By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Over the past decades, an elaborate web of Islamist extremist terrorism, backed by Pakistan, has thrived under the benign neglect of the state on Saudi Arabian soil. Much of this terrorism has been directed against India, as extremist groupings used the Islamic kingdom as safe haven, recruiting ground and source of generous funding, even as a regime of official denial and collusion with Pakistan stonewalled Indian efforts to bring fugitives to justice and restrain terrorists operating from the security of Saudi soil.
There are tentative suggestions that this may now be changing – though the trends are far from dramatic. The absolute impunity with which Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists operated against India from Saudi Arabia has now been diluted by the arrest and deportation to India, of a number of prominent terrorists, albeit under sustained pressure and with a number of hiccups. The most recent and significant of these developments was the deportation of Fasih Mohammad, an Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative, and his subsequent arrest at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) on October 22, 2012. Mohammad, a Computer Engineer who lived in Dammam (Saudi Arabia), is a suspect in the April 17, 2010, Chinnaswamy Stadium blast case in Bangalore and the September 19, 2010, Jama Masjid shooting case in Delhi.
Fasih was the third terrorist to be deported from Saudi Arabia over the past five months. On June 21, 2012, the 26/11 (November 26, 2008) Mumbai (Maharashtra) terrorist attacks handler, Abu Hamza alias Sayeed Zabi ud Deen alias Zabi Ansari alias Riyasat Ali alias Abu Jundal, was arrested in Delhi after being extradited from Saudi Arabia. This was followed by the deportation and arrest of LeT terrorist A. Rayees on October 6, 2012. Rayees was named as the third accused in the case of the seizure of explosives in Malayalamkunnu under Chakkarakkal (Kannur District of Kerala) Police limits in 2009.
Another five terrorist fugitives, including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) ‘commander’ Fayyaz Kagzi, accused in the Aurangabad arms haul case of May 9, 2006, are still holed up in the country. Fayyaz Kagzi had also given bomb-making training to February 13, 2010, German Bakery (Pune, Maharashtra) blast accused Mirza Himayat Baig in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in 2008.
Saudi Arabia’s nexus with Pakistan controlled LeT and IM has also been verified in a number of arrests within India, including the arrest of five IM militants accused of the August 1, 2012, Pune (Maharashtra) serial blasts. On September 26, 2012, Asad Khan and Imran Khan were arrested by Delhi Police from Pul Prahladpur in Delhi. This was followed by the arrest of Sayed Feroz on October 1, from the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi, and Langde Irfan, on October 10, from Jaipur in Rajasthan. According to Delhi Police, Feroz, Imran Khan and Asad Khan had gone to Saudi Arabia several times to meet Fayyaz Kagzi. Asad Khan had made several phone calls to Saudi Arabia and sent emails to Kagzi prior to these visits.Delhi Police arrested another suspected IM terrorist, identified as Sayed Maqbool alias Zuber, from Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) on October 23.
Between August 29 and September 2, 2012, 18 persons were arrested across Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, exposing further trails to terrorist activities from Saudi Arabia. Subsequent interrogations revealed that terrorist modules in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra had been working on instructions of handlers located in Saudi Arabia and linked to LeT and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). Bangalore city Police Commissioner Jyothi Prakash Mirji confirmed, “Those arrested have links with Saudi Arabia-based LeT and HuJI and it is suspected that they have more supporters in other (Indian) States. The arrested were taking orders from their handlers in Saudi Arabia”.
These recent arrests and revelations are not in isolation and only reconfirm Saudi Arabia’s role as a terror hub, with a Saudi connection traced back from several other terrorist incidents in India, and with the accused in many cases still absconding in Saudi Arabia, though authorities in the Kingdom have inclined to a pretence of ignorance regarding these many linkages.
A case in point is that of C.A.M. Basheer, the ‘president’ of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in the 1980s, hailing from Aluva in the Ernakulam District of Kerala, and an accused in the March 13, 2003, Mulund (Mumbai) blast. Basheer takes the Saudi terror connection nearly two decades back, and has reportedly been coordinating his activities from the Kingdom.
