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

India Today - - INSIDE - By Amar­nath K. Menon and San­deep Unnithan

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.

FEARFUL FRAN­CHISE

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.

AFP

AN IN­JURED BANGLADESH­I PO­LICE­MAN BE­ING LED OUT OF HOLEY ARTISAN

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