By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Disclosures by Indian Mujahideen (IM) cadres arrested since November 2011, and subsequent investigations have brought to light the consolidation of new leadership of the group in India, as well as the emergence of new bases of operation. The IM is a faction within the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks across the country.
Recent reports indicate that Yasin Bhatkal alias Mohammed Ahmed Sidibapa alias Imran alias Shahrukh had emerged as IM’s ‘operational chief’ on Indian soil, and was the link between the Bhatkal brothers- Riyaz Ismile Shahbandri alias Riyaz Bhatkal alias Roshan Khan alias Aziz Bhai alias Mohmad Bhai, and Iqbal Ismail Shahbandri alias Iqbal Bhatkal alias Mohammed Bhai, who escaped to Pakistan during the 2008 Security Forces (SF) onslaught on the group, and are now in Karachi, on the one hand; and the IM cadres in India, on the other. Recent disclosures also indicate the emergence of new modules based in Bihar, specifically in the Samastipur, Darbhanga and Madhubani Districts, which have become increasingly active in the recent past.
Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) Chief Rakesh Maria, according to January 25, 2012, news report, stated that the IM had first recruited youth from the Cheetah Camp in Trombay (Maharashtra), then from Kondwa in Pune (Maharashtra), later from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh (UP), but had now established a significant presence in Darbhanga, Bihar. Another ATS officer, who preferred anonymity, explained, further,
… [Yasin] Bhatkal also made Bihar a base at which he could receive hawala money through Pakistan via Dubai. He also helped Pakistan’s ISI circulate counterfeit notes in India by first landing them in Bihar… In 2008, when the Mumbai crime branch arrested 21 IM members for 11 blasts, including the Ahmedabad and Jaipur blasts, IM founding member Riyaz Bhatkal and his associates went underground. At the same time, the Delhi police carried out the Batla House operation in which IM man Atif and a Police Inspector were killed. IM’s key members, like Riyaz Bhatkal, Mohsin Choudhary, Iqbal Bhatkal, Abu Rashid, Dr Shanuwaz, Bada Sajid and Salman, fled to Pakistan. Yasin Bhatkal sheltered with his friend Gayoor Jamali at Darbhanga..”
Police sources indicated, further, that Yasin Bhatkal had indoctrinated and trained an estimated three dozen youth in Darbhanga District.
It was the investigations based on revelations made by cadres arrested since the end of 2011 that underlined the surviving potential of the IM. Unsettled by two high profile attacks – the serial blasts at Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Kabutarkhana in Mumbai on July 13, 2011, which claimed 26 lives; and the Delhi High Court blast on September 7, 2011, which claimed 15 lives – intelligence and enforcement agencies intensified their search for the responsible terrorist modules.
Between November 22 and November 27, 2011, the agencies arrested seven IM cadres, including six from the Bihar module, and one Pakistani national. Mohammed Qateel Siddiqui originally from Darbhanga, was arrested from Delhi on November 22; Gauhar Aziz Khomani also from Darbhanga, was arrested in Delhi on November 23; Gayur Ahmad Jamali originally from Madhubani (Bihar), was arrested from Darbhanga on November 24; Mohammad Adil alias Ajmal of Karachi, trained by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) as a shooter, and sent by the Bhatkal brothers first to Nepal and then to India to recruit local Muslims for terror attacks, was arrested from Madhubani on November 25; Abdur Rehman of Darbhanga, was arrested in Chennai (Tamil Nadu) on November 27; and Mohammad Irshad Khan from Samastipur (Bihar), was arrested in Chennai on November 27.
Several other cadres of the Bihar module have since been arrested from across the country, prominently including:
May 7, 2012: IM operative Kafeel Akhtar, co-conspirator of the Chinnaswamy Stadium blast in Bangalore, was arrested from Keoti in Darbhanga.
March 27, 2012: Assadullah Rehman alias Dilkash, originally from Darbhanga and an aide of Yasin Bhatkal, was arrested in Delhi.
February 21, 2012: IM ideologue and main recruiter, Mohammad Kafeel Ahmed, was arrested from Darbhanga in Bihar.
February 5, 2012: IM ideologue Talha Abdali alias Bashir Hasan alias Israr alias Masterji, was arrested from Barabanki in UP.
February 3, 2012: An alleged founding member of IM, Mohammad Tariq Anjuman Ehsan, was arrested at Nalanda in Bihar.
January 12, 2012: Naqi Ahmed Wasi and Nadeem Akhtar Ashfaq, who reportedly executed the July 13, 2007, Mumbai attacks (also known as 13/7), were arrested from Mumbai (Maharashtra).
Significantly, reports indicate that the Bihar module was behind the April 17, 2010, Chinnaswamy Stadium blast in Bangalore (Karnataka); the February 13, 2010, German Bakery blast in Pune (Maharashtra); and the September 19, 2010, Jama Masjid shooting in Delhi. A December 4, 2011, report citing Intelligence Bureau (IB) and State security agency sources, claimed that IM had established at least seven sleeper cells in North Bihar.
The consolidation in Bihar has not been at the expense of other areas where the IM has had a history of activity. Its presence remains strong in UP, particularly in the Azamgarh District; as well as in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra, with significant recruitment continuing in each of these areas. Further, IM has been able to establish safe havens in other countries as well. Pakistan, of course, continues to host the top IM leadership, including the Bhatkal brothers. Recent reports also indicate that nearly 50 IM cadres are stationed in Sharjah, under the protection of Riyaz Bhatkal and Amir Reza Khan.
