June 19, 2021
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A Bend In The Road

SIMI's political Islamists and terrorists seem 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?

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A Bend In The Road

"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) operatives.

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, Kerala.

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 some doors."

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 terror funds.

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 relationship.

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 SIMI's punch-line."

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 Terrorism Portal

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