Banned in 2001 under POTA, SIMI’s strongest presence seems to be in Maharashtra, signalling a shift from homebase UP. The series of commuter blasts in Mumbai since last December shows the extent of its sway in the state. A network of its operatives, reportedly acting in tandem with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, was linked to the blasts on a Ghatkopar bus on December 2, 2002, and in a train at Mulund station in March that claimed 11 lives.
After the recent Mumbai blasts, the police also claim to have busted SIMI ‘modules’ in Kurla and Padgha on the outskirts of Mumbai, reportedly controlled by secretive underground figure Saquib Nachen. Several arms training camps for cadres were held in the forests near Padgha. Operations were also traced to surrounding areas like Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Thane and Mumbhra and other Maharashtra districts like Aurangabad, Pune, Jalgaon, Malegaon, Jalna, Parbhani, Hingoli and Solapur.
SIMI activists maintain secrecy by moving in small groups of 7-8 and communicating mainly via e-mail. The network has spawned a series of modules that acted in isolation, often unaware of each other’s existence. But there was a loose chain of command, controlled by Nachen. Like most other recruits, Nachen lost faith in the Indian state and resorted to terror after witnessing the suffering of Muslims in Bhiwandi’s communal riots of 1970. He formally enrolled as a SIMI member in 1980 and rose to become its all-India general secretary in 1987. According to the police, Nachen began recruiting local Muslim youth since the late ’80s for weapons training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Uttar Pradesh, SIMI has apparently gone completely underground since the ban. However, intelligence sources say about 45 days ago, Dr Shahid Badr Falahi, national president of the outfit, and Safdar Nagori, the fire-brand general secretary, attended a function at the Halim Muslim Inter College in Kanpur.
Police claims put the outfit’s strength at about 20,000. Investigating agencies have linked SIMI to the bomb blast on the Sabarmati Express, which claimed 10 lives, and many other smaller instances. The outfit is still believed to have dormant modules in many of UP’s urban centres like Aligarh, Azamgarh, Moradabad, Kanpur and Lucknow. However, several key leaders like Nachen and treasurer Adil Khotal are Maharashtra-based. The police now estimate that over one lakh activists are likely to be operating underground in the state.
Police sources also believe that since the ban on its activities, most SIMI members in UP have been trying to link up with students groups and other overground outfits. A large number of SIMI members have also joined the Islamic Chhatra Shivir, an organisation that operates chiefly out of Bangladesh.
By Priyanka Kakodkar and Sutapa Mukerjee