Despite string of high-profile arrests, Indian Mujahideen leadership remains out of reach

Kateel Siddiqui, an erstwhile plumber from the small town of Lalganj in Bihar arrived at Kolkata’s Presidency Jail in December, 2009, armed with cash to fight for a friend’s freedom. Muhammad Ashraf, held by the police on charges of fake-currency racketeering, was known in Darbhanga as a pious man, a practitioner of Unani medicine who was always ready to help the poor. Mr. Siddiqui had been one of his closest friends, and was sent to offer whatever help was needed.

The man Mr. Siddiqui succeeded in bailing out was in fact Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa — a former resident of Karnataka’s Bhatkal town wanted by police in four States for his alleged role in multiple bomb-strikes across the country.

According to forensic sources, Wednesday’s serial bombings in Pune were mitigated as rain had degraded the ammonium nitrate in the explosives. Investigators say they have reason to believe the attack otherwise had everything.

Mr. Siddiqui was strangled to death by fellow prisoners last month at Pune’s Yerwada prison, where he was being held during his trial over multiple charges related to Mr. Siddibapa’s terror networks. His killers cited patriotism as their motive; prison authorities have yet to account for their failure to protect a suspect in a critical investigation, leading Mr. Siddiqui’s family to allege that the police were complicit.

Elusive leadership

The prospect that the Indian Mujahideen may have carried out the Pune attacks has focussed attention on the elusiveness of the organisation’s core leadership even after a four-yearlong manhunt. Ever since 26/11, more than a dozen men alleged to have been involved in IM activities have been arrested and charged by police forces across the country. But despite prime-time proclamations of success, there has been little progress in locating the key figures in the jihad network, whose urban terrorist operations have left hundreds dead since 2005.

Last month, the Karnataka prosecutors filed charges against 14 men they say were involved in an attempt to bomb crowds at an Indian Premier League match in Bangalore in April 2010 — Mr. Siddiqui being one of them. Yasin Ahmad, Gayur Jamali and Mohsin Chowdhury are among seven men who are being tried for their role in the operation. Mr. Siddibapa, his commander Riyaz Shahbandari, and the latter’s brother Iqbal Shahbandri, however, remain fugitives.

The Mumbai police’s investigations into the July 2011 serial bombings — which killed 27 and left 127 injured in the city — also reached a dead end. In May, Mumbai prosecutors prepared a 4,800-page charge sheet against Haroon Naik, Naquee Ahmed, Nadeem Akhtar and Delhi-based hawala operator Kanwalnain Pathreja — the men said to be involved in the attack. None of the men, however, had a direct role.

The charge sheet says Mr. Siddibapa and the Shahbandri brothers were the key organisers of the operation, while Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives — code-named ‘Waqas’ and ‘Tabrez’ — planted the bombs. But none is traceable.

There has been no progress in identifying suspects involved in planting a bomb outside the Delhi High Court last summer, or those of the December 2010 bombing at the Shitla Ghat in Varanasi.

Out of reach

According to Ajai Sahni, an expert on terrorist groups in South Asia, “Part of the reason for this is that the core leadership of the Indian Mujahideen is harboured in Pakistan, placing them out of reach. But the fate of the investigations also demonstrates that their networks within India are much more resilient than people imagine.”

In an internal 2010 dossier, the Union Home Ministry said 31 members of the Indian Mujahideen and its South India affiliate, the Jamiat-ul-Ansar Mujahideen, were still at large. None has been arrested since, though investigators have found fresh suspects — among them, associates of Mr. Siddiqui held from Darbhanga by the Delhi Police.

Evidence provided by David Headley, who carried out the reconnaissance operation that preceded the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, suggests that the IM’s commanders run one of two jihadist cells collectively known as the “Karachi Project” — an operation run by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate using Indian nationals to conduct operations against the country.

Jihadist proxies

“Pakistan has been under intense pressure to rein in the Lashkar,” says the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis scholar Sushant Sareen, “but still believes jihadist proxies are useful to counter what it perceives as the threatening hegemon to its east. Groups like the Indian Mujahideen continue to be patronised for this reason.”