The killings at the church in India began soon after mid-morning mass, carried out by two young men armed with knives who had mingled among the worshippers. In dozens of other places around the world today, the script has been much the same: violent attacks carried out by terrorists in the name of God and his self-proclaimed regent on earth, the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State. Yet, there is one important caveat to the aforementioned Indian church attack; this attack took place, not in the 21st Century, but in March 1764, at the Portuguese colonial fort of Darmpatnam, on the Malabar Coast.
Like the U.S. special forces who killed Osama bin Laden, the guards at the Darmpatnam church wanted to erase the killers from history. A contemporary account records:
The bodies of the above Moors were immediately ordered to be thrown in the sea as an example to deter others from the like attempts in future and to prevent any religious [illegible] being got of them, that they may not be worshipped as saints as is the practice by their cast[e] by all who murder a Christian.1
Two and a half centuries on, as Indians contemplate the rise of the Islamic State, the story of the suicide-attackers of Darmapatnam helps illuminate our understanding of the macabre theatre of death ISIS has unleashed. Though jihadist violence seems to have exploded in the last few years, it in fact has deep roots in India’s religious and political landscape. The Darmapatnam suicide-attackers were driven by an understanding of Islam, much as today’s jihadists are. Their response was only one of the many responses by Muslims of the Malabar Coast to the new situation they found themselves in during the 18th Century.
This history remains vitally important in the current geopolitical context. It helps us contextualize the activities of contemporary Indian jihadists, growing numbers of whom are now headed to the Islamic State and hope one day to return to initiate an Islamist insurgency at home. The dozens—perhaps hundreds—of young Indian men who are, or have been, involved in jihadist groups aren’t simply motivated by religious bigotry, nor can they be simply dismissed as crazed nihilists. For as long as we persist in seeing Indian jihadists through the lenses of ignorance and cliché, both our cultural responses and our strategic ones are fated to fail.
Late one morning in the summer of 2014, Areeb Majeed left his home in Kalyan, a suburb of Mumbai—and never returned. His father Ejaz Badruddin Majeed, a soft-spoken homeopathy practitioner, later found the letter Areeb Majeed had left behind explaining his actions. “Fighting has been enjoined upon you, though it is hateful to you,” it read, quoting from the Quran.2 In a note to his mother, Areeb further explained the angel of death would ask why he didn’t migrate to Allah’s land to fulfil that command. “May we all meet in paradise,” the letter concluded.
Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, Aman Naim Tandel and Shaheem Farooq Tanki had left with Areeb Majeed for Iraq to join the Islamic State. Throughout the next year, I saw similar farewell notes—the maudlin literature generated by Indian jihadists leaving for battlefields in Iraq and Syria. These texts were populated, almost without exception, with religious clichés drawn from the many Islamist sites on the Internet. In no case was any significant body of texts on Islam, or even on Islamist ideology—or even secular literature and poetry—discovered amongst the personal possessions of this jihadist cohort—collectively known as the Thane jihadists.
The poverty of the Indian jihadists’ intellectual life may point us in the direction of an important aspect of the landscape which birthed them. In contrast with other groups of radical young people—whether Maoists, environmental activists, or neo-Gandhians opposed to capitalist modernity—the jihadists did not emerge from movements which valued intellectual rigor and questioning. Instead, the Islamic State offered agency: the prospect of being able to give form to youth rage through a nihilist project of death.3
The evidence makes clear that while the four Thane jihadists were of a fringe—India has sent far fewer jihadists to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda than neighboring countries like Pakistan, China, let alone European and West Asian countries—they weren’t alone. India’s intelligence services estimate perhaps 100 Indian nationals have traveled to West Asia for jihad. There is no firm count, though, because many suspects had been living in the Indian Diaspora.
Behind the scenes, India has seen a string of alleged plots inspired by the Islamic State; cells have been discovered in Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Despite their savage reputation—or, perhaps, because of it—the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have even acquired a certain utopian lure: in July 2016, entire families from Kerala upped and moved to join the Islamic State’s affiliate in southern Afghanistan, seeking an Islamic lifestyle.
Indeed, in the years since I met the Thane jihadists’ families, the numbers have multiplied: sixty-seven Indian citizens are facing trial for Islamic State-related plots within the country and another sixty-two have left to join it either in Syria or Afghanistan.
Estimates collected from official press-releases show that 68 percent come from middle class families; 68 percent had university or post-graduate degrees, primarily in engineering; while only 11 percent had a religious education. In interviews, about half have cited global causes as their inspiration for becoming jihadists; another half say Indian issues related to communalism, ranging from riots to compulsory yoga practice, accounted for their radicalization. There is a conspicuous dearth of scholarly work on these issues. More research on Islamic radicalization among Indian youth is desperately needed.
In 2016, the Thane men appeared in a video that made explicit their linkages with the wider jihadist movement in India. Aman Tandel reappeared, using the pseudonym Abu Amr’ al-Hindi, vowing to return home “with a sword in hand, to avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, in Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar.” He paid homage to his friend from Thane, Shahim Tanki, who is said to have been killed in a bomb attack in Raqqa, Syria in 2015.4
Explaining his personal journey, Uttar Pradesh resident Abu Rashid Ahmad says he was forced to leave Mumbai for the Khorasan region, or the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, after the 2008 shootout at Batla House in which Indian Mujahedeen commander Atif Amin was killed. This first hijrat, or religious migration, was followed by a second one to Syria, Ahmad recounts. “In India,” he says, “we see that it is the cow, the trees, the sun, the moon…that is worshipped. Instead of fighting these things, the Muslims of India trade and maintain social relations with these infidels.” He vows, though, to return to India to fight and avenge atrocities against Muslims. “Have you forgotten the train bombings in Mumbai, or the bombings in Ahmedabad, and Surat, and Jaipur and Delhi?” he asks.
The video also features several other Indian Mujahedeen members known to have served with Islamic State forces after breaking with their Pakistan-based leadership. “To those in the Indian state who wish to understand our actions,” says an unidentified jihadist, “I say you have only three options: to accept Islam, to pay jizya, or to prepare to be slaughtered.”
Large parts of the video, narrated in Arabic, seek to provide context to the presence of Indian jihadists in the Islamic State—men it describes as jihadists from “Hind wal’Sindh,” a phrase referring to India and Pakistan. The video begins with medieval warlord Muhammad Bin Qasim’s conquest of the region, saying this laid the foundations for Islamic rule. The British, the narrator states, then handed over control of India to Hindus—people described as “cow-worshippers” who have been responsible for violence against Muslims in many places, including Mumbai, Gujarat, Assam and Moradabad.
“Hindus are striving to convert you Muslims to their faith, O’ sons of Bin Qasim,” one recruit says, recounting a string of communal riots. “Is there any other humiliation that you still need to suffer before you will give up chanting that Islam is a religion of peace, and learn from the Prophet, who fought with the sword?”
The video assails mainstream Muslim politicians and clerics for compromising with what the narrator describes as a tyrannical system responsible for massacring Muslims. Images of the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader Assaduddin Owaisi and All India United Democratic Front politician Badruddin Ajmal are juxtaposed with dead bodies of victims of communal riots. Indian Muslim politicians are also attacked for associating with non-Muslim leaders: one image shows the Congress’s Mani Shankar Ayer embracing a Hindu priest and Muslim cleric.
The most acidic invective, though, is reserved for Indian clerics who, the video says, are supporting the forces of kufr and un-Islam against the mujahedeen of the Islamic State. Insisting that armed jihad “in the way of Allah” is an individual religious obligation incumbent on every individual Muslim, the video warns clerics that they will soon meet their reckoning. “Do not listen to those who tell you that Islam is a religion of peace,” one jihadist says, his face digitally masked over. “Islam was never a religion of peace for even one day. Islam is a religion of war. The Prophet commanded us to remain at war until the day the rule of Allah is established.” The video mocks Muslims protesting against the Islamic State.
The jihadists interviewed also praised the quality of life in the Islamic State. “Here there is shari’a,” one says. “Here the hands of thieves are cut off. Here, our religion is safe.”