IM is the first India-based terrorist group to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the US, according to a September 19, 2011, notification, and has demonstrated its lethality as a terrorist outfit. Significantly, SIMI, the IM’s parent group, has not been banned by the US, though the Indian Government has proscribed both the IM, on June 4, 2010, and SIMI, since on September 27, 2001. Meanwhile, the Indian Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) on April 30, 2012, named the Maharashtra-based Khair-e-Ummat Trust as one of SIMI’s fronts/ pseudonymous organisations. The UMHA’s “background note on the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI),” mentions another four organisations as SIMI ‘fronts’ at the national level – Tahreek-e-Ahyaa-e-Ummat (TEU), Tehreek-Talaba-e-Arabia (TTA), Tahrik Tahaffuz-e-Sha’air-e-Islam (TTSI) and Wahdat-e-Islami. The MHA, however, has not banned these groups.
Announcing its ‘arrival’ on India’s terrorist terrain, the IM had claimed responsibility for the serial blasts in court compounds in Faizabad, Lucknow and Varanasi, in UP, on November 23, 2007. Reports indicate that Mujahedeen-e-Islam Hind was the precursor to the IM. Since its consolidation under this identity, the IM has been involved in over a dozen high profile attacks, including the May 13, 2008, Jaipur (Rajasthan) bombings; the July 25, 2008, Bangalore (Karnataka) serial blasts; the July 26, 2008, Ahmadabad (Gujarat) serial blasts; the September 13, 2008, Delhi serial blasts; the Pune German Bakery blasts of February 13, 2010; and the Mumbai serial blasts of July 13, 2011.
Apart from Riaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, Yasin Bhatkal, Amir Reza Khan and Abdul Subhan Qureshi, are listed among IM’s top leaders. While, Yasin heads “operations in India”, Reza Khan is now a wealthy businessman in Pakistan and coordinates the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) chapters in India, according to intelligence sources. Reports also indicate that Qureshi was the author of several IM emails, signed off as al-Arabi, and is believed to operate under the direct patronage of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), like the Bhatkal brothers.
SIMI had progressively become enmeshed in terrorist activities, initially providing support to other terrorist formation, including the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, LeT, HuJI and JeM, but gradually partnering these outfits in multi-group operations. Eventually, the most radical elements within SIMI went on to form IM, with SIMI continuing as the ‘feeder agency’ for IM recruits. IM leaders like Mohammad Sadique Issar Sheikh, Riyaz Bhatkal, Iqbal Bhatkal, Amir Reza Khan and Tariq Ismail, have all graduated from SIMI. On February 23, 2012, IM ideologue and principal recruiter, Mohammad Kafeel Ahmed, confirmed that SIMI’s vast networks were now being used by IM.
The ties of the IM-SIMI complex with global Islamist organizations, including LeT, HuJI, the Pakistani intelligence agencies, as well as mafia elements have been well established. These linkages enhance the group’s capabilities, and also create the potential for the expansion of the wider Islamist terrorist networks across India. Indeed, LeT initially extended its activities outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) through criminal networks accessed through the connections of IM core members – Riyaz Bhatkal and Amir Reza Khan. The June 2010 testimony of LeT operative David Coleman Headley, to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), confirmed information regarding the “Karachi Project” – the ISI-LeT brainchild, under which IM recruits were trained to engage in subversive and terrorist activities in India. Headley had confessed to involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, part of the same “Karachi Project”. The mafia and criminal nexus of Islamists have also helped in intensifying IM activities. Notably, Mohammad Sadique Issar Sheikh, a conspirator of February 23, 2005, Varanasi blast, worked with Aftab Ansari and Dubai based criminal Asif Raza Khan. Moreover, two IM suspects were arrested from their hideout in Buldhana District of Maharashtra on March 27, 2012. The arrested persons, according to Police, had carried out a spate of bank robberies in Madhya Pradesh and used the money for terror funding. “The gang had also spent the money on legal expenses of their aides who are behind the bars now,” an unnamed Police officer disclosed.
Significantly, both the 13/7 Mumbai attacks and Delhi High Court Blast of September 7, 2011, reportedly carried out by IM, were funded by hawala money transferred from Pakistan through the terrorist-mafia networks backed by Pakistan. The money had been laundered through an old LeT conduit, identified as Wali Aziz alias Rehan, who operated out of Dubai. Naqi Ahmed Wasi, one of the accused, arrested on January 12, 2012, confessed that he was given INR 150,000 by Yasin Bhatkal as commission for the 13/7 blasts. At least INR 1 million, received through hawala channels, was provided for this plot.
According to Institute for Conflict Management data, a total of 132 IM/SIMI cadres have been arrested, in 59 incidents, from across the country, since the Batla House encounter of September 19, 2008. Nevertheless, the IM continues to retain significant capacities for terrorism and, more significantly, given sustained Pakistani support and the widespread SIMI networks, tremendous potential for renewal, revival, and a continuous reinvention of its destructive enterprise. The 2011 attacks in Mumbai and Delhi are a warning to India’s security agencies, not only that India remains tremendously vulnerable to terrorist violence, but also to the dynamic capacity of even small terrorist formations to transform and revitalize themselves, despite devastating losses.
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