The arrest of several educated, well-placed youth in Bengaluru, Hubli and Hyderabad has shaken the security establishment. As investigations spread across the nation in search of many more sleeper cells, a new face of terror is emerging — from amidst all of us…
The Jihad network never sleeps
It’s not without reason that Union home secretary R.K. Singh, at a high level security review meeting, described as a ’cause for concern’ the profile of the operatives arrested following the smashing of a Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba module earlier this week across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The module included a journalist, a DRDO researcher, a doctor, an engineer, and an MBA student from Hyderabad. The investigation and hunt for more members of the module has now spread to Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
So, is this the new face of terror in the country — well-educated, tech savvy and well-networked?If recent intelligence inputs are any indication to go by, outfits like the Students’ Islamic Movement of India and the Indian Mujahideen are now targeting educated youth, even professionals working in various fields.
Due to the pan-India presence of both SIMI and IM, they serve as the main ‘resource centre’ for providing highly trained networks of sleeper cells to terror outfits like HuJI, Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
According to the latest Intelligence Bureau estimates, there are as many as 20,000 members of SIMI in ‘sleeper cells’ across India. After SIMI was banned, its entire cadre went underground and started helping major terrorist groups. A splinter group of the SIMI eventually went on to float Indian Mujahideen.
As Madhur Krishna Dhar, a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, points out, “It is now a known fact that terror groups are recruiting educated youth, particularly those who have some kind of an IT background and are tech-savvy because they are quicker at picking up skills for making improvised explosive devices and using the Internet, as the Assam propaganda showed.’’
Sources say that Intelligence Bureau chief Nehchal Sandhu has pointed out in his assessment to the Home ministry that outfits like HuJI and IM have developed a formidable network in Southern India, courtesy SIMI.
In fact, it is believed that top IM commander Yasin Bhatkal has specifically asked his key operatives to target young men studying in engineering colleges. A case in point is Fasih Mohammed, an IM operative detained in Saudi Arabia, who studied engineering in Karnataka.
Another former top IB official S.K. Gupta says the first indication of educated men getting lured by terror groups came almost a decade ago when a terror module in Pune was busted. The accused, a Lashkar operative, was an engineering student. Now the phenomenon has spread across the country.
In fact, as recently as Friday, at a top level Home ministry briefing, the IB director talked about how a module of seven to eight terrorists, all educated Indian youth, had sneaked into Assam after getting trained in Bangladesh.
Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.K.Verma says there is no denying the fact that the terror outfits now have a vast network of sleeper cells that provides logistical support for any major strike in the country.
He says recent incident like the Mumbai serial bombings in 2011 or recent blasts in Pune prove that while the ‘men and hardware’ that actually carried out the blasts came from outside, they had strong local support. This is where SIMI network is extremely effective. The sleeper cells provide ‘boarding and lodging, and recce tours’ of possible targets.
A senior intelligence official admitted that this is precisely the reason why in most important cases investigating agencies at best are only able to catch the ‘fringe elements’ and not the actual perpetrators of terror attacks since they leave the country after the incident.
Mr Dhar also argues that Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence has played a crucial role in bringing about a greater co-ordination among various Pakistan-based terror outfits and SIMI and IM, ensuring that whichever of its terror outfits wants to carry out an attack, local support is always there. This was also revealed in the smashing of the Darbhanga module of the IM in which a Jaish operative, Qateel Siddiqui, was also arrested and who revealed that Jaish and Lashkar had close ties with IM.
Mr Gupta agrees that SIMI’s network is present in virtually all states. “It’s there right from Assam to Gujarat and from Kashmir Valley to the South now. And it has been proved. Even in the recent Assam issue, this network in the South was used by Pakistan-based outfits,’’he added.
What is also alarming is that intelligence agencies have cautioned the Home Ministry that Kerala has become the biggest centre of hawala operations in the South.
Money is said to be coming in from Saudi Arabia and is being used fund the terror machinery of SIMI and IM in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. In fact, members of the Darbhanga module had associates as far down south as in Tamil Nadu.
Terrorist groups’ use of tech-savvy cadres and networked cells across states, Intelligence Bureau officials admit, are making investigations into terror-related cases increasingly difficult.
“Because of their pan-India presence and networked nature, when one cell is smashed in, say, Kashmir valley, its nodes pop up in Gujarat or elsewhere. The Darbhanga module had links in Karnataka, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Kashmir,’’ a senior intelligence official remarked.
New Delhi’s worried security establishment has directed all agencies to ensure that every investigation into every module that is cracked reaches its logical conclusion across state borders, rather than leaving loose ends hanging at the borders of states.
