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The Lashkar-e-Taiba's army in India

The Lashkar-e-Taiba's army in India

Author: Praveen Swami
Publication: The Hindu
Date: January 17, 2009
URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2009/01/17/stories/2009011755310800.htm

Our most pressing threat comes from Lashkar operatives who will not have to cross the oceans or scale the mountains across the Line of Control to attack India.

Last month, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's weekly newspaper Ghazwa hailed the Mumbai massacre as "an historic victory for the Muslim warriors, who have avenged the atrocities committed by India against its Muslim minority."

For weeks now, the world has been seeking to compel Pakistan to dismantle the terror factories which produced those 'warriors.' So far, these efforts have had little success: only a few of the camps run by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, have been dismantled; few of its leaders have been arrested.

But the most pressing threat to India comes from Lashkar operatives who will not have to cross the oceans or scale the mountains across the Line of Control. Key leaders of Indian Mujahideen - the terrorist network responsible for a string of urban bombings since 2005 - escaped a nationwide police hunt which led to the arrest of over 80 of its operatives in six states.

If the Indian Mujahideen is indeed planning further strikes, two men are most likely central to its plans: Riyaz Bhatkal, who organised the quasi-industrial production of the ready-to-assemble ammonium nitrate-based 'u'-shaped bombs used in its bombing campaign, and the man tasked by the Lashkar's central commanders to link these units together, Mumbai-based SIMI operative Abdul Subhan Usman Qureshi.

Bhatkal-the son of the owner of a leather-tanning factory in Mumbai's Kurla area - was part of the circle of student Islamists who joined the Students Islamic Movement of India around 1998. Like others in SIMI, Bhatkal believed that the problems confronting India's Muslims were the consequence of secular modernity - and that the answer lay in fighting to create an Islamic state. Along with his elder brother Iqbal Bhatkal, a qualified cleric who also practised Unani medicine, Bhatkal became a key figure at SIMI's Mumbai office.

SIMI old-timers recall that Bhatkal brothers attended SIMI's last public gathering - a 2001 rally held at the Bandra Reclamation ground. Its zeitgeist was incendiary. Osama bin-Laden was described as a "true mujahid [Islamic warrior]." Indian Muslims were exhorted to "trample the infidels."

Soon after, SIMI was proscribed-and the Mumbai Police began knocking on the Bhatkal family's door. Tiring of confrontation with the law, the Bhatkal brothers left for Mangalore.

Incensed by the 2003 pogrom in Gujarat, though, Riyaz Bhatkal travelled to Pakistan to train with the Lashkar. Pakistan-based mafioso Amir Raza Khan, who began financing jihadist groups after his brother was killed by the Gujarat Police in 2001, is believed to have paid for the journey, and arranged for the fake travel documents that allowed Bhatkal to transit through Dubai.

Back in Mangalore, Bhatkal began to recruit the men who would later form the bomb-manufacture cell of the Indian Mujahideen - mostly small businessmen like arrested suspects Ahmad Baba Abu Bakr, Ali Mohammad Ahmad, Javed Mohammad Ali and Syed Mohammad Naushad.

Iqbal Bhatkal drew other circles of recruits, operating through clerical networks. Mansoor Asghar Peerbhoy, the software engineer who helped design, produce and e-mail several Indian Mujahideen manifestos - and is now expected to testify against his one-time associates-was among them.

Kerala's Abdul Sattar, a Kannur resident also known by the alias Sainuddhin, and his long-standing associate Tadiyantavide Nasir, also formed a key part of the circle of south Indian jihadists recruited by the Bhatkal brothers.

Both men had cut their political teeth in street battles between followers of the Kerala politician Abdul Nasser Madani - who was recently acquitted of charges of having financed the 1998 serial bombings in Coimbatore by the Islamist terror group al-Umma-and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists. Sattar, for example, is alleged to have fabricated the pipe-bombs used in a series of 1993 attacks. Later, the men were alleged to have participated in a plot to assassinate former Kerala chief minister EK Nayanar.

Sattar and Nasir, the police claim, supplied much of the ammonium nitrate used in the bombs built by Bhatkal in Gujarat. Evidence also exists that the Kerala jihad leaders had sent upwards of 40 men for military training at Lashkar camps in Pakistan. In October, four Kerala men training with the Lashkar in the mountains above the north Kashmir town of Kupwara were shot dead by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. One of the four, Abdul Raheem, was Sattar's son-in-law. He had earlier been charged with participating in the 2005 torching of a bus to protest Tamil Nadu's decision to oppose Madani's efforts to secure bail.

