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India faces a resurgent Indian Mujahedeen

Commentary, 26 March 2010
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
With the threat emanating from India’s porous borders and open society, the arrest has once again underlined the need for India to rationalise its security infrastructure.

The recent arrest of a key Indian Mujahedeen (IM) operative, Salman Ahmed, by the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad has propelled the group back onto the security services' radar. With the threat emanating from India's porous borders and open society, the arrest has once again underlined the need for India to rationalise its security infrastructure.

By Brijesh Khemlani for RUSI.org

Indian Mujahedeen

The arrest of Salman Ahmed on 6 March, a key operative of the Indian Mujahedeen (IM) came on the heels of bomb attacks in the city of Pune on 13 February. The attack bore the classic hallmarks of an IM operation and the subsequent arrest represents a significant breakthrough for security forces but also a worrying sign of a resurgence in the shadowy network blamed for a series of blasts across India in 2007-08. Indian intelligence sources accuse IM of working to establish a pan-India presence through the alleged assistance of transnational terrorist networks such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) and with the support of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

A radical offshoot of the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), IM first came to prominence with the 2007 Uttar Pradesh bombing campaign. The group gained notoriety through the utilisation of sophisticated media machinery that churned out propaganda messages before and after blasts. Aiming to draw support from India's burgeoning Muslim population, IM appealed to indigenous issues affecting the community. The involvement of sophisticated and tech-savvy home-grown terror cells radicalised by grievances such as the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the Gujarat riots, jolted the Indian establishment into action. India was seemingly unprepared to face this all-out offensive by local highly-educated, disaffected Muslims. Traditionally contained in the Indian periphery such as Kashmir and the North-East, a wave of bombings targeted the Indian heartland hitting Jaipur, Ahmadabad, Bangalore, and Delhi.

Rattled by a growing number of terror strikes in major urban centres, the security agencies launched a massive crackdown against the outfit and its bases. The operation crippled IM's capabilities as several key operatives were either arrested or apparently fled the country. At least six senior IM leaders are reported to have fled to Pakistan or Bangladesh after the Delhi serial blasts, including Riyaz Bhatkal, Amir Reza, Iqbal Bhatkal, Muhammad Khalid, Shahzad Ahmed, and Ariz Khan.[1] The period following the 2008 Mumbai attacks marked a tactical hiatus where efforts were made to revive the local Jihadist network through a fresh recruitment drive. While India trained its sights on pressurising Pakistan and countering Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), IM set about quietly rebuilding its strategic arsenal awaiting an opportunity to launch a counter-strike.

Expanding Footprint

According to media reports the interrogation of Salman and other recently arrested IM members has uncovered the group's latest strategy. Fugitive IM chiefs allegedly use safe houses in West Asia, Nepal and Bangladesh as command centres for launching strikes within India, far from the prying eyes of Indian security agencies.[2] The same facilities are used as temporary sanctuaries for IM recruits in transit between Pakistan and India. The arrested operatives are also reported to have revealed that IM recruits were hosted at the same training facilities used by the LeT, both in Karachi as well as in other parts of Pakistan.

While this cannot be accurately verified, the presence of IM bases in neighbouring countries would certainly set off alarm bells in the Indian establishment. The transformation of the IM from a home-grown Jihadist movement into a transnational terror organisation has several ramifications. With key IM chiefs in secure locations across the border, Indian counter-terrorism efforts to neutralise the brains behind the outfit will be hampered. The porous borders between India and its eastern neighbours -- Nepal and Bangladesh -- only serve to increase the likelihood of IM infiltration along these frontiers. An increased flow of literate, highly-indoctrinated and well-trained cadres, controlled from neighbouring countries, bolsters IM's capabilities of carrying out devastating terror strikes at will. The ability of these terror cells to lie dormant, often taking up local jobs and enrolling in universities prior to operations, gives them a valuable strategic and tactical advantage over Indian security forces.

Intelligence Bureau officials documented that 'IM recruiters have managed to recruit at least 300 youngsters from Mangalore and Kerala's costal areas in the past one year, taking advantage of the communal tension in the coastal belts of the states.'[3] The shift from Uttar Pradesh, a traditional IM hotbed, to South India was inevitable with the rising scrutiny by security forces. A well-entrenched IM network, primarily in Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, is a crucial cog in achieving IM's objective of establishing a pan-India presence. The coastal belts of India, including those of Gujarat and Maharashtra, have been clandestine landing points for the smuggling of small arms, explosives, and detonators by the Mumbai-based mafia. There have been growing concerns about the expanding nexus between Jihadist terror groups and organised crime in the Indian sub-continent which would make the presence of the IM in the coastal belts all the more nefarious.

