Frontline, Dec. 08-21, 2007
Building new bases
The Islamist terror network has quietly spread to States where its presence was least expected.
WHAT next? This question seems to haunt many of the 83 Al Umma cadre who were released from the Central Prison in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, after the judgment came in the Coimbatore serial bomb blasts case. Although Special Court Judge K. Uthirapathy sentenced the 83 to varying terms of imprisonment, they were set free because their period of detention during trial had equalled the term of imprisonment they were sentenced to undergo.
Tamil Nadu Police officials say that the Al Umma men want “to settle down, start a new life and not to have any confrontation” and genuine organisations such as the Released Prisoners’ Welfare Board are trying to rehabilitate them. However, the activities of a new organisation called the Charitable Trust for Minorities (CTM) has come under surveillance. The CTM has been collecting funds to rehabilitate the 83 Al Umma men and to help the families of other cadre who are still in prison. Police sources allege that the CTM is receiving funds from Saudi Arabia, from where a number of Muslim extremist organisations in India, including the Muslim Defence Force operating in Tamil Nadu, are being financed.
The police have also put another organisation, “Manitha Neethi Pasarai” (Organisation for Human Justice), under the scanner. Mohammed Ali Jinnah is its State president. Together with two other organisations, the National Development Front of Kerala (NDF) and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD), it has formed a charitable trust to finance their activities. “They are trying to be aggressive. They held a conference in Bangalore a year ago. Manitha Neethi Pasarai is active, trying to organise demonstrations for reservation for Muslims and on other issues. It is under a close watch,” said a police officer.
An organisation called the South India Council, set up ostensibly to do “dawa” work (propagation of Islam) in the southern States, collapsed. In its place sprouted the Popular Front of India, an umbrella organisation of Manitha Neethi Pasarai, the KFD and the NDF. “The chairmen of these organisations are former SIMI [Students’ Islamic Movement of India] zonal presidents and their members are ex-ansars [full-time members],” the police officer said.
Top police officers concede that “although everything is calm on the surface in Tamil Nadu, there are deep undercurrents of Muslim extremism”. Former zonal (Tamil Nadu) presidents of SIMI have started a number of front organisations. They could not continue in SIMI because they had crossed the upper age limit of 30 years for membership. “All these organisations are alive in one form or the other. Nobody really went away [from SIMI]. These organisations’ objective is to establish Islamic rule in India,” a police officer said.
For instance, M. Ghulam Ahmed, former zonal [Tamil Nadu] SIMI president, founded the Manitha Neethi Pasarai. When he was expelled recently from the Manitha Neethi Pasarai, he went on to establish another organisation, the Darul Islam Foundation Trust. M.S. Jawahirullah, who is now a top leader of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, was a State SIMI president. Another Tamil Nadu SIMI president, S.M. Baucker, is now the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Thouheed Jamat. Ibn Saudh, who was the first president, in 1982, of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Jamaati-Islam-Hind, the parent organisation of SIMI, is now the president of the All-India Milli Council. Mohammed Ansari, who was a SIMI ikwan (supporter), is now Al Umma general secretary.
He was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in the Coimbatore blasts case. Ansari’s brother-in-law, Shahjehan, who is an ex-ansar of SIMI, is one of the top leaders of Al Umma. Tajudeen, Al Umma treasurer, was also a SIMI ansar.
A police officer declined to rule out the possibility of the existence in Tamil Nadu of sleeper cells of organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front and the Harkat-ul-Jihad. He said: “The people in these sleeper cells come [to Tamil Nadu] as students, patients in need of treatment, cultural performers and as visitors. They continue to stay here. These sleeper cells can be activated any time. These organisations have deeply infiltrated Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Tamil Nadu is heading towards that.”
SIMI came in for adverse notice first in Tamil Nadu in 1999 when it published a propaganda organ called “Seithi Madal” (News Letter), which often carried articles describing terrorist activities in Kashmir as “another Kosovo liberation movement” or “Chechnya movement”. What made the police sit up was the publication of a map of India without Jammu and Kashmir and an article titled “The Return of the Ghaznavi Calendar” in the Seithi Madal. Since the publication “contained seditious and incriminating material, which will also create communal disharmony”, the police registered a case and arrested those who ran the “Seithi Madal”.