India’s hidden jihadi history
In 1498, the famed Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, arrived in the Indian Ocean. Within a few years, imperial Portugal had established a string of coastal fortresses choking the main sea lanes, at the entrances to the Red Sea, the Malabar Coast, the Straits of Malacca, and the southern Chinese coast. Their most valuable prize was Calicut, center of the world’s pepper and spice trade, increasingly valued in Europe. Portuguese strategy directly undermined the interests of the Muslim merchants who carried spices from the Malabar coast to the Persian Gulf, and then over land to the rest of the world. In 1510, Portugal attempted to conquer Calicut, and succeeded in burning down large parts of the Muslim quarter, including its great mosque, before being repulsed by the Raja and his Hindu troops.
For the next three centuries, a great war between Portuguese colonialists and Muslim traders raged across the Indian Ocean region—from Malabar to the South China Sea—which would only be settled by the consolidation of British power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Scholar Stephen Dale’s work shows how ideas of jihad and shahadat (martyrdom) came to define what he calls a cultural-ideological “Islamic frontier” along the Malabar coast.5 Forged in colonial-era warfare, Dale argues, these ideas came to be markers of a distinct Islamic cultural space that defined itself as distinct from, and sometimes in opposition to, the wider cultural landscape. Jihad and martyrdom continued to play an important role in shaping modern Muslim identity in this region.6
In modern Malabar popular culture, the Malabar jihadists continue to be venerated: the story of Kotturpalli Malla celebrates the martyrdom of the seaman Kunju Marakkar, who abandons his own wedding to rescue a Muslim girl kidnapped by Portuguese sailors. Marakkar is killed, his limbs severed and thrown into the sea. Each place they wash up witnesses miracles, evidence of divine approval for his acts.
Eighteenth century East India Company records describe fidayeen suicide-squad attacks along the Malabar coast, on occasion targeting religious congregations.7 For the most part, these were greeted with an incomprehension not dissimilar to the way many of today’s contemporaries treat terrorism. Imperial authorities saw the violence as madness. There is evidence, too, from this colonial account that the violence by no means had the approval of all Muslims:
The Several Treacherous actions late Committed by the Malabar Moors at Callicutt as well as at this place [Tellicherry] & Elsewhere & the French Chief having wrote hither, that he had twice Warning given to him to take Care of his Life, have much alarmed the Christians on the Coast in so much that they seldom Stir Out but with Arms for their defence Altho' all Danger Apprehended is from avery small Number of ye Mahomitan Profession who have selected themselves to Murder any Christian when if they Die in the Attempt they are persuaded it is very meritorious and have Adorations paid to their memory by many Enthusiasticks of their faith, which have been performed at the Tomb of him who killed the Sergeant in This Fort in March last & much more at that of him who Afterwards killed the Portuguese Padre at Callicutt altho' the more prudent Part of the Moors deny that such Evil Conformable to their Religion.
Historian Ayesha Jalal’s work has shown that the notion of jihad was an important ideological theme elsewhere in India both during the pre-colonial and colonial period.8 The eighteenth-century theologian Shah Waliullah, for example, wrote to Muslim rulers and notables calling for measures against Hindus and followers of the Shia faith. He also wrote to the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali, calling on him to invade India.9 During the great rebellion of 1857, Indian insurgents fighting imperial British troops included among their ranks numbers of self-described jihadis, including at least one regiment of suicide ghazis, who vowed to fight until they met death at the hands of the infidel.10 While it would, perhaps, be misleading to read this form of jihadi resistance in the context of our times, the fact remains that the rise of the ghazis, or Muslim warriors, became one cause of Hindu-Muslim communal friction of a kind that is startlingly modern.11
Early in the twentieth century, the jihadi-ghazi tradition in Indian Islam acquired a renewed momentum. In 1919, Hindu and Muslim leaders agreed to work with one another for the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate—the notional political authority of the entire Muslim umma, or global community. This cause had little support in post-Ottoman Turkey. It was, however, seen by India’s Congress leadership as a means to incorporate Muslim concerns within its larger anti-imperial mobilization agenda.
As things turned out, this Khilafat movement in India collapsed, though it had the effect of strengthening rather than dissolving communalist identities and boundaries through its use of pan-Islamic themes. As Yoginder Sikand has noted, the agitation
…actually helped to further consolidate the sense of distinct Indian Muslim community identity, separate and sharply cut-off from the Hindus. It also enabled the Ullema to establish links with ordinary Muslims all over the country, seeking to rally them under their leadership for the pan-Islamic cause. That this instigating of religious passions would further widen the chasm between Hindus and Muslims was hardly surprising.12
In 1921, fired up by the pan-Islamic rhetoric of the Khilafat movement and the communal zeal it unleashed, Muslim peasants in the Malabar region attacked their largely Hindu, British-backed landlords. Scores are believed to have died in the violence that followed. From then on, the progress of India’s independence movement would be scarred by communal warfare, culminating in the horrors of the 1947 Partition of India—and the murderous riots which have periodically erupted afterwards.
The Khilafat movement, of course, was not the sole driving force behind the hardening of communal identities in South Asia. In Jammu and Kashmir, where both Islamist mobilization and jihadi violence would acquire growing momentum after the first quarter of the last century, it had almost no impact at all. There, as Chitralekha Zutshi has argued, state policies were the principal factor contributing to the “articulation of antagonistic communitarian identities.”13 Nonetheless, the Khilafat movement remains a key moment, and the idea of the restoration of the caliphate a central concern for modern jihadi organizations.
In the build-up to the Partition of British India, the ideological foundations of the modern jihadist movement in India were laid by the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami—the largest Islamist political group in both Pakistan and India.
“Jihad Fee-Sabilillah,” or “Jihad in the way of God,” a 1939 essay by Sayyid Abu A’la Mawdudi, argues that the pursuit of political power—rather than what he called “a hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals”—was integral to the practice of the Islam.14 “Islam,” he insisted, “is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.”15 It was therefore imperative for Muslims to “seize the authority of state, for an evil system takes root and flourishes under the patronage of an evil government and a pious cultural order can never be established until the authority of government is wrested from the wicked.” Indeed, Mawdudi insisted that the word “Muslims” referred not to a religious community but to a politically-bound “international revolutionary party.”16
“The party of the Muslims,” Mawdudi concluded, “will inevitably extend the invitation to citizens of other countries to embrace the faith which holds out the promise of true salvation and genuine welfare. At the same time, if the Muslim Party commands enough resources, it will eliminate un-lslamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place.”17 He concluded: “Hence it is imperative, for reasons both of the general welfare of humanity and for its own self-defence, that the Muslim Party should not be content just with establishing the Islamic system of government in one territory, but should extend its sway as far as possible all around.”18
It is worth noting, parenthetically, that these ideas resonated in the works of Islamist movement elsewhere. Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Said Qutb’s work drew extensively on Mawdudi; indeed, he liberally acknowledged the debt.19 Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden’s ideological mentor and co-founder of arguably the largest terror group in the world, Lashkar-e-Taiba. In this view, “jihad is incumbent on the Islamic state,” he stated, “to send out a group of mujahideen to their neighboring infidel state. They should present Islam to the leader and his nation. If they refuse to accept Islam, jizyah (a tax) will be imposed upon them and they will become subjects of the Islamic state. If they refuse this second option, the third course of action is jihad to bring the infidel state under Islamic domination.”20
As the scholar Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr observed, Mawdudi’s position was “closely tied to questions of communal politics and its impact on identity formation, to questions of power in pluralistic societies, and to nationalism.”21 His worldview, Nasr notes, was “informed by the acute despair that gripped the community [Muslim]” in the early decades of the twentieth century. Mawdudi saw the Hindu revivalism of the Arya Samaj as an existential threat to Muslims, “a proof of the inherent animosity of Hindus towards Islam.”
Mawdudi would die in 1979, a relatively marginal figure in Pakistan’s politics and all but unknown outside Islamist circles in his homeland of India. However, inside a decade Mawdudi’s ideas would give birth to a cult of the bomb—led, improbably, by a man with only one hand, a rudimentary knowledge of bomb-making acquired from making fireworks, and no organizational resources behind him.
