Four years ago, in a dank police interview room in south-central New Delhi, a nondescript, scraggly bearded former commerce student told a group of sceptical police officers of his journey through the international jihadist movement, a tale almost as dramatic as the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor.
Nizamabad resident Mohammad Abdul Razzak, held by the Delhi police in August 2005, recounted how he was recruited by Islamists in Hyderabad; his training with jihadist insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan; and, finally, his stint as a volunteer with Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Afghanistan.
Investigators probing the wave of murderous attacks targeting India’s major cities have found a mass of evidence linking the perpetrators with jihadist cells drawn from Pakistan’s Punjab province heartland.
Experts believe what is dubbed the Punjabi Taliban draws much of its cadre from anti-India jihadist groups that have for long received patronage from the state, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami. For Pakistan’s intelligence services, the realisation has been a shock.
But for India’s intelligence services, which have carefully tracked the evolving links between the Lashkar and the wider global jihadist movement ever since Razzak’s arrest, this month’s revelations are unsurprising.
Born in 1974 to Nizamabad Jamaat-e-Islami activist Mohammad Abdul Sattar, Razzak had long been drawn to the Islamist project. As a commerce undergraduate at the Government Giriraj College in Nizamabad, he joined the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, the Students Islamic Organisation. In 1993, after Hyderabad was ripped apart by some of the worst communal violence in its history, Razzak participated in self-defence camps organised by the right-wing Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat (The Centre for Jihad and Martyrdom).
Late that year, Razzak is said to have told investigators, he met Mohammad Azam Ghauri, one of the co-founders, along with Abdul Karim Tunda and Jalees Ansari, of the Lashkar’s Indian operations.
Inspired by Ghauri and the stories of Pakistani Lashkar operatives in India, Razzak sought military training. In 1998, he spent seven months in the mountains above Doda, in Jammu and Kashmir, operating first with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and then the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Back in Nizamabad, Razzak’s conservative family tried to cut his jihadist ties. He was put to work in his father’s business. He joined the Youth Congress, and during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, he worked as a campaign volunteer for Congress politician D. Srinivas.
In January 2000, though, Razzak travelled to the United Arab Emirates and soon met local jihadists.
Razzak told the police that he often visited the Lashkar’s office, located above the Punjab Durbar Restaurant near the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dubai. Bearing a board for the Umm al-Qura Maintenance Company, LLC, the office drew its name from the Lashkar’s main training camp in the Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
Like other visitors to the office, Razzak began reading Lashkar magazines. He was in the audience when, in September 2000, top Lashkar ideologue Abdul Rehman Makki delivered speeches exhorting Muslims to work for the liberation of Hyderabad and Junagarh.
Helped by his Lashkar contacts, Razzak allegedly travelled to Lahore on a fake passport. He first trained at a Lashkar facility at Bahawalpur and was then despatched to a camp near Muzaffarabad.
In the summer of 2001, he began working on the office staff of top Lashkar financier Arif Kasmani. An ethnic Gujarati from the Memon community, Kasmani was recently sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department for funnelling the funds that paid for the fire-bombing of the New Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express in 2007.
Kasmani’s home on the Tipu Sultan Road in Karachi’s KDA Scheme-1 had long been a hub for Islamist radicals. In 1998, the Lashkar was among the many jihadist groups that signed a declaration of jihad issued by Al-Qaeda’s Osama-bin-Laden. Kasmani frequently met the Karachi-based cleric Nizamuddin Shamzai, Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar’s ideological mentor. He also travelled to Afghanistan to meet Osama.
Late in 2001, as a result of these meetings, the Lashkar began funnelling funds, material and cadre to jihadists in Afghanistan. Razzak told the Hyderabad police that he accompanied one supply convoy meant for a Taliban unit in Spin Boldak. He spent a month training at a Taliban-run camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
When the United States-led forces entered Afghanistan at the end of 2001, Lashkar personnel were pulled out. The Lashkar provided safe houses and documents to dozens of key Al-Qaeda jihadists, enabling them to escape home to West Asia.
Razzak was sent back to Dubai. That summer, soon after the pogrom which claimed the lives of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat, Lashkar commander Muzammil Bhat, the fugitive architect of November’s carnage in Mumbai, arrived to discuss operational plans.
Perhaps fearing for his family, Razzak refused to undertake operations within India, arguing that the priority of the jihadist movement ought to be attacking the U.S.
He did agree, though, to recruit Indian nationals in the UAE for the organisation. During his interrogation by the Delhi police, Razzak named 10 volunteers from Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh who had made their way to camps in Pakistan. Among them was Javed Sheikh. He was controversially killed by the Gujarat police in a 2004 shootout in Ahmedabad.