After SIMI was banned in 2001, the police arrested 21 SIMI members in Tamil Nadu. Four of the 120 “ansars” who attended a secret meeting at Athanwale in Gujarat a few months after the ban were from Tamil Nadu. They were arrested when they returned to the State. On January 26, 2006, when SIMI members met in Kerala, Syed Azeem of Pallapatti in Karur district, Tamil Nadu, who attended the meeting, was arrested. He is on bail.
Former SIMI members are now busy organising libraries and charitable trusts or doing “dawa” work. An organisation called “Baithul Marg” (a trust) was formed recently in Madurai. It runs a library. “Members of this trust are former SIMI members,” a police source said. A publishing firm called “Thinnai Thozhargal Pathippagam” (Bench friends’ Publishing Company) has published several books in Tamil.
According to top police officers, several foreign agencies based in Saudi Arabia are trying to infiltrate South India. They have funded not only individuals but extremist organisations in Tamil Nadu. For instance, Imam Ali, the prime accused in the case relating to the bomb explosion at the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) building in Chennai in August 1993 in which 11 persons were killed, was trained by the Hizbul Mujahideen. His training in Bangladesh was funded by agencies in Saudi Arabia. Abu Siddiqui of Nagore, Tamil Nadu, who was responsible for parcel bomb explosions at Nagore and is an accused in the case of the bomb blast at the Hindu Munnani office at Chintadripet, Chennai, was in touch with Saudi-based fundamentalist organisations. The police have not been able to arrest Abu Siddiqui yet. Thoufeek Chotu of Adirampattinam, near Thanjavur, accused in the bomb blast at Ghatkopar in Mumbai, is now on bail. He has launched an organisation called “Iraivan Oruvan” (There is only one God).
In November 2002, a special team of the Chennai City Police smashed a “budding” terrorist organisation called the Muslim Defence Force (MDF), which had planned to explode bombs in Tamil Nadu on December 6, the anniversary of Babri Masjid demolition. The MDF was originally founded in Saudi Arabia and had connections with the Lashkar-e-Taiba . Its 21 members, including important leaders such as Thoufeek and Zackria, were arrested. The MDF was founded in Tamil Nadu under guidance from Abu Hamsa of Hyderabad, who was a key accused in the Sai Baba temple blast case in Hyderabad. After the blast, Abu Hamsa fled to Saudi Arabia. Hamid Bakri, who married Imam Ali’s sister, was one of those who founded the MDF. He reportedly has links with Islamic fundamentalist agencies in Saudi Arabia.
Madrasas and Arabic colleges in Tamil Nadu have been infiltrated by Muslim fundamentalists from other States and countries, police sources say. These institutions are located at Vellore, Umarabad Kayalpattinam, Melapayalam and Kadayanallur. “Most of the teachers and students in these colleges are from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and also Nepal. The principal of one of the Arabic colleges is a Nepali Muslim,” said the police sources.
A London-based organisation called Hizb-ut-Tahiri, which has been banned in 50 countries, has fathered a movement called the Khilafat Movement in Tamil Nadu.
A top police officer was, however, confident that “the situation is under control”. He said, “We are keeping a tight watch on fundamentalist elements. Everything is under surveillance.”
By R. Krishnakumar
FOR the first few days during his fortnight-long interrogation in Thiruvananthapuram in April 2005, Maldivian national Ibrahim Asif behaved like a true professional. He spoke good English and seemed to know his way around the city, like many of his countrymen who take the hour-long flight from Male to Kerala every day and get ‘visa on arrival’. Since the mid-1990s the State had become a tourist destination and, more importantly, a health care centre for people of the small island nation.
Initially at least, Kerala officials said, Asif Ibrahim seemed well trained in the art of fudging answers and bewildering interrogators with religious rhetoric. “It was not Allah’s way to indulge in violence,” he would say at the end of every question. But from the sixth day onwards the truth began to come out “in reluctant bits”.