The Pre-Networks of India’s Jihadists
They buried Abdul Karim’s left hand under an acacia tree in the scraggly forest just outside Tonk. The hand, blown off in a bomb-making experiment, was wrapped in a plastic bag along with the remains of the metal tube he’d been trying to turn into an explosive device. It was 1986, and just a few months earlier a district judge had ordered the gates of the Babri Masjid—which Hindu nationalists of the Ram Janambhooni movement claimed was built by the Mughal Emperor Babur on the ruins of a Hindu temple—opened to Hindu worshippers. This was a period of intense communal strife between Hindus and Muslims that exploded every few months, causing much bloodshed across India. In the years to follow, Abdul Karim—known to friends and police as “Tunda,” the cripple—would lead the first wave of Indian jihadists born of the Babri Masjid violence. He would lead his own militant movement, a counterforce to the one unleashed by Hindu nationalist groups.22
The son of a metal casting artisan, Abdul Karim was born in 1941, on the eve of Independence, and grew up grew up in Pilkhuwa, Ghaziabad. Life was hard for the young Karim: forced to drop out of a missionary-run school at the age of 11 when his father died, he was put to work making cartwheels for his uncle. He began travelling across northern India, working as a metalworker, a cobbler, a carpenter, barber and bangle-maker.
In 1964, Karim married Zarina Yusuf, the daughter of his uncle. For the next two decades, he lived a conventional lower-middle class life, working as a trader in dyed cloth and bringing up three children, Imran, Rasheeda and Irfan.
Karim responded to the communal strife caused by the Hindu nationalists and Babri Masjid by discovering religion. He turned to the neo-fundamentalist Ahl-e-Hadis sect for answers to the question of why Muslims in India seemed to be passive victims in the face of oppression. The search led him, in 1984, to Ahmedabad, where he began preaching Islam at a small seminary. He got married again, to Mumtaz Rahman, after his first wife refused to accompany him, and fathered a fourth child, Shahid.
He also had an experience that would transform his worldview: witnessing communal riots first hand in 1985. In his testimony to police, Karim described how Zafar Rahman, one of his in-laws, and seven other relatives had been burned alive. He talked of shops burned down, a mosque destroyed, and a police force that had joined mobs in attacking Muslims.
For weeks after the riots, Karim discussed the issue with an elderly local cleric, Maulvi Wali Muhammad. He segregated himself to study verses of the Quran on jihad. Karim emerged determined to defend his faith. He worked with a local vendor of fireworks to produce low-grade explosives using potash, sugar and sulfuric acid, packed into steel pipes.
Karim was far from the only Indian Muslim during this period with this idea. Ever since he’d been a medical student, Jalees Ansari would later to tell police, he’d heard Hindus “branded us traitors and Pakistani agents.” From his clinic in a municipal hospital in Mumbai, Ansari read of the breakouts of riot after riot—in Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, and Bhiwandi. He saw what had happened in Bhiwandi first hand, as a volunteer distributing medical supplies.
In 1985, Ansari met the man who would give shape to his ideas, a former Maoist from Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh named Azam Ghauri. The fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family, Ghauri too had discovered religion in the Ahl-e-Hadis. These men would set up an anti-riot vigilante group, the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM), or Organization for the Correction of Muslims. Initially, the group consisted of volunteers from Mumbai’s Mominpora slum, who trained in rudimentary self-defense. Inflamed by the wave of communal violence that had ripped apart the industrial town of Bhiwandi in 1985, though, the activists’ discussions soon turned to Muslim reprisal.23
In the late 1980s, the TIM’s activities barely merited an entry in the local police station’s diaries of daily events. Mimicking the drills of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s militias, Mohammad Azam Ghauri, Mohammad Tufail Husaini and Abdul Karim paraded their recruits around the grounds of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Most of the TIM’s membership consisted of young Mominpura residents angered by communal discrimination and violence.
It was on December 6, 1992, the day Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Masjid, that the TIM decided the time had come to act.24 Flying the banner of the Mujahideen Islam-e-Hind a year to the day after the Babri Masjid was destroyed—martyred, in the words of the faithful—surgeon turned bomb-maker Jalees Ansari organized a series of 43 bombings in Mumbai and Hyderabad and 7 separate strikes on inter-city trains. While most of the explosions were small, it was a demonstration of the group’s discipline and skills. Central Bureau of Investigations agents caught up with Ansari just thirteen days before he had been ordered to set off a second series of reprisal bombings, this time scheduled for India’s Republic Day in 1994. It should be noted that these early Indian jihadists had no known connection with the organized crime elements who, under the influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, executed the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993. Though the jihadist movement would, later in its course, have extensive support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, it is important to note that Islamist terrorism in India was born independently, as a reaction to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal violence which followed it.25
Today, most major Islamist terror cells in India can trace their roots to TIM’s founders. The accounts of prosecutors involved in the case against Abdul Karim suggest he made contact with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Lashkar-e-Taiba after escaping India in 1993. In subsequent years, the logistical support of Pakistan-based organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad enabled new waves of jihadists to form far more rapidly.
These new groups largely drew their cadre from an organization called the Students Islamic Movement of India. Ehtesham Siddiqi, a central figure in organizing the 2006 Mumbai serial bombings, was SIMI’s general-secretary for Maharashtra. Mohammad Sabahuddin, who carried out a series of attacks in Bangalore and Uttar Pradesh, and went on to become the first Indian Lashkar operative to command Indian nationals, was active in the organization. So, too, was Raziuddin Nasir, the commander of a Hubli cell which was planning attacks on western tourists in Goa.
Despite SIMI’s emergence as one of the principal threats to India’s internal security, though, neither the history or objectives of its cult of the Kalashnikov are well understood.
SIMI and the Jihadist Tendency
Like many other South Asian Islamist movements, SIMI’s genesis lies in the Jamaat-e-Islami. Established in 1941 by Mawdudi, the Jamaat-e-Islami went on to emerge as a major political party in Pakistan, fighting for the creation of a Shariah-governed state.26 In post-Partition India, however, the Jamaat gradually transformed itself into a cultural organization committed to propagating Salafist Islam amongst Muslims. It set up networks of schools and study circles, devoted to combating growing post-independence influence of communism and socialism. A student wing, the Students Islamic Organization (SIO), was set up in 1956, with its headquarters at Aligarh. As Muslims in north India were battered by communal violence, the Jamaat slowly moved away from Mawdudi’s hostility to secularism. It began arguing that the secular state needed to be defended, as the sole alternative was a Hindu-communalist regime.
SIMI was formed in April 1977 as an effort to revitalize the SIO. Building on the SIO’s networks in Uttar Pradesh, SIMI reached out to Jamaat-linked Muslim students’ groups in Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar and Kerala.27 From the outset, SIMI made clear its belief that the practice of Islam was essentially a political project. In the long term, SIMI sought to re-establish the caliphate, without which it felt the practice of Islam would remain incomplete. Its pamphlets warned that Muslims comfortable living in secular societies were headed to hell. Ideologies other than Islam were condemned as false and sinful.28
Mawdudi’s writings played a considerable role in shaping SIMI’s notion of its historic, vanguard role. As Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr has pointed out, Mawdudi’s reading of the Quran led him to believe that:
…an important aspect of the Prophet’s organization had been segregating his community from its larger social context. This enabled the Prophet to give his organization a distinct identity, and permitted the nascent Muslim community to resist dissolution into the larger pagan Arab culture. Instead, they were able to pull the adversary into the ambit of Islam. For Mawdudi, the Jamaat, much like the Prophetic community, had to be the paragon for Muslim community of India.29
Developments in Pakistan and elsewhere gave this project an increasingly hard edge. SIMI’s leadership was drawn to General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist regime in Pakistan, and threw its weight behind the United States-backed mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union and the socialist regime in Afghanistan. SIMI also developed a broad common front with the forces of Sunni reaction in West Asia. As Sikand has noted:
SIMI’s rhetoric grew combative and vitriolic, insisting that Islam alone was the solution to the problems of not just the Muslims of India, but of all Indians and, indeed, of the whole world.30
Interestingly, the Jammu and Kashmir Islami Jamaat-e-Tulba—the student wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami—was undergoing a similar process of transformation. Formed in 1977, the IJT was to develop transnational linkages with neoconservative Islamist groups in much the same manner and much the same time as SIMI.
