The Indian Jihadist Movement: Evolution and Dynamics
The Indian Jihadist Movement: Evolution and Dynamics

 

by Stephen Tankel

India has been confronting a jihadist threat from Pakistan for decades. Expeditionary terrorism typically receives the most focus, but indigenous actors benefiting from external support are responsible for the majority of jihadist attacks in India. The Indian mujahideen (IM) network, which announced its presence to the public via media in 2007, is the latest and most well known manifestation of the indigenous Islamist militant threat. As this paper details, however, its members were active before then. Moreover, a small number of Indian Muslims have been launching terrorist strikes -- with and without Pakistani support -- for more than two decades. The dynamics of Indian jihadism and the nature of India’s evolving counterterrorism response are not easy to comprehend. This is understandable given that, even among Indian security officials and analysts, a knowledge gap exists.

Discussions with issue experts and policy analysts prior to field research highlighted that three key areas regarding Indian jihadism remained opaque: the organizational nature and scale of the indigenous movement, the degree to which indigenous networks could threaten U.S. interests in India or across the wider South Asia region, and the nebulous ties between Indian jihadist networks and Pakistan-based groups. This paper addresses these and related issues and focuses on the evolution and dynamics of Indian jihadism. It begins by providing an overview of the evolution of the Indian jihadist movement, then explores the dynamics extant within that movement today, and concludes with an assessment of the threats posed by the movement.

The Four Phases of Indian Jihadism

Phase One

In December 1992, Hindu chauvinists demolished the Babri Masjid (Babur mosque) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, which had been constructed by the first Mughal Emperor of India in the 16th century. Hundreds of Muslims were killed in the communal riots that followed the mosque’s demolition. An environment of relative deprivation afflicting Indian Muslims had already created a small pool of would-be militants. So too did pervasive abuse by the police, which grew once Muslims started becoming involved in homegrown terrorism and contributed further to a sense of political alienation. The demolition of the Babri mosque thus catalyzed a response among an already radicalizing portion of the Muslim community. Believing that established leaders of the Muslim community had failed to stand against a rising threat from Hindu chauvinism, radical members took it upon themselves to fight back.

In the wake of communal riots that killed hundreds of Muslims, Dawood Ibrahim, the Muslim leader of South Asia’s largest crime syndicate known as D-Company, worked with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to engineer a lethal series of bomb blasts in Mumbai (Bombay at the time) in March 1993. This series of blasts remains the most deadly terrorist attack in India’s history and may have helped inspire or embolden would-be jihadists to take action. At the very least, D-Company became an important recruiting vehicle, using its logistical networks and ties to Pakistan to facilitate transit there for aspiring Indian jihadists in search of training and support.

The link between organized criminality and Islamist militancy remained an enduring feature of the Indian jihadist movement. The Asif Raza Commando Brigade, formed by gangsters-cum-jihadists and discussed later in this section, constitutes one of the two major building blocks of that movement. The Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (Organization for the Improvement of Muslims, or TIM) is the other.

Activists from the Gorba faction of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith in Mumbai formed the TIM in the Mominpora slum in summer 1985. Motivated by communal riots that erupted the previous year in Bhiwandi and spread to Mumbai and Thane, these activists converged around the need for a Muslim self-defense militia and the possibility of taking revenge for Hindu nationalist violence. Three key figures were present at the Mominpora meetings: Jalees Ansari, Azam Ghouri, and Abdul Karim (also known as “Tunda”). (For an alphabetical reference of these and 13 other key figures in the history of Indian jihadi activities, see appendix 1.)

Even though TIM was an armed defense militia, its members largely confined themselves to parading around the grounds of the Young Men’s Christian Association where, modeling the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, they trained with lathis, the long, heavy wooden sticks often used as weapons in India. However, Ansari, Ghouri, and Karim were already training with explosives, the latter having earned his nickname after a bombmaking accident blew off his left hand. As early as 1988, Ansari allegedly was executing “petty bombings” for which he used folded train tickets as the timer and detonator for small explosives. After the demolition of the Babri mosque and the riots that followed, the three men outlined a significantly grander plan for which they found help from abroad.