Again, Abu Abdel Aziz, who spent a considerable length of time in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the early 1990s, and made an appearance at an LeT conference in Muridke in Pakistan’s Punjab Province in November 1994, was introduced there as an Indian Muslim living in Saudi Arabia, who was helping Muslims to fight in Bosnia and Kashmir. The case of Aziz is still unresolved.
Further, on August 29, 2003, Police in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, arrested five terrorists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and LeT in connection with Akshardham Temple attack case of September 24, 2002. Interrogations confirmed by the then Ahmedabad Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), P.P. Pandey revealed, “The temple attack was a joint operation conducted by several modules of JeM and LeT having their network from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh [UP], Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and other cities”.
An accused in the December 2, 2002, Ghatkopar (Mumbai) blast, identified as Taufiq alias Abdullah, was arrested from Morna in Noida in UP on November 22, 2011, by a team of the UP Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), Tamil Nadu Special Investigation Team (SIT) and Noida Police. Western UP ATS Chief Rajeev Narayan Misra said that Taufiq had travelled and stayed in Saudi Arabia as well as in Bangladesh, to avert arrest. Taufiq disclosed that he was earlier associated with LeT and the Muslim Defence Force (MDF).
Investigations into the July 11, 2006, Mumbai train blast case also exposed a Saudi connection. The then Mumbai Police Commissioner A.N. Roy stated, on September 30, 2006, that one of the main accused, Faizal Sheikh, had received large consignments of funds through Rizwan Devra, an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operative based in Saudi Arabia, to organize the attack. Police also recovered 26,000 Riyals from Faizal’s house in Bandra, Mumbai.
Reports also indicate that Shahid Bilal, the key conspirator in the twin blasts in Lumbini Park and Gokul Chat, on August 25, 2007, in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, had also stayed in Saudi Arabia during 2002-2003 and recruited several Hyderabadi expatriate youth there. Significantly, within a week of the blast, Shahid was reportedly shot dead in Karachi in Pakistan, in a turf war with rival Rasool Khan Parti.
A Saudi link was also established in the December 7, 2010, Varanasi (UP) blasts. One of the terrorists involved, Asadullah Akthar, was believed to have taken shelter in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-Pak nexus is not a new phenomenon. Pakistan backed terrorist outfits receive detailed briefing for operations from their mentors in Saudi Arabia. The modus operandi allows Pakistani agents to brief their terrorist proxies, who then return to India without a Pakistani visa on their passports to avoid suspicion. Indians have also been facilitated by Pakistan to travel to Saudi Arabia under new identities and passports provided by Pakistani authorities. This was the case with Abu Jundal, who went to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan, on a Pakistani passport in the name of Riyasat Ali, a purported resident of Muridke. An October 24, 2012, report indicates that intelligence agencies believe that IM operatives Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal are also on the run and travel between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia under false identities, with Pakistani passports.
Terror masterminds located in Saudi Arabia also control their ‘foot soldiers’ in India through cyberspace, and intelligence agencies find it difficult to keep a track on the numerous channels used. A senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) official commented, “It’s a big headache for the intelligence agencies to detect the communications between them. It is impossible to monitor all the activities in the cyberspace”.
The arrest of Abu Jundal exposed many of these dimensions. Jundal revealed that he had been tasked to move to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan in 2010, and was given the responsibility to recruit youth and take care of the India operations. Jundal further disclosed that he had recruited 50 persons during his nearly two-year stay in Saudi Arabia and was also instrumental in hawala (illegal money transfers) funding, through his contacts in Riyadh and Dubai, to LeT’s sleeper cells in the Indian states of Kerala and Maharashtra.
