Dispatch

These Terrorists Aren’t Playing Games

All India is abuzz over New Delhi's incompetent planning for the Commonwealth Games. But it's the return of terror that the city should be most worried about.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

NEW DELHI — Given the grim levels of violence to which Indians have become accustomed in recent years, the Sept. 19 attack on tourists at New Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid mosque was almost trivial. Two men riding on a motorcycle fired from a 9-millimeter automatic weapon, injuring two journalists from Taiwan, before disappearing into the alleys around the mosque. Minutes later, a bomb went off inside a car parked nearby — but fizzled because of errors in its fabrication.

In a letter emailed to newsrooms an hour after the assault — the latest in a series of similar warnings released to the media — an organization called the Indian Mujahideen took credit, casting the attack as retaliation for the killings of protesters by police in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. The letter castigates the international community for "lending outright support for Indian idol-worshippers’ massacres of the innocent people."

"We will now rightfully play Holi with your blood," it warns Indians, referring to a Hindu spring festival during which revelers throw colored powder and water on one other.

The Jama Masjid attack was a far cry from the sophisticated November 2008 massacre in Mumbai, but it suggests that India’s jihadi movement can no longer be ignored. It also demonstrates the durability of the Indian Mujahideen, whose bombings claimed hundreds of lives between 2005 and 2008, and raises the prospect that it is regrouping. In their email, the militants threatened to disrupt the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for next month in New Delhi. India’s various failings in planning for the high-profile sporting event have garnered all the headlines, but a larger, more successful attack — if demonstrated to have been carried out by a terrorist group linked to Pakistani jihadi groups — could spark a regional crisis between two nuclear powers.

Much of the Indian Mujahideen’s leadership is drawn from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) — a banned Islamist student group founded in 1977 by Jamaat-e-Islami, India’s largest Islamist political party. From the outset, SIMI made clear its belief that the practice of Islam would remain incomplete until a caliphate was established. SIMI’s strident Islamism soon led the Jamaat to distance itself from the organization.

SIMI appealed to an emerging class of educated, middle-class urban men who felt economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised by anti-Muslim chauvinism in India. By 2001, when the group was outlawed, SIMI boasted more than 400 ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000 ikhwan, or volunteers. As scholar Yoginder Sikand has noted, the organization provided "its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives."

After December 1992, when Hindu extremists smashed a mosque in northern India, SIMI’s polemics became increasingly bitter. In a 1996 statement, SIMI called on Muslims to follow the path of the 11th-century warlord Mahmood Ghaznavi and avenge the destruction of mosques in India. At SIMI’s 1999 convention, the language was inflammatory. "Islam is our nation, not India," thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad — one of several SIMI-linked operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani jihadi group, who was arrested in 2005 for smuggling in military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned strike in the state of Gujarat.

The idea of the Indian Mujahideen was born, as it were, over tea and biscuits, at weekend SIMI meetings in Mumbai attended by three of the network’s key organizers: Sadiq Israr Sheikh, Abdul Subhan Qureshi, and Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri. The three men, frustrated by SIMI’s failure to turn its ideological position into a concrete program of action, turned to organized crime networks within India, and through them Lashkar-e-Taiba, to set up the Indian Mujahideen.

Born in 1978 to working-class parents from the North Indian town of Azamgarh, Sheikh had grown up in the Cheeta Camp housing project in Mumbai. His parents had a troubled relationship, and the family struggled to survive; still, he made his way through middle school and became certified as an air-conditioning mechanic. But Sheikh never found a regular job, and he felt cheated of a share in the economic opportunities emerging around him.

In April 2001, a relative put Sheikh in touch with Aftab Ansari, a gangster reputed to have discovered Islamist radicalism while serving prison time in New Delhi alongside Syed Omar Sheikh, a member of Jaish-e-Mohammed, another Pakistani terrorist group. Indian investigators say that Ansari’s lieutenant, Asif Reza Khan, arranged for Sadiq Israr Sheikh to travel to Pakistan in September 2001 and train with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Qureshi, like Sheikh, was the son of working-class migrants from North India. However, Qureshi received an elite education at, of all places, the Catholic-run Antonio D’Souza High School in Mumbai. Qureshi joined SIMI as a college student and went on to edit the organization’s journal, Islamic Movement. He later joined a Mumbai-based information-technology company, but, in 2001, submitted a letter of resignation to his employers, saying he intended to "devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters." In fact, police believe, he joined Sheikh in Pakistan, using the resources provided by Khan.