At the outset, the IJT reached out to Saudi Arabia-based neoconservative patronage networks for help. In 1979, the IJT was granted membership in the World Organization of Muslim Youth, a controversial Saudi-funded body which bankrolled many ideologically Islamist groups that later turned to terrorism. The next year, the IJT organized a conference in Srinagar, which was attended by dignitaries from across West Asia, including the Imam of the mosques of Mecca and Medina, Abdullah bin-Sabil.
By the end of the decade, the IJT had formally committed itself to armed struggle against the Indian state. Its president, Sheikh Tajamul Husain told journalists in Srinagar that Kashmiris did not consider themselves Indian, and forces stationed there were an “army of occupation.”31 Husain also called for the establishment of an Islamic state through a revolution. A year later, in 1981, Husain reiterated his call to followers to evict the Indian “occupation.”
At the time, Indian authorities did not appear to have been particularly concerned by these pronouncements. Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, did proscribe an IJT meeting scheduled in 1980, but no serious effort to crack down on SIMI took place elsewhere in India. Many of those who would later acquire central positions in the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, the largest jihadist group operating in Kashmir. Notably, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, cut his political teeth as an IJT activist.
Interestingly, when SIMI first appeared on the scene, Jamaat leaders in India showed more concern for the radical movement than the government. They sought to distance themselves from SIMI, fearing its politics would allow the government to proscribe the Jamaat. Much of the Jamaat rank-and-file, though, was incensed at what they saw as their leadership’s betrayal of Mawdudi’s authentic Islamism. In the view of many Jamaat members, the leadership was too enmeshed in establishment politics, at the cost of pursuing Mawdudi’s call to struggle for an Islamic state. The sympathy among the Jamaat rank and file for SIMI allowed it to survive even after 1982, when the Jamaat formally distanced itself from SIMI. Interestingly, while the SIO insists on peaceful means, its ideological agenda is not dissimilar to that of SIMI. One official publication, for example, points to SIO’s heritage of Salafi neo-conservatism, saying it represents “Ibn Abdul Wahab’s belief, Syed Qutb’s smile at the gallows, and Syed Mawdudi’s revolutionary call.”32 Given that Qutb’s notion of revolution inspired the assassins of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat—and legions of Islamist terror cells after—the violence implicit in the ideology is evident.
Part of the reason for SIMI’s spectacular growth after 1982 lay in precisely this heritage and the support that ideologically-kindred organizations from Arabia, including the Kuwait-based World Association of Muslim Youth and the Saudi Arabia-funded International Islamic Federation of Student Organization, were able to provide.33 Generous funding from West Asia helped SIMI establish a welter of magazines—Islamic Movement in Urdu, Hindi and English, Iqra in Gujarati, Rupantar in Bengali, Sedi Malar in Tamil and Vivekam in Malayalam—that propagated the idea of an Islamic revolution. SIMI also set up a special wing, the Tehreek Tulba e-Arabiya, to build networks among madrasa students, as well as the Shaheen Force, whose recruiting efforts targeted children.
Much of SIMI’s time was spent persuading its recruits that Islam alone offered solutions to the challenges of the modern life. In 1982, for example, it organized an anti-immorality week, where supposedly obscene literature was burned. A year later, in an effort to compete with the Left in Kerala, SIMI held an anti-capitalism week. Predictably, it held out Islam, rather than socialism, as the solution. SIMI also worked extensively with victims of communal violence, and provided educational services for poor Muslims. It appeared to give young Muslims a sense of purpose and identity, urging them to reject drugs and alcohol.
Was SIMI, then, in essence a Muslim social service organization, occupying spaces the state had vacated? Yes—but it was also more than that. As Irfan Habib, Iqtidar Alam Khan and KP Singh observed in a seminal 1976 essay, the conditions of Muslims were not what Islamists “regarded as their principal grievances.”34 Rather, their objective was to use discrimination and grievance for their own purposes of legitimizing Islamism. Indeed, SIMI wished for “preservation of Muslim separateness, not the end of Muslim backwardness, as their basic aim.”35
SIMI’s polemics appealed to the growing class of lower-middle class and middle-class urban Muslim men in the 1980s who felt cheated of their share of the growing economic opportunities in India. In SIMI’s vision, this discrimination was intrinsic to, not an aberration from, the Indian secular-nationalist project. Safdar Nagori, one of SIMI’s leading figures, even claimed in one interview that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, had wished for all Muslims to embrace the heretical teachings of the Punjabi mystic Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani.36 No historical substantiation of this claim exists—but it, and others, were used to buttress the claim that the secular state was inherently hostile to what SIMI characterized as orthodox Islam.
SIMI’s attacks on Hindu polytheism, Indian secularism and western decadence drew a plethora wide swathe of young Muslim men hit by educational backwardness and discrimination. SIMI’s claims that there could be no justice for Muslims other than in a Shariah-based political order resonated further with communities battered by decades of communal violence, often backed by the Indian state. At its peak in 2001, SIMI had over 400 Ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000 Ikhwan, or volunteers.37 As Yoginder Sikand has perceptively noted, the organization provided “its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives.”38
SIMI’s tilt towards terrorism appears to have begun around the period of the demolition of the Babri Masjid—the same time, it should be recalled, that Abdul Karim’s group was preparing itself for jihadist action. Soon after the tragic events of December 6, 1992, and the anti-Muslim pogroms which followed it, SIMI president Shahid Badr Falahi demanded that “Muslims organize themselves and stand up to defend the community.”39 Another SIMI leader, Abdul Aziz Salafi, demanded action to show that Muslims “would now refuse to sit low.”40
Growing numbers of SIMI members responded to their call, making their way to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami training camps in Pakistan. SIMI leaders continued to insist their organization itself had nothing to do with terrorism. The group’s rhetoric, however, became increasingly bitter and violent. In a 1996 statement, SIMI declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims, the sole option for Muslims was to struggle for the caliphate.41 Soon after, the movement put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of Mahmood Ghaznavi and appealing to God to send down a latter-day avatar of the eleventh-century conqueror to avenge the destruction of mosques in India.42
By the time of SIMI’s 1999 Aurangabad convention, many of the speeches delivered by delegates were increasingly inflammatory. “Islam is our nation, not India,” thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad, one of over a dozen SIMI-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives arrested in 2005 for smuggling in military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned series of attacks in Gujarat. Among those listening to Ahmad’s speech was Azam Ghauri, TIM member and participant in the 1993 train bombings that Abdul Karim “Tunda” had organized. Ghauri, by the accounts of some of those present, was even offered the leadership of SIMI at the conference.
When 25,000 SIMI delegates met in Mumbai in September 2001 at what was to be its last public convention, the organization for the first time called on its supporters to turn to jihad. In an article published just after the convention, the commentator Javed Anand recalled seeing stickers pasted “in large numbers in Muslim shops and homes, a thick red ‘NO’ splashed across the words DEMOCRACY, NATIONALISM, POLYTHEISM. ‘ONLY ALLAH!’ exclaims SIMI’s punch-line.”43 Soon after the convention, al-Qaeda carried out its attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. SIMI activists organized demonstrations in support of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden, hailing him as a “true mujahid,” and celebrating the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.44
Home Grown, Foreign-Irrigated
At a February 2000 Lashkar-e-Taiba rally, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s deputy, Abdul Rehman Makki, explained elements of a pan-India jihadist strategy group. He had planned to move operations beyond Kashmir, and place pressure on the entire Indian polity.45 Makki proclaimed Lashkar would soon initiate operations in Hyderabad, a city claimed by Pakistan’s Islamist right-wing to have been seized illegally by Indian forces from its Muslim monarch in 1948. Hyderabad offers a useful case to examine the enormously complex web of local communal conflict and the transnational crisis of Islam in India.
