Revelations made by Indian Mujahideen (IM) ‘India operations chief’ Yasin Bhatkal aka Mohammad Ahmed Siddibappa Zarrar aka Imran aka Asif aka Shahrukh, and his associate Asadullah Akhtar alias Haddi, during their ongoing interrogations by several agencies have brought to the fore some new facts. The duo also reconfirmed much that was already known about IM. The revelations in their totality outline the emerging challenges that Indian security agencies are going to face in the foreseeable future. Bhatkal and Haddi were arrested from Indo-Nepal border on August 28, 2013.
In the most startling of revelations so far, Yasin Bhatkal is reported to have told security agencies that the "IM is trying to turn into an al Qaeda-like terror network". An unnamed official noted, further, "Two options were on the table— either the IM would turn an assisting outfit of Qaeda in India or merge with it to work directly under the command of Zawahiri [al Qaeda ‘chief’ Ayman al-Zawahiri]."
Yasin Bhatkal has also claimed that there has been a split within IM ranks. According to interrogation reports, the IM structure changed after the Batla House (New Delhi) encounter of September 19, 2008. The entire organization split into two factions — Azamgarh and Bhatkal. While the Azamgarh Unit was led by Amir Reza Khan, with Shahnawaz Alam as his lieutenant, Riyaz Bhatkal headed the Bhatkal Unit. Some reports, however, suggest that Yasin Bhatkal has also spoken about another unit led by Mohammad Sajid alias Bada Sajid and Mirza Shadab Beg. Significantly, these names also appeared in the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) First Information Report (FIR) on allegations related to terrorist activities of members of IM and conspiracy for waging war against the Government of India, dated September 10, 2012, along with seven other IM cadres.
Indeed, an unnamed security official observed, "Our initial assessment was that the group has weakened with (the) arrest of so many cadres and there is division. But the IM… has grown many folds. Each group has its men and logistics in India.”
These two developments, if found to be correct, are ominous.
The growing links with al Qaeda are a very real threat, suggesting that the global jihad has started focusing increasingly on India, bringing new and more dangerous strategies, tactics and resources to this theatre. Indeed, current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in his first specific jihad guidelines, endorsed the right of Islamist militants to fight "Indians in Kashmir", as reported on September 17, 2013. Further, an al Qaeda statement released on September 30, 2012, indicates that the terror group is evolving its strategy on the Myanmar-Assam region. In the statement, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who was appointed as al Qaeda's head of the 'preaching and media department' for Pakistan in 2009, warned that the recent killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam "provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi." June 2013 reports indicated that Maulana Asim Umar, a senior al Qaeda ideologue, released a video titled “Why There Is No Storm in Your Ocean?”, exhorting Indian Muslims to join the global jihad. IM and al Qaeda are believed to have discussed attacks on foreign nationals based in India, most notably Jews. Significantly, in September this year, New Delhi asked all Mumbai-based Jewish establishments to step up security measures in the face of an impending terrorist threat. India's Union Home Ministry has also briefed Israel about a possible IM attack on Israeli nationals visiting Rajasthan, especially in the tourist centre of Pushkar, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.
In this context, the four individuals of Indian origin, who have participated in global terror activities, offer a vital pre-text. They are Dhiren Barot (aka Abu Musa al-Hindi), a British citizen of Indian origin who plotted bomb attacks against the New York Stock Exchange, International Monetary Fund and World Bank; Haroon Rashid Aswat, another Indian with a British passport, was a self-proclaimed hitman for Osama bin Laden and allegedly a key figure in the July 2005 attacks in London; Bangalore-born Kafeel Ahmed, who was involved in the June 2007 attack on Glasgow International Airport, and a known follower of al Qaeda; and finally, Mohammad Niaz Raseed, a cadre of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the parent organization of the IM, who was recently sentenced to eight years in prison by the Paris Criminal Court for plotting a series of terrorist attacks. These important examples demonstrate an escalating threat potential not only in India, but of a terrorist mobilisation within this country that could have international ramifications.
On the home front, IM’s link or efforts to establish linkages with other groups have also been reconfirmed. Disclosures during interrogations of Yasin Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar indicate that IM was in touch with the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), discussing a possible tie-up with the outfit to procure explosives and ammunition for use in terror attacks in India. Sources claim IM offered 'handsome payments' to the Maoists for supply of weapons and explosives. Yasin Bhatkal also revealed that he had met CPI-Maoist leaders in Nepal before the serial blasts that rocked Bodh Gaya in Gaya district of Bihar on July 7, 2013. Bhatkal had reportedly surveyed the area around the Mahabodhi temple a year before the blasts took place. The explosive devices used in the blasts resemble the bombs used by Maoists. Similarly, close connections with the National Development Front (NDF) in Kerala and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) also came to the fore.
Counter-intuitively, the alleged splits within IM may actually result in a deeper percolation of terrorist networks and activities in India, with multiple and overlapping structures of operation, and increasing specialization. Indeed, Beg’s Unit, which is reported to have the backing of al Qaeda and Taliban, is believed to be focusing only on fidayeen (suicide squad) attacks on prominent people in India. Akhtar revealed that, during an online chat in July 2013, Beg told him that 15 people from five Indian States had been called to Pakistan earlier in the year, to discuss IM’s future operations in India. Sources indicate that these persons underwent intensive training in Afghanistan to carry out fidayeen attacks.
Disclosures during interrogations also indicate that IM is planning to target political leaders. Yasin Bhatkal admitted, "The funds flow from our international sympathisers will increase many times if we manage to reach Narendra Modi. Modi is one to 10 in the list of targets. The rest of the targets figure much below him."
IM is also planning a series of bomb blasts across the country. Significantly, agencies have recovered a whopping 90 Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from Zephyr Heights in Mangalore and Abdullapur in Hyderabad, among other IM hideouts. In what can be considered further evidence of the plan, all these devices were almost ready for use, and had been developed at the instance of Yasin Bhatkal and his aide, Akhtar. A top intelligence officer disclosed to the media, "Only the circuitry was not connected to the IEDs, otherwise these bombs were ready to use." Several unattached timers, batteries, detonators and shrapnel were also recovered from various hideouts. Yasin Bhatkal is learnt to have told interrogators that IM was experimenting with the manufacture of hydrogen peroxide-based IEDs. On the ‘ideological’ front, Yasin Bhatkal is reported to have reconfirmed that IM's main objective was to establish Shariah in India, as in Afghanistan and Somalia.
IM is clearly undergoing dynamic transformations under the direction and guidance of the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) which has provided the top leaders of the group safe haven and resources in Pakistan, and facilitated deepening linkages with regional and global jihadi groups. With a progressive international outreach, vertical splits and increasingly specialization, the group and its successors are likely to evolve more lethal capabilities that would certainly be manifested in India, but are likely to have reverberations across the world as well.
Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal