By Praveen Swami
Police hunting for the perpetrators of last week's attacks on the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore are revisiting the 2008 serial bombings in the city.
“HAPPY Vishu, Malayalees and Pravasees,” reads the cheerful red banner running across the web page set up by an enthusiastic resident of Pallikera in Kerala. Photos offer a glimpse of the small town's charms: men with gym-honed biceps, the Bekal fort, and, improbably, photos of two western tourists hugging the billboard of a local celebrity.
Fifteen years ago, a young man named Sarfaraz Nawaz left Pallikera on a journey that would lead, step by step, to the serial bombings in Bangalore in June, 2008. From his story, and that of his associates in south India's Islamist networks, investigators have pieced together a fascinating account of how multiple jihadist cells formed across the region; linked to each other only loosely through leaders, who in turn were connected to Islamist groups in the Gulf and the Lashkar-e-Taiba's commanders in Pakistan.
But the story also demonstrates disturbing gaps in intelligence; gaps that allowed jihadists to mobilise and recruit members, and prepare for attacks. Following last week's bombings at the M. Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, the police in Karnataka have renewed the search for over a dozen individuals linked to Nawaz's networks who eluded arrest after the June 2008 serial bombings in India's information-technology capital.
Born in 1977, the quiet, scholarly Nawaz joined the Students Islamic Movement of India in 1995. In 1996, he left home to study at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwat-ul-Ullema seminary in Lucknow. But he found its clerical austerity stifling, and returned to Kochi to study at Accel Computers. Fluent in Malayalam, English, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic, Nawaz began writing regularly in the SIMI-linked Kerala magazine Nerariv and the pro-National Development Front newspaper Thejus.
By March 2000, Nawaz had become SIMI's office secretary in New Delhi. His friends included Safdar Nagori, the imprisoned head of SIMI's jihadist faction; fugitive Indian Mujahideen commander Abdul Subhan Qureshi; and Saqib Nachan, charged with a bombing on a Mumbai train that left eleven dead.
In 2001, Nawaz took a job with computer-services firm Future Outlooks at Ibra in Oman. Later, he joined the Ibn Sina Medical Institute in Dubai — a facility run by a former president of SIMI's Kerala chapter, Dr. Abdul Ghafoor — as its public relations officer. Abdul Aziz, another former SIMI member from Malappuram in Kerala, helped Nawaz get a job at the al-Mihad centre in 2006. In July 2006, he shifted to the al-Noor Education Trust in Muscat.
Muscat was the hub from which the 2008 Bangalore bombings were planned and financed. In the summer of 2007, Bangalore Police investigators say, Nawaz met Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Mohammad Rehan in Muscat. Introduced by common friends, the two men discussed armed retaliation against anti-Muslim violence in India. Nawaz refused his offer to train in Pakistan but agreed to recruit Kerala residents to the Lashkar's cause.
Jihad at the ginger plantation
The police do not know precisely what led Nawaz to work with the Lashkar but the fraught communal climate probably was a factor. In 2002, a drunken New Year's fight in the beach village of Marad sparked off violence that lasted a year, claiming thirteen lives. Hundreds of Muslim families fled the area. Nawaz was not in India at the time but he turned to a man who was.
Tadiyantavide Nasir joined the far-right Islamic Sevak Sangh in 1991, at just fifteen years of age. Police records document his chaotic, violent life: a murder charge, of which he was acquitted; an abortive attempt to assassinate the former Kerala Chief Minister, E.K. Nayanar; the burning of a Tamil Nadu bus to protest the arrest of ISS leader Abdul Nasser Maudany on terrorism charges; and a bombing outside the Kozhikode Press Club to highlight his cause.
Nasir was not a SIMI member but knew many of its members well. From 2005, Nasir began to tap Nawaz for funds to set up a jihad training camp on a remote ginger plantation near Hasatota in Karnataka's Kodagu district.
In 2007, the police say, he met key SIMI operative Qureshi — who, using the code-name Tauqir, liaised between the Indian Mujahideen's regional cells. Later, Nasir's cell supplied ammonium nitrate and integrated-circuit timers to the Indian Mujahideen's Mangalore-based commander Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri. Shahbandri's lieutenant Mohammad Zarar Siddi Bawa is the key suspect in the 2010 German Bakery bombing at Pune.