Like SIMI, Lashkar and its parent religious group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (Society for Proselytization) had from the outset seen the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir as a precursor to a wider civilizational conflict that would “continue until Islam becomes the dominant religion.”46 By the account of the Pakistani journalist Zahid Husain, this worldview was rooted in Saeed’s experience of the 1947 Partition:
The horrors of the partition in 1947, which uprooted his family from their home in Shimla, left a huge imprint on Hafiz Saeed’s personality. Millions of people were massacred in the communal violence that followed the creation of the new Muslim state. Thirty-six members of his family were killed while migrating to Pakistan.47
For years, Lashkar had attempted to build a network across India using local Islamists.48 Perhaps the most successful of Lashkar’s agents was Mohammad Ishtiaq, the son of a shopkeeper from Kala Gujran in Pakistan’s Jhelum district. Operating under the alias Salim Junaid, Ishtiaq obtained an Indian passport and even married a local resident, Momina Khatoon. Ishtiaq, however, was arrested before he could do real harm.
In late 1998, in response to desperate pleas from Lashkar’s leadership, Hyderabad resident Mohammad Azam Ghauri returned to India to help rebuild its networks.49 Ghauri—who figured earlier in this paper as one of the three co-founders of the Indian jihad—turned to friends in Hyderabad’s organized crime cartels for help. In 1999, his long-standing friend Abdul Aziz Sheikh—a hitman linked to Karachi-based mafioso Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar—attempted to assassinate the Shiv Sena leader Milind Vaidya—one of the key organizers of the post-Babri Masjid communal riots in Mumbai.
Ghauri also sought and received help from remnants of the mafia of Mohammad Fasiuddin, which had executed Andhra Pradesh Hindu fundamentalist leaders Papiah Goud and Nanda Raj Goud in retaliation for the 1992 anti-Muslim riots there.
Soon after Makki’s speech, Ghauri’s new mafia-linked network set off bombs cinema theatres in Karimnagar and Nanded. Eight weeks after these bombings, Ghauri was shot dead by the police.
Jihadi organizations continued their attempts to build new networks in Hyderabad. In August 2001, the Hyderabad Police arrested one of the most intriguing figures in this effort, an unassuming electrician named Abdul Aziz. While working in Saudi Arabia, Aziz came into contact with an Islamist recruiter looking for volunteers to join the global jihad. Aziz served in Bosnia in 1994, and then fought alongside Chechen Islamists in 1996. In 1999, Aziz again flew to Tbilisi, in search of a second tour of duty. He was, however, deported. With the help of funds from Hamid Bahajib, a Saudi Arabia-based Lashkar financier who also paid for Ghauri’s work, Aziz returned home to try and initiate a jihad of his own.50
Aziz, investigators found, hoped to draw on the resources of the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat, or Institute for Holy War and Martyrdom–an Islamist vigilante group set up in the mid-1980s, at around the same time SIMI was gathering momentum. Although its website claims that the organization’s purpose is “protecting the life and properties of [the] Muslim community,” and “preserving the honor and chastity of women,” the organization also candidly states that “Islamic supremacy is our goal.”51
For the most part, these efforts had only limited successes. But starting in September 2002, at least fourteen young men from Hyderabad set out on secret journeys to terrorist training camps in Pakistan. A decade earlier, the demolition of the Babri Masjid had led several recruits from Hyderabad into the lap of Lashkar. This time around, the hatred generated by the communal pogrom in Gujarat helped Islamist groups reap a fresh harvest.
Mohammad Abdul Shahid’s story, and the fluid, cross-organizational networks he built, cast considerable insight into the evolving story of the Indian jihad. Police records show Shahid dropped out of college less than a year after his graduation from the Asafiya High School in Hyderabad. He was amongst the first generation of his inner-city family to have access to a higher education–and grew up in a new home paid for, in part, by remittances from his brothers who found work in West Asia. In the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, Shahid involved himself with SIMI groups in the city. He evidently found political activism alone inadequate, as he soon sought access to terror training camps in Pakistan through a relative, Rasool Khan Yakub Khan Pathan—a mafioso and one of India’s most wanted men.52
Better known by his alias, Rasool ‘Party’ Pathan was a long-standing vassal of the Karachi-based mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar. After the Gujarat riots, Pathan took responsibility for transporting the new wave of jihadi recruits for training. According to the testimony of mafia operative Javed Hamidullah Siddiqui—who was arrested in 2004—Dawood lieutenant Shakeel Ahmad Babu arranged the new recruits’ passage on flights through Bangkok and Dhaka.53 Pathan, wanted by Interpol ever since 1993, was waiting for them on their arrival in Karachi. While some recruits trained with Lashkar, others were routed on to Jaish and Harkat: a fluid dispersion of assets across organizational lines not seen before the 2002 pogrom.
Within months of their departure, the new recruits executed their first successful strikes. Asad Yazdani, a resident of Hyderabad’s Toli Chowki area, helped assassinate former Gujarat Home Minister, Haren Pandya. Pandya, a Central Bureau of Investigations inquiry later determined, was killed in reprisal for his role in pogrom.54
Although the new recruits had trained with Lashkar and Jaish, they turned to the Bangladesh-based Harkat for operational support. Founded by Bangladeshi veterans of the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan, Harkat operates at least six camps where several hundred Pakistani, Indian, Thai and Myanmar nationals are known to have trained. Its founder, Mufti Abdul Hannan, spent several years studying at the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, and developed a large network of contacts among Islamists in India. He also built links with key organized crime figures. Among the group’s most high-profile actions in India was the January 2002 terror attack near the American Centre in Kolkata, executed in collaboration with Dawood-linked mafioso Aftab Ansari.55
Most often, Harkat operations involved infrastructure provided by one-time SIMI cadre from India and Bangladesh nationals who executed the actual strike. In 2007, for example, the Delhi Police arrested Yazdani’s Bangladeshi bomb-makers, the twin brothers Anishul Murshlin and Muhibbul Muttakin.56 Both confirmed Yazdani’s SIMI links had the June 2005 bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express at Jaunpur and October 2005 suicide bombing of the headquarters of the Andhra Pradesh Police’s counter-terrorism Special Task Force. A Bangladeshi national, Mohtasin Billa, had carried out the bombing—the first Harkat operation of its kind.
Yazdani was shot dead in March 2006, just hours after the bombing of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi—another lethal attack which was traced to Harkat’s Bangladesh-based cells.57 Shahid then took charge of the organization.
Both Imperial and post-independence Indian politics watered the soil in which these SIMI-linked networks flourished. Nominally independent of British India, Hyderabad’s last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, administered a system in which religious affiliation was a key source of legitimacy building. Although Muslims made up just 10 percent of his realm’s population, they held three-quarters of state jobs. Of the seven major feudal estates, six were controlled by Muslim notables.
During the two decades before independence, Hyderabad saw the growth of two communal movements which Hindu and Muslim elites used to strengthen their position. Speaking for the emerging Hindu industrialist class, the Arya Samaj argued that practices like idol worship had weakened the faith, and thus facilitated centuries of what they characterized as alien rule.
In response to the proselytization efforts of the Arya Samaj, Muslim elites set up the Majlis-e-Ittehad ul-Muslimeen, or Organization for the Unity of Muslims. The Majlis was founded on the doctrine that Hyderabad Muslims were its natural hakim kaum, or ruling race. Although much of the Hyderabad Muslim elite was Shia, it was deeply influenced by the work of the nineteenth century revivalist Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareilly. Ahmad’s influential Sunni-chauvinist work, as Vali Nasr has noted, “identified false Sufism, Shi’ism and errant popular customs as the sources of religious corruption and hence declining Muslim power.”58
These competing communal movements collided in April 1938, when the city saw its first communal riots. Besieged by the Congress’ demands for democratic elections and the Arya Samaj’ religious mobilization, Osman Ali Khan responded to the growing violence by proscribing both. He turned to the Majlis for support. Rizvi now set up the Razakars as a paramilitary sword-arm of the Nizam. Majlis leaders, scholar Lucien Benichou recorded, candidly stated that their objective was to “keep the sovereignty of His Exalted Highness intact and to prevent Hindus from establishing supremacy over Muslims.”