Ibrahim Asif had heard that explosives were easy to obtain in Kerala, where their use in granite quarries and for other industrial purposes was widespread. He had indeed been trying to procure ammunition and arms and was a member of a Maldivian Islamist group that had the support of similar organisations in Pakistan. The explosives were meant to blow up a mosque run by the Maldivian government, he told his interrogators, and the weapons were to try and “kill the Maldivian President”.
He kept in touch with members of his group, not by sending e-mail messages but by “saving them as drafts in his e-mail account” and letting his handlers open his account using a common password. He had been in contact with “friends” in Kerala and wanted to start a “brotherhood” of like-minded people in the State. The plan failed because he was intercepted by security agencies, he told his interrogators.
In September 2007, the Maldives witnessed its first ever terrorist bomb blast, in Male, and investigations showed that the man who triggered the explosive device had been in Thiruvananthapuram (from Colombo) barely six months after Asif’s arrest. He had the support of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives in India on his way to Pakistan.
In October 2006, soon after an Al-Badr operative, Mohammed Fahd, a Pakistani national, was arrested in Mysore on charges of planning an attack on the Vidhan Soudha in Bangalore and the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, police teams were in Kozhikode, recovering documents of his stay there a few months earlier and of his alleged connections with jehadi groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir. Fahd, the police learnt, was the son of a local resident, Abdulla Koya, who migrated to Pakistan in the early 1970s and settled in Karachi.
Before the bomb blasts in Mumbai, on a local train at Mulund, on March 13, 2003, intelligence officials had indicated that key operatives of the LeT, including its southern commander Muhammed Faisal Khan alias Abu Sultan, had visited Kerala on a fund-raising mission to support the Mumbai operation. Abu Sultan, who was killed in a police encounter after the blasts, came with a close associate of C.A.M. Basheer. The latter is a former president of SIMI who is a native of Kerala and a key terrorist operative who is now listed as absconding.
Records recovered during a police raid on SIMI’s offices in Kozhikode and elsewhere in northern Kerala in October 2001 indicated a huge inflow of funds from West Asia through hawala channels, often ranging “up to one lakh Saudi riyals a week”. The police also found propaganda material printed by a Kashmiri militant outfit, Tehreek-e-Hurriyat-e-Kashmir.
Basheer is a key suspect in a case filed in Ahmedabad in 1992 by the Central Bureau of Investigation under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) and in another, relating to the March 2003 Mumbai blasts. He has been described as a “key fund raiser” and “recruiter” for several Islamist groups in the country and has allegedly trained several operatives from Kerala and other places in subversive activities.
According to the police, he hails from Aluva near Kochi. After his studies at the U.C. College there and at the Aeronautical Engineering College at Chalakkudy near by, he initially worked at a flying institute in Bangalore and then at the Mumbai international airport. In 1991, the police said, he suddenly came into prominence as a key organiser of the all-India SIMI conference held in Mumbai that year.
Basheer disappeared from India soon after the 1993 Mumbai blasts and security agencies believe he is in Saudi Arabia heading the Muslim Development Force (MDF), an organisation he floated in close association with the LeT. It is said to have its tentacles in many parts of India. Kerala itself has been relatively free of terrorist incidents of the kind witnessed in the northern States, except for a few minor bomb blasts – one at a bus station in Kozhikode and another on a boat in Beypore – and the periodic seizure of explosives from different parts of the State.
But it is increasingly being described as “India’s new terror hub”, a “sanctuary”, a “place of refuge” and a “quiet transit point” for terrorists. The reasons for this may be found in the operations of some virulently fundamentalist organisations in the State.
In the early 1990s, no sooner had the government imposed a ban on the Islamik Sevak Sangh (ISS, a sort of copycat version of the RSS, which too was banned in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition), than its chairman Abdul Nasir Maudany disbanded it. He then transformed his profile into that of a leader of a new, more moderate political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
As Maudany dabbled in Kerala’s coalition politics, his PDP seemed to drift from its fundamentalist moorings because of political expediency. Subsequently, the party’s core Islamist cadre, among them several SIMI activists, regrouped under the banner of the National Development Front (NDF), which is today Kerala’s most high-profile militant Islamist organisation. It claims to be a socio-cultural organisation of the minorities.
