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The Mumbai Blasts and the Indian Mujahideen

Commentary, 14 July 2011
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
The three bombs that tore through Mumbai add to the city's death toll from terrorism - 700 killed since 1993. If the Indian Mujahideen (IM) is responsible, it indicates the grave threat posed by domestic Indian groups plugged into international jihadi network.

The three bombs that tore through Mumbai add to the city's death toll from terrorism - 700 killed since 1993. If the Indian Mujahideen (IM) is responsible, it indicates the grave threat posed by domestic Indian groups plugged into international jihadi network.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

 Mumbai

Mumbai under attack - again

On Wednesday evening, bombs tore through three separate parts of Mumbai over a 15 minute period. They spanned Dadar West, Zaveri Bazaar, and Opera House. Early estimates of the injury and death toll suggest that this is more lethal than the February 2010 bombing of a bakery in Pune, which killed 14, but much less severe than the November 2008 commando-style raids that killed nearly 170.

Mumbai, as the commercial capital of India, has long been a target of foreign and domestic jihadi groups. For residents, these explosions will trigger terrible memories of a series of blasts in 1993 that killed 250. Those attacks were the first acts of mass casualty terrorism on Indian soil, and the first jihadi (as opposed to, say, separatist) attacks against India outside Kashmir. After a lengthy gap, a pair of car bombs killed 50 in 2003, and seven bombs against trains killed 209 in 2006. Since 1993, roughly 700 people have been killed in Mumbai.

India Deaths from terrorism
Compiled from South Asia Terrorism Portal (http://www.satp.org) data by the author.

The Indian Mujahideen

Indian sources have indicated, though tentatively, that the Indian Mujahideen (IM) may be responsible. This is an opaque group about which relatively little is known. It first claimed responsibility for serial bombings in multiple north Indian cities in 2007, and came to prominence after attacks in Ahmedabad in 2008. It has also claimed responsibility for numerous other attacks, including those in Jaipur, Bangalore, and Delhi.

Indian television channel NDTV noted in 2008 that "investigators say the Indian Mujhadeen is a front for groups operating out of Pakistan most likely the [Pakistan-based group] Lashkar-e-Taiba [LET]". This is almost certainly a severe oversimplification of the group's origins. 

The IM is principally the product of the Student's Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI formed in 1977 within India itself, as a student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami-i-Hind (though the latter has condemned terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks). In 1986 SIMI called for the 'liberation' of India's Muslims and, at some point in the 1990s, evolved into a militant organisation with (ongoing) ties to LET.

SIMI then evolved into IM from 2001 after increasing numbers of the group acquired a violent pan-Islamic, but India-focused, agenda (many other members wished to remain non-violent). Praveen Swami, an Indian journalist and expert on Indian jihadi groups, describes IM as 'a loose cluster of semi-autonomous SIMI-linked cells' rather than an independent and separate organisation. [1]

Indian intelligence also claims that elements of the pan-Islamic Harkat ul-JIhad-e-Islami (HUJI, whose operational commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, was recently killed in Pakistan) and a separate criminal-jihadi network led by Aftab Ansari contributed to the formation of IM. [2]

Home-grown terrorism

SIMI's (and, thereafter, IM's) distinguishing characteristic was that it was, essentially, home-grown. Its activists and leaders are virtually all Indian. It recruited lower and middle class Indian Muslims, as well as a smaller number of educated professionals.

Key members of the network were motivated by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the Indian state of Gujarat; that horrific event proved a boon for wider recruitment too. IM's training was reportedly in places like Kerala and Gujarat, not primarily on Pakistani soil. Core leaders hailed from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

This is quite unlike that generation of groups who cut their teeth on the anti-Soviet jihad, later shifted to Kashmir with the assistance of the ISI, and today form ad hoc groupings of inter-operable or cooperative networks across Pakistan.

This is crucially important, because it greatly lessens the likelihood that these attacks will precipitate an India-Pakistan crisis, as with the major standoff that occurred during 2001-2.

Indian Muhajideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba

This is not to say that Pakistani intelligence plays no role. SIMI and IM have extensive ties to Pakistan-based groups like LET and HUJI. The general secretary of SIMI, Safdar Nagori, after his arrest in 2008, claimed that the ISI had provided funds to the group. Captured members of LET have also described a broad funding, training, and operational interface between that group and IM.

Indeed, far from being a self-contained group, 'LET serves as a provider of logistical and ideological infrastructure to the regional jihadist movement' - including IM. [3] Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown, notes that 'SIMI/IM appears to be an important vector of LET infiltration and cultivation of Indian leaders and cadres'. [4]

Interrogations of David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American member of LET with a major role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, pointed to the existence of a 'Karachi Project'. This was a scheme, overseen by the ISI, to mobilise Indian Muslims for attacks on Indian urban targets, moving them to Pakistan via third countries like Bangladesh or Nepal. [5]

Vikram Sood, the former head of India's foreign intelligence service, argues that this heralds 'a new phase of terrorism within India, where international terrorist groups like LET and HUJI (and through them Al Qa'ida), are likely to exert influence on a small and diffused group of individuals to take up arms against the state in the name of religion'. [6]

The devastating 2006 attack on multiple Mumbai targets (mentioned above) was, according to some accounts, a LET operation implemented through SIMI or IM. This indicates the depth and strength of ties between these ostensibly discrete groups. In turn, LET is closely connected to the ISI.

