“I take pride,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a June 2005 interview, “in the fact that, although we have 150 million Muslims in our country as citizens, not one has been found to have joined the ranks of al-Qaeda or participated in the activities of [the] Taliban.”
Nine years on, there is growing doubt over that claim: the Internet is bringing the global jihad home for a new generation of educated radical Islamists in India.
The revelations in The Hindu of a Singapore-based jihad cell that recruited Chennai college students to serve with Islamists fighting president Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria are just the latest in a long series of incidents which show that Indian jihadists are making common cause with transnational groups.
In 2007, Bangalore-origin, London-based Kafeel Ahmad, a post-doctoral scientist, was killed when he crashed a jeep fitted with improvised explosive devices into the Glasgow airport, in the first suicide attack by an Indian national overseas. That summer, north Kashmir resident Aijaz Ahmad Malla was reported killed fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“This case could add a completely new dimension to the terrorist threat to India,” said Ajai Sahni, at New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. “Trained by jihadists overseas, and able to access their resources, these new recruits could prove the core of a more lethal outfit than any we’ve seen so far.”
Earlier this year, National Investigation Agency prosecutors filed evidence that Indian Mujahideen commander Riyaz Ahmad Shahbandri had been in touch with al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Afghanistan, seeking support for the organisation’s campaign against India.
For India’s government, one particular concern is that many of these recruits are highly educated and economically successful. No one knows precisely what drove Kafeel Ahmed on his journey from being a studious, upper-middle-class Bangalore undergraduate to suicide bomber. He is known, however, to have abandoned the conservative but non-violent religious traditions of his parents in his early 20s, turning instead to a nee-fundamentalist orderTamil Nadu cases
Tamil Nadu, interestingly, has had at least one past case involving transnational linkages. In 2011, a Madurai engineering graduate was detained at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, soon after returning to the country from Algeria. French authorities suspected the man, married to a French national, had raised funds for jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are not aware whether charges were pressed against the suspect,” a police official familiar with the case said. “His family in Madurai claimed that he was innocent and got married against their advice. He did not meet his family after 2010.”
The most famous case of an Indian jihadist overseas, though, is of Muhammad Abdul Aziz, a one-time Hyderabad electrician who fought in Grozny in 1996, under the command of Saudi Arabia jihadist Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem. He also took part in combat against Serbian forces at Zentica in 1994, hoping to learn skills he could use at home.
Mr. Aziz later told Hyderabad police investigators that he had been radicalised by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 — and hoped for revenge.
“The last few years,” said Dr. Sahni “have seen several political developments which have stoked fears among Muslims. There are those who have tried to capitalise on these fears, and the Chennai jihad case shows these elements are having some success on the extreme fringes of Muslim political opinion.”