In the early 1990s, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was still a small Pakistani militant group and just becoming the Pakistan military’s most powerful proxy against India. However, LeT was organized enough to dispatch an operative named Azam Cheema to India shortly before the eruption of the 1992 communal violence. Soon thereafter, Cheema recruited several TIM leaders. A year to the day after the Babri mosque’s destruction and with the support of LeT, the men of TIM executed a series of coordinated bombings in several Indian cities (not to be confused with those D-Company engineered).

Ansari was captured in the midst of planning a second series of bombings scheduled to coincide with India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 1994. Ghouri fled to Saudi Arabia and then traveled to Pakistan where he linked up with LeT. Karim crossed into Dhaka, Bangladesh, and headed LeT operations there during the mid-1990s as part of a wider tasking to help build the group’s pan-India capabilities. TIM members who had not fled or been arrested began a recruitment drive, sending some of those they enlisted to Pakistan for training, often via Bangladesh. Karim acted as a conduit for Indian recruits transiting from or through Bangladesh to LeT camps in Pakistan. Working via the Dhaka-based Islamic Chattra Shibir (Islamic Students Organization), Karim coordinated the creation of a robust network throughout north India. It formed the backbone of LeT’s Indian operations branch, known as the Dasta Mohammad bin Qasim. Cheema was its commander. Karim became its top field operative, returning to India in 1996 to begin putting his network into action. Collectively, Karim was allegedly involved in over 40 bomb attacks across the country, 21 in Delhi alone, committed in 1994 and from 1996–1998. Ghouri returned to India in 1998 at Karim’s behest and launched the LeT-associated Indian Muslim Mohamadee Mujahideen in Hyderabad. It executed seven bomb blasts, five in Hyderabad, and two in the surrounding areas of Matpalli and Nandad, targeting trains, buses, and markets. It was just one of a number of small outfits operating in the area at the time, all of which were part of the same network despite their different names.

In 1994, two Indian gangsters, Aftab Ansari and Asif Raza Khan, who belonged to the other major building block of the jihadist movement, were locked up alongside Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in Tihar Jail. Sheikh was a British-born member of the Pakistani militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. He motivated Ansari and Asif Khan to wage jihad against India. Both took up this charge following their release from prison. They linked up with militant members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which became a feeder for the burgeoning Indian jihadist movement and a recruiting pool for Pakistan-based organizations like LeT looking to train would-be homegrown Indian terrorists.

Founded in 1977 at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh as the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, SIMI was soon at odds with its parent organization. In 1981 they separated. During the next 10 years, some SIMI members became even more alienated from the mainstream political culture and more prone toward militant Islamism. SIMI rhetoric hardened in the lead-up to the 1992 mosque demolition, with some leaders of the organization ultimately declaring Islam to be under threat in India and calling upon Muslims to wage jihad against the Indian state or at least members of its Hindu majority. As the 1990s progressed, SIMI leaders increasingly sought to link themselves -- ideologically, rhetorically, and operationally -- to the transnational jihadist movement burgeoning at the time. Some of its most hardline members, frustrated with extremist talk but little action, linked up with Ansari and Asif Khan.

Riyaz Shahbandri (hereafter known by his alias Riyaz Bhatkal) and Mohammed Sadique Israr Sheikh (hereafter Sadique Sheikh) were the most prominent among these hardline members. In April 2000, Sadique Sheikh connected with Aftab Ansari, after which he and several other would-be militants traveled to Pakistan, all of them carrying Pakistani passports. After training in LeT camps, Sadique Sheih returned in July where he reconnected with Asif Khan to begin plotting terrorist attacks. Riyaz Bhatkal was seeking funding from Asif Khan to finance terrorist operations in India by this time as well.

The Gujarat police killed Azam Ghouri in 2000. Karim absconded to Pakistan via Bangladesh the same year. In December 2001, the Gujarat police gunned down Asif Khan, who had been taken into custody and was allegedly trying to escape. Despite their absence from the battlefield, the movement these men helped to build was poised for growth.