In 2007, Nawaz met Nasir in Kerala and discussed plans for an attack on Bangalore. By 2008, investigators say, the Lashkar's Rehan offered some $2,500 to finance the operation. Islamists living in the Gulf, notably fugitive terror commander CAM Bashir, raised additional funds. That March, Nawaz travelled home to Kerala. He also travelled to Bangalore, to look at possible targets. Nasir's group later tested two bombs near Kozhikode.
On July 23, 2008, Nasir and his group arrived in Bangalore in a hired Scorpio jeep, loaded with fourteen improvised explosive devices. Nine went off two days later, killing two people, injuring twenty.
Later that year, Nasir sent five cadre to Jammu and Kashmir, to train with a Lashkar commander in the Lolab valley near Kupwara. Nawaz had set up the training opportunity but police and Army personnel soon detected the strangers. Abdul Faiz and Mohammad Fayyaz from Kannur, Muhammad Yasir from Kochi, and Abdul Rahim from Malappuram were shot dead. Abdul Jabbar, the fifth volunteer, is under trial.
Bus tickets found on the body of one of the jihadists helped unravel the operation. Nasir fled to Bangladesh, aided by Lashkar operatives based out of Dhaka. It was not until last year that the Research and Analysis Wing located Nawaz in Oman, setting off a transnational manhunt that led to the arrest of Nasir and the Lashkar's Karachi-origin resident commander in Dhaka, Mubashir Shahid.
SIMI's jihadist faction had hoped the infrastructure set up by Nawaz and Nasir would help a separate cell that it had given birth to in Bangalore a decade ago. In 2000, a young SIMI ikhwan (full time worker) Peedical Abdul Shibli had moved to Bangalore to work at IT giant Tata Elexi. Recruited by the Islamist group in 1997 while he was a student in Thiruvananthapuram, Shibli was among Nawaz's key activists.
Shibli soon set up Sarani, a hostel for north Kerala migrants to Bangalore, offering them an Islamic environment. It ran in Bangalore's Vivek Nagar area, before moving to larger premises in Eejipura and then Bismillah Nagar. Kerala SIMI ideologues would often lecture residents here. Few Sarani residents, though, were stereotypical fanatics. Shibli's key recruit, Wipro-General Electric employee Yahya Kamakutty, for example, travelled to the U.S. at least thrice in 2000-2001 alone.
In 2001, following its public declarations of support for Al-Qaeda, SIMI was proscribed; but Sarani continued to run. SIMI chief Safdar Nagori visited the hostel in 2002 for three days, as did several other senior ideologues, unmonitored by local intelligence services.
By early 2006, Shibli was working full-time for SIMI's now-covert jihadists. In April 2006, SIMI held a secret meeting in Bangalore. Later, at a meeting held in Ujjain from July 4-7 2006, SIMI committed itself to an Islamist jihad against the Indian state. In April 2007, SIMI held a training camp at Castle Rock near Hubli, under the cover of hosting an outdoors event for Sarani residents. Another camp was held in Bijapur in June 2007, followed by a meeting at Dharwar in August.
Recruits received bomb-making and firearms instruction from Subhan at camps held near Indore in September and November, 2007. Instruction in assembling fuel bombs was provided in December 2007 at a camp held outside Ernakulam. Of the forty-odd individuals the police believe attended these camps, over half were Bangalore residents. The police arrested several, including Shibly, Kamakutty, Husain and Raziuddin Nasir, who planned to bomb western tourists in Goa in the winter of 2008 but over half are still missing.
Many believe Bangalore's police simply did not take the threat seriously enough. No effort was made to install even basic defensive measures like closed-circuit cameras around the Chinnaswamy stadium. But there is a larger failure, too. For all the technological investments in intelligence made since the November 2008 carnage in Mumbai, the attacks in Pune and Bangalore have made clear that the police are yet to penetrate the jihadist cells responsible for the terror offensive from 2005 onwards — a failure that bodes ill for the future.