By Praveen Swami
May 6, 2009
Controversial ideologue Abdul Aleem Islahi helps make sense of Indian Mujahideen story
HYDERABAD: His enemies have called him a preacher of hate. More sympathetic accounts have described him as a “walking tragedy.”
Either way, Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi has acquired unwanted fame ever since police in six States began dismantling the Indian Mujahideen’s terror networks last year.
Azamgarh-born Islahi had no role in the terror campaign which claimed hundreds of lives since 2005.
But his Spartan Hyderabad home was visited by a welter of top leaders of the proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India — as well as key Indian Mujahideen operatives drawn from their ranks like Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Hafiz Adnan.
But Islahi’s significance doesn’t lie in his role as an ideological mentor of the jihadist movement. Instead, the cleric’s story helps place the Indian Mujahideen in its proper political context: as a breakaway cult of the bomb that formed after Islamist politicians and clerics failed to deliver.
The Mujahideen and the Mullah
From 2003, two years after it was proscribed, SIMI began to rebuild its networks. Leaders of its two key groups were to make their way to Islahi’s home for his endorsement.
Expelled from the Jamaat-e-Islami after calling for militant action in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Islahi was seen by many hardliners as the authentic voice of the organisation’s jihadist legacy. His books — among them, a 1991 tract on the Babri Masjid issue which was translated into several languages — provided the foundations for SIMI’s world view.
Islahi doesn’t deny these contacts. “We shared ideas on how Muslims could best be defended in these dark times,” he says, “but some of them had trouble understanding that violence wasn’t the only option.”
Shahid Badr Falahi’s faction first consulted Islahi on their political options in 2006, after they expelled the jihadists at a secret meeting held at Aluva that January. Later, the jihadists also lobbied for his support. In response to Falahi’s action, Safdar Nagori’s pro-terrorism faction had held a meeting in April 2007, where plans for setting up a mujahideen group were firmed up. Nagori, accompanied by Hussain and Qureshi, then travelled to Hyderabad to seek Islahi’s support.
By Husain’s subsequent account to police investigators, Islahi was less than enthusiastic about the enterprise. He counselled SIMI unity and warned against hasty action.
Islahi’s son, Mohtasin Billah, for his part, is alleged to have provided Nagori with a hard disk loaded with Islamist films and articles downloaded from the internet. However, he flatly refused to participate in Nagori’s jihadist adventure, or to recruit Islamists from Hyderabad to participate in it.
Qureshi, Nagori later recalled, remained silent through the meeting: Husain and he were, after all, already secretly participating in the terror campaign the SIMI politician and cleric were discussing.
So, too, investigators claim, had at least one of Islahi’s employees — but again, in defiance of the cleric.
In the summer of 2005, Islahi offered a job to an unemployed cleric from Azamgarh, Mufti Abdul Bashar. Bashar’s father and the Hyderabad cleric had worked together in the Jamaat-e-Islami; their friendship had survived Islahi’s expulsion.
From May 2005 to January 2007, Bashar taught English and Mathematics to children at Islahi’s Jamiat Sheikh-ul-Mawdudi madrasa, named after the Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, which is one of two similar institutions set up by the cleric.
Lectures on Quran
Bashar also gave lectures on the Quran to a group of young Islamists from the ultra-right Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat and Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Sha’aire Islam who met every Sunday.
Often, two participants told The Hindu, Bashar argued that the demolition of the Babri Masjid had made jihad imperative. He also remained in regular touch with Nagori. By Nagori’s account to the police, Bashar was bored with teaching, and wanted to commit himself full-time to SIMI.
By January 2007, Islahi was alarmed enough by these activities to suggest Bashar leave his job. Bashar then started work at the magazine Nishaan-e-Rah — a name from Islamist ideologue Sayyed Qutb’s seminal work, Milestones, which fired the minds of figures such as Osama bin-Laden and Abdullah Azzam. Later that year, Bashar moved to New Delhi, resuming contact with city-based SIMI cadre — who, the Gujarat Police say, he motivated to join the Indian Mujahideen.
Islahi appears to have little sympathy for the jihadists who disregarded his advice. “These young men,” he says, “had little of the training needed to understand Islam. They did not know Arabic, and had never studied theology.
And they did not understand that the purpose of Islam is not to subjugate the infidel, but, rather, to change his outlook and world view.”
Like the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who cut off their links with the increasingly radical SIMI in 1982, Islahi didn’t have the tools to bring about that change.