In the north, similar jihadist modules were forming. In late 2001, Azamgarh resident Mohammad Sadiq Sheikh left for Pakistan. Sheikh, an ideological Islamist linked to SIMI in Uttar Pradesh, had succeeded in making contact with the Lashkar through his brother-in-law, Mujahid Salim - the son of Hyderabad-based Islamist cleric Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi, who founded the Jamiat-ul-Sheikh Maududi, named for the founder of the Jamaaat-e-Islami. Like Bhatkal, Sheikh's travel to Pakistan was arranged through Khan's criminal network.

Sheikh, after his return, recruited several figures alleged to have played a key role in the Indian Mujahideen bombings. Indian Mujahideen commander Atif Amin, who was killed in a September shootout with the Delhi Police in Jamia Nagar, is thought to have trained in Pakistan, as did Mumbai-based Arif Badr Sheikh. So, too, did Shahnawaz Khan, a Lucknow-based Unani doctor whose brother, Mohammad Saif, was arrested during the Jamia Nagar raid.

Mumbai's Qureshi, investigators believe, had the critical task of helping these complex, local cells of jihadists knit together into a single unity. His task was complex: in the Ahmedabad attacks, for example, Qureshi mated Bhatkal's bomb-making assets with a group of SIMI operatives raised by computer graphics designer Qayamuddin Kapadia, who in turn provided safe houses and logistical support for Atif Amin's assault team.

Like Bhatkal, Qureshi was the son of working class parents who had migrated to Mumbai-in this case from Uttar Pradesh. Like, Bhatkal, too, he received a technical educaiton. He obtained a diploma in industrial electronics in 1995, and went on to work at several private information technology firms in Mumbai. It is unclear just when Qureshi encountered SIMI, but he was present at the organisation's 1999 convention-a time when he was working on setting up Wipro project to set up an intranet at Bharat Petrochemicals. His links with SIMI deepened over coming years. In March, 2001, Qureshi quit his job at the computer firm Datamatics, recording in a letter of resgination that he had "decided to devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters."
Later, Qureshi - first profiled in this newspaper hours before September's serial bombings in New Delhi, which he helped orchestrate - is thought to have trained in Pakistan. Like Bhatkal, he travelled with assistance from Khan's mafia network.

From 2005, the Indian jihadists who had trained with the Lashkar initiated a new phase in the Pakistan-based terror group's long-running war against India. Asad Yazdani, a resident of Hyderabad's Toli Chowki area who was among Maulana Nasir's first recruits, carried out a series of strikes starting with the assassination of Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya More often than not, these early operations, like the June, 2005 bombing of the Shramjeevi Express and the March, 2006, attack on the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, relied on cross-border logistical assistance from the Lashkar or Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami.

In time, their operations became increasingly independent - and lethal. Some Mumbai police investigators believe that unidentified Pakistanis who helped execute the July 2006 attacks on the city's suburban train system were not Pakistani at all - but, rather, Amin and other members of the Azamgarh cell. It is certainly possible. Rahil Ahmad Sheikh, a top Indian jihadist who played a key role in sending several men linked with the train bombings to camps in Pakistan - and was sighted at the Lashkar's headquarters in Lahore last year - knew both Bhatkal and Qureshi from their days in SIMI's Mumbai office.

In the wake of the Mumbai bombings, the Lashkar came under intense pressure from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's regime to scale back offensive operations against India. Lakhvi and other Lashkar commanders prodded Qureshi, Bhatkal and Sheikh to set up a self-sustaining network in India. On the eve of attacking three court complex buildings in Uttar Pradesh in November, 2007, the three men finally gave their network a name.

"Remember my friends," Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed had said in a February 5, 2007 speech, delivered not long after the discussions that led to the formation of the Indian Mujahideen"that the jihad has been ordained by Allah". "It is not an order of a general," he continued, "that can be started one day and stopped the other day. Our jihad in Kashmir will end when all the Hindus will be destroyed in India."

Saeed's threats may be psychotic, but he has demonstrated they are made in earnest, and delivered on: reason enough for India to pay close attention to last month's article in Ghazwa.

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