Journalist Sandeep Bamzai explores how India’s southern states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra & Telangana became terror central
Even as India and its security apparatus grapple with the imponderables that emerge constantly with Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir Valley, the death by a thousand cuts asymmetrical warfare takes its toll on our forces continuously. The rapid use of the dark web and the onion router (TOR which provides annonymity) to subliminally indoctrinate the youth in the Valley with a bent towards Wahhabi Salafisim is not lost on our sleuths. However, that does not for a moment mean that our deep state can take its eyes off the ball in the rest of the country.
India’s vast swathe of counter-terrorism grid which combines the skills of hardcore investigation, dogged information reporting and ground level intel gathering on knowing who your adversary picks up every nano or sliver or nugget of information and processes it. Following the 3D approach of detect, deter and destroy, in the wake of 26/11, it is a much more robust network.
While RAW provides the external inputs, IB domestic, NTRO algos pick up chatter, it is the state police and its CIDs and Q Branch, say, in Tamil Nadu or Special Branch in other states who collate, disseminate and act on the information packs. In states like Maharashtra and southern states, these investigators are reportedly top of line and have achieved many kills and successes.
There are designated counter terrorism groups within RAW and IB and of course, there is now a full-fledged NIA which is part of a seamless information sharing and acting main frame. Ministry of Home Affairs now has a counter-terrorism and counter radicalisation division.
How and why did India manage to provide solid information leads to Sri Lanka is based on this grid and its strategic imperatives. Right from the beginning, Jamaat Inayat Ansural Momin has for long been active in Kerala and on the radar of India’s deep state, it follows pure Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ideology. Progenitor of the LeT grand plan to use the fertile breeding grounds of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives for fresh recruits to wreak havoc on India – Muzzamil Bhat – wanted at first to use JIAM to come to Lanka and train there and return as suicide bombers to India.
In 2009, in a celebrated case, a Malyalee Muslim was found wandering around suspiciously in Kashmir till he was arrested by the security forces. Kerala has a history of communal violence, none more famous than the Marad massacre which saw the killing of eight Hindus by a Muslim mob on May 2, 2003 at the Marad beach of the Kozikhode district.
In the early evening, eight Hindus were hacked to death by a Muslim mob on the beach after reeling in their catch for the day. The killers then escaped into the local Juma Masjid, the Marad enquiry commission’s (Justice Thomas P Joseph) report notes the submission of then Kozhikode Police Commissioner T.K. Vinod Kumar that hundreds of local Muslim women converged on the mosque to prevent the police from entering it to catch the attackers.
Police commissioner, T.K. Vinod Kumar stated: “It was an operation carried out by a well-knit organization. It was a quick and sudden attack which was over in 10 minutes. The attack came from a particular community. “One of the attackers, Mohammed Ashker, was also killed during the incident. The police recovered explosives and arms from the local Juma Masjid two days after the killings as well as special investigation team of the Kerala Crime Branch filed chargesheets against 147 people accused of involvement or complicity in the crime. Some suspected a JIAM hand in this.
Terror central, many reckon, was always in north India, but actually it has existed in Maharashtra and southern states for many years. Its genealogy can be traced to JIAM. Middle-eastern terror networks have been known to flirt with JIAM and that is how the Bhatkals in Karnataka emerged as a follow up to the Shahid Bilal network and dreaded Amjad LeT promoted terror cell in Hyderabad busted with his arrest in 2010.
An existential crisis gripped Bhatkal in Karnataka with the rise of Mohammed Ahmed Zarar Siddibapa who became a poster boy of indigenous terror as the dangerous and deadly Indian Mujahideen terrorist Yasin Bhatkal. What did not help the town in coastal Uttara Kannada district was that other IM top guns, brothers Riyaz and Iqbal Shabantri, also became branded as Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal.
The town was subsumed by their identity. Its genesis can be traced to a clash in 1991 during the Lok Sabha polls followed by communal clashes which erupted in 1993. A police officer who did not want to be named said, “The town remained tense for nearly six months, during which 17 people were killed, three were reported missing and property worth Rs 12 crore was destroyed.” Tension rose alarmingly in April 1996 after the then local MLA Dr U Chittaranjan was murdered, leading to a police crackdown.
