The Long Night of Horror
The uncovering of an IS-a liated module in Hyderabad just days before the attacks on Dhaka is a chilling reminder of the threat from Islamic State
ISIS or ISI? Bangladesh tries to make sense of the terror attack that left 23 people dead in the heart of its capital Dhaka
Late into the night of June 29, a joint task force of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Telangana police picked up 11 youths in Hyderabad. Five were arrested the next day, following raids at 10 places in the city that rapidly unravelled the Islamic State’s (IS) deadly new gameplan.
The IS-affiliated module planned to set off a series of improvised explosive devices (IED) blasts across the city. It was a macabre plot that exceeded previous attempts by Islamist militants to cause mayhem in the city.
IS is not in India yet, at least not in the manner of previous groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which infiltrated, recruited and set up modules to carry out attacks across the subcontinent. It has worked to win recruits through social media. Until recently, its efforts focused on luring potential recruits to travel and fight in territories under its control in Iraq and Syria. A majority of the 49 arrests made by Indian security agencies over the past two years—25 by the NIA and 24 by state police in Telangana, Maharashtra, Delhi and Tamil Nadu—were of IS-inspired radicals either recruiting others or attempting to travel to Turkey, the crossover point into IS territory. The threat might have seemed distant at the time. Areeb Majeed, a Thanebased civil engineer who returned from a stint as an IS fighter, was the only survivor of a group of four students who migrated to IS territories. He was arrested by the NIA and is now facing trial in Thane.
But this year, intelligence sleuths say, there has been a dramatic change of plan. The IS’s ‘Caliphate’ is under heavy attack from a US-led coalition in both Syria and Iraq; the group’s territories have shrunk by 20 per cent, and it has become more difficult for recruits to travel into Syria and Iraq. IS’s online motivators are exhorting recruits to carry out attacks in countries of their origin. This ‘franchise model’ is why IS recruits now present a clear and present danger. Indian security agencies are worried by the new, stepped-up threat from IS-inspired affiliates. Information pieced together by the Telangana police so far suggests that the Syriabased handler of the five suspected IS operatives—the former Indian Mujahideen operative, Shafi Armar, 29, from Bhatkal, Karnataka—was in constant touch with the lynchpin of the module, Ibrahim Yazdani, 30, an engineering graduate.
Yazdani did try to travel to Syria via Turkey but the Turkish authorities rejected his visa application as they were not convinced about the purpose of his visit. Yazdani was helped by some persons, yet to be named, in becoming ‘Amir’ or supreme leader of an IS module in Hyderabad. He was instructed to develop a network of like-minded people online. This was before he was introduced to Armar. He provided step-by-step instructions on the phone about how to make IEDs and also sent numerous web links detailing how to go about the task.
The July 1 Dhaka massacre may have revived fears of possible links between Bangladesh-based Islamist terror and West Bengal and Telangana. In the high explosive blast in Khagragarh, a minority-dominated village in Burdwan, West Bengal, in October 2014, the 29 accused had links with the radical Bangladeshi organisation Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and were making bombs and hand grenades. The NIA discovered that JMB supporters and sympathisers had spread across Bengal as a result of the Awami League government’s pushback policy. It is in Hyderabad that IS’ links to existing militant groups become clear.
What IS has done is to rejuvenate and rebrand remnants of existing Islamist groups such as the Indian Mujahideen. The IM carried out a string of serial blasts across 10 Indian cities between 2007 and 2013. Leaders like Armar who had fled overseas are now regrouping under various IS affiliates like the Ansar ut-Tawhid fi-Bilad al Hind (AuT, supporters of monotheism in the land of India). They rely on reviving old networks and associates
and tapping into existing radical networks. Hyderabad in particular has been a hotbed for IM activity. The city has had a violent past (see Deccan Trap). The 2005 attack on the Hyderabad Special Task Force headquarters carried out by a Bangladeshi militant is one of the only three suicide bombings on Indian soil.
Hyderabad police are now grappling with alerts about terrorist groups from Bangladesh and Afghanistan making the city their base. Hyderabad also hosts hundreds of illegal Bangladeshi migrants who the police plan to deport after Id.
What exactly prompted Yazdani and his associates to work for IS is still unclear, though all five were radicalised. They appear to be only the core of the module which relies on a support system that possibly extends to those operating in other modules, says an investigator. Alarmingly, the chain of command and linkages to source the explosives and prepare to target the places for attack were developed in less than three months.
Security agencies have found nothing at present to suggest that these IS affiliates present a greater security threat than Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Their ability to carry out an attack on the scale of 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Gurdaspur or Pathankot is limited by factors such as the lack of highly-trained cadres with access to military-grade training, explosives and firearms.
