Lethal remittance

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Lashkar-e-Toiba leader Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. - SAEED KHAN/AFP

The Lashkar-e-Toiba finds a new wave of recruits among Gulf expatriates.

The Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers... who crushed them by force. We need to do the same.

- Editorial by the Lashkar-e-Toiba's spiritual head, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, in The Voice of Islam, September 1999.

HAFIZ Mohammad Sayeed's speeches began doing the rounds of mosques in Kuwait and Dubai in the summer of 1998. Circulated by earnest young men with scraggly beards, invariably wearing the ankle-length Taliban-style pyjamas mandated by the ultra-conservative Ahl-e-Hadis sect, the Lashkar-e-Toiba chief's speeches demanded jehad against infidels at large, and India in particular.

Almost no one in the large south Asian expatriate population - no one, that is, in their right mind - paid much attention. Memories of the demolition of the Babri Masjid had begun to fade, and even the war in Jammu and Kashmir attracted little attention among South Asian Muslims. Then, in 2002, came the communal massacres in Gujarat: and the voice of the Lashkar's spiritual head began to resonate in many young minds. Along with hard currency, terror has now become a major remittance to India: a source of growing concern to the intelligence community. Lashkar cells based in Kuwait and Dubai have emerged as central to several major terrorist actions in India over the last two years. Many of those involved are not stereotypical seminary-educated fanatics, but people with jobs and families - with lives they seem willing to sacrifice to avenge one of India's worst communal pogroms.

Consider the case of Shahid Ahmad Bakshi, a Lashkar operative arrested last year for conspiring to assassinate right-wing Hindu leaders, including Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Pravin Togadia. Bakshi was also tasked with undertaking a major operation to recruit riot victims for the jehad. A 7th-grade dropout from the poor Muslim ghetto of Juhapura in Ahmedabad, Bakshi had struggled to build a life for himself. For eight years before his Lashkar mission, he worked as an articulate truck driver, ferrying loads across Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Although a member of the Ahl-e-Hadis sect, to which the Lashkar owes allegiance, there is little to show that Bakshi was attracted to terrorist groups before the Gujarat riots. Then, as the violence in Gujarat spiralled out of control after the Godhra massacre, the truck driver turned to friends who he knew could help meet his desire for revenge. In June 2002, he made contact with a Lashkar controller in Kathmandu, and took the first cash advance to fund his new plans.

Bakshi, intelligence officials say, was assigned twin tasks. The first was to buy a truck that, disguised as a milk-cooperative collection vehicle, would ferry smuggled weapons and explosives across the Kutch border. The actual attacks would be executed by young Ahmedabad riot victims recruited and trained for the purpose. With the help of a local cleric, Bakshi and another associate from Kuwait did the rounds of refugee camps and Muslim ghettos in Ahmedabad. Seven orphans and 26 young people from poor families were chosen as potential operatives. Intelligence officials believe that at least some of these young people would, slowly, have been flown abroad for training in Pakistan. A similar operation led by cleric Maulana SufiyanPatangia succeeded in sending at least eight recruits for training in Pakistan, funded by Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad networks in Saudi Arabia.

Investigations of the bombing of a bus in Mumbai's Ghatkopar area on December 22, 2002 showed the existence of similar networks in Dubai. Imran Rahman Khan, the Chennai-born principal accused in the bombing case who was deported to India in January this year, converted to Islam at the age of 15. His interest in the faith, however, seems to have been mainly spiritual; Khan married a Hindu woman from Rajasthan, and showed no attraction to armed Islamists until the Gujarat riots. Soon after the riots began, Khan met top Lashkar commander Abdul Bari, a one-time Hyderabad resident who had spent the last 12 years shuttling between his base in Saudi Arabia and Dubai and other Gulf states on organisational work. Bari's collection of video-tapes on riot carnage convinced Khan to join an assault team being sent to Mumbai. Other than putting in place arrangements for the Ghatkopar bombing, Khan was also tasked with monitoring the activities of film personalities who had taken what the Lashkar believed to be an anti-Muslim position including Mani Ratnam and Shekhar Suman. Members of the proscribed Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) also seem to have cooperated with the Lashkar in setting up several Gulf-based cells. Mohammad Altaf, a long-time SIMI activist from Parbhani, Maharashtra, was a trained chemical engineer working in Dubai when the Gujarat pogrom began. He made contact with Bari soon after, and through him he came to know Khan.

The two told the interrogators that they discussed several means for setting off remote-controlled explosions, and on one occasion conducted tests using instruments connected to a cellphone. These cellphone triggers were eventually used on the Ghatkopar bus. Altaf also provided several Lashkar operatives with contacts among his old SIMI associates in India. Syed Abdul Aziz, who was shot dead in Hyderabad in the course of a police search for those involved in an abortive assassination attempt on Sai Baba, was among those provided shelter in Mumbai through Altaf.

