Who is the Indian Mujahideen?

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • February 03, 2009

    In 2008, India faced multiple terror attacks on its cities across several states. These attacks resulted mostly in civilian deaths. The May 13, 2008 Jaipur bombings killed 80 civilians and injured more than 200, the Ahmedabad terrorist bombings of July 26, 2008, killed nearly 45 civilians and wounded 160, while the Bangalore bombs the previous day killed one person and wounded six. The Delhi bombings of September 13, 2008 killed 30 civilians and injured nearly 90 while the Guwahati blasts of October 30 the same year killed 83 civilians and injured nearly 300. In the Guwahati attacks, a group, identifying itself as Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahideen), originally claimed responsibility via an email. Significantly, in all the other attacks, a hitherto unknown group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen (IM) claimed responsibility, thereby shifting the blame from more established terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). In an email sent five minutes before the Ahmedabad bombings, the IM requested the LeT not to claim responsibility for the bombings. A deeper scrutiny into such behaviour by terrorist outfits reveal that newly established terror groups carry out attacks at short intervals not only to establish their deadly credibility in the world of terror networks but also to attract sponsors at home and abroad for their activities.

    The IM’s frequent bomb blasts in Indian cities except perhaps Mumbai where the direct involvement of the LeT is established, begs answers to the question: who is the IM, what are their motives and where do they actually come from?

    The Indian Mujahideen: Tracing the Roots and the Causes

    According to Indian intelligence, the IM is not a well knit organization with a hierarchical structure like other more established groups like the LeT. Rather, it is a loose network of Islamic organizations which includes the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), certain individuals from the state of Uttar Pradesh with alleged links with the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), and the terror cartel of Aftab Ansari. Key SIMI members like Qayamuddin Kapadia, Usman Agarbattiwala and Sajid Mansuri started supporting the idea of the formation of the IM as early as December 2007 with 50 SIMI cadres participating in a jihadi training camp in Aluva, Kerala1. The plausible reason for men forming the IM could be many. First could be their personal experiences during the Gujarat riot of 2002. Other reasons could be the availability of funds for such activities in abundance in an underground network of terror financiers. Young men especially from UP also join these activities because of the availability of money in it vis-à-vis the absence of alternate employment opportunities. Terror activities also do not require too much of education or knowledge of the English language and yet the monetary benefit could be tremendous. Most of the arrested IM cadres were ill versed in English yet fluent in Hindi or Urdu.

    Radical Ideology

    Another important reason for young men taking up such subversive activities is the teaching of radical Islam which is easily available these days in the internet in any language. It is also a fact that the ideological roots of Islamic fundamentalism started in South Asia. History reveals that the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan was Maulana Maududi (1903-1979), who in turn inspired men like Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) of Egypt to further spread it. Maududi’s Islamic liberation theology was an anti-thesis to the West attracting several young alienated Muslims to take up arms. Maududi in fact called for a universal jihad by all Muslims to fight Western barbarism providing an ideological framework for many Sunni Islamic fundamentalist groups.2 The SIMI narratives also reveal the influence of Maududi’s teachings and can be very influential on younger people.

    Anger at mainstream media biased reporting is also cited as one of the causes by most IM arrested cadres. It is argued that the mainstream media turns a blind eye to Hindu fundamentalist groups while mostly depicting the fundamental nature of Islam.

    Politics is seen as another cause of the radicalization of communities along religious lines. Political parties deliberately play on the religious nerve of communities in order to garner votes. This results in social fragmentation and a polarized politics which in turn leads to young men and women from the minority community viewing the Indian state as been non-representative of all its communities. Experts like B. Raman also argue that “Over the last few years, [Indian Islamist terrorists] have expanded the ambit of their grievances from purely domestic issues to global issues like the U.S.-led war in Iraq”.

    Leadership and Cadres

    The leadership of the IM is mainly traced to a man from Mumbai named Abdul Subhan Usman Qureshi, code name “Kasim” or “al-arbi” who signed the email manifestos sent by the IM before and after the multiple blasts last year. Qureshi’s background however refutes the theory that most IM cadres come from a deprived background or was schooled in a radical Madrassa. Qureshi studied at the Antonio DeSouza High School ran by a Christian missionary in Byculla, Mumbai and came from an economically privileged background. Qureshi was studying at Bharatiya Vidyapeeth in Navi Mumbai in 1992 when the Mumbai riots took place followed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 1995, he obtained a diploma in industrial electronics and in 1996, a specialised software maintenance qualification from the CMS Institute in Marol. After obtaining these degrees, he joined Radical Solutions, an independent computer firm operating out of the Fort area in south Mumbai in November, 1996. In 1999, he changed jobs and joined Datamatics, a major computer firm in Mumbai. However, somewhere in these years, Qureshi was also harbouring more radical ideologies and in 2001, he left his job at the firm stating in his resignation letter that “I have decided to devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters.”3

