the same time, the fact that there is a much tougher security environment compared with 16 months ago is a good reason to avoid big, one-off events. A string of small attacks spread over a longer period of time limits the cost of individual failures and draws out the psychological impact of the violence. Just as the force of the Mumbai attacks was in the militants’ ability to make it last several days, a campaign of violence spread out over several weeks would be highly damaging to the credibility of the state and security forces, and provide a destabilising backdrop for the talks about to take place between India and Pakistan.

There are already rumours that those talks, scheduled for 25 February, will not now go ahead. Although they were unlikely to make much headway, they have been billed as the first step towards restarting the composite dialogue interrupted in November 2008.

The jihadists have not liked the sound of that and it is possible that the Pune attack was designed as speedily concocted plan to derail the talks. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Jaish-e-Mohammad organised a public get-together of jihadists in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, in which they vowed to “deal with India” and undermine any attempts at a peace process.

Despite the uneasy calm of the past year, there has been no change in the factors motivating jihadist violence against India. With the Delhi Commonwealth Games approaching, and the mounting possibility of a proxy conflict between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, the Indian authorities have good reason to be on high alert.

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