A Lashkar-e-Toiba militant in police custody in New Delhi. A file picture-SANDEEP SAXENA

COUNTER-TERRORISM experts have known of the Lashkar's operations in the Gulf for several years: the infrastructure for Lashkar terror in the Gulf certainly long preceded its actual post-Gujarat exercise. From the late-1990s onwards, Lashkar activists began distributing copies of their house journal, Majallah al-Dawa, at the Ahl-e-Hadis sect's mosque in Salmiya, Kuwait. The Lashkar's top ideologue, Abdul Rahman Makki, began visiting the city-state soon afterwards, often preaching to audiences of Indian and Pakistani origin on the need for jehad "to protect Muslims against the Indian state". Among those in the audience was Farhan Ahmad Ali, whose family had moved from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, to Kuwait in 1974. An 11th-grade school dropout, Ali worked as a sales representative for a firm dealing in business directories.

Ali's introduction to the Lashkar-e-Toiba came through Fahim Ahmad, a Pakistani national with whom he had studied in school. Fahim Ahmad had taken charge of the Lashkar's Salmiya unit and persuaded Ali to come on board. In February 1998, Ali flew to Pakistan for weapons training. Ali told his interrogators that he stayed at a Lashkar guest house in Islamabad, along with some 70 other new recruits, before being moved to another facility at the Yateemkhana Chowk in Lahore. There were, Ali recalled, at least eight Arab recruits there, five from Saudi Arabia, and one each from Egypt, Yemen and Morocco. Soon after, the group was despatched to the Al-Aqsa training camp near Muzaffarabad, an exclusive facility for residents of Arab countries. According to Ali, some 1,000 Arabs, along with four British converts to Islam and one Romanian, were in training at the camp.

Training at Al-Aqsa lasted just a week, during which time Ali learned how to use a variety of automatic weapons and lob hand-grenades and fabricate and deploy improvised explosive devices. Advised to return later for the Daura Khas, a more rigorous advanced course, Ali returned to Kuwait. In March 1998, he visited his family in India, but engaged in no real political activity, other than arranging a visa for the Assam-based Ahl-e-Hadis preacher Jamaluddin Sulfi to visit Kuwait for fund-raising.

Following the communal massacres in Gujarat, however, Ali threw himself into his Ahl-e-Hadis work with renewed vigour. It was at a propaganda meeting at the Air Force Mosque that Ali first met Shahid Bakshi. The two then left on their recruitment mission to refugee camps in Gujarat, along with Bakshi's brother, Siraj Ahmad Bakshi and an associate, Hafiz Mohammad Tahir. Ali was arrested in New Delhi as he was boarding a flight back to Kuwait in August 2002.

What is clear, though, is that communal violence in India has provided the Lashkar the kind of legitimacy no amount of cash could have bought. Several key members of the Dubai-based Lashkar-e-Toiba cell which executed the twin bombings at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar in August this year - which left 51 dead and 162 injured - had long-standing concerns about communal violence in India. Ashrat Shafiq Ahmad Ansari, who is charged with having planted the Zaveri Bazaar bomb, was like many Muslims incensed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Working in Surat during the 2002 riots, Ansari saw the worst of Hindu fundamentalism first-hand. The experience made it easy for Ansari to be recruited by the Dubai-based architect of the bombings, Zahid Yusuf Patne. Patne, recently extradited to India, worked as a fork-lift operator in Dubai.

Syed Abdul Rahim, who hails from a lower middle-class family in Mumbai's Marol Naka area, worked from 1992 to 1999 in Jeddah as an electrician with a company that carried out works at the Royal Palace. Although surveillance on all staff with access to the Palace ensured that Rahim stayed well away from any kind of terrorist activity, he regularly joined in discussions of anti-Muslim mobilisations by the Hindu Right. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to start a business in India, Rahim left again for Dubai. This time, he joined in protests against the Gujarat riots, where videotapes of the violence were screened. At these meetings, Patne motivated Rahim to join the Lashkar, and he soon began to attend lectures by the head of the organisation's Dubai office, Maulana Haroon. Soon afterwards, he returned to India, to play a key role in the worst single terrorist act to take place in India in 2003.

Gulf states, increasingly concerned about Islamist activities, are less tolerant of terrorist groups like the Lashkar operating from their soil - a fact underlined by the rapid deportation of several key accused in the Mumbai bombings. Nonetheless, the evidence is that the Lashkar continues to be active, fishing in waters made conducive by communalism in India.

Even if the Lashkar is forced to wind down its war in Jammu and Kashmir, it is expanding its capability to wage a far more brutal one, directed, as Sayeed had promised, at all of India.

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