Investigators now claim that birthed seven years later was Yasin Bhatkal along with six other young men who sat together in the town and decided to form the Indian Mujahideen. Muslims in Bhatkal are primarily known to be either Nawayaths or Dahknis. The Nawayaths trace their origins to Arab countries and believe their ancestors came to the seashore town in the 8th century.
The Dakhnis are referred to as original inhabitants. IM became a terror power house — in signature moves it planted bombs all over the country leaving behind a trail of blood. It was only the combined operation of RAW under Alok Joshi and IB under Syed Asif Ibrahim that Yasin Bhatkal was captured after a stakeout in Nepal in August 2013 since when he remains incarcerated.
This is one of the biggest wins of Indian intelligence which helped dismantle the IM network which killed hundreds in different locations in India.
In early 2010, captured Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative T Naseer reportedly told his Kerala police interrogators that Hyderabad was Pakistani-based LeT’s Indian headquarters and the epicentre of all anti-national activities. Information provided by security agencies revealed that Hyderabad had the most number of alleged terror operatives who had gone missing or are currently believed to be residents in Pakistan.
Mohammed Shahid Bilal, the alleged mastermind in the August 2007 twin blasts in the city and the Mecca Masjid blasts in May that year, who is said to have been killed in an encounter in Pakistan, continues to remain a hero in the area where he lived. A youth from his area, who preferred not to be identified for this report, says, “Saab jab tak Bilal tha, paani or current ka problem nahin tha (when Bilal was alive, we did not have water or power problems).”
In 2002 the Lashkar decided to get aggressive. In October 2002, 14 men were sent to Pakistan for training. Various reasons like the liberation of Hyderabad and the demolition of the Babri Masjid were given to brainwash these men. In 2007, when the Lashkar gave a call for jihad, the likes of Bilal and Rehman Khan became full-fledged terror operatives. They were among the 14 men who had been sent to Pakistan and told to set up Lashkar networks in the city.
At the time, during a meeting of FBI agents and Indian security officials, it emerged that 21 terrorists operating in Pakistan, including Abu Jundal, had Hyderabad origins. Hyderabad, the IB sources say, has surpassed Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala as a breeding ground for Indian terrorists. Intelligence Bureau sources say Bilal was gunned down in Karachi, Pakistan, on August 30, 2007, along with his brother Samad.
But the story of south India as epicentre – terror remains incomplete without mention of Mohd. Amjad, the HuJI boss who completed the triad along with Yasin Bhatkal and Shahid Bilal. Arguably one of the most dangerous, in January 2010, days ahead of Republic Day, Mohammed Amjad alias Khaja, the south India chief of terror outfit HuJI who was tasked by ISI to carry out some attacks was arrested by Hyderabad police.
Twenty-seven-year-old Khaja, a native of Malakpet, had close links with Jaish and Lashkar. Jamestown Foundation (a Washington-based institute which educates policy makers about events and trends, which it regards as being of current strategic importance to the United States) writes that IB officials achieved a breakthrough on January 17 when they arrested a self-styled HuJI commander identified as Mohammad Abdul Khwaja (a.k.a. Amjad) from Chennai.
The 27-year-old native of Andhra Pradesh had intended to strike major installations in South India during the forthcoming Republic Day (January 26) celebrations. According to his confessional statements, he planned to target the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) depot on the outskirts of Hyderabad city as well as refineries in Visakhapatnam and Chennai. Besides these installations, he also plotted to carry out assassinations in Hyderabad, mostly targeting police officers involved in terror investigations.
For these activities, Khwaja scouted at least 25 other Muslim youths from south India and reportedly sent them for terror training in Pakistan. The most disturbing aspect of Khwaja’s activities was the transnational linkages he had established over the years. Khwaja was found to be operating in and out of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the past few years, coordinating with the LeT, Jaish-e Muhammed (JeM) and IM leadership and establishing close ties with IM’s elusive mastermind, Riaz Bhatkal (a.k.a. Ismail Shahbandri).
Khwaja, who had worked closely with HuJi’s slain operative Shahid Bilal and underwent terrorist training in Pakistan, was found to be using three passports – Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani – in three different names. Neutralising this trinity meant that the terror network in south India was well on its way to walking the road to perdition.