"Islam is our nation," thundered Mohammad
Amir Shakeel Ahmad at the Students Islamic Movement of India's (SIMI's) 1999
convention in Aurangabad, "not India."
Ahmad was one of hundreds of SIMI cadre who, at that decisive meeting of the
now-proscribed Islamist group, joined in the terrorist networks which have since
carried out strikes across India. He was arrested in 2005 for smuggling in
military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned series of attacks in
Gujarat, along with over a dozen other SIMI-linked Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)
Listening in the audience that day in 1999, was a slight, soft-spoken man who
was moved enough by the speech to give his life for SIMI. Mohammad Abrar Qasim,
then a Wardha-based student of dentistry, had been recruited into SIMI in 1993,
after attending his first meeting at the Jamia Masjid mosque in Mominpora -- the
Mumbai slum where the first Lashkar networks in India had formed.
Six years later, fired by what he heard at the Aurangabad conference, Qasim
became a full-time SIMI worker, using his earnings as a dentist to serve as its
Nagpur 'in-charge' and then its Bihar 'chief'. He even married Amara Qasim, the
daughter of Ziauddin Siddiqi -- the SIMI leader whose inflammatory speeches led
to criminal charges first being filed against the organisation.
But somewhere along the line, the stories of Ahmad and Qasim diverged. Last
month, Qasim walked into a Nagpur court, and announced that he wished to
surrender to the authorities. Startled court clerks listened as Qasim announced
that he had been wanted by the Maharashtra Police ever since the Mumbai
serial bombings of July 11, 2006, but now wished to clear his name.
In the weeks since he surrendered, Qasim has been telling officials that SIMI's
links with terror are the work of a hardline minority. Most of SIMI's
rank-and-file, he claims, wish to emerge from the shadows. "Moderates in
SIMI want to come overground," Qasim told one Police official who
interrogated him, "because we have nothing to hide."
Back in January 2006, former SIMI president Shahid Badr
Falahi called a meeting of core SIMI activists -- Qasim among them -- at Aluva,
Under the cover of a summit of the National Urdu Promotion Council, the group
elected new office-bearers, who it tasked with lobbying politicians and
religious leaders to have the 2001 ban on SIMI revoked. Most of the team led by
the new SIMI President, West Bengal resident Mohammad Misbah-ul-Haq, were
anti-jihad political Islamists. Key office-bearers, such as Kalim Akhtar,
Shahbaz Husain, Abdul Majid, Noman Badr, Saif Nachan and Minaz Nachan, believed
that SIMI's jihad links had hurt both the organisation and Muslims as whole.
But one team member didn't share their beliefs. Shibly Peedical Abdul, a
computer engineer from Kerala, who escaped the February 2008 Police sweep
against terror suspects in Karnataka, was among the jihadist SIMI operatives
thought to have helped organise the July 2006 serial bombing of Mumbai. The
bombings killed 209 people and injured 704. Abdul fled Bangalore hours after the
arrest of SIMI operative Ehtesham Siddiqui, who police say helped execute the
bombings. So, too, did SIMI political Islamists.
It wasn't until January 2007 that the political Islamists were able to meet
again. A senior New Delhi-based Jamaat-e-Islami leader was in attendance this
time, attempting to persuade the new leadership to surrender. "Misbah-ud-Din
called Abdul in the middle of the meeting," one participant told SAIR,
"and demanded to know why SIMI cadre had participated in the Mumbai
attacks. Abdul admitted the jihadists had met in Ujjain just a week before the
terror strikes. He said the jihadists would continue their activities, and
accused us of selling out."
With no hope a compromise could be reached, SIMI political Islamists met again
at Calicut in Kerala, from November 12-14, 2007. If SIMI was to ever function as
a political organisation, Misbah-ud-Din said, its leaders would have to face
prosecution. Qasim, fed up with life on the run, offered to go first. "The
idea," says a senior SIMI functionary, "was to see if it would open
Will it? While one faction within SIMI is rethinking its
future, so too are the terrorists. Abdul's case -- and that of the networks he
commanded in Bangalore -- is instructive.
If Bangalore needed a face to advertise the new India it represents, the city
needn't have looked beyond Abdul: now its most wanted terrorist. From small-town
origins in Kerala, Abdul built a successful career at a multinational company
and even set up his own firm.
But when police arrested Lashkar-linked Andhra Pradesh resident Raziuddin Nasir
in January 2008 and Kerala-origin computer engineer Yahya Kamakutty in Febuary
2008 -- key operatives, Police say, of a terror cell planning bombings in Goa,
Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai -- it has become evident he represented a very
different kind of project to reinvent India.
