NIA claims Kashmiri medical student was at the centre of a complex plot

There is no doubt at all what Wasim Ahmed Malik was doing when five kg of plastic explosive packed in a briefcase went off outside the Delhi High Court on September 7: at 1.45 p.m., closed circuit cameras recorded him walking to a Jammu and Kashmir Bank cash machine in Jammu, 583 km away, where computers logged him checking his balance.

Though he was nowhere near the site of the attack, which killed 15 persons, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) believes Malik to be at the core of a complex plot, which tied together Islamist radicals at a medical college in Bangladesh, teenagers in the picturesque mountain town of Kishtwar and jihadists of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad.

The NIA's investigation is being disputed by Malik's family, and leaves several questions unanswered — but if proved true, it will underline the prospect that Jammu and Kashmir's dying jihad could yet be revived by individuals driven not by an organisation but an idea.

Campus Islamism

Little independent evidence is available for the theory that the medical student turned jihadist as the NIA claims. Investigators believe though that they have put together a picture of the man they call “Dr. Jihad” from interviews with his friends at the Jalalabad Ragib-Rabeya Medical College in Sylhet, Bangladesh.

Key among them was Ashraful Haq, a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-educated Islamist student activist, who was an ideological mentor for a gaggle of young people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Haq, the NIA says, is linked to Islami Chhatra Shibir, a Jamaat-e-Islami-linked student group, which has been at the vanguard of the religious right in Bangladesh.

Islamists on the campus accessed jihadist literature on the Internet, praised the courage of Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some — including, according to the NIA, Malik — fantasised about emulating their deeds.

Malik, NIA sources say, idolised Afzal Guru, a doctor now on death row for his role in the December, 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. “He told other students that he planned to dedicate his life to jihad after graduating in 2014,” an NIA official said. NIA investigators found no reason, though, to believe anyone at Jalalabad Ragib-Rabeya had a role in Malik's alleged operation.

Perhaps ironically, Malik's family had sent him to Bangladesh to avoid precisely the kind of conversations that swirled around the hostels at the medical college.

In 2005, when he was just 15, he was detained for several days by the police in connection with the arrest of Salim Wani, an alleged Jaish-e-Muhammad operative accused of harbouring a Pakistani terrorist arrested in Jammu. Malik was never charged; sources in the local police say an informal decision was made not to pursue the case, given his age and the respectability of his family.

“The family was very worried about Wasim,” a friend of his father told The Hindu, “so packed him off to what they thought was a safe distance from Jammu and Kashmir as soon as possible.”

Bomb plot

Malik, the NIA claims, hit upon his ideas of carrying out a major terrorist act in India as a result of the conversations at Sylhet. In September, he flew home for the Eid vacations, transiting through Kolkata and New Delhi — and held the meetings where the bombings were finally planned. Malik, the NIA says, met his brother and an old school friend to persuade them to target the court in Delhi to protest Afzal Guru's conviction.

Last year, Malik's younger brother, Junaid Akram Malik, ran away from home to join a local Hizb-ul-Mujahideen unit. Both men, NIA investigators say, rapidly became disillusioned with the organisation's local commander, Jehangir Saroori — a wizened operative who had survived two decades of the insurgency by the simple expedient of avoiding killings.

After passionate pleas from Malik, two teenage witnesses have said in confessional statements to New Delhi magistrates, the men made contact with a jihadist who was willing to take aggressive action — Ghulam Sarwar, a Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who lived undercover in Rajouri district, using illegally acquired documents to run a cover truck and taxi business.

The investigation leaves several questions unanswered. NIA investigators admit that only the interrogation of the fugitives will explain who supplied the explosive, who conducted reconnaissance, or who planted the device. Evidence exists to show where the suitcase, in which the improvised explosive device was kept, was bought — but not to pinpoint who purchased it.

Malik's family insists their son is being framed by the two teenagers who sent the e-mail in a desperate bid to secure a deal with prosecutors.

In the weeks to come, the rival claims will be tested — a test that will depend, in no small part, on the NIA's ability to find the three fugitive terrorists linked to Malik.

Ever since 2005 though, it has become evident that Islamist student radicals, motivated by anger against communalism and the state, have been at the cutting edge of terrorism. The loosely networked cells, known as the Indian Mujahideen, grew up in much the same way as the NIA says Malik's operation did — and claimed enough lives to give reason for the counter-terrorism authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to view his case with the greatest concern.

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