The convent school boy who turned terror commander

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Police arrest terror suspect Mohammad Abdul Khwaja in Hyderabad on Monday.
Police arrest terror suspect Mohammad Abdul Khwaja in Hyderabad on Monday.

Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI: Ever since 2005, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the headquarters of Hyderabad’s counter-terrorism police headquarters, Mohammad Abdul Khwaja’s face has stared out from most-wanted posters across the country.

From Khwaja’s interrogation, investigators could find answers to questions which have eluded them for years.

On Monday, police in Hyderabad finally held the man they knew by the aliases Amjad and Saif — the fruit of an elaborate, Intelligence Bureau-led deception operation that led Khwaja to believe he was returning home from Karachi to help sympathisers mount a major new operation.

But Khwaja’s story will, perhaps, prove most important for the light it could cast on just what drove the radicalisation of the dozens of young people who joined the Indian jihadist movement after 2002.

Born in 1983, Khwaja grew up in a conservative, lower middle-class home in Hyderabad’s Sanat Nagar area. His father, Mohammad Umar, was a follower of the Ahl-i-Sunnat wal’Jamaat — a Barelvi organisation that works to defend folk Islam against neoconservative assault.

Like many of those who would play a key role in the Indian jihadist movement, Khwaja received a secular education, schooling at the St. Anne’s Convent High School before earning a Bachelor’s degree in commerce from the Anwar-ul-Uloom Degree College — a prestigious institution which has served the community for over a century.

Some of his contemporaries in the jihadist movement emerged from the same institution — among them, top Lashkar commander Mohammad Shahid, also known as Bilal — but there is little evidence they were involved with Islamist groups as students.

Having finished his studies, Khwaja set up a small cellphone business — a first step towards the middle-class life his parents had prepared him for.

By the account of his friends, his outrage at the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat led him to abandon that path and immerse himself in the Islamist movement in Hyderabad.

Key among his ideological mentors was Ibrahim Ali Junaid, a Unani medicine student and Islamist activist arrested on terrorism charges in 2007 — and acquitted last year.

During questioning by the Hyderabad police in 2003, Khwaja said he began attending meetings organised by the prominent Islamist cleric Maulana Mohammad Naseeruddin in Hyderabad’s Moosrambagh area.

Cycles of hate

Operating under the banner of the Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Sha’air-e-Islam — an organisation for the protection of Islamic shrines and monuments — Maulana Naseeruddin had become the most visible face of religious hardliners who were challenging the authority of Hyderabad’s traditional Muslim politicians. Hardliners like Naseeruddin argued that the politicians had proved unable to resist the rising tide of Hindu chauvinism in India.

In the wake of the Gujarat massacres, Karachi-based ganglord Rasool Khan ‘Party’—who draws his nickname from Gujarati argot for a business associate — contacted the cleric for help in recruiting volunteers to train at jihad camps in Pakistan.

Khan knew Maulana Naseeruddin well. Fleeing a crackdown on organised crime in Gujarat, Khan moved to Hyderabad in 1992-1993 where he lived posing as a cloth merchant. He helped to fund Islamist groups and causes during the six years he lived there, earning Naseeruddin’s friendship.

Mufti Sufian Patangia, a Salafi neoconservative who ran a small seminary at Kalupur, had already raised some volunteers for training at Lashkar facilities in Pakistan. Naseeruddin and Mohammad Abdul Rauf, a Majlis Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader long associated with Islamist movements in Hyderabad, joined hands to make more volunteers available.

Over a dozen men from Hyderabad and Ahmedabad were eventually flown to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami training camps in Pakistan.

Their first actions included the assassination of Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya, one of the key architects of the 2002 violence.

Khwaja, police sources say, refused to join the first wave of volunteers who trained in Pakistan. But, after the 2005 bombing in Hyderabad, he jumped bail, and fled to Karachi through Saudi Arabia.

Key liaison

He allegedly served as his old college friend Shahid’s lieutenant till his commander’s death in a mysterious 2007 shootout in Karachi. Later, Khwaja emerged as the key liaison between Rasool Khan’s organised crime networks, Indian jihadists in Pakistan and top Lashkar commanders like Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi. His associates included Maulana Naseeruddin’s son, Raziuddin Nasir —who is now being tried for his alleged role in an abortive attempt to bomb western tourists in Goa.

Khwaja is believed to have been in close contact with fugitive jihadist Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri — a key Indian Mujahideen organiser who fled to Karachi after organising an urban terror offensive that killed hundred across India between 2005 and 2008.

The Central Bureau of Investigation hopes to gain new insights into the 2007 bombing of Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid — an attack that some investigators believe Khwaja’s associates carried out, but others insist was executed by the Hindutva terrorist organisation Abhinav Bharat.

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