The third key Indian Mujahideen organizer, Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri, was also the child of migrants to Mumbai — the son of a businessman from the South Indian town of Bhatkal. Shahbandri was recruited into SIMI while studying civil engineering at Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College by his future brother-in-law, Shafiq Ahmad. His worldview may also have been influenced by his brother Iqbal Shahbandri, an activist in Tablighi Jamaat, a nonviolent yet radical Islamist group. Interestingly, Iqbal was one of just two Indian Mujahideen members known to have had any real religious education.

The year 2002 marked a dangerous turning point for the jihad in India, after hundreds of Muslims were killed in large-scale violence in Gujarat. The bloodshed led dozens of young men to follow in the steps of the Indian Mujahideen leadership, forming several independent jihadi networks across India. A series of attacks soon followed. In 2003, a Hyderabad-based cell led by Asad Yazdani assassinated Gujarat’s home minister, Haren Pandya. In Mumbai, radical groups formed around Ehtesham Siddiqui, Rahil Sheikh, and Zabiuddin Ansari — the last suspected of having played a role in facilitating the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Former SIMI leader Safdar Nagori, along with Bangalore-based information-technology professionals Yahya Kamakutty and Peedical Abdul Shibli, sought to set up similar cells in south and central India. Oman-based Sarfaraz Nawaz liaised with Islamists in the South Indian state of Kerala to set up a group that would bomb Bangalore in 2008.

Many of these figures knew each other from their SIMI days, and tapped Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami, a Bangladeshi militant group, for logistical training and resources; none, however, appears to have known of each others’ operational plans in any great detail.

Early in the summer of 2004, key Indian Mujahideen cadre gathered at one of the sprawling villas that line the cheerfully named Jolly Beach in the Shahbandris’ hometown, Bhatkal, to form what would be the largest of these networks. Beginning in 2005, starting with a bombing at a Hindu pilgrimage center in the town of Varanasi, the Indian Mujahideen carried out a dozen major attacks on urban centers.

The police fought back, arresting dozens of Indian Mujahideen operatives starting in late 2008 and significantly degrading the organization’s capacities. The Jama Masjid
attack in New Delhi was of considerably lesser magnitude than the organization’s past operations — and the first involving the use of a handgun. (Indian Mujahideen cadre fired on Delhi Police officials with an assault rifle in 2008; that kind of weaponry does not appear to have been available to the Jama Masjid assault team.)

It is important to note, though, that police have yet to apprehend any key Indian Mujahideen organizer, with the exception of Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who was arrested in September 2009. In testimony to the U.S. FBI, Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley is reported to have said that Lashkar-e-Taiba was working on what he called the "Karachi Project," an initiative to revive jihadi networks in India — an enterprise likely to involve the Indian Mujahideen.

Indian counterterrorism officials are also puzzling over a posthumous audiotape purported to have been made by al Qaeda operative Said al-Masri, who claimed credit for the February 2010 bombing of a restaurant in Pune, which police say was carried out by an Indian Mujahideen operative. The tape contains several factual errors, raising some doubt about Masri’s claims, but it does hold out the worrisome prospect that some Indian jihadists may have reached out to al Qaeda for logistical support.

The ease with which the attackers at the Jama Masjid disappeared after their assault demonstrates that weaknesses in India’s police infrastructure — so brutally exposed during the slaughter in Mumbai — remain. India’s intelligence services have done somewhat better in recent months, arresting several midlevel Indian Mujahideen organizers and thus slowing the organization’s regrouping efforts. But the surprising resilience of the Indian Mujahideen points to deep social problems that are beyond the police’s ability to solve — problems that India’s political establishment and civil society have ignored for decades.

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