By Praveen Swami
Aug 29, 2013
He was there, police believe, less than an hour before they raided the Indian Mujahideen safe house in the Bhadra forests outside Chikmagalur in October, 2008. He’s been recorded, on closed-circuit television, walking into the German Bakery in Pune, carrying a bomb-laden backpack, and again on the streets Hyderabad’s Dilsukhnagar, minutes before an explosion extinguished the life of seventeen. He was in jail, they think, in November 2009, a slight young man with a wispy beard, who called himself Muhammad Ashraf, and walked out on bail.
The story of fugitive Indian Mujahideen operative Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal — needs telling as as Indians mark yet another anniversary of the 7/11 bombings. It tell us about the birth and rise of the modern jihadist movement in India—and why it isn’t about to die.
Little evidence exists — twitter claims notwithstanding — that the Indian Mujahideen was behind this week’s bombing in Bodh Gaya. The Indian Mujahideen has, however, been by far the most lethal urban terrorist group since 7/11, though an attack it may have had more to do with than is widely known. Firstpost will report more on it today. Had stories of young men like Siddibapa been paid more attention to a decade ago, by police and by politicians, things might have turned out differently.
A man shows a police hand-out with pictures of Yasin Bhatkal, the alleged commander of Indian Mujahideen. AFP.A man shows a police hand-out with pictures of Yasin Bhatkal, the alleged commander of Indian Mujahideen. AFP.
Educated at Bhatkal’s élite Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen school, the 1983-born Siddibapa left for Pune as a teenager. He was later introduced to other members of the Indian Mujahideen as a trained engineer, but police in Pune have found no documentation suggesting he ever studied in the city. Instead, investigators say, he spent much of his time with a hometown childhood friend, Unani medicine practitioner-turned-Islamist proselytiser Iqbal Ismail Shahbandri.
Like his brother Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri, now believed to be hiding out in Karachi, Ismail Shahbandri had become an ideological mentor to many young Islamists. His recruits were, in the main, educated young men — but men also angry with a society they believed was hostile to their religion.
For many of these men, an organisation called the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, provided a home. SIMI had begun as an establishmentarian political Islamist organisation, the scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded; the communally-troubled decade from 1991 to 2001 saw it lurching further and further to the right. “Following the destruction of the Babri mosque and the subsequent massacre of Muslims in large parts of India, the SIMI concluded that there was no hope for Muslims in seeking to dialogue with Hindus or the government.”
In 1996, SIMI declared that democracy and secularism were false gods: Muslims had no option but to struggle for the establishment of a caliphate. At a conference held in Mumbai in September, 2001, it called on the 25,000 students to “turn to Allah, to engage in missionary work (Dawat) and to launch jihad”.
Even this wasn’t enough, though, for some young men like Riyaz Shahbandri: SIMI seemed to be all talk, and the radicals wanted more. In the months leading up to the communal violence that was to tear Gujarat apart in 2002, Shahbandri met with his Indian Mujahideen co-founders Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Sadiq Israr Sheikh. Later, he made contact with ganglord-turned-jihadist Amir Raza Khan — the man who would fund the training of this core group at Lashkar camps in Pakistan. Following the 2002 carnage, there were plenty more volunteers.
Early in the summer of 2004, investigators say, the core members of the Indian Mujahideen — though it wasn’t using the name then, and would only later deploy it to distinguish its members from Pakistani jihadist groups like the Lashkar — met at Bhatkal’s beachfront home to discuss their plans.
Iqbal Shahbandri and Bhatkal-based cleric Shabbir Gangoli are alleged to have held ideological classes; the group also took time out to practice shooting with airguns. Siddibapa had overall charge of arrangements—a task that illustrated his status as the Bhatkal brothers’ most trusted lieutenant.
Bhatkal, police investigators say, became the centre of the Indian Mujahideen’s operations. From their safe houses in Vitthalamakki and Hakkalamane, bombs were despatched to operational cells dispersed across the country, feeding the most sustained jihadist offensive India has ever seen.
It’s hard to say precisely why Siddibapa took the course he did: human motivation is far too complex to allow for any one-dimensional explanation. Siddibapa’s family — who might have some insight — deny he is a terrorist. In 2010, they also said Siddibapa had left home after a fight, and his whereabouts were unknown. It’s interesting to note, though, that his brother Abdul Samad went down a very different route. In May, 2010, Samad was rendered to India by the United Arab Emirates—amidst unfounded allegations he was an Indian Mujahideen operatives. Intelligence Bureau interrogators concluded Samad had no contact with Indian Mujahideen.
Samad’s story is much more typical of Bhatkal than that of his brother. The Nawayath Muslims of Bhatkal, made prosperous by hundreds of years of trade across the Indian Ocean, emerged as the region’s dominant land-owning community. Early in the twentieth century, inspired by call of Aligarh reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, Bhatkal notables led a campaign to bring modern education.
Education helped the Navayath Muslims prosper in the 1970s, as new opportunities opened up in the Persian gulf and in India. Ismail Shahbandri, Riyaz’s father, set up leather-tanning factory in Mumbai’s Kurla area in the mid-1970s. He went on to obtain a civil engineering degree from Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College. His wife, Nashua Ismail, is the daughter of an electronics store owner in Bhatkal’s Dubai Market.
This wealth, though, also engendered resentments. In the years after the Emergency, the Jana Sangh and its affiliates began to capitalise on resentments Bhatkal’s Hindus felt about the prosperity and political power of the Navayaths. The campaign paid off in 1983, when the Hindu right-wing succeeded in dethroning legislator SM Yahya, who had served as a state minister between 1972 and 1982. Both communities entered into ostentatious display of piety and power.
Early in 1993, Bhatkal was hit by communal riots which claimed seventeen lives and left dozens injured. Later, in April 1996, Bharatiya Janata Party legislator U. Chittarajan was assassinated — and two Muslims were murdered in retaliation. More violence broke out in 2004, after the assassination of BJP leader Thimmappa Naik.
In turning to jihadism, young men like Shahbandri rebelled against a traditional, Congress-allied political order that appeared to have failed to defend the rights of Muslims.
Everything, including terrorism, has a context. Muhammad Zarar Siddibapa’s story helps us understand that context. Police will, more likely than not, find the man they’ve seen on closed-circuit television — but the task of addressing the circle of hate that produced him will be even more difficult.