This is one reason many security analysts are loath to even consider the IS affiliates a credible threat. “Frankly, I don’t see anything discontinuous with the past, neither in terms of capabilities, resources or technology,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. “Needless hysteria is being created over IS when it is known that the so-called IS cells are offshoots of existing groups like the AuT.”
Intelligence agencies, however, are unwilling to dismiss the IS threat so easily. “Our whole system is presently geared towards terrorism originating from Pakistan, and relies on
intelligence gathered from monitoring communications, but these new IS-inspired cells are much more difficult to monitor because they are much widely dispersed across the country,” says an intelligence official.
A study of the Hyderabad IS module reveals a familiar IM modus operandi. Armar asked the Hyderabad cell to form multiple modules over time to execute terror acts in the city.
Investigators are now looking for leads and links between the Yazdaniled module and a similar pan-Indian module busted in January, as Armar was the handler for both. The Yazdani module, they claim, sourced two 9 mm pistols from Nanded, Maharashtra, after failing to procure them in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Members of the module are believed to have travelled to both places on Armar’s instructions. The weapons were only a back-up, they were directed to use IEDs extensively to ensure maximum damage and for which material is also believed to have been sourced for the militants. “We cannot rule out the possibility of the handler deploying the same courier to supply explosives to both modules,” claims a senior intelligence official.
Yazdani is among several who have started using social media groups to tap and monitor Muslim youth online. In some ‘advanced’ cases, they are also tracked offline for their unlawful radical activities. “This is a serious threat, and unless we act promptly on intelligence inputs, it could escalate into attacks which, in turn, encourages more to join militant ranks,” says a senior Telangana police official.
While the involvement of the six others picked up in Hyderabad on June 20 is not serious, three of them were running cyber cafes, which flouted rules despite police guidelines, and so provide relatively easy access to questionable social media sites. It is mandatory for all cyber cafes to register with the police, keep a record with IDs of their customers, and instal surveillance cameras to track visitors as a deterrent to unlawful internet activity.
Though the numbers drawn to
WITH THE IS CALIPHATE IN IRAQ AND SYRIA UNDER THREAT FROM THE US-LED COALITION, RECRUITS ARE BEING ENCOURAGED TO CARRY OUT STRIKES IN THEIR COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN
the IS are not large yet, police sources caution that the easy indoctrination on social media is dangerous enough: it only takes a handful of determined individuals.
All-India Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), largely a party of Hyderabad’s Muslims, seizes every opportunity to raise its voice in support of these detainess. And eyeing potential political gains, particularly in Uttar Pradesh where it plans to contest the next assembly elections, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi declared his party would provide legal aid to those arrested by the NIA. “Why is this being made an issue?” he asks. “I did not do any wrong. Parents and relatives of those arrested and others detained and questioned came and told me they have no connection with the IS.”
Significantly, Owaisi, a law graduate from Lincoln’s Inn, London, has spoken out, time and again, against the IS which has in turn called him a non-Muslim in some of its videos. “It has to be crushed militarily and ideologically as well,” he says, lamenting that the entire Muslim community is being demonised instead. But the manner in which he rose in support of those arrested kicked up a storm, calling for punitive action against Owaisi for rushing to the defence of suspected terrorists.
The irony is that such radicalisation is gaining ground at a time when Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao has introduced a slew of measures to improve education and employment opportunities, besides exclusive welfare schemes.
The police, with their earlier experience in countering left-wing extremism, believe education is a better tool than enforcement to handle those enticed by terrorism. “This is because the learning of these impressionable minds is limited to social media exposure on which they spend several hours a day, and, possibly, alienation from the family and the community they live in because of generational change in ambitions and values,” an intelligence official explains. In counter-radicalisation measures, the police attempt to wean radicals away from violence. Police approach each IS suspect directly as well as through close friends and family members who can influence them. Potential recruits are shown video testimonials of former IS fighters in an attempt to make them see that the reality of the group is nothing like the recruitment videos would have them think.
However, this strategy to neutralise extremist ideology does not have wide approval in the security and intelligence establishment. Those opposing it argue that even disillusioned or former left wing extremists often returned to their errant ways, thanks to online radicalisation. Their contention is once a radical, always a radical and the sway of extremist doctrines does not wear off easily. Deradicalisation has not worked in the case of at least two youngsters who were arrested in December 2015 while trying to leave for Syria. They had already passed through the “Telangana model” deradicalisation programme in 2014.
The poor involvement of Muslim scholars and other opinion-makers in Muslim society and their negligible presence on social media to present a positive interpretation of Islam and explain its values, the police believe, is providing radicals the space to propagate their poisonous influence in young minds. That is why, beyond the brouhaha over Owaisi’s utterances, rising radicalism is placing Hyderabad on a powder keg.
AN INJURED BANGLADESHI POLICEMAN BEING LED OUT OF HOLEY ARTISAN