In 1947, Rizvi unleashed his forces in support of the Nizam’s claims to independence. Thousands—both Hindus and Muslims opposed to Osman Ali Khan—were killed before the Indian Army swept into the state in September 1948. Within five days, Hyderabad capitulated. While the Nizam became the titular head of state, Rizvi was captured and imprisoned. He was finally expelled to Pakistan in 1957.
Despite Rizvi’s defeat, Islamists continued to flourish in Hyderabad. The Majlis was reborn in 1957, under the leadership of the affluent cleric and lawyer Abdul Wahid Owaisi, who drafted a new constitution committing it to the Union of India. Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, his son, took over the organization 1976. Salahuddin Owaisi’s sons, Asaduddin Owaisi and Akbaruddin Owaisi, are now its most visible faces.
Starting from nothing, the Majlis rapidly established itself as the principal spokesperson for old-city Muslims. By 1977-1978, the Congress—which had unleashed the Indian Army on the Majlis just three decades earlier—even sought electoral alliances with it. In 1986, a Majlis-Congress alliance took charge of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation. The Majlis spoke for two distinct constituencies within the old city: a devout traditional elite disinherited by the coming of democratic rule, and an urban underclass which remained economically disenfranchised despite it.
Just how did the party succeed in re-establishing itself so fast? Ashutosh Varshney has offered this simple explanation:
In the 1960s, there were riots in eight out of ten years in Hyderabad. After 1978, the trend towards communal violence took a turn for the worse. Except for the period 1986-89, riots took place virtually every year between 1978 and 1993, often many times in the same year.59
Communal parties, not surprisingly, took center stage. With growing support from Hyderabad Muslims based in west Asia, the Majlis grew into a formidable competitor to the Hindu Right.
With the Congress and Majlis locked in political embrace, Hindu nationalist forces were able to represent themselves as the sole credible defenders of Hindu interests. Violence became institutionalized, giving rise to what the historian Paul Brass described as an “organized riot system.”60 For example, gangs of killers were set up to wage war on behalf of their respective religious communities, operating under political immunities granted by various groups—a phenomenon documented in the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar’s book, The Colors of Violence.61 Violence, the historian Javed Alam’s work on the Majlis shows, acquired growing legitimacy.62 “The distinction between crime and valor,” Varshney has noted, “thus disappeared for a large mass of Muslims and Hindus in the old city of Hyderabad.”63
Islamist terrorism in Hyderabad represented a breakdown of faith in the Majlis’ riot-protection system. Muslim interests, recruits to SIMI were told, could only be defended by integration into the wider the global jihadi movement.
Majlis leaders have, in recent years, found themselves in opposition to the jihadism they once advocated. In a recent interview, Majlis leader Asaduddin Owaisi noted that “these misguided youths call me a kafir.”64 “I am on their hit list,” he said. Majlis leaders have continued to use chauvinism, for example by leading protests against a visit by the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen.65 However, there is no sign that these tactics have succeeded in mitigating the success of SIMI and other jihadi groups outside of the political system drawing new recruits.
Addressing poverty in old-city Hyderabad is often advertised as a solution to the jihad’s success. While worthwhile as a policy objective, it may not be a prescription for peace. As Varshney pointed out:
Hyderabad Muslims have done much better than their Lucknow counterparts. Their success however has led not to a reduction but an increase in communal tensions, partly through a strengthening of the Majlis. The relative economic betterment of Muslims is not a cause of increased tensions. An absence of symbiotic linkages is. The two communities do not constitute a web of interdependence.66
The Making of the Indian Mujahideen
He appeared online in 2015 on the Ansar ul-Tawhid website, his face digitally masked, a laptop to his left, religious books to his right, and a Glock 9mm automatic on his desk, to deliver the first-ever call by an Indian for Muslims in the country to join the global jihad. “My beloved brothers,” he said, his voice woven into images of communal carnage, “what has happened to you that, in the sight of god, you do not fight for helpless children, women and the aged, who are begging their lord for rescue?” He went on. “Rise, like Ahmad Shah Abdali and Muhammad ibn-Qasim, like Syed Ahmad the martyr, like the Prophet and his companions, take the Quran in one hand and the sword in the other, and head to the fields of jihad.”67
That video marked the coming joining of the old jihadist networks—birthed in the mid-1980s—with the Islamic State. The medium for tying together these threads was an organization called the Indian Mujahideen, which in the number of its victims and extraordinary scale of its attacks must be counted as India’s most successful urban terror group.
Behind the digital mask was Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar, the 39-year-old son of a small businessman from Bhatkal, northern Karnataka and soft-spoken cleric trained at the respected Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama seminary in Lucknow. A key recruiter for the Indian Mujahideen, Armar joined a rebellion against its leadership, and is believed to have led more than a dozen Indians to camps run by the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan. His brother Shafi Armar would later succeed him as a guide for Indian nationals seeking jihadist training in camps in Syria and Afghanistan.
The first jihadist group based abroad formed by Indians, Ansar ul-Tawhid believes terrorism will not achieve anything. Their imagination fired by the Islamic State’s success against better-equipped and trained forces in Syria, its leaders see themselves as the kernel of a full-blown insurgency in India.
In the online address, the man believed to be Armar exhorts, “Listen to the calls rising from the dust in Iraq and Syria… and migrate to the motherland of jihad, Afghanistan, gather your courage, and teach these Brahmins and worshippers of cows, as well as the whole world of unbelievers, that the Indian Muslim is no coward.”
Ansar ul-Tawhid’s Twitter has published video footage of cadres training in camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The members it lost in fighting include Anwer Husain ‘Bhatkal’—allegedly killed during a raid on an Afghan border outpost—the first Indian killed of several known to have trained in Afghanistan.
Much like the Armar brothers—one cleric, the other a digital-era media producer—Ansar ul-Tawhid’s membership is diverse. One member is Afif Hassan Siddibapa—also known as Afif Jailani—a 41-year-old businessman who left a job in Saudi Arabia and settled in Karachi with his wife and children. Additional Indians linked to the group are: Shanawaz Ahmad, an Unani doctor and the son of a local Samajwadi Party politician in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh; Abu Rashid Ahmad, who once worked at an eye hospital in Mumbai; and students Mohammad ‘Bada’ Sajid and Mirza Shadab Beig.
The Indian Mujahideen grew out of a religious circle called al-Isbah—literally meaning “a group in search of truth”—started from Bhatkal in late 2001. The group listened to sermons by cleric Muhammad Shish. Leading member Ahmad Zarar Siddibappa, better known as Yasin Bhatkal, who was arrested by the Indian government in August 2013, was among those drawn to the Indian Mujahideen at these meetings.
Early in the summer of 2004, a group of young men—mostly one-time members of SIMI—gathered for a retreat at one of the sprawling villas that line the cheerfully-named Jolly Beach, the pride of small, south Indian fishing town of Bhatkal. They swam, went for hikes into the woods, honed their archery skills, and occasionally indulged in some target practice with an air gun. Local residents recall occasionally hearing small explosions, but assumed the men were setting off fireworks. Nothing the men did gave the Bhatkal police cause for concern.
