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Kerala’s Emergence as a Terror Hub: Repeated Warnings Ignored

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 11, 2008

    In August 2006, IDSA published a web commentary titled “Is Kerala emerging as India’s new terror hub?” The events of the past few months, especially the shocking revelation of militants from Kerala operating in Kashmir, have validated the concerns raised by this report.

    The August 2006 commentary was prompted by two extraordinary events in Kerala which were in fact indicative of a larger phenomenon of the state turning into a hub of extremist indoctrination and logistical transit point for transnational fundamentalist groups. The first was the arrest of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists for illegal gatherings in Binanipuram near Kochi in August 2006 and the second was the burning of a Tamil Nadu government bus near Kochi in 2005 by members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), protesting against the prolonged incarceration of their leader Abdul Nasser Madhani in Coimbatore.

    Investigators pursuing the terror attacks in Jaipur and Ahmedabad earlier this year had stumbled upon SIMI links originating from South India and had reportedly found out that some people involved in these two terror plots were part of the Binanipuram grouping, and later also were leading the training camps in Vagamon, a hilly tract in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. The SIMI activists who were arrested by the Kerala Police from Binanipuram in August 2006, were later let off without a proper perusal of the case.

    The second is the case of the bus burning by PDP activists. Around eight activists were arrested by the Kerala Police after the incident and then released on bail. Currently, news reports have highlighted the fears raised by the intelligence agencies that a handful of these youths could have made their way to Kashmir.

    With the gunning down of at least four militants from Kerala in the last few weeks in Kashmir, the Kerala Police is now trying to unravel a bigger network that is recruiting youths from Kerala for the Kashmir militancy. What they have stumbled upon in the past few weeks has shocked the security establishment and woken them from their slumber for ignoring repeated warnings of Kerala turning into terror hub and a launching pad for pan-Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in the rest of the country.

    During the last one month, the Kerala Police has nabbed some recruitment agents from Kochi and Kannur who had facilitated the recruitment of misguided youths from Kerala to join the ranks of jihadi groups in Kashmir. Investigators now suspect that at least 60-70 youths have mysteriously disappeared from the Kochi and Malabar belt and have could have landed up in Kashmir. The shocking revelation of Keralite youths becoming foot soldiers in the Kashmir militancy was first revealed in early October after the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police gunned down a militant hailing from Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram. Some documents written in Malayalam were found on his body which brought to light the first case of a Kerala link to Kashmir militancy.

    On October 7, two militants identified as Abdul Rehman and Muhammad Fayaz belonging to Kannur and Malappuram districts of Kerala were killed in a shootout with security forces in Lolab area of Kupwara district. Similarly on October 10, three more militants, which included two Keralites and one Pakistani national, were killed in another encounter in Kupwara district. The two from Kerala were identified as Muhammad Yasin and Faizu belonging to Ernakulam and Kannur districts respectively.

    Though the Kerala Police initially refused to accept this, they had to retract after the J&K Police reported gunning down more militants hailing from Kerala, which forced the Kerala Police to undertake raids in Kannur and Kochi. The arrest of two recruitment agents – Faisal and Jaleel - in Kochi and Kannur led to the revelation that over 60-70 youths could have gone to training camps in Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Jaleel was under watch for some time for receiving telephone calls from one of the militants killed in Kashmir. In fact, the local media reported Jaleel confessing to sending over 300 youths from Kerala to Kashmir, though the Kerala Police denied such claims. Mohammed Yasin, who is originally a Christian hailing from Ernakulam, was a recent convert to Islam and was a history sheeter who made it to Kashmir in early October. The Kerala Police is now questioning an underworld gang leader in Kochi with whom Yasin was earlier involved in criminal activities.

    If the Kerala link to the Kashmir militancy was a new phenomenon which has rattled the security establishment, the alleged involvement of Keralite youths in the Jaipur and Ahmedabad bomb blasts revealed thepremeative radicalization of Muslim youths in Kerala duringin the the past few years linked to movements like the SIMI. While some SIMI activists and leaders from Kerala were already under the scanner for their involvement in the July 2006 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, the arrest of a Bangalore-based software professional hailing from Kerala for the bomb blasts in Bangalore and Jaipur illustrated the level of indoctrination among Muslim youth as a key character of the new wave of home grown fundamentalism in the country.

    Though these revelations have caught the security establishment off guard it should be treated more as a case of repeated warnings being ignored about Kerala transforming into a haven for fundamentalist forces and logistics hub for pan-Islamic terrorist groups. The spurt in fundamentalist violence including intermittent small-scale explosions has been a regular phenomenon in the state during the last few years. Though radical groups first emerged after the Babri Masjid demolition, the first indication of such groups acquiring teeth was the abduction and suspected murder of reformist scholar Maulavi Abul Hassan Chekannur in July 1993. The seizure of pipe bombs (nitroglycerine charges in iron tubes) concealed in plastic bags under the Kadalundi Bridge in Malappuram in 1996 gave credence to fears of terror groups gaining roots and possible infiltration by Pakistan’s ISI among extremist groups in this region. Also, two Tamil Nadu bomb blast suspects had reportedly revealed during interrogation about their visits to Malappuram and training people in handling explosives during this period.