For the Indian Mujahideen’s cadre, the bomb appeared to be a better means of persuasion than words.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi
Indian Mujahideen born over tea and biscuits
May 7, 2009
Feared terror group was founded by young radicals appalled at inaction of Islamist leaders
HYDERABAD: Every Sunday evening, Sadiq Israr Sheikh would meet with friends over tea and biscuits, and a chat about the global jihadist movement.
Sheikh had joined the Students Islamic Movement of India, then a legal organisation, in 1996. Many of those who attended the weekend study meetings at Dr. Tayyeb Ali’s first-floor apartment were his neighbours. Some senior Mumbai SIMI members were also in attendance, among them Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri and Abdul Subhan Qureshi.
By the summer of 2001, though, Sheikh was done with study group. SIMI’s public polemic had turned increasingly vituperative over the years; the organisation had voiced support for Osama bin Laden, and hailed the Taliban’s Mullah Omar as a liberator of Muslims. But it was not enough for Sheikh.
“All we do is talk,” he angrily shouted at one of his last SIMI meetings. He didn’t yet know it, but that remark would lead him into the ranks of the Indian Mujahideen.
Back in 2000, Sheikh’s life didn’t look like it was headed anywhere. Sheikh had just thrown up his job as a freelance repairman for Godrej, but failed to find new work. Having dropped out of school during his last year at the Saboo Siddiqi College in Byculla, Sheikh had obtained certification as an air-conditioning mechanic from the Indian Technical Institute. But there was little money to be made. SIMI, it is likely, gave Sheikh the sense of purpose and agency he lacked in real life.
Then, in April, 2001, Sheikh ran into a relative who offered to turn his jihadist dream into reality.
Salim Islahi was in Cheeta Camp to visit his cousin, and Sheikh’s sister-in-law, Mehzabeen Asad.
The son of Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi, a Hyderabad-based cleric who had been expelled from the Jamaat-e-Islami for his extremist views, Salim Islahi had acquired the somewhat vainglorious honorific Mujahid [holy warrior] after a run-in with the police in Hyderabad.
While the elder Islahi’s writings, as reported in The Hindu on Wednesday, had fired the imagination of many young Islamists, the cleric refused to endorse calls for violence.
His son, investigators who have been piecing together the Indian Mujahideen story believe, saw things differently.
Sheikh had no intention of meeting with Islahi, as his relationship with Ms. Asad was poor. But Islahi sought him out, possibly at the suggestion of Shahbandri or Qureshi, and the two men ended up having a long discussion. When Sheikh complained that India’s Islamist leaders were unwilling to act on their own jihadist polemic, Islahi offered to put him in touch with someone who was.
In July, Sheikh received an e-mail summoning him to a meeting at the Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata’s Dharmatala area. There, Sheikh has told investigators, he met with ganglord Aftab Ansari, a Mafioso who is reputed to have discovered religion while sharing a prison cell with top jihadist operative Syed Omar Sheikh in New Delhi.
He also met with Ansari’s key lieutenant for jihadist operations, Asif Reza Khanwho, it turned out, had been the author of the e-mail summoning to the Kolkata meeting. Ansari offered to underwrite his journey into the jihad, just as he was doing for dozens of other angry young men.
Later that year, in September, 2001, Sheikh is alleged to have left for training at a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. His instructor, police say, was Mohammad Azam Cheema, the organisation’s key commander for operations directed at India.
Sheikh, the authorities allege, returned to India through Kathmandu after completing an advanced weapons and explosives course.
Many of those Sheikh trained, police say, were from Indian nationals, among them, his neighbour and fellow-regular at SIMI’s Cheeta Camp meetings, Mohammad Ansar. Sheikh learned, in time, that two regular visitors at that study group, Qureshi and Riyaz Shahbandri, had recruited several new volunteers.
Volunteers had also arrived from Hyderabad for training in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, among them Abdul Khwaja, who, using the alias Amjad, now heads a Lashkar-linked, Lahore-based cell operating against India.
By 2003, Sheikh was himself regularly despatching volunteers from the Azamgarh area for training. And by 2005, the networks that later took to calling themselves the Indian Mujahideen were ready to carry out their first bombings.
In important ways, the birth of the Indian Mujahideen marked the rebellion of young Islamists against their leaders: of sons, as the story of Salim Islahi illustrates, against sons.
SIMI’s Safdar Nagori-led faction formally committed itself to a full-scale jihad against the Indian state at a secret meeting in Ujjain from July 4-7, 2006, after which it began looking out for volunteers.
But by that time, figures like Sheikh, Qureshi and Shahbandri had already carried out several major attacks. Even key SIMI insiders like Nagori were largely unaware of what was going on.
Quietly, the rebels had succeeded in setting up networks whose power and reach far exceeded anything India’s Islamists had ever believed was possible.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi