India’s Most Wanted

September 4, 2013

When it comes to jihadist violence in India, expeditionary terrorism by Pakistani militants typically receives the most focus. In fact, however, indigenous actors with substantial external support are responsible for the majority of jihadist attacks in India. For over twenty years, a small number of Indian Muslims have been launching terrorist strikes – often with Pakistani support and sometimes on their own. The Indian Mujahideen (IM) is the most well known manifestation of the indigenous Islamist militant threat in India. In its present incarnation, the IM is best understood as a label that describes a network of modules with a loose leadership currently based in Pakistan, though some of these men move between there, the United Arab Emirates, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This safe haven has helped many top Indian militants to elude arrest. However, in the past fortnight, two of India’s most wanted jihadists were captured and handed over to the Indian authorities. The recent arrests of Abdul Karim and Mohammed Yasin Bhatkal have significant operational implications for Indian counterterrorism efforts. They could also have strategic consequences vis-à-vis Pakistan, especially considering scattered reports that its intelligence services shared information that led to Karim’s arrest.

Old School Jihadi

Abdul Karim (a.k.a. Tunda) was one of India’s first jihadists. He helped to establish the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (Organization for the Improvement of Muslims or TIM) in Mumbai in 1985. At its founding, the TIM was intended to be a militia that would defend Indian Muslims from the Hindu nationalist movement rising at the time. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed the Babri Mosque, sparking communal riots that left a disproportionate number of Indian Muslims dead. In response, Tunda and two of his TIM associates, who had recently connected with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), began helping it to build a terrorist infrastructure in India. The three TIM members were also already training with explosives by this time.

A year to the day after the Babri Masjid’s destruction, TIM, with LeT’s assistance, executed a series of coordinated bombings: 43 in Mumbai and Hyderabad and 7 separate explosions on inter-city trains in Hyderabad, Gulbarga, Surat and Lucknow. Most of the explosions were small and only two people were killed, but the ability to execute such a high number of coordinated blasts demonstrated intensive planning and discipline. Soon after, Tunda crossed into Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he headed LeT’s operations during the mid-1990s as part of a wider effort to build the group’s pan-India capabilities.

Tunda returned to India in 1996. He became LeT’s top field operative in the country and soon put his network into action, engineering a series of bombings over the next four years. All together, he was allegedly involved in over 40 bomb attacks across the country. At this time, many of those detonating the bombs Tunda built were LeT-trained militants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Tunda also trained indigenous recruits to prepare explosives, helping to set the stage for a more indigenized movement. He fled to Pakistan in 2000, where he became a mentor to a new generation of Indian recruits. Some of these formed the building blocks of the Indian Mujahideen.

NextGen Jihad

Mohammed Yasin Ahmed Zarar Siddibappa (a.k.a. Yasin Bhatkal) was, until last week, the IM’s commander in India. His cousins, Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari, founded the network in 2004 along with several other Indian militants, who are currently believed to be hiding in Pakistan. The Shahbandari brothers recruited Yasin in 2007. That year, the IM announced its existence via emails sent to the media in advance of bombing attacks, though it had been active since early 2005. The IM’s Azamgarh module, so-called because many of its recruits came from that north Indian city, executed a raft of bombings between 2005 and 2008. In 2008, police finally busted the module and arrested many IM members, leading the Shahbandari brothers to flee.

New modules had been formed by this time and Yasin stepped in to lead them. Under his watch and with ongoing support from Pakistan-based actors, he rebuilt IM networks and initiated another bombing spree in 2010. The German Bakery in Pune, India was Yasin’s first target, chosen because it was a popular spot for foreigners. More attacks followed, and Yasin’s arrest is unlikely to bring this chapter to a close. Nevertheless, his capture is a significant event, all the more so because it comes on the heels of Tunda’s arrest.

More Than Just a Bust

Arrests like these don’t happen every day and are sure to have a host of operational implications. To begin with, reports indicate the two men are already providing Indian authorities with information regarding past operations. This can only help Indian authorities crack existing cases, some of which continue to confound investigators and experts. For example, more than seven years since the 2006 Mumbai blasts killed over 200 people, there is still no agreement on precisely who engineered or executed the bombings.

As the on-the-ground IM commander, Yasin could also provide important insights into how and where the network’s modules function. He is likely to be a tough nut to crack, but even the possibility of his sharing information could force members of the IM network further underground, potentially disrupt attack planning, and possibly sow confusion and paranoia. Notably, because Yasin moved between India, Nepal, Gulf countries and, possibly, Bangladesh, his inputs could advance regionally coordinated counterterrorism efforts as well. Finally, he was in contact with various militants operating out of Pakistan, including the Shahbandari brothers, meaning he can provide insights into leadership structures and some of the nuances of Pakistani support. Having lived for the past thirteen years in Pakistan, Tunda will be able to fill in many other gaps in this area. Of particular interest will be the relationship and division of responsibilities between Pakistani groups and Indian networks.

Every time a high-level militant is arrested in India’s near abroad, it raises the stakes for others who would operate in the area. For example, Bangladesh historically was an important staging ground for attacks against India. Indeed, the Research Department Explosive (RDX), an explosive nitroamine widely used in military and industrial applications, with which the Indian Mujahideen executed its first four bombings, came from the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami branch in Bangladesh (HuJI-B). And, as already mentioned, Tunda helped to build LeT’s pan-India infrastructure from Bangladesh. Authorities there, traditionally permissive of such militant entities, began cracking down on domestic jihadists like HuJI-B after 2005 when some of them launched a series of bomb blasts across the country. In 2009—2010, Bangladesh counterterrorism efforts expanded to include foreign elements like LeT as well. India, the United States, and the United Kingdom took steps to facilitate these counterterrorism efforts in Bangladesh. During a research visit to Dhaka last year, Indian, British and American interlocutors based in the country agreed with their Bangladeshi counterparts that it had become less hospitable terrain. Many HuJI-B members had been arrested or were forced underground, while LeT’s presence was greatly reduced. As Bangladesh receded as a staging and transit point, Nepal’s importance increased. It is too early to tell whether Tunda’s and Yasin’s arrests in Nepal herald a similar effort there and, if so, whether it will be successful. Nevertheless, the regional counterterrorism cooperation that led to this arrest is promising.

The Persian Gulf has also been fertile soil as a support base for South Asian militancy, but this too could change. Several Pakistan-based militant groups have ties with Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1980s, while the Indian crime boss-cum-terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, currently sheltering in Pakistan, has provided access to additional networks in places such as the United Arab Emirates. Finally, Riyadh’s close relationship with Islamabad meant that anyone found engaging in militant activities was simply sent back to Pakistan provided he was traveling on a Pakistani passport. That appears to have changed last year when one of LeT’s top Indian operatives, Zabiuddin Ansari, was arrested in Saudi Arabia and subsequently handed over to New Delhi. Since then, Riyadh has deported a second high-ranking Indian LeT operative, and rumors abound that a third might be on the way.

It is far too early to suggest that Nepal and the Persian Gulf are becoming no-go areas for South Asian militants. Moreover, gains made in Bangladesh could yet prove fleeting. Yet India has clearly enjoyed several small victories in the larger fight against terrorism. And this is before one considers the possibility that Pakistani intelligence services contributed to Tunda’s capture, as some reports suggest. Even if true, any assistance must be put in context. First, Islamabad is pushing for renewed peace talks at a time when tensions, and violence, are rising along the Line of Control that separates Indian- from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Second, Tunda was past his use-by date and so of little operational value.

Whether true or not, Pakistan’s security establishment is unprepared to cease its support for militant proxies like LeT or to turn over all of the Indian jihadists enjoying safe haven on its soil. Even if Pakistan were to make an unambiguous effort to dismantle the militant infrastructure within its territory, it could take years to manifest and one would expect ongoing violence during that time. In short, Indian counterterrorism practitioners and the countries with which they cooperate regularly still face a long slog. But they’ve had pretty good two weeks.


Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Photo Credit: Luke X. Martin