Police in Bangalore began paying serious attention to the
Abdul-led SIMI network after the 2006 Mumbai serial bombings. Siddiqui, who had
served as SIMI's Maharashtra general secretary, told police he had been in
regular contact with three Bangalore residents. All three men, it transpired,
were successful professionals -- very different from stereotypical SIMI
recruits. One of Siddiqi's Bangalore contacts, computer technician Muzammil Ata-ur-Rehman
Sheikh, is now being tried for his role in the serial bombings along with his
brother, Faisal Sheikh. Siddiqui also named Kamakutty and Abdul.
Operating through SARANI, a religious front-organisation, Abdul had recruited
over a dozen local men--the core of the cell discovered in February. Most of
SARANI's work was religious. In one e-mail to Kamakutty, Abdul demanded members
observe the fajr namaaz, or dawn prayers. In another, he asked them to avoid
debates with rival Islamists. Just how much the recruits knew about Abdul's real
agenda is unclear.
Behind the scenes, though, Abdul was preparing for war. In 2004, investigators
later found, he delivered at least one consignment of weapons in preparation for
terror strikes. Rashid Husain, a Bihar-based SIMI activist who also had links to
the Jammu and Kashmir-based Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is thought to
have organised the operation. Later, Abdul is believed to have participated a
conclave of SIMI members at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh from July 4-7, 2006, where
plans to revitalise the jihad in India were discussed. Several members of the
cell which executed the Mumbai serial bombings later that year participated.
Abdul also set up Fatah Business Solutions, a firm suspected to have laundered
Soon after Siddiqui's arrest, though, Abdul disappeared. Police now had to make
a difficult call. Although Kamakutty had long been known to be involved with
SIMI's terror cells--notably having worked with Muhammad Faisal Khan, who helped
organise the 2003 serial bombings in Mumbai -- he was left untouched, in the
hope that he would lead the Police to Abdul. After Nasir's arrest in February
2008, though, Yahya was finally held. Of Abdul, however, there is still no
trace. Nor have at least two dozen men thought to have attended the Islamist
groups they founded, been located.
Nasir's plans were at an early stage -- he possessed only crude pistols and some
low-grade explosive -- but others may be further down the road to a strike.
SIMI's political Islamists and terrorists seem, then, to
be running on parallel tracks -- racing, as it were, to shape the outcome of the
most successful contemporary mobilisation of the Muslim ultra-right in India.
Who is likely to win?
In some senses, the political Islamists are fighting against the tide of
history. Like many other south Asian Islamist movements, SIMI's genesis lies in
the Jamaat-e-Islami. Established in 1941 by the influential Islamist ideologue
Syed Abu Ala Maududi, the Jamaat-e-Islami went on to emerge as a major political
party in Pakistan, fighting for the creation of a Shariah-governed state.
In India, however, the Jamaat gradually transformed itself into a cultural
organisation committed to propagating neoconservative Islam amongst Muslims. It
set up networks of schools and study circles, devoted to combating the growing
post-independence influence of communism and socialism. A student wing, the
Students' Islamic Organisation (SIO), was set up in 1956, with its headquarters
at Aligarh. As Muslims in north India were battered by communal violence the
Jamaat slowly moved away from Maududi's hostility to secularism. It began
arguing that the secular state needed to be defended, as the sole alternative
was a Hindu-communalist state -- an argument still made by Jamaat leaders in
areas like northern Kerala.
SIMI was formed in April, 1977, as an effort to revitalise
the SIO. Building on the SIO networks in Uttar Pradesh, SIMI reached out to
Jamaat-linked Muslim students' groups in Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar and
Kerala. From the outset, SIMI made clear its belief that the practice of Islam
was essentially a political project. In the long term, SIMI sought to
re-establish the caliphate, without which it felt the practice of Islam would
remain incomplete. Muslims who were comfortable living in secular societies, its
pamphlets warned, were headed to hell.
Winds from the west gave this ideology an increasingly hard edge. Its leadership
was drawn to the Islamist regime of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq's in Pakistan.
SIMI threw its weight behind the United States-backed mujahideen fighting the
Soviet Union and the socialist regime in Afghanistan, and the forces of Sunni
reaction in west Asia. "SIMI's rhetoric," the scholar Yoginder Sikand
has recorded, "grew combative and vitriolic, insisting that Islam alone was
the solution to the problems of not just the Muslims of India, but of all
Indians and, indeed, of the whole world."
