Tentacles of terror

Print edition : September 01, 2001

As members of a Hizbul Mujahideen cell are arrested at Jalgaon in Maharashtra, the deadly links the organisation has with the Students Islamic Movement of India come into focus.

WHEN Sheikh Asif Supdu left his home in Jalgaon in Maharashtra last year, he told his family members that he was going for a short vacation with his friends. Today they are almost certain that his body lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Jammu and Kashmir.

Khalid Hazad Khan.-

Late last month, the Maharashtra Police arrested nine members of a Jalgaon-based terrorist cell that was believed to be responsible for the attempted bombing of the offices of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur in May 2001. Eight of the nine persons had worked as cadre of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Four of them had also trained, along with Supdu, with the Hizbul Mujahideen in Doda. Two other Jalgaon residents who had left home along with Supdu, Sheikh Khalid Iqbal and Sheikh Mohammad Hanif, are believed to have died in an engagement with Indian troops in the Kishtwar area of Doda in October 2000. Fourteen members of the cell were picked up in the course of separate operations in Hyderabad, Kanpur and New Delhi. Over a dozen major bombings are believed to have been carried out by the network, including the explosion outside Army Headquarters in New Delhi in May.

In August 2000, SIMI held its biennial ijtema, or conference, in New Delhi. While the controversial organisation had traditionally tried to distance itself from terrorism and issues such as Jammu and Kashmir, the new leadership elected at the ijtema was considerably more transparent about its politics. SIMI chief Safdar Nagori, for example, proclaimed that the organisation did believe that Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of India. Behind the scenes, intelligence officials say, this new political hardening was manifesting itself as action. Jalgaon school teacher and SIMI leader Shakeel Hannan is alleged to have been asked if they could raise cadre for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir, volunteers who would be willing to fight for the cause not just in that State but throughout India. Similar overtures were made to SIMI activists from Kanpur and Hyderabad.

SIMI activists Khalid Asad Khan and Sheikh Rizwan, acting on Hannan's call, managed to enlist five volunteers. Orders arrived the next month, and their unit left Jalgaon for Jammu, travelling through Mumbai and Patna. From Jammu the unit was taken by road to Doda, and then to the hills for training. All of them underwent basic courses in handling arms and explosives, including the use of what are known as 'ABCD' timers. These timers can be set to trigger explosions with a time lag ranging from a few minutes to upwards of two years. Four members of the group turned out to be physically unfit for operations in the mountains, and were ordered to return to Jalgaon. The rest stayed on - with tragic consequences. Rumours of their death began to circulate in Jalgaon this March. In their statements before a Jalgaon Magistrate, their parents claimed that SIMI secretary Waqar-ul-Hassan, who has also been arrested, pressured them not to go to the police.

Shakeel Ahmed Abdul.-

Khan's remaining recruits soon recovered from their initial setback. Their training was put to use in a steel furniture workshop owned by the father of another SIMI volunteer, Irfan Abdul Rauf. The lathes and welding equipment at the workshop enabled Khan and Rizwan to fabricate simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The first of their bombs, made up of potassium chlorate, aluminium powder and metal shrapnel wrapped together in a steel pipe along with a detonator and timer, was ready by May. On May 20, all three are believed to have travelled to Nagpur, planting one bomb each outside the VHP and RSS offices. In the event, both explosives were detected and defused. Another attempt was made on June 9, but again without success. Had any of the bombs exploded, there would have been significant civilian casualties.

MOST members of the Jalgaon cell knew that they were just part of a larger operation: but none of them knew just how large it was. Hizbul Mujahideen operative Gulzar Ahmed Wani, arrested on July 31, ran an elaborate network of similar units from New Delhi. Operating under the code-name Ashraf Baig, Wani had spent years working towards doctoral degrees at Aligarh Muslim University. For much of 2000, however, he had spent most of his time running the Hizb cell responsible for recruiting from within SIMI. Two other operatives in New Delhi shared his work. Another Jammu and Kashmir resident, Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah, helped Wani in those operations he directly executed. Kanpur-based SIMI activist Mumtaz Ahmad was charged with providing the group access to the organisation's cadre.

Wani and Shah, acting on their own, executed most of the group's high-profile operations. In April they set off an IED in New Delhi outside North Block, which houses top officials of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. On May 9, twin bombs went off at South Block, which houses the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External Affairs, and outside Army Headquarters at Sena Bhavan nearby. Then, on May 20, Wani and Shah set off a rocket-propelled grenade while hiding inside a drain that runs along the Central Government Office complex at Lodhi Estate in New Delhi. It is still not clear just who their intended target was - the complex houses several security organisations, including the Research and Analysis Wing - but the grenade exploded just outside the office of Border Security Force Director-General Gurbachan Jagat, who was earlier Director-General of Police in Jammu and Kashmir.

