He’d stood before the prayer congregation at the mosque in the village of Bairia one Friday afternoon in the summer of 2006, and called on the worshippers to prepare for war. The man responsible for the communal carnage in Gujarat, the slightly-built teenager warned, was growing in power. India’s Muslims, he went on, must prepare for an onslaught that would lead to their annihilation. Local elders, alarmed by the polemic, brought the speech to a quick end. For a few hours, local police records show, communal tension flared — and ebbed.
Haider Ali —‘Black Beauty’ to his friends, who teased him for his dark complexion — never returned to his village. Through Wednesday, though, Bairia residents will have Ali’s image on television, in the hours following his arrest for bombing Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi’s October 27 rally in Patna, the culmination of at least three assassination attempts.
Ali’s arrest is a breakthrough for India’s intelligence services — but no reason to exult. In videotapes obtained by The Hindu, cadre of the Indian Mujahideen breakaway faction Ansar-ul-Tauheed — the Army of the One God — can be seen training at al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. In internet chat room discussions, and Islamist discussion groups, Mr. Modi’s rise is being used to make renewed calls to prepare for jihad.
The making of an assassin:
Ali’s journey, as investigation records tell is, is curiously similar to the railway platform-to-Race Course Road rise of the man he gave his life to trying to kill. Born to Muhammad Alam Ansari on August 21, 1988, Ali grew up in poverty. His father, a polio victim who worked as a roadside tailor, made Rs. 50 or so on a good day — and on the others, the family didn’t eat. Then, when Ali was in the tenth grade, his father left his family, and moved to Doranda, across the border in Jharkhand. The reasons for the separation are unclear.
In spite of his harsh circumstances, Ali demonstrated grit. He matriculated from Bairia’s high school, and, funded by his maternal grandmother, gained admission to the Doranda Degree College. His grades weren’t stellar, but good enough to gain admission to the Masters programme in psychology at Ranchi University.
Like hundreds of thousands of other upwardly-mobile young people in Bihar, Ali could have headed into the private sector, or competed for a government job. He turned, instead, to Islamist politics — joining the far-right jihadist faction of the Students Islamic Movement of India led by Safdar Nagori.
From Mr. Ansari’s account, there’s some reason to think economic hardship might have had something to do with his son’s rage against society. The last time Mr. Ansari saw his son was in 2010-11, when his landlord asked him to vacate the premises after he failed to pay the rent. Furious, Ali left home. “He returned once a few days later,” Mr. Ansari later told The Hindu , "and asked me to shift the shop to this place in Hathitola. I resisted but he threatened saying that he will throw away all things in my shop if I did not move to this new location. He did not return home after that.”
It’s also likely clear a man from Mumbai had something to do his rage. In March 2001, a young network engineer called Abdul Subhan Qureshi left his job at computer major Datamatics in Mumbai, saying in his resignation letter that he wanted “devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters”. Qureshi — a graduate of the upmarket Antonio DeSouza High School and the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth, and a star performer in his last job with Wipro — was joining SIMI full-time.
Qureshi played a key role in building SIMI’s underground networks in Bihar after it was proscribed following 9/11 — acting as mentor to Manzar Imam and Faisal Khan, who in turn are alleged to have recruited Mr. Ali. He drifted away from SIMI in coming years, frustrated by its unwillingness to act on its own jihadist polemic, and co-founded the Indian Mujahideen.
In 2008, Qureshi hid out with the group in Ranchi, after a nationwide police crackdown led to the dozens of Indian Mujahideen operatives. The group would shelter a number of key Indian Mujahideen fugitives in coming years — the most important of them Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal.
For the attack on Mr. Modi, Ali is alleged to have relied on close friends — key among them, Mujibullah Ansari, also arrested on Wednesday. The son of a retired laboratory technician at Ranchi’s Apollo Hospital, Ansari also had a good academic record: armed with a Bachelors degree in commerce from the SS Memorial College in Ranchi, his family hoped he would go on to secure a well-paid private-sector job. Ansari’s main passion, though, was politics. In 2009-2010 served as sadr in the local Students Islamic Organisation — the youth wing of the Jama’at-e-Islami — but drifted slowly towards the jihadists of SIMI.
Siddibapa, the NIA alleges, used his time in Ranchi to try to recruit the SIMI cell to the Indian Mujahideen’s cause — but failed. The group said they disagreed on a matter of principle: Nagori had long argued for the building-up of a disciplined Islamist insurgency, not acts of terror against civilians.
The group didn’t mention, though, that they had plans of their own. In April, 2013, the NIA alleges, Ansari hired a room at the Iram Lodge, in Ranchi’s Hindipiri area, which would serve as a hub for the group. Inside, the group built the bombs used to target the Bodh Gaya mosque, and then Mr. Modi’s rally.
India’s intelligence services believe the arrests mark the destruction of the last jihadist cell known to be active—but are also painfully evident others have cropped up. Islamist groups in southern India are being investigated for the bombing of a Chennai-Bangalore train last month, and Tamil Nadu college students are known to be training with jihadists in Syria. Former Indian Mujahideen operatives Mirza Shadab Beg, Shahnawaz Alam, Muhammad “Bada” Sajid, Alamzeb Afridi,, Shafi Armar and Sultan Armar are known to be training in Pakistan, with their new organisation — and will, more likely than not, return home one day to wage war in their homelands.
“The Muslims of India are not powerless,” the Ansar-ul-Tauheed videotape featuring the group warns. “Their warriors are advancing towards you from Afghanistan, the blessed land of the one true faith. The same way we delivered carnage to you in times past, we will do so again”.
It is a threat India should take seriously.