Similarly, according to State police officials, most of the core operatives of the proscribed SIMI have floated a dozen new organisations within Kerala or become their members. Among the organisations are the NDF and the PDP and a series of fringe groups with names such as Muslim Youth Cultural Forum, Sahridaya Vedi, Karuna Foundation, Samskara Vedi, Solidarity Students Movement, and Movement for Protection of Islamic Symbols and Monuments.
In June last year, the State government filed an affidavit before the Justice B.N. Chaturvedi Tribunal considering the extension of the ban on SIMI (extended regularly every two years since 2001), in which it stated categorically that in addition to 12 organisations that former SIMI members were part of, they were also operating under the cover of a number of rural development and research centres, religious study centres and counselling and guidance centres.
It also stated that they continued to receive copious funds from West Asia and had strengthened their links with the LeT and other fundamentalist organisations in Kuwait and Pakistan. The government also named the key personnel engineering the regrouping of the SIMI cadre. Importantly, the affidavit said, SIMI had been organising regular indoctrination drives, particularly targeting young Muslims in the State, mostly college students.
The significance of these events is not in the changing profile of these organisations but in the persistent and widespread indoctrination of Muslim youth under an umbrella of virulent Islamist ideology that drew its strength, initially, from the lingering socio-economic problems in Kerala society, the post-1990 aggressiveness of Hindutva forces and later on from the anti-imperialistic, anti-globalisation sentiments that gained prominence in Left Front-ruled Kerala ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Many such problems and concerns, though common to all communities in the State, were being increasingly sought to be projected as instances of discrimination against one community alone, with the clear objective of propagating a divisive fundamentalist agenda and setting the stage for the growth of radical Islamism.
Muslims form a significant proportion of the population in Kerala and the community has, from the time of Independence, tried to give expression to its need for recognition and development through its own political and social organisations. The Muslim League, importantly, used this as an opportunity to gain a prominent place in the State’s coalition politics, which satisfied a major psychological need of the community in the years after Independence.
But over the decades, the Muslim League, like many such political organisations that came in its wake, became the cause for much disenchantment because of its failure to find solutions to the community’s socio-economic backwardness. Though remittances from expatriates in West Asia provided temporary economic relief, in a way it only helped deepen the divisions within Kerala society. The Muslim political, social and religious leadership, which had traditionally been in the hands of a small group of rich trading and landholding familes, also increasingly began to face challenges from a lot of ordinary Muslims who had come up in the social hierarchy following the Gulf boom, gaining education and a better quality of life and exposure to religious and social trends in various West Asian nations.
It was into this confusing milieu that the new factor of pan-Islamic radicalism was being imposed. A senior Home Department official told Frontline: “It is from within the new generation of comparatively prosperous, educated young Muslims that the fundamentalist forces are finding new recruits. The real terrorist activity in Kerala is in the bombing of the minds of our young people.”
By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
THE violent agitation in Kolkata on November 21 by a section of Urdu-speaking Muslims, which required the deployment of the Army, serves as a reminder of how deeply Islamist militancy has infiltrated West Bengal, Kolkata in particular.
The protesters came together under the banner of the All India Minority Forum (AIMF), but the police suspect that Islamist militant groups such as the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJIB) and some militant outfits from Uttar Pradesh with links to the banned SIMI played a crucial role in inciting the mobs. State Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy, however, denied receiving any report on SIMI’s involvement.
“Staging demonstrations is not a new phenomenon in Kolkata, but the way it turned violent suddenly and inexplicably was ample evidence that a peaceful demonstration was not on the agenda of those behind the agitation. It was a clear effort to precipitate a law and order situation in Kolkata, using Taslima Nasrin’s visa extension controversy and the violence in Nandigram as excuses to ignite a communal conflagration,” a police source said.
So far the Muslim population of West Bengal has not voted en bloc on communal lines in elections. The division of the Muslim vote has been on political and ideological lines primarily among candidates of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Forward Bloc. Extremist right-wing politics, whether Hindu or Muslim, has not found any large-scale support among the West Bengal electorate until now.