It should have: the young men on Jolly Beach would form the core of a jihadist network, calling itself the Indian Mujahideen, that would carry out a succession of bomb attacks from 2005 onward that killed and injured hundreds Delhi prosecutors say the principal organizer of the Jolly Beach gathering, Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri—also known as Riyaz Bhatkal—along with his brother, Iqbal Shahbandri, signed a manifesto issued by the Indian Mujahideen after its September 2008 bomb attacks in New Delhi:
We, the Indian Mujahideen, ask Allah, the Almighty to accept from us these 9 explosions”, the manifesto had read, “which were planned to be executed in the holy month of Ramadan. We have carried out this attack in the memory of two most eminent Mujahids of India: Sayyed Ahmed Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed (may Allah bestow His Mercy upon them) who had raised the glorious banner of Jihad against the disbelievers in this very city of Delhi. It is the great hard work and sacrifices of these visionary legends [sic.] that shall always inspire us, Inshallah, to carry on the struggle and fight against the Kufr (disbelief) till our last breath.68
Riyaz Shahbandri’s father, Ismail Shahbandri, left Bhatkal some three decades prior in the hopes, like millions of other Indians, to make his fortune in Mumbai. He set up a successful leather-tanning works in the city’s Kurla area, and eventually bought an apartment in Kardar Building off the busy Pipe Road—an impossible dream for most migrants to the city. Ismail Shahbandri’s prosperity ensured Riyaz Shahbandri was able to study at local English-medium schools, and later study civil engineering at Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College. He married a Bhatkal-area woman, Nashua Ismail, the daughter of an electronics store owner, in 2002. By this time, however, Riyaz Shahbandri’s story began to diverge significantly from the bourgeois trajectory his businessman father had likely envisioned for him.
Shafiq Ahmad, Riyaz Shahbandri’s future brother-in-law, lived in the family’s apartment as he pursued his studies—and his work as a Students Islamic Movement of India activist—in Mumbai. Shahbandri began to spend time at SIMI’s offices in Mumbai around 2001—at the peak of the organization’s radical phase—with men who would play a key role in the development of the jihadist movement of India. Among them were Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Mohammad Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who would later co-found the Indian Mujahideen; Ehtesham Siddiqi, now on trial for his alleged role in the July 2006 bombings of the city’s suburban train system; and Rahil Sheikh, who recruited dozens of Maharashtra jihadists—most notably for an abortive 2006 terrorist strike in Gujarat—to avenge the anti-Muslim violence which had taken place there four years earlier.
Riyaz Shahbandri’s world-view may have been shaped in part by his brother, Iqbal Shahbandri. For reasons that are not wholly clear—the Shahbandri family has declined to be interviewed by media—Iqbal Shahbandri’s adult life appears to have taken a rather different course from that of his brother. He studied Unani medicine, a form of traditional healing based on Greek, Arab and Indian practices that has some currency across South Asia. However, his primary interests were religious. Even though he never undertook the rigors of a formal education in theology, Iqbal Bhatkal was an enthusiastic participant in the activities of the Talibghi Jamaat, a neo-fundamentalist proselytizing order whose annual gatherings at Raiwind in Pakistan are reputed to draw more followers than any Muslim congregation other than the Haj pilgrimage.69
Sadiq Israr Sheikh, too, had no conception of the jihadist project when he began attending SIMI’s Sunday study meetings at a friend’s apartment in 1996. However, it would be these meetings, over tea and biscuits, that gave birth to the idea for the Indian Mujahideen.70
From his testimony to Mumbai Police investigators, Sheikh appears to have been drawn to SIMI’s political Islamism by the same resentments common to millions of lower middle-class Mumbai residents. Born in 1978 to working-class parents from the north Indian town of Azamgarh, Sheikh grew up in the Cheeta Camp housing project. Home to thousands of slum residents who had been evicted to make way for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Cheeta Camp provided the foundation for tens of thousands of families to make the journey to the fringes of India’s middle-class. Sheikh’s parents were able to give their children a decent home and an education.
Sheikh’s story did not quite run according to the script his parents had in mind. Having dropped out of high school, he obtained certification as an air-conditioning mechanic. Sheikh could only find ill-paid freelance work, not a regular job. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt cheated of the growing economic opportunities emerging around him and came to believe he was a victim of religious discrimination. In 1993, communal riots tore the city apart and killed hundreds of Muslims, and SIMI gave voice to Sheikh’s rage.71 As scholar Yoginder Sikand perceptively noted, SIMI’s aggressive polemic gave “its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives.”72
SIMI’s language turned increasingly violent as the years rolled by: at a rally held at Mumbai’s Bandra Reclamation Ground soon after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, it voiced support for Osama bin-Laden and hailed the Taliban’s Mullah Omar as a role-model for Muslims. Even this, though, wasn’t enough for Sheikh. Early in 2001, he stormed out of a SIMI meeting, complaining that the organization did nothing other than talk.
In April 2001, Sheikh ran into a distant relative who helped turn his dreams into reality. Salim Islahi—the son of a Jamaat-e-Islami linked cleric who was expelled from the organization for his extremism—put Sheikh in touch with Aftab Ansari, a gang lord reputed to have discovered Islamist radicalism while serving prison time in New Delhi along with Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist Syed Omar Sheikh. Syed Omar Sheikh’s lieutenant, Asif Reza Khan, arranged for Sadiq Sheikh to travel to Pakistan in September 2001.
Qureshi, like Sheikh, was the son of working-class migrants from north India. However, Qureshi received an elite education—ironically, at the Catholic-run Antonio D’Souza High School. In 1996, he had begun working as a software engineer, specializing in network solutions. Qureshi joined SIMI around the same time. Later, he edited the SIMI-affiliated journal, Islamic Movement. In 2001, Qureshi submitted a letter of resignation to his employers, saying he intended to “devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters.” Like Sheikh, he left India to train at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
By the autumn of 2002, spurred on by anti-Muslim violence which had claimed hundreds of lives in the state of Gujarat, dozens of volunteers were joining the Indian Mujahideen network—although the group did not yet have that, or indeed any, name. Many came from Hyderabad for training in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, among them Abdul Khwaja. Using the alias “Amjad,” Khwaja now heads a Lashkar-linked, Lahore-based cell operating against India. Others came from Maharashtra. By 2003, Sheikh himself regularly dispatched volunteers from the Azamgarh area for training at Lashkar camps.
In 2005, the network was ready to carry out their first bombings, an attack on a Hindu temple in the north Indian city of Varanasi. Over coming years, the Indian Mujahideen succeeded in staging attacks of ever-increasing intensity, among them the July 2006 strikes on Mumbai’s suburban train system that claimed at least 183 lives.73
By 2006, there is evidence that the organization had begun to develop significant transnational linkages.74 Authorities in India say that Kerala-born Sarfaraz Nawaz and Muscat-based entrepreneur Ali Abdul Aziz al-Hooti operated a key Lashkar-e-Taiba logistical hub, supporting the terrorist group’s operations in India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh—and even the Maldives. For counter-terrorism forces across the region, this is bad news. From its origins in Pakistan’s Punjab, the investigation shows, Lashkar has grown into a truly transnational organization.75
Nawaz began his jihadist journey in 1995. It was then, when he was just eighteen years old, that he joined SIMI.76 Five years later, Nawaz was elected to SIMI’s New Delhi-based central committee. His contemporaries included many who later played key roles in building India’s jihadist movement—among them, key SIMI ideologue Safdar Nagori, along with Peedical Abdul Shibly and Yahya Kamakutty, both successful computer professionals now being tried for plotting jihadist operations in southern India.77
Like the overwhelming majority of SIMI members, Nawaz chose a life of middle-class respectability. He obtained a computer networking qualification from an institute in Kochi, married and found a job in Oman.78
It wasn’t long, though, before Nawaz was drawn back into the world he appeared to have escaped. During a visit home in early 2006, he heard Tadiyantavide Nasir—an Islamist political activist who, improbably enough, also served as a preacher with the Noorisha order of Sufi mystics—delivered a speech casting jihad as an imperative of the practice of Islam.79 Inspired, Nawaz set about making contacts with jihadists in Muscat. Friends from his days in SIMI put him in touch al-Hooti, a successful automobile components dealer who also owned string of internet cafés.
Born to an Indian mother, al-Hooti’s radicalization had been driven by stories of atrocities against Muslims he heard on visits home to Miraj, near Mumbai. Before he turned thirty, Indian investigators say, al-Hooti had had twice trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan. By 2006, Indian investigators say, al-Hooti had emerged as one of Lashkar’s key organizers in the Gulf. Working with Lashkar intelligence operative Mohammad Jassem—also known by the code-name “Tehsin”—al-Hooti helped send dozens of jihadists to Lashkar’s training camps in Pakistan.
