Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama will meet against the background of a US-led campaign to defang ISIS and the recently announced al-Qaeda franchise, aimed particularly at India.

The gathering storm of extremist forces ‒ whether aligned under ISIS or al-Qaeda ‒ is a common threat to open and democratic societies. Modi’s visit to the 9/11 memorial in New York shortly after his arrival is meant to convey exactly that.

Officials say that the issue of terrorism is a top agenda item for official discussions. The need for deeper intelligence cooperation is not lost on either the US or India. The question is whether Modi and Obama will find enough time for an in-depth discussion and give their two bureaucracies the push necessary to do more together.

The stakes are high, according to intelligence and cyber analysts. On one side is Pakistan. where a multitude of extremist groups operate, many with official sanction. On the other side is China, which apparently is on a cyber rampage of sorts against India and the United States.

Troop withdrawal

The most immediate issue is Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and the unleashing of extremist groups post-2014 once the bulk of US troops depart from that country. “We need to collectively deal with the Pakistan challenge, not by ganging up” but by thinking of scenarios and options, according to Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer for South Asia, who spoke about prospects for Modi’s visit at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

Obama is expected to take a hard look at Pakistan, especially US aid to its military, after 2014. “The constraints on US policy would be gone,” Riedel said, referring to Washington’s current dependence on Pakistan army for safe passage of men and material to and from Afghanistan. Such is the need to humor Rawalpindi that the Obama Administration announced the sale of 160 MRAPs or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles to Pakistan on the eve of Modi’s visit.

It was probably the work of mid-level US bureaucrats who have been schooled in hyphenating India and Pakistan for decades. If Washington does something for India ‒ in this case a high-level visit ‒ there must be something for Pakistan. And so it goes.

Riedel says India and the United States should dramatically broaden intelligence sharing and discussions because Modi’s election as prime minister is bound to attract more jihadi activity against India.

US intelligence agencies have been sharing critical information with India since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks after Washington came under criticism for not alerting India in real time and for protecting David Headley, the man who helped plan the attacks.

In the aftermath, the US did provide useful intercepts to firmly establish that elements within Pakistan’s ISI were involved in helping Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group responsible for the execution of the plan. Since then there has been a sea change in US attitude and intelligence cooperation has scaled up.

Consulate attack

On May 23, a terrorist attack against the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, failed largely because of a “little help from our friends” across the oceans. Commandoes of the Indo-Tibetan border Police, who guard the building, and the Afghan police were prepared. All the attackers were killed.

The equipment found on bodies of the terrorists showed their plan was to kidnap Indian diplomats and hold them hostage just as Modi was being sworn-in. It would have caught the Indian establishment in a terrible spot – in a transition from one government to the next.

“It would have provoked a conflict,” Riedel said. “There is every reason to believe that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] and the [Pakistan] army high command had foreknowledge of the (Herat) attack. It would have put tremendous pressure on (prime minister) Nawaz Sharif.”

Intercepts also linked the Herat attack to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a proxy of the ISI. “But LeT paid no price and Hafiz Saeed roams free,” Riedel said. The US establishment was angry enough that it took the unprecedented step of naming LeT at the State Department daily briefing, breaking from tradition of not answering issues related to intelligence gathering.

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said there was “credible information” that LeT was responsible and it was an attempt to sabotage the talks between Modi and Sharif. “We have assessed that LeT did perpetrate this attack,” she said.

Planning for contingencies

What if there is another Herat or Mumbai or an operation by rogue military officers given the jihadist infiltration of Pakistan’s defence forces? Modi and Obama need to worry about the future and plan for terrible contingencies.

Earlier this month, al-Qaeda operatives tried to hijack a navy frigate, PNS Zulfiqar, with the help Pakistan naval personnel, and were foiled only because of the vigilance of a gunner who noticed they were carrying the wrong kind of weapons. But they had the required badges and uniforms. The plan was to commandeer the frigate, take it into the northwestern Indian Ocean and attack US ships on anti-terrorism patrol to announce the “arrival” of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent.

Pakistan Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told his parliament that “without assistance from inside, these people could not have breached security”. There have been at least three major attacks by jihadists on Pakistan military bases with inside help.

Riedel said no one knows how deep the jihadi penetration of the Pakistan armed forces goes or how safe are the nuclear weapons. “These are the questions for the US and India to think about and discuss," he said. "What is the likelihood of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands?"

As for China’s relentless hacking of government and commercial outfits, experts say the US can help India build cyber-security capacities – the next frontier of modern warfare. At an intelligence briefing this week, one expert reportedly said cases of Indian systems being hacked were detected “every single day”. 

China has been especially active after last year’s announcement at the Central Committee’s Third Plenum that China should make the great leap to a service economy. he Chinese are looking “left and right, just probing for information” to build up their service industry – an area where India has an advantage, the expert said.

But on the upside, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel reportedly made India an offer to link military intelligence units of the two countries to share classified information on the region. It would be a good opportunity for India.