By Praveen Swami
Mar 23, 2016
The arsenal of the Islamic State in India was stowed under a bed in a tiny apartment in Mumbra. There was a soldering-iron, a voltage-meter, a pair of pliers and a carton of match-boxes, their tips waiting to be stripped of their incendiary powder. There was no one in the group who knew how to actually make a bomb, but the group’s more enthusiastic members had armed themselves with do-it-yourself manuals downloaded from the Internet.
For weeks, the new Islamic State cell in India had been preparing for war. In November last year, a message arrived in the Skype inbox ‘farooqahmedg1’, from ‘gumnambhai’. There was Rs 106,000 waiting to be collected from a hawala dealer in Mumbai’s Dongri area. Another Rs 480,000 came in just weeks later, this time to a dealer near the Parsi Agiyari street, off New Memon Street.
In December, the final orders came. Kamlesh Tiwari, a Hindu Mahasabha organiser in Uttar Pradesh, had been arrested for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet. Muslims had rioted in West Bengal, and a bounty had been announced for Tiwari’s head. The person passing off as ‘gumnambhai’ thought the time was right to strike — documents of the National Investigation Agency say this account was operated by Karnataka-born, Raqqa-based Islamic State jihadist Muhammad Shafi Armar.
The cell’s members, none of whom had ever met their commander, and few of whom had known each other just a few weeks, responded quickly to his call. Their failed plot casts unprecedented light on the new-generation jihadist networks springing up across India, driven by a tide of anger and fear.
Indian jihadist fora saw a wave of discussions on the tide of communal violence which preceded the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “Such horrific crimes happen when the earth of Allah is not ruled by the law of Allah, i.e., Shariah!!”, explained a user on the encrypted Telegram channel @HindBattle, a popular forum for South Asian jihadists. The Indian subcontinent, it went on, “was under the shade of Shariah for 100s of years”.
War on Islam, a video released on several jihadi forums in January 2015, argued that even worse lay ahead for Indian Muslims. A pseudonymous user, ‘GhazwatulHind’, recorded its contents. In another widely-circulated post, an anonymous writer described how his mother and aunt had been forced to have sex with police personnel, in order to secure his father’s release from prison.
Leaders of discussions on jihadist fora began discussing just how this violence might be fought. The Telegram channel @HindBattle laid out a list of requirements, based on slain al-Qaeda jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki’s instructions for jihadists seeking to operate in the West: hideouts; weapons, “even if basic ones” which were made at home; a recruitment team which could reach out line; and, funding.
“Those who want to work in India and ask why there’s no physical qital (warfare) — well, jihad needs preparations. Are you doing it? Ask yourself,” @HindBattle asked.
Ever since 2013, when members of the Indian Mujahideen breakaway faction Tauhid-ul-Ansar had headed into Pakistan’s north-west to train in combat, Bhatkal-born Shafi Armar and Sultan Armar had been asking Indians they met on the Internet just those questions. The men, the NIA says, spent time on Facebook trawling accounts for potential sympathisers, and systematically cultivating them.
In 2014, the Nadwat-ul-Islam educated seminarian Sultan Armar was killed in fighting around the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa and his younger brother took up the lead on behalf of the Indian contingent. The organisation eventually cracked apart as feuds exploded over the stranglehold Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence exercised over decision-making. The hardliners wanted large-scale attacks on India; the leadership was pushed by the ISI to do nothing that would spark an India-Pakistan crisis.
The new Jund-ul-Khalifa al-Hind, or the Army of the Caliph in India, followed a template unknown in India. Indian Mujahideen operations had relied on men trained at the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s camps in Pakistan, first using plastic explosive brought in from Bangladesh and then black-market ammonium nitrate slurry. It drew its cadre from the Students Islamic Movement of India, and from personal linkages.
Now, the idea was to build an organisation from genuinely committed volunteers, drawn from the online world — volunteers who would learn their craft from the vast resources available on the Internet.
His earliest recruits are alleged by police to include a small group of students from Rajasthan. In 2011, computer science graduate Muhammad Maroof, then a 20-year-old college student, began posting angry messages on Facebook, infuriated by the police’s killings of unarmed Muslims inside a mosque in Rajasthan’s Gopalgarh. His posts, on his personal page ‘MohammadMaroof’, received a number of approving comments from another Facebook user, ‘MohammadAtta’ — the name of the most famous of the 9/11 attackers.
The Gopalgarh killings, it is possible, crystallized a long-standing interest in political Islam. Investigators say Maroof downloaded many jihadist tracts, written by seminal authors like Abdullah Azzam and Anwar al-Awlaki, and regularly read the new-fundamentalist magazine Nida al-Haq.
In 2012, investigators allege, ‘MohammadAtta’ introduced himself to the student as Sultan Armar and the two men developed a deeper communication, carefully masking their communications using a proxy server and open-source encryption software.
The group is alleged to have plotted a bombing at Bharatpur in 2013, to avenge the 2011 communal violence which was called off after news of the split in the Indian Mujahideen spread. Maroof was eventually arrested in 2014.
From the story of one alleged cell member, former seminary student Muhammad Azhar, it’s clear similar discussions were taking place offline, too. In testimony to the NIA — under Indian law, it is not admissible for the purposes of his trial — 1992-born Azhar described intense debates on questions of jihad among students at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom in Deoband, where he studied after dropping out of of the primary school in Madhya Pradesh’s Barkheda in the fifth grade.
Fuelled by the Internet, Azhar told the NIA, students would debate what they saw as wars against Islam in Kashmir, Palestine and Iraq — and the question of how believers ought to respond to them.
There is evidence that hundreds of other young people — the overwhelming majority of them with no link to jihadist activity — were attracted to similar debates in 2013-2014, in a climate shaped by the increasing aggression of Hindutva groups, and the simultaneous rise of the Islamic State. The Al-Nafs al-Mutmainnah group, a popular Indian jihadist Facebook forum which reposted international jihadist texts, had over 250 members.
But it wasn’t until 2014, the NIA claims, that Azhar was finally able to make contact with an actual jihadist. He was given a Skype address for Shafi Armar, ‘Abu Yusuf Al Hindi’, by one of his contacts. Later, the NIA alleges, Armar put the young seminarian in touch with Mudabbir Ahmad, a Mumbai web designer who investigators allege led the cell.
In the event, Azhar walked away from the group, evidently angered by Shafi Armar’s decision to give Mudabbir Ahmad leadership of the organisation despite his lack of religious knowledge. There were also differences over the course of action the movement should take, suspects told the NIA, with Azhar arguing against terrorism, in favour of building up larger networks that could stage a genuine insurgency against the state.
The men in the cell came from a range of social classes, unconnected by kinship or interests — a sign of the unexpected communities forming online. The son of a mason, 1994-born Muhammad Nafees Khan dropped out of school when he was just 12, and went on to work as a tile-layer, auto-rickshaw driver and salesman. Like many young people of his class, he discovered the Internet and through it, a window on to the world.
In 2014, NIA documents state, Khan began discussing politics and religion with an online friend from Saudi Arabia. He in turn put him in touch with Mudabbir Ahmad’s lieutenant Khalid Ahmad.
Through 2015, the NIA alleges, Khan attended multiple meetings of Islamic State sympathisers who were coalescing across the country, using the internet to gather and mobilise. Local groups, the NIA says, formed as far apart as Gorakhpur and Bangalore; Lucknow and Hyderabad. The men chatted using Facebook, Surespot and Trillian, often exchanging links to Islamist books and videos.
Hyderabad residents Arshad Rahman, deported last year from Sharjah for Islamic State-related activities, and Muhammad Qadir, thought to have made his way to the Indian contingent in Raqqa, are believed to be part of this loose network.
Armar, the NIA says, prevailed on Khan to remain in India. Late in 2015, investigators allege, Armar sent Khan links to articles showing him how to fabricate bombs using gunpowder from fireworks, and bulbs linked to 9-volt batteries at detonators. Later, the NIA says, Khan travelled to Durgapur in West Bengal, trying, without success, to purchase crude devices on the Bangladesh border.
This was just one of many failures, culminating in the group being identified and penetrated by the Intelligence Bureau. The men had reached out indiscriminately to too many sympathisers in the real world, making multiple errors of tradecraft that led to their plans being compromised.