India is taking no chances ahead of President Francois Hollande’s three-day visit on Sunday as threats grow from militant groups including the Islamic State.
Police arrested four students in their early 20s this week who planned to attack both a Hindu pilgrimage site and Delhi shopping malls that are frequented by foreigners and wealthy Indians, according to Arvind Deep, a police official in the capital. The men were in touch with handlers in Iraq and Syria, Times of India reported, citing unidentified sources.
The threat comes as Islamic State-linked militants become active in Asia following a high-profile attack in Paris last year. After gun and bomb attacks in Jakarta last week killed four civilians, Malaysian police detained four people with suspected links to Islamic State and Singapore deported 26 Bangladeshis it accused of supporting violent extremism.
Hollande will join Prime Minister Narendra Modi at India’s annual Republic Day parade on Jan. 26, an honor given to U.S. President Barack Obama a year ago. The French leader has vowed to fight the Islamic State “as long as necessary" after terrorists killed 130 people in and around Paris. France has been conducting airstrikes against the group in Syria and Iraq.
‘We’ve been lucky’
India, meanwhile, has barely registered among the Islamic State’s ranks of 30,000 foreign fighters despite its 172-million strong Muslim minority population -- the third largest in the world. This is even as it faces constant attacks from Pakistan-based extremist groups, including one earlier this month at a northern Indian air base killed 13 people.
"We’ve been lucky," said Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs near New Delhi. "In a sense, we’re long overdue for an attack, and as IS loses territory, it’s got to make up for it by terrorist attacks on soft targets around the world. From their point of view, India is an infidel country carrying out policies inimical to Muslims."
Some 8,000 police officers and 12,000 paramilitary personnel will be deployed in the capital, along with more than 200 closed-circuit television cameras, snipers atop buildings and sniffer dogs, according to a Delhi police spokesman. Airlines also requested passengers to arrive earlier for flights as airports tighten security ahead of the event.
A mock drill was conducted by the National Security Guards, the country’s elite anti-terrorism force, at a busy market frequented by foreigners in the heart of the capital. Commandos raided a restaurant to free hostages, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported. The local police is also working on intelligence inputs and is on alert for any terror related incident.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is assisting Indian and French authorities to ensure the safety of Modi and Hollande, the Times of India reported, citing people it didn’t identify. Home Minister Rajnath Singh convened a meeting with top intelligence and investigative officials last Saturday to discuss the threat of a "lone wolf" Islamic State sympathizer launching an attack during the parade, the Press Trust of India reported.
Despite being relatively unscathed, India has seen warnings. Last week, the state secretariat in Goa received a postcard purportedly signed by the Islamic State threatening to kill Modi and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, PTI reported. The message expressed anger at a ban on the slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider sacred.
The French consulate in Bangalore on January 11 received a three-line letter in broken English warning Hollande against visiting India, Daily News & Analysis reported, citing a police official it didn’t identify.
About 150 Indians are under surveillance for alleged online links with the Islamic State, according to PTI. As many as 30 others have been intercepted while traveling to the conflict zone, include one man from Hyderabad who was arrested this month as he tried to board a flight to Dubai to make his way to Syria via Turkey, the news agency reported.
Paradoxically, the additional threat present by the Islamic State may help India improve ties with nuclear-armed Pakistan, Chaulia said. The two nations have fought three wars since splitting apart in 1947.
"We’ve been a little complacent because our focus has always been on Pakistan," he said. "But the Islamic State is a threat to the entire subcontinent -- we now have something in common. It means things get more complicated but it also creates opportunities for cooperation."