Many of those men proved themselves to be valuable Lashkar assets. Early in 2007, al-Hooti and Jassem dispatched Dubai-based, Indian-origin printing-press mechanic Fahim Arshad Ansari to a Lashkar camp in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir.80 Having finished a Daura Ribat covert tradecraft course, Ansari was tasked with carrying out surveillance at several important locations in Mumbai. Footage he generated, Indian prosecutors have said, helped facilitate the training of the Lashkar assault that targeted Mumbai in November 2008.
Funds generated by al-Hooti are thought to have helped Lashkar commander Faisal Haroun—code-name “Naim”—set up Indian ocean networks that eventually enabled the group to target India’s western seaboard. Haroun is believed to have crafted the 2006 landing of assault rifles intended to have been used in a terror attack in Gujarat, as well as an abortive 2007 effort to land eight Lashkar fidayeen off Mumbai.81
Al-Hooti and Jassem recruited widely across the India ocean region. Maldives investigators have, for example, learned that the men facilitated the training of Ali Assham—a Malé resident who was forced to suspend jihadist career after losing an eye in a bomb-making accident.
Oman authorities believe that by 2007, the pro-western Emirate itself had begun to figure on al-Hooti’s list of targets. In June that year, al-Hooti held discussions with Lashkar sympathizers in the country on the prospect of targeting prominent landmarks in Muscat—among them, a British Broadcasting Corporation office, the Golden Tulip Hotel, and a spa in the upmarket Nizwa area. No final operational plans were made, but Oman authorities found enough evidence to secure a conviction in 2013.
Most importantly from the point of view of Indian investigators, al-Hooti provided an interface between Lashkar in its dealings with the Indian Mujahideen.
In 2008, Nasir turned to Nawaz to secure funding for the training of a new group of Indian Mujahideen volunteers he had raised from the Indian state of Kerala. Nasir also said he needed cash to pay for a planned bomb attack in the city of Bangalore. Between March and May 2008, police say, al-Hooti transferred an estimated US$ 2,500 for Nasir’s use to a Kerala-based hawala dealer. Lashkar commander ‘Rehan,’ one of al-Hooti’s associates, also arranged for Nasir’s recruits to train with a jihadist unit operating near the Line of Control Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district.
In November 2007, the networks began using the Indian Mujahideen name in e-mail manifestos released to the media. A manifesto, released minutes before the Indian Mujahideen group carried out synchronized bombings in three north Indian cities in November 2007, expressly spelt out the ideological basis of the SIMI cadre’s turn to jihad.82
Describing the “wounds given by the idol worshippers to the Indian Muslims,” the manifesto voiced anger that Hindus had “demolished our Babri Masjid and killed our brothers, children and raped our sisters.”83 The 2002 Gujarat pogrom had “forced us to take a strong stand against this injustice and all other wounds given by the idol worshippers of India.” “Only Islam,” it concluded, “has the power to establish a civilized society, and this could only be possible in Islamic rule which could be achieved by only one path: jihad.”
If the ideological resonances and modes of praxis of the Indian Mujahideen are global, the specific conditions in which it operatives are local.
Is Perdition Ahead?
Though jihadist attacks within India have been at a low ebb since the Indian Mujahideen cadre fled the country in 2008, there remains a durable threat. In 2016, Pakistan-based jihadist groups demonstrated their continued ability to strike targets in India, hitting Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri, among other targets. Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, convicted in 2011 for his role in Lashkar’s November 2008 attack on Mumbai, has spoken of what he called the “Karachi Project”—a joint operation involving jihadists and elements in Pakistan’s intelligence services to use Indian nationals for further strikes on the country.84
Now, there is a further threat: the recruitment and training of Indian jihadists overseas, who could yet turn into the core of a future threat. Islamist terror groups understand that acts of violence do not in themselves further the Islamist political agenda, or hasten the disintegration of the Indian state. In 2006, terrorism in India, including its Maoist variant, claimed 2598 lives; whereas traffic accidents killed a staggering 105,749.85
What jihadi groups instead hope is that violence will sunder Hindu from Muslim, bringing about an apocalyptic religious war. In their imagination, this war will lead to the triumph of neoconservative Islam and the re-establishment of the Caliphate. While this enterprise may seem somewhat disconnected from the real world, India’s long history of communal hostilities has raised concerns that jihadi violence could act as a catalyst for a holocaust of this kind. It is to this challenge that India’s political system must respond.
Broadly, three major challenges lie ahead:
First, funneling funds towards improving educational access or economic opportunity—the chosen weapons of government counter-radicalization efforts across the world—should not be seen as a deus ex machina which will solve the problem. Sabahuddin Ahmed, the first Indian to head a Lashkar cell which included Pakistani nationals, lacked neither. His father was a lawyer; his middle-class secularized family included doctors, engineers and multinational firm executives. Yet, Ahmed joined SIMI in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom—as did so many others—and went on to execute both the 2005 attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the 2007 assault on the Central Reserve Police Force’s training camp at Rampur.86
Instead of purely economic interventions to address the rage of young Muslims, which can at best be palliatives rather than prescriptions for peace, a rigorous commitment to the rule of law is needed. Former Prime Minister Singh often voiced a commitment to justice and secularism—soon after taking power, he called for action to ensure “painful incidents like [the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres] and the Gujarat riots never happen again”—but on-ground implementation has been poor.87 State governments have, for example, failed to act against housing denial, a major grievance for the middle-class and lower middle-class Muslims who often join Islamist political organizations.88
Neither have institutional reforms been put in place to insulate the police from the political pressures, nor laws reworked to ensure rapid justice for victims. Most importantly, nothing has been done by mainstream political parties to address the de-facto exclusion of Muslims from political life in highly-communalized states like Gujarat—a phenomenon that cedes political space to Islamists.89 As such, government policies centered on the rule of law and citizenship are essential to counter jihadist narratives.
Second, the problem of religious chauvinism must be openly addressed. The growing sensitivity of Indian political parties to Muslim concerns has nourished the religious reaction which forms the firmament from which jihadism has sprung. In late 2007, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was forced out of the state West Bengal after riots broke out there in protest against her presence.90 Later, the Bengali-language novelist was compelled to leave India altogether. Uttar Pradesh authorities earlier refused to take legal action against a state minister Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, who announced an Rs. 510 million bounty for the lives of Danish cartoonists who caricatured the Prophet Mohammad.91 Similarly, police in Andhra Pradesh were reported to have been restrained from pursuing counter-terrorism investigations for fear it might alienate Muslim voters, provoking a major national newspaper to charge Prime Minister Singh’s government with “what can be bluntly called communalization of internal security.”92
It is true that Hindu fundamentalists have enjoyed similar legal immunities. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and several cities in Haryana—all governed by different political formations—proscribed a film on the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the wake of protests by Hindu organizations.93 Maharashtra, a Congress-ruled state, forbade scholarly literature on the medieval ruler Shivaji and demanded the extradition of its author.94 Moreover, the even-handed treatment of Muslim and Hindu chauvinism by political leaders falls well short of constituting a meaningful campaign to combat the deepening communalism that threatens the Indian Union and secular state.
Third, politicians—Hindu or Muslim, Left or Right—must begin to articulate a coherent ideological response to Islamism. Even as India’s political and clerical orders continue to maintain a discreet silence on this question, Islamism has expanded its reach and influence.
Increasingly, the invisible jihad is drawing numbers of highly-educated, successful young Muslims—the class that ought to have an abiding stake in a prosperous India and a globalizing world.
Back in 2001, SIMI’s Safdar Nagori proclaimed that he was “very bitter” about India.95 He voiced the rage of a generation of young men who saw opportunity opening around them—but also found doors slammed shut in their face because of their faith. Many found in the venom of the Lashkar’s Hafiz Mohammad Saeed a manifesto for praxis: “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.”96 Indian politics, sadly, has done little to strip Nagori’s position of legitimacy. It must do so now; otherwise, India could face and long and murderous war from within.