Not surprisingly, the present turmoil, created on relatively trivial issues, portends a sinister political game plan of polarisation of the Muslim vote on communal lines against the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. One cannot ignore the fact that for the first time a fundamentalist group like the Jamait-e-Ulema-i-Hind tried to get into the political bandwagon on the Nandigram issue.
It has been estimated that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are in a position to influence the outcome in 18 per cent of the total number of Assembly seats in West Bengal, or 52 of the 294 seats. In the urban area, a sizable portion of the votes belong to non-Bengali, Urdu-speaking Muslims and they form a crucial factor in determining the winner in constituencies in and around Kolkata. The menace of communal politics, unless tackled politically by the saner elements among the political players, bodes ill for the State. Given the secular nature of West Bengal, the violence of November 21 was the first of its kind in the State, but police sources fear it may not be the last.
In spite of the dangers its geographical position poses, West Bengal is perhaps singular in the absence of terrorist strikes. The only time there was a terrorist strike in the State was on January 22, 2002, when the American Centre in Kolkata was attacked by armed militants linked to the HuJIB.
According to intelligence sources, the chances of a terrorist strike in the State remain doubtful, as any such act would endanger what is for the militants a convenient hideout and a relatively safe passage to and out of India. But the radicalisation of certain sections of the Muslim community by outside forces has already taken place, these sources say.
A.K. Maliwal, Director, Security, West Bengal, told Frontline: “Those who are seeking a safe shelter in Kolkata would also be looking to expand their base in the region; for that they would have to create conditions conducive to an unhampered stay. The larger the number of people that can be converted to their cause on this side of the border, the greater the security for them.”
The arrest of a leading member of the HuJIB in Lucknow in June provided further evidence of the presence of the outfit’s operatives in West Bengal. Jalaluddin Molla, alias Amanullah Mandal alias Babu Bhai belonged to South 24 Parganas district and is believed to have played a key role in the abduction of Parthapratim Roy Burman, the owner of the Khadim Shoe Company, in July 2001.
Bangladesh, an acknowledged international refuge of Islamist militants, shares a 4,095-kilometre border with India, 2,216 km of which is with West Bengal. Fencing of the border began a few years ago and has so far covered only a little over 500 km. Between August 2006 and April 2007, 10 militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jama’atul Mujahideen of Bangladesh were caught trying to cross over into West Bengal.
On August 14, 2006, the Border Security Force (BSF) caught two militants of the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) using the “cattle route” (through which cattle is smuggled across the border) to enter India.
In June this year, the Kolkata Police arrested three militants suspected of having ties with the HuJIB. Police sources said two of the militants confessed to receiving training in Pakistan.
More recently, three Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists arrested in Lucknow in connection with a plot to abduct Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, reportedly confessed that they tried to use the West Bengal-Bangladesh border to enter the country.
The Left Front government has repeatedly apprised the Centre of the situation. According to a police source, adequate measures are yet to be taken, both at the Central and at the State level, to deal with the problem. “We have the resources to deal with the problem, but identifying those resources and committing them for specific purposes is a problem,” the source said.
In that context, one has to take into account the 367-km riverine border that West Bengal shares with Bangladesh in the Sunderbans. According to informed sources, the water border is a vulnerable one and allows easy passage to armed militants.
“Until this year, the Centre has sanctioned 74 coastal police stations in States that have a coastline. Five of these have been sanctioned for the Sunderbans but not even one is operational as yet,” the source said. “As for the security network in West Bengal, the State government is addressing with great urgency any lacunae that might exist. Recently an e-mail threat to kill Pakistani cricketers touring India and to blow up the Eden Gardens cricket ground in Kolkata put the police and the State security apparatus on high alert. The e-mail was from the ID email@example.com from a group that calls itself “Indian Mujahideen.”
An unprecedented four layers of security check were enforced at the stadium during the India-Pakistan Test match from November 30 and at the hotel where the players stayed. For the first time, hidden cameras and decoy buses were used while ferrying the players to the stadium and back.
Maliwal said: “The increasing terrorist strikes in the hinterland by foreign-controlled modules, particularly strikes where the intent matches the opportunity, have already attracted the attention of national security managers and efforts are on to counter them. While the foreign-controlled modules will continue to promote their intent, denying them the opportunity is the responsibility of the security managers.” •