NIA arrests point to growing links between jihadist cells in Kashmir and those operating elsewhere in India

In the summer of 2008, as Indian troops battled a Lashkar-e-Taiba unit in the northern Kashmir mountains, intelligence personnel listened in as a panicked insurgent who had fled the fighting called home for help.

He was speaking a language no one at first understood: Malayalam.

Thursday's arrest of two men in Jammu and Kashmir's remote Kishtwar region by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has thrown up evidence that recent attack on the Delhi High Court, as well as a string of other recent terrorist strikes, could have been facilitated by a jihadist unit in Jammu and Kashmir.

Now being tried on charges of having led five Kerala men to receive training in Jammu and Kashmir, the Malayalam-speaking jihadist, Abdul Jabbar, is once again attracting the NIA's interest.

From Kashmir to Kerala

India's intelligence services believe the links between jihadists in Jammu and Kashmir and their counterparts elsewhere in the country have been forged by Rashid Abdullah — the Lashkar's long-standing commander of operations on the Indian Ocean rim, known by the aliases ‘Rehan' and ‘Wali.'

Evidence for that claim began to emerge in December 2008, when counter-terrorism police in Bangladesh held Karachi-based Mubashir Shahid Mubin, Abdullah's top organiser.

The arrest generated intelligence which brought about several arrests in India: among them, of Muscat resident Sarfaraz Nawaz, who is alleged to have funded the Kerala jihadists; Hyderabad resident Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who, the National Investigation Agency says, was seeking to bomb the offices of the multinational firm, Deloitte; and Bashir Ahmad Baba, a Srinagar resident held in Gujarat on charges of conducting reconnaissance of potential targets in Gujarat.

Each of these men, intelligence sources told The Hindu, was tied to Abdullah's networks — which are also suspected of having supplied the military-grade Research Development Explosive used in the 2009 bombing of a café in Pune.

Talk on Muslim oppression

In the summer of 2007, police say, Nawaz was introduced to Abdullah by a common friend based in Muscat. The two men spoke at length about the oppression of Muslims in India, a conversation with ended with the former Students Islamic Movement of India office-bearer agreeing to work for the Lashkar.

Nawaz turned to Tandiyantavide Nasir, a Kerala-based Islamist who was in the process of setting up a jihadist group run out of a ginger plantation in Madikere, near Kodagu in Karnataka. Nasir's cell raised five volunteers to train in Kashmir; only one, Jabbar, survived the Indian Army.

Later, investigators say, Rehan arranged for Nasir to escape to Bangladesh and paid out compensation for the men who were killed.

Nasir himself was eventually held by Bangladesh authorities near Chittagong in November 2009, and handed over to India. Nawaz, for his part, was deported from Muscat, and flown to India under Research and Analysis Wing escort.

Tablighi Jamaatas launch pad?

NIA sources have told The Hindu the cell that carried out the Delhi attack may have been recruited by the Tablighi Jamaat — an organisation with a massive regional presence, which is dedicated to spreading its ultra-conservative version of Islam. The Tablighi Jamaat, a pietist organisation which generally eschews politics, has no connections with terrorist groups or their operations.

It has, however, been a launch pad for several jihadist groups: several of its adherents have been implicated in terrorist operations linked to South Asia — among them Roshan Jamal Khan, a Mumbai resident imprisoned for an abortive 2008 suicide-bomb plot in Barcelona, and Muhammad Niaz, a Paris-based software engineer from Madurai, held by the police in Paris earlier this year.

Elements of the Tablighi Jamaat's rank-and-file are also alleged to have played a role in setting up the Indian Mujahideen — the Lashkar-e-Taiba linked jihadist group responsible for several urban terror attacks since 2005. Fugitive Gujarat-based cleric Sufiyan Patangia, now thought to be hiding in Saudi Arabia, is alleged to have recruited several of the Indian Mujahideen's first members.

In a February 13, 1995 article in the Pakistani newspaper The News, journalist Kamran Khan quoted an office-bearer of the Harkat ul-Mujahideen, a jihadist group once active in Jammu and Kashmir, as saying “most of our workers do come from the [Tablighi] Jamaat”.

“We regularly go to its annual meetings in Raiwind [Pakistan]. Ours is a truly international network of genuine jihadi Muslims. Our colleagues went and fought against oppressors in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Burma [Myanmar], the Philippines and, of course, India.”