Although the degree of granular ISI control over LET operations is contested, most authoritative accounts are in agreement that, at the very least, the state determines the parameters in which the group can operate. Christine Fair, for instance, notes simply that 'for Pakistan, LET is an existential asset in the same way that it is an existential enemy for countries like India and even the United States'. [7]

Although the semi-indigenous character of IM undercuts repeated Indian claims that Indian Muslims are not a meaningful part of jihadi terrorism, this should not be understood as diminishing the major problem of Pakistani state sponsorship and de facto protection of militant organisations. Although it is important to remember that SIMI and IM would not vanish were Pakistan to become cooperative, their operational capabilities and underlying strength would suffer serious damage.

Implications for the India-Pakistan relationship

But SIMI and IM, unlike LET or Jaish-e-Mohammed or other such groups, are perceived to be outside the direct control or immediate influence of the Pakistani state. One officer involved with the investigation at Zaveri Bazaar did observe that this "attack is very different from the one we had in 2008 . . . here there is no Pakistani involvement it is very clear from the early evidence we have collected."

This will limit not just Indian demands for retaliation against Pakistan, but also persuade influential states, and the US in particular, that Indian action would not be warranted. Moreover, the use of explosives rather than fedayeen (commando) tactics lessens the prolongation of the attack and therefore the theatrical effect. This, too, lessens the prospect of a forceful response. 

Indian investigators have not yet made any conclusions about responsibility. The absence of an email claiming responsibility, the usual practice of IM hitherto, is strange. Moreover, a series of arrests by Indian security officials since 2008 had weakened the group's operational capability. [8] In December 2010, Indian authorities claimed that four LET members had entered Mumbai with the intention of carrying out an attack. [9]

It remains possible that these attacks were carried out by (1) LET, under the supervision of the ISI (perhaps to deflect attention from the Pakistani military's travails at home); (2) LET, without the supervision but with the cognizance of the ISI; (3) LET, with neither the supervision nor cognizance of the ISI; (4) a separate but affiliated Pakistan-based group; (5) by IM, acting in close concert with Pakistani affiliates; (6) IM, acting in relative isolation. 

These (non-exhaustive) possibilities are not all equally likely. Prior attacks suggest that scenario (5) is the most plausible, though it is crucially important to stress that this assessment is purely speculative. The Indian authorities' praiseworthy reticence in apportioning blame indicates that the evidence is still ambiguous.

If IM turns out to have been at the front-line of the attack, this is almost certainly enough to guarantee that India-Pakistan relations will remain stable. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is suffering serious domestic political difficulties. He has staked large amounts of political capital on the resumed dialogue with Pakistan, which was scheduled to convene later this month, and has been perceived as relatively successful by both parties. 

If, however, LET's role is prominent, then the situation is far more unpredictable - options will quickly appear. In the longer-term, it is imperative to understand both the domestic factors enabling the consolidation of SIMI and IM and the thicket of cross-border links on which they rely for their operational potency; ignoring either of these will simply allow the stream of such killings to continue apace. 

 The views expressed here are the authors own and do not nessecarily represent those of RUSI.

Notes

[1] Praveen Swami, The Indian Mujahideen and Lashkar-i-Tayyiba's Transnational Networks, Combating terrorism Center at West Point, 15 June 2009

[2] Who is the Indian Mujahideen?, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi, 3 February 2009

[3] Praveen Swami, The Indian Mujahideen and Lashkar-i-Tayyiba's Transnational Networks

[4] C. Christine Fair, Student's Islamic Movement of India and the Indian Mujahideen, Asia Policy

[5] Animesh Roul, After Pune, Details Emerge on the Karachi Project and its Threat to India, Combating terrorism Center at West Point, 3 April 2010; C. Christine Fair, The Militant Challenge in Pakistan, No. 11, January 2011, pp. 105-137

[6] Vikram Sood, Radical Islam in South Asia and Implications for the Region in Radical Islam : Perspectives from India and Russia, Macmillan 2011, p71

[7] C. Christine Fair, Pakistan's Strategic Use of Lashkar-e-Taiba: It's Not Just Kashmir, 14 June 2011, available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1864304

[8] B. Raman, Indian Mujahideen: Active, but Weaker, 7 December 2010, International Terrorism Monitor: Paper No. 696; republished in Outlook India, 9 December 2010

[9] Reuters, India: Search on to Thwart Suspected Attack, New York Times, 23 December 2010

Author

Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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