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CNN.com - Bin Laden's finger on Kashmir trigger? - June 12, 2002

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Bin Laden's finger on Kashmir trigger?

Intelligence officials say there is growing evidence of al Qaeda controlling several militant groups in Kashmir

From Maria Ressa
CNN

(CNN) -- At the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan is Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim territory with about a dozen militant groups fighting for independence from Indian rule.

But the trigger for a potential conflict may no longer be in the hands of either nation.

There are growing signs that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network is controlling some of the key groups there, potentially giving the terror network the power to light the fuse between South Asia's two nuclear foes.

Evidence is surfacing that the group blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States is using several Kashmiri separatist groups to fuel tensions in the region -- something Al-Qaeda successfully did in Chechnya and Southeast Asia.

"These are people who profit when divisions and cleavages and conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims occur," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told CNN.

MORE STORIESAl Qaeda pulls strings in Asian conflicts  � Report charts al Qaeda operations in Indonesia  IN-DEPTH India and Pakistan: South Asia power play 
War on Terror 

"I'm quite sure they're delighted by it, and if they can figure out a way to get in there and exploit it, that's in their agenda."

Papers found by a CNN team days after the Taliban fled Kabul indicate that the group had its sights focused on Kashmir.

Documents, letters and stationery left behind in a former al Qaeda safehouse chronicle the career of Kashmiri separatist Masood Azhar.

Azhar was released from an Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the lives of passengers on a Indian Airlines plane hijacked to the Afghan city of Kandahar -- a hijacking carried out with al Qaeda funding.

Suicide attack

The hijackers then fled to the Kabul safehouse along with Azhar and Omar Saeed, the man accused of the murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl.

The 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet led to the release of a key Kashmiri separatist leader

Over time the Kashmiri group they headed changed its name three times after being banned by the United States as a terrorist organization -- Harakut-ul-Unsar became Harakut-ul-Mujahideen and eventually Jaish-e-Mohammed.

That group was behind the December 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament in which 13 people died, including the five assailants.

The attack dramatically raised tensions between India and Pakistan with New Delhi blaming the raid on militants it says receive funding and support from elements within the Pakistani government.

In turn it spurred the troop buildup, which remains along the Kashmir Line of Control today.

What Osama Bin Laden has done, intelligence officials say, is to hijack regional movements and exploit them for his purposes.

Therefore despite much popular focus on possibility of future terrorist attacks along the lines of 9/11, some analysts fear al Qaeda may not have to do much beyond adding more fuel to key conflicts around the world to trigger mass destruction.








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