    Though many isolated events linked with fundamentalist groups continued at regular intervals, since 2005 a series of low-intensity explosions, like the ones in Kozhikode bus station and a fishing boat in a local harbour, and periodic arms seizures across the state were all ominous trends pointing to Kerala turning into an extremist flash point. Adding to this was Kerala’s strategic position as a transit point for hawala rackets. Two years back, the Kerala Police had netted an NRI from the Middle East with access to over Rs 10,000 crores of hawala money. It was believed that a chunk of this money could have been channeled by Pakistan-based groups to other parts of the country.

    Complementing such fears were the sporadic rise of newer groups with fundamentalist incarnations, which also highlighted the increasing radicalization of Muslim youth, especially in the Malabar belt, where organizations like the National Democratic Front (NDF) were blamed for orchestrating many instances of communal violence. The NDF have in recent years emerged as a strong alternative to groups like the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) – which was formed by Abdul Nasser Madhani and later reincarnated as the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Madhani himself was incarcerated in Salem jail for a long time as an accused in the Coimbatore bomb blasts case.

    After the decline of the ISS and the ban on SIMI, the Kerala Police believes that the NDF, which masquerades as a human rights organization with a pseudo-political character, has been a favourite destination for former cadre of ISS and SIMI. Though the NDF leadership denies any extremist links, its cadre is suspected to be involved in many cases of extremist violence. In fact, Jaleel, who is arrested for recruiting youths for Kashmiri groups, was reportedly an NDF member. The NDF, while not denying Jaleel’s association with the NDF, had announced Jaleel’s expulsion from the group on October 29 well after the Kerala Police arrested him on October 18. A blame game is now on in Kerala with major political parties attacking one another for cultivating groups like the NDF.

    If NDF is one organization which has survived without risking a ban despite evidence of its extremist leanings, the same is not the case with SIMI, whose activities are now being monitored, though the damage has already been done. Being an organization with a strong base in Kerala, the SIMI has been functioning clandestinely in the sidelines after the ban. A splinter group led by C. A. M. Basheer, who hails from Ernakulam, is suspected to be involved in the July 2006 Mumbai blasts. Basheer, a trained aeronautical engineer, is known to have received training in Pakistan, and was already booked for his alleged role in the 2003 Mumbai blasts. With the police now suspecting that the Binanipuram and Vagamon meetings could have been launch pads for the Ahmedabad and Jaipur attacks strengthens the suspicion that home-grown terror modules with external assistance have been planning attacks for the past few years before unleashing themselves across the country this year.

    While central intelligence agencies have been actively pursuing these groups, especially after the Kadalundi episode, the same level of enthusiasm is not seen as far the efforts of the Kerala Police is concerned. The sheer incredulity with which the Kerala Police initially refused to accept the Kerala link to Kashmir militancy is typical of a demoralized police force unable to cope with the unprecedented security challenges faced by the state, known for its harmonious but sensitive communal mélange. For a mediocre police force acquainted with only petty crimes and political violence, the kind of extremist tendencies cropping up in the state is a professional challenge it is totally unprepared to tackle. Overand above such worries is the high level of politicisation of the Kerala Police, which has eroded its professional capabilities. Various judicial commissions have constantly referred to this aspect.

    Though the Kerala Police had acted quickly to round up SIMI activists in Binanipuram, the act of releasing them without proper follow-up, despite impounding seditious literature showing linkages with Pakistan-based terrorist groups, shows the lack of awareness and preparedness to meet such eventualities. Compounding such deficiencies is the failure of the state’s intelligence mechanism which could not track the activities in Vagamon, where some activists involved in recent terror attacks were allegedly trained. While lack of resources and manpower is an usual excuse, a media report recently pointed out that the Kerala Police was among the few state police wings which has not participated in the specialized anti-terror training for state forces conducted by the National Security Guards (NSG) in the past few years.

    With such tardy professionalism and politicisation curbing the effectiveness of the police force, it would be totally unprepared to tackle the contingencies that are expected to arise in the coming days from extremist elements in the state. Though Kerala itself has not witnessed any major terror attack, the mere fact that Kerala youths have traveled all the way to join the ranks of Kashmiri militants shows what is in store for the state. A nation-wide crackdown on extremists operating from the state would force them to implode within the peripheries of the state, thus disturbing its tender communal harmony.