Saudi Arabia is also a principal source of terrorist funding, both to groups based and operating out of Pakistan and the prominent ‘indigenous’ groupings within India. Steady funding from Saudi Arabia for SIMI and IM contributed directly to the growth of these groups. Most of the money lands in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and is later distributed to SIMI-IM units elsewhere. According to security agencies, IM is worth an estimated INR 500 million, and its major donors are rich Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Regarding August 1, 2012 blasts, ATS is zeroing-in on hawala operations. For instance, Special Commissioner of Police (Special Cell) S.N. Srivastava, on October 18, 2012, observed, “He [Langde Irfan] received his ideological training in Saudi Arabia… Irfan was in touch with IM, founder member, Riyaz Bhatkal and also received and transported hawala transactions (sic)…” As reported on October 18, 2012 Irfan Mustafa, along with an accomplice went to Saudi Arabia to meet Kagzi and subsequently formed an “advance team”.
Apart from hawala network, Saudi institutions have also used the cover of educational, welfare and religious funding to back terrorist activities. A November 2008 dispatch by Bryan Hunt, the then principal officer at the US consulate in Lahore (Pakistan), noted that Saudi Arabia was seen as funding some of Pakistan’s hardline religious seminaries, or madrassas, which churn out young men eager for “holy war”, posing a threat to the stability of the South Asian region. Further, US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks in December 2010 revealed that “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” and that “Riyadh has taken only limited action” to interrupt the flow of money to Taliban and LeT linked outfits, which have launched attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Other countries in the Gulf are, of course, also involved in providing support and shelter to terrorists. Sarfaraz Nawaz, who financed the July 25, 2008, Bangalore (Karnataka) blasts, was later deported from Oman in 2009. During investigations, Nawaz revealed that a simultaneous bombing planned for Chennai (Tamil Nadu) was called off due to unforeseen contingencies. ATS sleuths are also on the lookout for Muzzafar Kola, the alleged financer of the 13/7 (July 13, 2011) blasts of Mumbai (Maharashtra), who currently resides in Bhatkal town in Karnataka, and his associates in Dubai. Kola and his associates, according to ATS, financed the 13/7 blasts through the hawala route using his firm Muzaffar Kola Enterprises LLC in Dubai as the front. In its chargesheet filed in the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) court on May 25, 2012, the Maharashtra ATS identified Kola as ‘Wanted Accused Four’ in 13/7 bombing, though he is yet to be chargesheeted. Police officers are said to have visited Kola’s hometown in Bhatkal in June, but failed to find him at home.
Noticeably, Pakistan has taken a two way strategy of recruiting youth from Indian hinterland and then brainwashing them in extra-regional territories to neutralize any genuine international pressure to end the export of terror to India. Saudi Arabia, infamous for exporting its puritan Wahhabism to other regions of the world, including South Asia, has been particularly susceptible to cooption in this strategy. However, Saudi Arabia has, over the past years, also experienced repeated terrorist strikes on its own soil, including the suicide bombing targeting the then crown prince and interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, on August 27, 2009, in Jeddah. With the rising threat of Islamist extremist terrorism on their own soil, Saudi authorities appear to be diluting their hitherto unreserved and unqualified support to Pakistan’s misadventures in the region, resulting in the recent deportations of terror accused to India.
Such ‘cooperation’ with Indian authorities, however, is still far from automatic or enthusiastic. Indeed, the deportation of Fasih Mohammad, as well as those who preceded him, came only after a number of obstacles had been overcome. India secured an Interpol Red Corner notice on May 31, 2012, against Fasih, but the Saudi Government demanded more evidence regarding his involvement in terrorism, and delayed his deportation. Moreover, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had earlier taken the stance that those who were wanted in criminal cases in India could not be deported if no offence had been committed by them within the territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This had been disclosed to the Kerala High Court on July 16, 2012, by Assistant Solicitor General (ASG) P. Parameswaran Nair, based on a written communication from Faiz Ahabad Kidwaid, India’s Consul General in Jeddah.
Nevertheless, the recent developments give grounds for some optimism and, crucially, would undermine the complete impunity with which Pakistan backed Islamist terrorists had been using Saudi soil to mount their campaigns in India.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
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