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26 February, 2013

Phantoms on terror radar

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Within an hour of the two explosions that took 16 lives in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, on Thursday, some news channels started scrolling headlines suggesting involvement of the elusive Indian Mujahidin. But on Monday, the state was still waiting for reliable clues, for which it has announced a reward of Rs1 million.

Going by police accounts circulated by the media, in the last six years the IM has set off more than a dozen blasts in several cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow and Varanasi — more than one in some places — killing hundreds of people.

The outfit’s name first surfaced in 2008 when two channels received emails claiming responsibility for an explosion in Jaipur. An attached video footage showed a cycle with a bag on its carrier which presumably carried explosives.

Since then investigators have treated cycle bombs and email claims as IM markers. Cycles were used in the latest Hyderabad blasts but there was no email claim.

The media has described the IM variously as a home-grown terror outfit formed by remnants of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba of Pakistan which has links to the Inter-Services Intelligence.

In an article accessible at the website of the Combating Terrorism Center, set up at the US Military Academy at West Point after 9/11, journalist Praveen Swami, who has purveyed Indian intelligence data extensively, traces the origin of the IM to a gathering of young Muslims at Bhatkal on the Karnataka coast in 2004. He writes, “They swam, went for hikes in the woods, honed their archery skills, and occasionally engaged in target practice with an airgun.” The local police, he says, were unaware that these men were the “core team of the jihadist network that would soon be known as the Indian Mujahidin.”

According to another journalist fed by intelligence agencies, a dossier prepared by the Delhi police after last year’s Pune blasts and circulated to the states by the Centre, the IM’s genesis goes back to 2000; it is ubiquitous, with modules in states as far apart as Delhi and Kerala and Maharashtra and Bihar; its top leaders, Riyaz Bhatkal and his brother Iqbal Bhatkal, are in Pakistan and it has hideouts in Nepal and other places.

Vicky Nanjappa, a Bangalore-based blogger who tracks reports on IM activities, notes that each state police has a different version about its working. While there have been arrests galore, and after a couple of arrests the police claim to have cracked a particular case, the matter never seems to reach the logical end. “The conviction rate has been a zero,” he writes.

India banned the IM in June 2010. The US declared it a terrorist organisation the following year and said it had close ties with other terrorist entities like LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HUJI) and its goal was to establish a caliphate for South Asia.

While terrorism is a harsh reality, the terror hunt looks like a phantom chase. According to one report, Riyaz Bhatkal was involved in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 and had been on the police radar since then. According to another, the special cell of Delhi police had interrogated him after the 2010 Pune blasts and obtained from him the names of several members of IM modules. It is not clear how he got out of police custody.

At one time the investigating agencies said Riyaz Bhatkal had masterminded the blasts and Shahrukh supplied the explosives. Now they say Riyaz and Shahrukh may be different names used by the same person. Yasin Bhatkal, said to be the IM’s bomb-maker, was arrested in Kolkata in 2008 but was released a few months later as his real identity was not known.

Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju last week accused the media of dividing the people on religious lines by demonising the Muslim community by bringing up names like Indian Mujahidin after every bomb blast. He pooh-poohed reports of IM emails saying any mischief-maker can send such messages.

B. Raman, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, wrote on Saturday: “If there is terror, it has to be a Muslim. If he is a Muslim, he has to be from the IM. If it is the IM, it must have acted at the instance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. That seems to be the thinking reflex of the police and the agencies.”

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