Educated, alienated and radicalized
While going through his curriculum vitae his prospective employer — the editor of popular Kannada news daily — gave him a hard look; tossed his CV across the table and reportedly said that it was that of a Taliban. This was Mati-ur-Rehman Siddique’s first attempt at applying for a job and he was angry at being targeted, for what he believed was his proficiency in Urdu and being a keen scholar of Islam.
Originally from Uttar Pradesh, the 26-year-old journalist employed with prominent English news daily was arrested on August 29 by the CCB along with his five room-mates for alleged involvement in plotting the assassination of BJP politicians and right leaning journalists. Devout, bright and aloof, Siddique has become the flashpoint of a debate among hardliners, civil society and law enforcement agencies in the country.
Says Karnataka Muslim Muttahida Mahaz (KMM) leader Masood Abdul Khader: “There’s a systematic conspiracy to profile educated Muslim youth as terrorists. Our youth feel they are part of the country and are proud to be Indians. We want to be included in nation building but we are being sidelined. Our political leadership has also disappointed us.”
That’s one side of the story. The other is the views of a senior police officer: “We have executed the arrests after collecting solid evidence. The accused are involved in a conspiracy to assassinate BJP leaders and journalists. There was a clear attempt to plant Siddique in the media because of the power and access the media enjoys. He is part of a new terror module, which is committed to jihad.”
Even as the dust settles on the mass exodus of the North East people from the City, triggered by the hate SMSes and doctored MMS of — a ‘sample’ of psy jehad allegedly launched by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence — the Central Crime Branch, City police on August 29 busted a new unnamed ‘Hubli module’ — an alleged offshoot the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) banned in 2001 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
They arrested 11 Muslim youth — six from the City and five from Hubli — accused of being a part of the plot hatched by their handlers in Saudi Arabia to eliminate Bharatiya Janata Party politicians and pro-BJP journalists, under concerned sections of the Indian Penal Code, UAPA and the Arms Act.
Two days later, the Andhra police on August 31 arrested Obaid Rehman — the 12th accused — an MBA student — suspected to be involved in the same conspiracy. Among the arrested were Mati-ur-Rehman Siddique — the journalist; Riyaz Ahmed Byahatti, a BCA graduate and salesman; Mohd Yusuf Nalband, also a salesman; Ajaz Ali Mirza, a junior engineer at the Defence Research Development Organis-ation, Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, an MCA student and Abdullah Hakim Jamadar. Those arrested from Hubli include Ubedullah Imran, Mohammed Sadiq Lakshkar, Wahid Hussain, Dr Zafar Iqbal Sholapur and Mehboob alias Baba.
The arrests, strongly challenged by the families of the accused as ‘illegal and undemocratic’ to ‘target innocent educated Muslim youth’ were executed just days before they were set to execute a ‘masterplan’ to eliminate the VIPs, said a senior police officer.
“The conspiracy was to murder the BJP sympathisers to create communal disharmony on a large scale and destablise the RSS-ruled BJP government,” he said. What is disturbing about the arrests is that all the accused men are educated and two were employed in a prominent Defence organization and media.
The suspects are not part of the banned terror outfit – the Indian Mujahideen but a new group employing a completely different modus operandi. “They have used proxies to send and receive mails and messages to fox Intelligence and police officers at the behest of handlers in Saudi Arabia from whom they were taking orders,” added the officer.
IT professional in Mumbai attacks
When the Mumbai crime branch busted the first Indian Mujahideen module in 2008, the officers were shocked to find among its 21 operatives a highly-paid software engineer in Pune. Mansoor Ali Peerbhoy, who was recruited to head Indian Mujahideen’s media wing, was a principal software engineer at Yahoo! India, drawing an annual salary of over Rs. 17 lakh.
It was he who hacked the Wi-Fi connection of American national Kennneth Haywood in Navi Mumbai to send the IM e-mail to newspapers and television channels claming responsibility for the serial blasts in Ahmedabad that year.
“For Peerbhoy, it all started in 2004, when he joined an Arabic language course and met Asif Sheikh, a mechanical engineer, indoctrinated by IM operatives, who befriended him, pleaded with him to at least help them with computers, and he agreed,” said an officer familiar with the case.By 2007, he agreed to get trained in computer hacking.
On May 18, 2007, he was in Hyderabad, when the bombs exploded at Charminar’s Mecca Masjid. Peerbhoy shocked to see the bodies, believed a Hindu group was behind it. He decided “it was payback time”.
The very next day, he told his interrogators, he contacted IM operatives and told them he was “ready to take up jihad as his life’s mission”. Having trained him in hacking, IM now sent him to Bhatkal in Karnataka to train in assembling and handling explosives, using submachine guns, pistols, bullet-proof jackets and life vests.
The techie became a terrorist. The road from Pune, to Bhatkal to Hubli became one that would be increasingly well-travelled by the time it came to 2012.