'The Karachi Project'

If Indian intelligence sources are to be believed, IM serves as the vanguard of the ISI sponsored 'Karachi Project', which allegedly uses groups like the LeT and HuJI to train Indian operatives to carry out blasts in major urban centres as part of a continuous offensive against India. Tracing its origins to the Soviet-Afghan War, HuJI is a terrorist outfit based in Pakistan with an affiliate in Bangladesh with strong links to Al-Qa'ida. These suspicions are supported by David Coleman Headley, also known as Daood Gilani, the prime suspect in LeT's Chicago conspiracy, who has allegedly informed the FBI about 'the LeT and ISI sheltering chief IM operatives like the Bhatkal brothers and serving and retired Pakistan Army officers being part of the project'.[4] Headley is a Pakistani-American businessman implicated by the FBI for his role in plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks in association with LeT.

The unconfirmed presence of IM bases in neighbouring countries may provide some clues about the contours of the 'Karachi Project'. If indeed an operational reality, the strategy would have three major objectives: firstly, to give an Indian face to the bombing campaign without raising suspicions of Pakistani involvement; secondly, to undermine India's rising economic profile by targeting major economic centres thus curbing foreign direct investment and thirdly, to provoke tougher anti-terrorist laws and major communal tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities creating a fresh crop of disgruntled recruits for the Jihadist cause. The aim would be to create widespread mayhem to stall the Indian economic engine and weaken the writ of the state.

The allegations about the 'Karachi Project' are indicative of Islamabad's continued reluctance in clamping down on cross-border terrorism against India. US National Intelligence Director (Retd) Admiral Dennis Blair attributes this to 'Islamabad's conviction that militant groups are an important part of its strategic arsenal to counter India's military and economic advantages'.[5] While a spectacular attack like the one witnessed in Mumbai may not be on the cards due to the possibility of sparking a major Indo-Pakistan confrontation, a series of blasts targeting major urban centres and high-profile events such as the Indian Premier League and the forthcoming 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi is a real threat for the Indian establishment.

A Robust Response

With the escalating threat from IM and other Jihadist groups, the Indian government must continue with its measures to strengthen its internal security. A robust response is the most immediate need. Intelligence-sharing and co-operation between the various security agencies must be more stream-lined. The creation of a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), a nodal agency to collect, analyse and relay intelligence from the district level, is a positive step forward in this endeavour. With state-level multi-agency centres connected to the NCTC, such an establishment should not only be equipped with an advanced communications and IT infrastructure but must also be staffed with the best officers in the fields of intelligence, IT, languages and counter-terrorism for effective correlation and analysis. Not least, it should have centralised terror databases and be constantly monitoring the activities of targeted terrorist groups in order to deliver periodic threat assessments.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), India's federal anti-terror body, is still a fledgling institution and must be supported with the right resources in the form of funding, training, and the steady recruitment of personnel with expertise in cyber-terrorism and the use of the web to propagate radical Islamist propaganda. India's growing pool of engineers, scientists and technicians must be cultivated as a valuable asset in this process. Organizations such as the state police forces and the Intelligence Bureau, working on the frontline in India's war against terrorism, have to be augmented with the best resources.  Traditionally under-staffed, ill-trained and ill-equipped, state police forces bear the brunt of the country's ills and must be prepared to face growing threats in a swift and decisive manner. Given the critical nature of India's acute and emerging threats, the actualisation of such a security architecture must be top of the agenda. An effective and well-oiled security and counter-terrorism apparatus is the only means of fighting a cunning and determined enemy bent on waging a ruthless campaign of terror in India in the years ahead.

Notes

[1]    C. Christine Fair [2010] 'Students Islamic Movement of India and Indian Mujahideen: An Assessment', National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, Washington

[2] Bharti Jain [2010] 'IM has hostels in Gulf, Nepal and Bangladesh too', Economic Times, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics/nation/IM-has-hostels-in-Gulf-Nepal-Bangladesh-too/articleshow/5670127.cms

[3] Vicky Nanjappa [2010] 'Indian Mujahideen is on the rise again: IB' Rediff News,  http://news.rediff.com/report/2010/mar/05/indian-mujahideen-is-on-the-rise-again-ib.htm

[4] Sandeep Unnithan [2010] 'The Karachi Project' India Today, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/84662/Cover%20Story/The+Karachi+project.html

[5] Aziz Haniffa [2010] 'Pak Army, ISI sponsor Taliban to counter India' Rediff News, http://news.rediff.com/report/2010/feb/03/pak-army-isi-still-sponsor-taliban.htm  

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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