Praveen Swami

The banned group’s general secretary rode a post-Babri Masjid jihadist tide

New Delhi: A thick red line ran through the words ‘democracy,’ ‘secularism’ and ‘polytheism,’ followed by an emphatic “No!”

Some of the other slogans the Students Islamic Movement of India had plastered across Mumbai in 2001 were even more strident: “Mohammad is our commander; the Quran our constitution; and martyrdom our one desire.”

Events have shown that the young men who had gathered in Mumbai got the message: SIMI cadre have been involved in almost every Islamist terror strike since, ranging from the Mumbai serial bombings of 2003 and 2006 to attacks in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi.

Wednesday’s arrest of SIMI’s general secretary and top jihadist ideologue, Safdar Nagori, should help investigators piece together exactly how these attacks were carried out. Among the questions police in six States will have for Nagori is who funded the networks he ran and how they recruited cadre.

SIMI’s origins

SIMI was formed in April, 1977, as an effort to revitalise the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student networks. From the outset, the organisation made clear it saw Islam as a political project. Muslims comfortable in secular societies, its pamphlets warned, were headed towards damnation.

Elements of SIMI’s leadership were drawn to the practices of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan, and threw their weight behind the Islamists fighting the socialist regime in Afghanistan. Alarmed at the radicalisation of SIMI’s posture, the Jamaat disassociated itself from the organisation in 1982.

But SIMI continued to grow, helped by Islamist West Asia-based organisations such as the World Association of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Federation of Student Organisation. Their funds helped it establish a welter of magazines, social service enterprises and cultural front-organisations.

Radicalisation

SIMI polemic grew increasingly incendiary in the years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 1996, the organisation put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of the eleventh-century conqueror Mahmood Ghaznavi, and appealed to God to help avenge the destruction of mosques in India.

When 25,000 SIMI delegates met in Mumbai in 2001 the organisation for the first time publicly called on its supporters to turn to jihad. Soon after the convention, the al-Qaeda carried out its bombings of New York and Washington D.C. SIMI activists hailed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden as a “true mujahid.”

In an April, 2001, interview, Nagori, propelled to office by his pro-jihad stance, defended violence. “When an entire community finds itself collectively persecuted,” he said, the cry for jihad is given.” “One is forced to revolt, take to arms,” he said, claiming democratic options had been exhausted.

Nagori made bizarre claims to devalue India’s secular-democratic tradition. For example, he asserted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “wanted Muslims to recognise Ghulam Ahmed Qadaini [a heterodox preacher considered heretic by conservatives] as our Prophet. He was forcing us to alter our religious belief.”

Turning to terror

From the autumn of 2000, SIMI cadre drawn by Nagori’s network had began training with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir. At least three Jalgaon residents — Sheikh Asif Supdu, Sheikh Khalid Iqbal and Sheikh Mohammad Hanif — are believed to have died in shootouts with Indian troops near Kishtwar.

Survivors of the training went on to participate in several major jihadist operations. In July, 2001, for example, police forces in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi arrested 23 SIMI-linked terrorists. Four of those held turned out to have trained in Kishtwar.

Organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami also drew on SIMI cadre for their operations. Mohammad Sabahuddin, arrested last month for his role in attacks carried out in Bangalore and Uttar Pradesh, was a SIMI member — as was his key lieutenant, Fahim Ansari.

Will these networks survive Nagori’s arrest? Given their transnational linkages, the answer is most likely yes. Still, political Islamists opposed to SIMI’s turn to violence have been fighting to marginalise the jihadists in its ranks. Wednesday’s arrest will, most likely, help their cause.

More In: Today's Paper