The rebirth of the Indian Mujahideen

Saturday's bombings in Bangalore are a grim reminder that the jihadist movement is far from spent.

April 19, 2010 02:58 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:51 pm IST

Suspected IM terrorist Shahzad Ahmad after being produced in a court by special cell of Delhi police. File Photo: PTI

Suspected IM terrorist Shahzad Ahmad after being produced in a court by special cell of Delhi police. File Photo: PTI

Less than an hour before police surrounded the Indian Mujahideen bomb-factory hidden away on the fringes of the Bhadra forests in Chikmagalur, Mohammad Zarar Siddi Bawa had slipped away on a bus bound for Mangalore — the first step in a journey that would take him to the safety of a Lashkar-e-Taiba safehouse in Karachi.

Inside the house, officers involved in the October, 2008, raid found evidence of Bawa's work: laboratory equipment used to test and prepare chemicals, precision tools, and five complete improvised explosive devices. Even as investigators across India set about filing paperwork declaring Bawa a fugitive, few believed they would ever be able to lay eyes on him again.

But in February, a closed-circuit television camera placed over the cashier's counter at the Germany Bakery in Pune recorded evidence that Bawa had returned to India — just minutes before an improvised explosive device ripped through the popular restaurant killing seventeen people, and injuring at least sixty.

Dressed in a loose-fitting blue shirt, a rucksack slung over his back, the fair, slight young man with a wispy beard has been identified by police sources in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka as “Yasin Bhatkal” — the man who made the bombs which ripped apart ten Indian towns and cities between 2005 and 2008. Witnesses at the restaurant also identified Bawa from photographs, noting that he was wearing trousers rolled up above his ankles — a style favoured by some neo-fundamentalists.

Bawa is emerging as the key suspect in Saturday's bombings outside the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore — a grim reminder that the jihadist offensive that began after the 2002 communal violence in India is very far from spent.

The obscure jihadist

Little is known about just what led Bawa to join the jihadist movement. Educated at Bhatkal's well-respected Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen school, 32-year-old Bawa left for Pune as a teenager. He was later introduced to other members of the Indian Mujahideen as an engineer, but police in Pune have found no documentation suggesting he ever studied in the city.

Instead, Bawa spent much of his time with a childhood friend living in Pune, Unani medicine practitioner-turned-Islamist proselytiser Iqbal Ismail Shahbandri. Like his brother Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri — now the Indian Mujahideen's top military commander — Ismail Shahbandri had become an ideological mentor to many young Islamists in Pune and Mumbai, many of them highly-educated professionals.

The Shahbandari brothers' parents, like many members of the Bhatkal elite, had relocated to Mumbai in search of new economic opportunities. Ismail Shahbandri, their father, set up leather-tanning factory in Mumbai's Kurla area in the mid-1970s. Riyaz Shahbandri went on to obtain a civil engineering degree from Mumbai's Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College and, in 2002, was married to Nasuha Ismail, the daughter of an electronics store owner in Bhatkal's Dubai Market.

Shafiq Ahmad, Nasuha's brother, had drawn Riyaz Shahbandri into the Students Islamic Movement of India. He first met his Indian Mujahideen co-founders Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Sadiq Israr Sheikh, in the months before his marriage. Later, Riyaz Shahbandri made contact with ganglord-turned-jihadist Amir Raza Khan. In the wake of the communal violence that ripped Gujarat apart in 2002, the men set about funnelling recruits to Lashkar camps in Pakistan.

Early in the summer of 2004, investigators say, the core members of the network that was later to call itself the Indian Mujahideen met at Bhatkal's beachfront to discuss their plans. Iqbal Shahbandri and Bhatkal-based cleric Shabbir Gangoli are alleged to have held ideological classes; the group also took time out to practice shooting with airguns. Bawa had overall charge of arrangements — a task that illustrated his status as the Bhatkal brothers' most trusted lieutenant.

Bhatkal, police investigators say, became the centre of the Indian Mujahideen's operations. From their safehouses in Vitthalamakki and Hakkalamane, bombs were despatched to operational cells dispersed across the country, feeding the most sustained jihadist offensive India has ever seen.