Alarmed at this course of developments, elements of the Jamaat leadership sought
to distance themselves from SIMI. Others in the Jamaat, incensed at what they
saw as the organisation's betrayal of Maududi's authentic Islamism, resisted the
moderates. In 1982, a compromise was brokered: the Jamaat formally distanced
itself from SIMI, but both organisations, in practice, retained a cordial
Part of the reason for SIMI's spectacular growth after
1982 lay in the support it gained from Islamists in west Asia, notably the
Kuwait-based World Association of Muslim Youth and the Saudi Arabia-funded
International Islamic Federation of Student Organisations. Generous funding from
west Asia helped it establish a welter of magazines -- Islamic Movement in Urdu,
Hindi and English, Iqra in Gujarati, Rupantar in Bengali, Sedi Malar in Tamil
and Vivekam in Malayalam -- that propagated the idea of an Islamic revolution.
SIMI also set up a special wing, the Tehreek Tulba e-Arabiya [Movement of
Students of Arabic], to build networks among madrassa students, as well as the
Shaheen Force, which targeted children
Much of SIMI's time was spent on persuading its recruits that Islam alone
offered solutions to the challenges of the modern life. In 1982, for example, it
organised an anti-immorality week, where supposedly obscene literature was
burned. A year later, in an effort to compete with the left in Kerala, SIMI held
an anti-capitalism week -- but held out Islam, rather than socialism, as the
solution. SIMI also worked extensively with victims of communal violence, and
provided educational services for poor Muslims.
SIMI's polemic appealed to the growing class of lower-middle class and
middle-class urban men who felt cheated of their share of the rising economic
opportunities opening up in India. Hit by communal bias and educational
backwardness, this class of disenfranchised youth were drawn to SIMI's attacks
on Hindu polytheism and western decadence. The organisation's claims that there
could be justice for Muslims only in a Shariah-based order resonated with
communities battered by decades of communal violence, often backed by the Indian
state. As Sikand has perceptively noted, the organisation provided "its
supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual
lives." By 2001, SIMI had over 400 Ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000
Ikhwan, or volunteers.
Towards the end of 1991, SIMI began its turn towards terror -- an event
precipitated by the Ram Janambhoomi movement, but one for which the ideological
foundations had long been laid. Soon after the tragic events of December 6,
1992, and the pogroms which followed it, SIMI president Falahi demanded that
"Muslims organise themselves and stand up to defend the community."
Another SIMI leader, Abdul Aziz Salafi, demanded action to show that Muslims
"would now refuse to sit low."
What that meant in practice soon became evident. On the first anniversary of the
demolition of the Babri Masjid, SIMI-linked LeT operatives Jalees Ansari,
Mohammad Azam Ghauri, Abdul Karim 'Tunda' and Mohammad Tufail Husaini -- the
first in jail, the second dead, the third still missing, and the last now wanted
for his possible role in the November 23, 2007, serial bombings in Uttar Pradesh
-- carried out a series of reprisal terror strikes across India. Their
organisation, the Mujahideen Islam e-Hind, is thought to have been a precursor
to the Indian Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the November 23,
2007, attacks on Court premises across Uttar Pradesh.
Growing numbers of SIMI members followed in their footsteps, making their way to
LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) training camps,
but SIMI leaders continued to insist their organisation itself had nothing to do
with terrorism. Its polemics, however, became increasingly bitter. In a 1996
statement, SIMI declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to
protect Muslims, the sole option was to struggle for the caliphate. Soon after,
SIMI posters called on Muslims to follow the path of the eleventh-century
conqueror Mahmood Ghaznavi, and appealed to God to send down a latter-day avatar
to avenge the destruction of mosques in India.
By the time of SIMI's 1999 Aurangabad convention, the
ground-level manifestations of this ugly polemic were only too evident. Many of
the speeches delivered by delegates were frankly inflammatory. Among those
listening to the speech was 1993 bomber Azam Ghauri who, by the accounts of some
of those present, was offered the leadership of SIMI.
When 25,000 SIMI delegates met in Mumbai in 2001, at what was to be its last
public convention, the organisation, for the first time, called on its
supporters to turn to jihad. Soon after the convention, al-Qaeda carried out its
bombings of New York and Washington, D.C. SIMI activists organised
demonstrations in support of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden, hailing him as a
"true mujahid," and celebrating the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas
by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Writing in 2001, in an article published just after the convention, the
commentator Javed Anand recalled seeing stickers pasted "in large numbers
in Muslim shops and homes, a thick red 'NO' splashed across the words DEMOCRACY,
NATIONALISM, POLYTHEISM.". And he added, " 'ONLY ALLAH!' exclaims
Despite SIMI's proscription, the Bangalore arrests show, the terror networks
founded at that time continue to thrive--and grow. It is, most likely, too late
for the political Islamists to turn back the tide.
Praveen Swami is Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline, New
Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia
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