Phase Two

The second period lasted from 2001–2005. By the beginning of the decade, it was becoming clear that the guerrilla war in Indian-administered Kashmir was not bearing fruit and that some Pakistani militant groups were escalating their involvement in attacks against the hinterland. The 9/11 attacks followed by the December 2001 assault on India’s Parliament by the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) also may have triggered a realization within the ISI that an overreliance on Pakistan proxies risked provoking international ire. The confluence of these factors likely contributed to the LeT decision to expand its recruitment efforts in India and terrorist operations there.

At approximately the same time, India banned SIMI in 2001, driving many of its members underground and triggering a cleavage within it between those who, while extreme, were not prepared to take up arms and hardliners looking to launch a terrorist campaign. A small number of SIMI activists who split from the organization went on to form the core of the Indian mujahideen. In early 2002, riots in the Indian state of Gujarat claimed the lives of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.

The riots mobilized a section of India’s Muslim population already prone to radicalization at a time when LeT and the inchoate network that would become the IM were increasing recruitment efforts. Other independent militants, often with ties to Pakistani militant groups -- especially LeT, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami branch in Bangladesh (HuJI-B), or both -- were active during this time, too. The focus here is on the network that coalesced into the IM. However, it is worth noting that key LeT operatives, including Sayed Zabiud-din Ansari (aka Abu Jundal), the Indian who taught Hindi to the 2008 Mumbai attackers and was in the control room for the operation, was among those recruited into the group during this phase.

In December 2001, the men who ultimately came together to form the IM constituted only another small cell with ties to militant groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh. After the Gujarat police gunned down Asif Raza Khan, his brother Amir Raza Khan (A.R. Khan) established the Asif Raza Commando Force in his brother’s name. He enlisted several Indians, including Sadique Sheikh, as well as two Pakistani militants. Operating under the Asif Raza Commando Force banner, they attacked police officers guarding the American Centre in Kolkata killing 6 of them and injuring 14 other people.

A.R. Khan fled to Pakistan. On his instructions, Sadique Sheikh launched another recruitment drive, this time focused on his native Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, Riyaz Bhatkal and his brother Iqbal were recruiting a cadre for training across the border. In his new role as a Pakistan-based LeT interface for Indian jihadist networks, A.R. Khan facilitated training and travel for recruits via the provision of fake passports and financing. As those who traveled to Pakistan for training returned to India, they quickly became involved in launching bomb attacks.

Indian prosecutors allege that in 2004 Riyaz Bhatkal brought various operators from the burgeoning jihadist movement together for a retreat in the south Indian town of Bhatkal. His brother Iqbal, Sadique Sheikh, and others, some of whom had also trained with LeT, were present. Together, these men formed the core of the IM network. On February 23, 2005, using Research Department Explosives (RDX) provided by HuJI-B, they bombed the Dasashwadmedha Ghat in Varanasi, the holiest bathing place for Hindus on the banks of the Ganges. The IM network had activated.

Phase Three

The third phase lasted from 2005–2008, during which time the IM was primarily or solely responsible for at least nine additional bombings, not including the 2006 Mumbai blasts, which may have been a joint LeT-IM attack, and the 2008 Bangalore blasts, which almost certainly was. (List of attacks attributed to the Indian Mujahideen is available in appendix 2.)

Members of the Azamgarh module led by Atif Ameen and Sadique Sheikh, who recruited many of them, were responsible for all but one of these nine bombings. With the Azamgarh module active in the north, the Shahbandri brothers increased their recruitment efforts in southern India. This included establishing a module in Pune, Maharashtra, where the two were based for part of 2007. Mohsin Choudhary, who met Iqbal at a religious event in 2004 and became another high-ranking IM leader, is believed to have assisted with these efforts. Under the direction of Riyaz Shahbandri (also known as Riyaz Bhatkal), the Pune module executed one attack, the 2007 twin bombings in Hyderabad that killed 44 people and lent assistance for the LeT-led 2008 Bangalore blasts that left 2 dead. However, Indian officials continued to attribute these attacks to LeT and HuJI-B, which intelligence officials now admit hampered their counterterrorism efforts.

