Members of the Students Islamic Movement of India are rethinking the organisations future.
ISLAM is our nation, not India, thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad at the Students Islamic Movement of Indias (SIMI) 1999 convention in Aurangabad, Maharashtra.
Ahmad was one of hundreds of SIMI cadre who, at that decisive meeting of the proscribed Islamist group, joined the terrorist networks that have since carried out strikes across India. In 2005, he was arrested for smuggling in military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned series of attacks in Gujarat, along with over a dozen other SIMI-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives.
Listening in the audience that day was a slight, soft-spoken man who was moved enough by the speech to give his life for SIMI. Mohammad Abrar Qasim, then a Wardha-based student of dentistry, had been recruited into SIMI in 1993, after attending his first meeting at the Jamia Masjid mosque in Mominpora the Mumbai slum where the first Lashkar networks in India were formed.
Six years later, fired by what he heard at the Aurangabad conference, Qasim became a full-time SIMI worker using his earnings as a dentist to serve as its Nagpur-in-charge and then Bihar chief. He even married Amara Qasim, the daughter of Ziauddin Siddiqi the SIMI leader whose inflammatory speeches led to criminal charges first being filed against the organisation.
But somewhere along the line, the stories of Ahmad and Qasim diverged. In February, Qasim walked into a Nagpur court and announced that he wished to surrender to the authorities. Startled court clerks listened as Qasim announced that he had been wanted by the Maharashtra Police ever since the Mumbai serial bombings of July 11, 2006, but now wished to clear his name.
In the weeks since he surrendered, Qasim has been telling officials that SIMIs links with terror are the work of a hard-line minority. Most of SIMIs rank and file, he claimed, wished to emerge from the shadows. Moderates in SIMI want to come overground, Qasim told one police official who interrogated him, for we have nothing to hide.
Back in January 2006, former SIMI president Shahid Badr Falahi called a meeting of core SIMI activists Qasim among them at Aluva in Kerala.
Under the cover of a summit of the National Urdu Promotion Council, the group elected new office-bearers who it tasked with lobbying politicians and religious leaders to have the 2001 ban on SIMI revoked. Most of the team led by the new SIMI president, West Bengal resident Mohammad Misbah-ul-Islam, were anti-jehad political Islamists. Key office-bearers, such as Kalim Akhtar, Shahbaz Husain, Abdul Majid, Noman Badr, Saif Nachan and Minaz Nachan, believed that SIMIs jehad links had hurt both the organisation and Muslims as a whole.
But one team member did not share their beliefs. Shibly Peedical Abdul, a computer engineer from Kerala who escaped the police sweep against terror suspects in Karnataka in February, was among the jehadist SIMI operatives thought to have helped organise the July 2006 serial bombing of Mumbai. The bombings killed 209 people and injured 704. Abdul fled Bangalore hours after the arrest of SIMI operative Ehtesham Siddiqui, who the police say helped execute the bombings. So, too, did SIMI political Islamists.
It was not until January 2007 that the political Islamists were again able to meet. A senior New Delhi-based Jamaat-e-Islami leader was in attendance this time, attempting to persuade the new leadership to surrender. Misbah-ul-Islam called Abdul in the middle of the meeting, one participant told South Asia Intelligence Review, or SAIR, and demanded to know why SIMI cadre had participated in the Mumbai attacks. Abdul admitted the jehadists had met in Ujjain just a week before the terror strikes. He said the jehadists would continue their activities and accused us of selling out.
With no hope of a compromise being reached, SIMI political Islamists met again in Kozhikode, from November 12 to 14, 2007. If SIMI was to ever function as a political organisation, Misbah-ul-Islam said, its leaders would have to face prosecution. Qasim, fed up with life on the run, offered to go first. The idea, says a senior SIMI functionary, was to see if it would open some doors.
Will it? While one faction within SIMI is rethinking its future, so too are the terrorists. Abduls case and that of the networks he commanded in Bangalore are instructive.
If Bangalore needed a face to advertise the new India it represents, the city need not have looked further than Abdul, now its most wanted terrorist. From small-town origins in Kerala, Abdul built a successful career at a multinational and even set up his own firm.
But in February, when the police arrested Lashkar-linked Andhra Pradesh resident Raziuddin Nasir and Kerala-origin computer engineer Yahya Kamakutty key operatives, the police say, of a terror cell planning bombings in Goa, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai it became evident that he represented a very different kind of project to reinvent India.
The police in Bangalore began paying serious attention to the Abdul-led SIMI network after the 2006 Mumbai serial bombings. Siddiqui, who had served as SIMIs general secretary in Maharashtra, told the police that he had been in regular contact with three Bangalore residents.
All three men, it transpired, were successful professionals very different from stereotypical SIMI recruits. One of Siddiquis Bangalore contacts, a computer technician Muzammil Ata-ur-Rehman Sheikh, is now being tried for his role in the serial bombings along with his brother, Faisal Sheikh. Siddiqui also named Kamakutty and Abdul.
Operating through SARANI, a religious front-organisation, Abdul had recruited over a dozen local men the core of the cell discovered in February. Most of SARANIs work was religious. In one e-mail to Kamakutty, Abdul demanded members to observe the fajr namaaz, or dawn prayers. In another e-mail, he asked them to avoid debates with rival Islamists. Just how much the recruits knew about Abduls real agenda is unclear.
Behind the scenes, though, Abdul was preparing for war. In 2004, investigators later found, he delivered at least one consignment of weapons in preparation for terror strikes. Rashid Husain, a Bihar-based SIMI activist who also had links to the Jammu and Kashmir-based Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is thought to have organised the operation.
Later, Abdul is believed to have participated in a conclave of SIMI members at Ujjain from July 4 to 7, 2006, where plans to revitalise the jehad in India were discussed.
Several members of the cell which executed the Mumbai serial bombings later that year participated. Abdul also set up Fatah Business Solutions, a firm suspected to have laundered terror funds.
Soon after Siddiquis arrest, though, Abdul disappeared. The police now had to make a difficult call. Although Kamakutty had long been known to be involved with SIMIs terror cells notably having worked with Muhammad Faisal Khan, who helped organise the 2003 serial bombings in Mumbai he was left untouched in the hope that he would lead the police to Abdul. After Nasirs arrest in February, though, Kamakutty was finally held. Of Abdul, though, there is still no trace. Nor have at least two dozen men thought to have attended the Islamist groups they founded been located.
Nasirs plans were at an early stage he possessed only crude pistols and some low-grade explosive but others may be further down the road to a strike.
SIMIs political Islamist and terrorist factions seem, then, to be running on parallel tracks racing, as it were, to shape the outcome of the most successful contemporary mobilisation of the ultra-Right among Muslims. Who is likely to win?
In some senses, the political Islamists are fighting against the tide of history. Despite SIMIs proscription, the Bangalore arrests show, the terror networks founded at that time continue to thrive and grow. It is, most likely, too late for the political Islamists to turn back the tide.