Rizwan Abdul Rashid.-

Attacks of this kind, though of limited strategic significance, served to signal the Hizbul Mujahideen's ability to strike at the Indian state. Wani's Kanpur unit shared this objective. Several key attacks took place in the build-up to U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to India in 2000. Kanpur-based SIMI activists Wasim Ahmad, Zubair Ahmad and Mohammad Geelani are alleged to have set off bombs in the Gomati Express at Jhinjak on February 17, 2000, and in a bus at Pili Pokhar near Agra on March 18, 2000. The group, officials say, also executed a series of three explosions in Agra and Kanpur that August. This year the unit again played a key role in the riots that broke out in Kanpur in March. Apart from the bombing of a Provincial Armed Constabulary truck, possibly as reprisal for the force's attacks against Muslims during the riots, all three are charged with the assassination of Additional District Magistrate C.P. Pathak.

Officials say it is possible that more elements of the network that Wani built up remain undetected. Delhi Police officials who raided his home, acting on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau, discovered an arsenal that would have been more than adequate for continued warfare. The Hizb leader had hidden away small arms, grenade launchers, grenades and several kilograms of RDX-type explosives, both for use in New Delhi and for supply to units elsewhere. A clear picture has still to emerge of the operations of the seven SIMI cadre arrested from Hyderabad, where the group is believed to have been placed to fill the void created by the elimination of top Lashkar-e-Toiba affiliated terrorist Azam Ghauri at Karimnagar in April 2000. Ghauri had been given the task of setting up terrorist cells made up of local activists of the Islamic Right, a task that remains incomplete.

IT is not hard to see the larger meaning of enterprises like those carried out by the Hizbul Mujahideen in Jalgaon or Kanpur. SIMI has for years claimed that it is a purely religious organisation, and that it holds no brief for terrorism. Evidence that its cadre are involved in such activities is, however, mounting. Ghauri, for example, is known to have attended SIMI's November 2000 ijtema in Aurangabad. And while SIMI leaders deny that those arrested at Jalgaon were active in the organisation, residents of their neighbourhoods appear to have no doubt about their affiliation. Whether SIMI formally supports terrorism or not, the organisation clearly flourishes in the climate of religious hatred that has been built up in the many cities with long histories of communal violence.

Interestingly, both Hindu and Muslim communal organisations have seen the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir as an opportunity to draw young people to their ranks. The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has, for at least the last two years, represented the violence there as part of a larger Muslim offensive against Hindus. The propaganda is not based on fact - Muslims are the principal victims of the Islamic Right in Jammu and Kashmir - but has served to legitimise the Sena's credo of hatred and draw recruits. Sena leaders in Mumbai, for example, have repeatedly threatened to create volunteer armies to fight in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, SIMI propaganda has cast the violence in Jammu and Kashmir as part of the Indian state's supposed organised war against Muslims at large. While the demolition of the Babri Masjid formed the central leitmotif of SIMI literature until the late 1990s, there is now a growing emphasis on Jammu and Kashmir as a terrain on which the battle for Muslim rights may be fought.

Despite the long and bitter experience that Muslims in Maharashtra have had of communal assault, there seems to be little real sympathy for SIMI. No protests were seen after the Jalgaon arrests, and leaders of the community have made it clear that they believe those picked up for terrorist activities deserve any punishment that comes their way. Muslim politicians have been vocal critics of SIMI's role in the State's politics; many of them have even alleged that its activities in cities like Aurangabad have served in practice to strengthen Hindu communal organisations. But the fact remains that SIMI's aggressive revanchist postures have at least some appeal. The oldest of the eight operational members of the Jalgaon cell was 27 years old, and all but two were unemployed. "The sad fact is that young Muslims in Maharashtra," said one police officer associated with the case, "find it harder to get jobs or find housing than their Hindu counterparts. And that, naturally, feeds resentment."

In 1985, in the wake of the Bhiwandi riots, Ghauri, Jalees Ansari and Abdul Karim 'Tunda', formed the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM), a vigilante organisation committed to the defence of Muslims during communal riots. TIM's early activities were mildly farcical, consisting mainly of RSS-style drills at the YMCA ground in Mominpura. But the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots showed just how serious the exercise was. Led by Ghauri and Tunda, Ansari organised a series of 43 explosions in Mumbai and Hyderabad and seven separate explosions on trains on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Fifteen years on, Ghauri is dead, Ansari is in jail and Tunda is running a major Lashkar operation from Pakistan. But, as the experience of Jalgaon shows, the flow of recruits to the Islamic Right continues apace.

EVENTS in Maharashtra have formed a key element in the ongoing debate over SIMI. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani has made it clear that the government is committed to banning the organisation and is in the process of preparing a strong legal case against SIMI. SIMI chief Nagori, in turn, insists that his organisation has no role in inciting violence and that its sole objective is to "produce youth of character". In an August 20 statement SIMI secretary Shabaz Hussain said the organisation only advocated Islam. "We even call upon Advani," Hussain said, "to embrace Islam, the only true way to eternal success."

Few people are, of course, willing to take SIMI's protestations of innocence at face value given the mounting evidence against it. But in key senses, the Union government's proposal for a ban evades the real issue. The erosion of the faith that Muslim communities have had in mainstream democratic political organisations has led at least some young people to SIMI-style guardians of the faith.

Until this larger political problem is addressed - a problem that Advani and his party colleagues have had no small role in creating - no number of arrests will stop young people like Asif Supdu, however misguided they are, from making their way to death in Doda or wherever else.

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