In 2007, the IM began publicly claiming its attacks. By this time it was becoming increasingly cohesive and consisted of three wings: the Mohammad Gaznavi Brigade, which was built around the Azamgarh module and also known as the Northern Brigade; the Sahabuddin Brigade, which was built around the Pune module and also known as the Southern Brigade; and the Shaheed-Al-Zarqavi Brigade responsible for planning fidayeen attacks (which never came to fruition). The IM later added the Media Group, which became responsible for claiming its attacks via electronic and print media.

This cohesion meant that removing a key node could cause a serious blow. In September 2008, the Delhi police stumbled onto such a node: Atif Ameen and several of his colleagues in their rented address at Batla House. Ameen and another militant, Mohammad Sajid, were killed and two others were arrested while one suspect escaped. The information gleaned from the Batla House encounter led to a wave of arrests, including Sadique Sheikh. It also forced others to go underground or flee the country. This threw the IM into disarray and contributed to an almost 2-year pause in attacks. It did not, however, end the IM terrorist threat.

Phase Four

The ability to find safe haven in Pakistan and to travel from there to the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), enabled IM leaders, including the Shah-bandri brothers who fled India, to regroup and rebuild their networks. With Atif Ameen dead and Sadique Sheikh in prison, Ahmed Siddi Bapa emerged as the on-the-ground commander in India. He took control of the Pune module and built another, alternatively called the Bihar or Darbhanga module. The Indian authorities arrested him in August 2013.

The IM resumed attacks in 2010, bombing the German bakery in Pune. Additional attacks followed, some more successful than others. In several instances, discussed in the following section, IM members allegedly worked with LeT operatives or used LeT-supplied RDX. Mansoor Peerbhoy, who led the Media Group, was arrested before the IM resumed its bombing campaign, and no claim of credit was issued for the first two blasts. In December 2010, after a bomb exploded at the Sheetla Ghat in Varanasi, an email entitled “Let’s feel the pain together” was purportedly sent to several media houses. It claimed, “Indian Mujahideen attribute this attack to December 6 . . . the loss of their beloved Babri Masjid” and was signed “Al-Arbi,” the same signature used on all the previous IM emails. Although most interlocutors with whom the author spoke concurred this was an IM attack, several of them observed that anyone with rudimentary computer knowledge could send a claim signed Al-Arbi. Theoretically, this makes assigning blame for attacks more difficult and can create additional uncertainty for investigators. In reality, no claims of responsibility accompanied subsequent IM attacks.

On average, there has been a reduction in number of attacks per year and the lethality of attacks, correlating with a drop in the yearly death toll. The most successful strike occurred in July 2011 when the IM executed three simultaneous bombings in Mumbai. This was the most calculated and organized attack to occur since the Batla House encounter; it killed 26 people and injured approximately 130 others. The head of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad claims to have evidence that Riyaz Shahbandri planned the attacks from Saudi Arabia, where he met with others involved. He and Siddi Bapa are named in the 4,700-page charge sheet filed as having planned, funded, and provided explosives for the attack. According to the National Investigative Agency, which was questioning Siddi Bapa at the time of writing, the IM field commander told them a Pakistani national called Waqas with bombmaking expertise planted one of the three explosive devices. He alleged Waqas was roped in specifically for the operation, was currently in hiding, and reported directly to handlers in Pakistan.

Two more attacks followed: serial blasts executed in Pune on August 1, 2012, and two bicycle bombs in downtown Hyderabad that killed 17 and injured over 100 people. It remains unclear whether the IM was definitively responsible and, if so, who within the network planned or executed these attacks. Investigators undoubtedly will seek clarification from Siddi Bapa. His arrest also raises questions about the future of the IM network and, especially, the Bihar module. Authorities claim to have successfully degraded the Pune module in the past 2 years, leaving the Bihar module as the most important IM entity. Siddi Bapa’s arrest is unlikely to spell the end of the Indian jihadist movement, but investigators and analysts can hope to learn more about its dynamics. It is to these that we now turn.

 

Stephen Tankel is an Assistant Professor at American University and the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is also an Adjunct Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University.

 

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