Communal war

Like so many of his peers in the Indian Mujahideen, Bawa emerged from a fraught communal landscape. Bhatkal's Nawayath Muslims, made prosperous by hundreds of years of trade across the Indian Ocean, emerged as the region's dominant land-owning community. Early in the twentieth century, inspired by call of Aligarh reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, Bhatkal notables led a campaign to bring modern education for the community. The Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen school where Bawa studied was one product of their efforts, which eventually spawned highly-regarded institutions that now cater to over several thousand students.

Organisations like the Anjuman helped the Navayath Muslims capitalise on the new opportunities for work and business with opened up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia during the 1970s. But this wealth, in turn, engendered resentments which laid the ground for an communal conflict. In the years after the Emergency, the Jana Sangh and its affiliates began to capitalise on resentments Bhatkal's Hindus felt about the prosperity and political power of the Navayaths. The campaign paid off in 1983, when the Hindu right-wing succeeded in dethroning legislator S.M. Yahya, who had served as a state minister between 1972 and 1982.

Both communities entered into a competitive communal confrontation, which involved the ostentatious display of piety and power. The Tablighi Jamaat, a neo-fundamentalist organisation which calls on followers to live life in a style claimed to be modelled on that of the Prophet Mohammad, drew a growing mass of followers. Hindutva groups like the Karavalli Hindu Samiti, too, staged ever-larger religious displays to demonstrate their clout.

Early in 1993, Bhatkal was hit by communal riots which claimed seventeen lives and left dozens injured. The violence, which began after Hindutva groups claimed stones had been thrown at a Ram Navami procession, and lasted nine months. Later, in April 1996, two Muslims were murdered in retaliation for the assassination of Bharatiya Janata Party legislator U. Chittaranjan — a crime that investigators now say may have been linked to the Bhatkal brothers. More violence broke out in 2004, after the assassination of BJP leader Thimmappa Naik.

Iqbal Shahbandri and his recruits were, in key senses, rebels against a traditional political order that appeared to have failed to defend Muslim rights and interests. Inside the Indian Mujahideen safehouses raided in October, 2008, police found no evidence that traditional theological literature or the writings of the Tablighi Jamaat had influenced the group. Instead, they found pro-Taliban videos and speeches by Zakir Naik — a popular but controversial Mumbai-based televangelist who has, among other things, defends Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden.

“If he is fighting the enemies of Islam”, Naik said in one speech, “I am for him. If he is terrorising America the terrorist—the biggest terrorist — I am with him.” “Every Muslim” Naik concluded, “should be a terrorist. The thing is, if he is terrorising a terrorist, he is following Islam”. Naik has never been found to be involved in violence, but his words have fired the imagination of a diverse jihadists — among them, Glasgow suicide-bomber Kafeel Ahmed, 2006 Mumbai train-bombing accused Feroze Deshmukh, and New York taxi driver Najibullah Zazi, who faces trial for planning to attack the city's Grand Central Railway Station.

Language like this spoke to concerns of the young people who were drawn to separate jihadist cells that began to spring up across India after the 2002 violence, mirroring the growth of the Indian Mujahideen. SIMI leader Safdar Nagori set up a group that included the Bangalore information-technology professionals Peedical Abdul Shibli and Yahya Kamakutty; in Kerala Tadiyantavide Nasir, Abdul Sattar, and Abdul Jabbar set up a separate organisation that is alleged to have bombed Bangalore in 2008

Storms of hate

Well-entrenched in the political system, Bhatkal's Muslim leadership has been hostile to radical Islamism. Efforts by Islamist political groups to establish a presence there have, for the most part, been unsuccessful. But authorities acknowledge Bhatkal, like much of the Dakshina Kannada region, remains communally fraught. Small-scale confrontations are routine. Earlier this month, the Karavalli Hindu Samiti even staged demonstrations in support of the Sanatana Sanstha, the Hindutva group police in Goa say was responsible for terrorist bombings carried out last year.

Pakistan's intelligence services and transnational jihadist groups like the Lashkar nurtured and fed India's jihadist movement — but its birth was the outcome of an ugly communal contestation that remains unresolved. Even as India's police and intelligence services work to dismantle the jihadist project, politicians need to find means to still the storms of hate which sustain it.

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