    According to Mumbai police intelligence, by 1998, Qureshi was one of the most committed SIMI activists going on to edit one of SIMI’s house-magazines, Islamic Voice, from New Delhi. By then, SIMI’s growing links with global Islamic movements like the Egyptian Brotherhood and Hamas were clear. Links with Bangladesh based HuJI and Pakistan based LeT were also coming to the fore. The radicalization process of SIMI became clearer by its 1999 Aurangabad convention when SIMI activists Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad stated that “Islam is our nation, not India”. Qureshi was one of the principal organisers of SIMI’s last public conference in 2001 in which 25, 000 young people participated. He also succeeded in training hundreds of SIMI-IM cadres since 2007 and was the mastermind of the Delhi blasts undertaken by Mohammad Bashir, Mohammad Fakruddin and Saif Ahmad in September 2008.4 The main assault members of the IM include Atif Amin, who belongs to UP, and responsible for the Ahmedabad bombings, and Aftab Ansari’s lieutenant, Riaz Bhatkal, who is mainly responsible for the IM’s finance coming mostly from West Asia.5 Recently, an arrest in Pune of Anwar Ali Bagwaan, a MBBS graduate who was practicing in Hyderabad, revealed that he trained IM members on how to administer sedatives on persons they were planning to kidnap. According to another UP based IM cadre, Sadiq Shaikh, hailing from Azamgarh district and who was arrested on September 23, 2008, IM modules exist in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Pune and Mumbai. Shaikh is a software professional who lived in Central Mumbai. Most arrested IM cadres are computer professionals and bomb makers. Among those arrested are Pune-based Mohammed Mansoor Asgar Peerbhoy and Mubin Kadar Shaikh, who jointly designed the IM logo and hacked into unsecured Wi-fi connections.

    Another significant intelligence input from the UP police indicates that UP based IM cadre Fahim Arshad Ansari who was arrested in UP in February 2008 was in direct contact with the LeT in masterminding the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Ansari studied at the Malad Municipal Secondary School in Mumbai, from where he graduated in 1989 but later on went onto Dubai. In 2005, another Hyderabadi, Sami Ahmad who was arrested by the police in 2006 revealed that he agreed to put Ansari in touch with the LeT then. The narrative of Ansari is equally revealing. He got in touch with LeT in Dubai and reached Pakistan in 2005 itself. In the LeT’s Muzzafarabad base, Ansari was put under Muzammil, the LeT commander in charge of operations in India. Ansari revealed during interrogation that he went through a 21-day Daura Aam (basic combat course), followed by a rigorous three-month advanced Daura Khaas (specialized guerrilla tactics) as a precursor to the Fidayeen attack on Mumbai6. He also learnt the use of maps, compasses and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Mumbai was traced in the Google Earth maps and chillingly, Mumbai stock exchange, the Taj Mahal Hotel, railway station and airport were identified as target areas. Ansari arrived in India in 2007 and from November 28 to December 10, 2007, he stayed at the Sunlight Guest House in Mumbai, photographing and mapping the targets he had been shown prominent amongst them being the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Taj Mahal Hotel.7

    Game Plan

    The game plan of the IM is rather obvious. Despite its obvious LeT connections and training in Pakistan in sophisticated weaponry and guerrilla warfare, the IM wants to establish itself as an Indian based terror outfit. This is done for three reasons.

    First, when the blame for terror attacks in India is pinned on the IM, then Indian security forces will have to concentrate their resources within India instead. This is done deliberately as Indian intelligence on the IM cellular networks is rather weak at present and most of the intelligence inputs are gathered from arrested IM cadres who might mislead the police.

    Second, the LeT then can go blameless despite its obvious hand in training and providing weaponry. That will also offset any diplomatic pressure from India and the international community on Pakistan to act against the LeT in its territory.8

    Third, once its credibility is established, the IM can also easily target vulnerable minority youth base within India for direct recruitment into terror outfits in India and abroad.


    Though the IM cadres mostly come from India, their linkages with a global jihad are worrisome. Links to the LeT and the HuJi also portends the fact that cross border movement of cadres and arms appears rather easy with the help of false names and passports mostly of Pakistani origin. Ansari entered India in 2007 from Nepal with a false Pakistani passport no. BM 6809341, issued on November 1, 2007 in Pakistan with the pseudonym Hammad Hasan. The connection to HuJI is also alarming given the porous nature of India’s international border with Bangladesh. Hence, despite India increasing surveillance and border security at the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan in its Western border, motivated IM-LeT cadres like Qureshi or Ansari can easily enter India via Nepal and Bangladesh with the help of HuJI who is active in these areas. Insurgent groups from Assam like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) also run camps in Bangladesh with covert connections with HuJI and could end up transporting terror cells into India. This calls for very strict fencing of India’s eastern borders and steep increase in border patrolling.

    Countering the IM

    A review of India’s ground forces for law enforcement and intelligence gathering last year reveal that India's police strength comes to 126 officers per 100,000 people while the standard United Nations norm is 222.9 The Intelligence Bureau (IB) has only 3,500 field operatives to monitor a country of 1.1 billion. Thereby, a boost in India’s security forces is a must along with modernization of the police forces and speedy undertaking of vital security sector reforms. Terror activities can be deterred if specific intelligence can zero in on different actors within a terror network. According to two distinguished terror experts, Paul Davies and Brian Jenkins, terror groups comprise of “leaders, lieutenants, financiers, logisticians, and other facilitators, foot soldiers, supporting population segments, and religious and otherwise ideological figures”10. Hence, it’s a long drawn process of planning and coordination before the final act of terror is unleashed. Terror activity is a process rather than the single final act that we see in terms of violence. The 9/11 terror process started in 1996 when Muhammad Atta began planning for the attack in Hamburg.11 Keeping this insight in mind, the IM terror process can be easily deterred if the state forces concentrate on finding the financiers, usually the least motivated amongst the other actors.

    A counter against the IM ideology can also be undertaken at the social level. In February, 2008, theologians from 6,000 religious schools met at the Darul-Uloom Deoband, an influential, 150-year-old Islamic school in UP, to denounce terrorism as an activity against Islam. Deoband’s cooperation in fighting terror is a very positive way of handling the spread of radical ideologies within India. Also, vulnerable areas like Azamgarh in UP must be closely monitored and the local civil society encouraged to talk against terror activities. India has to construct a counter-narrative against terror which should have cooperation from all the nation’s stakeholders if the fight against terror is to be a unified and successful effort.