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Ahmedabad blasts: the usual suspects

Ahmedabad blasts: the usual suspects

Author: Praveen Swami
Publication: The Hindu
Date: August 1, 2008
URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2008/08/01/stories/2008080155141000.htm

Introduction: Gujarat has been targeted by jihadists half-a-dozen times since 2002 in a little-understood war.

One still afternoon in March 2002, Feroze Abdul Latif Ghaswala watched 40 victims of the anti-Muslim pogrom being buried near his aunt's home in Ahmedabad. Back home in Mumbai, the automobile mechanic saw a printout of a Lashkar-e-Taiba pamphlet, which purported to show a riot victim begging for his life: "Do you think he should have a gun," it asked.

In September 2003, Ghaswala volunteered for training in Pakistan with a group led by the 2006 Mumbai serial bombing architect, Rahil Abdul Rehman Sheikh. When the Delhi police caught up with him in the summer of 2006, Ghaswala, along with computer engineer Ali Mohammad Cheepa, had just received a consignment of military-grade explosives from the Lashkar for a major bombing in Ahmedabad

Ever since last week's bombings in Ahmedabad - one among half-a-dozen major plots targeting Gujarat that the Indian police and intelligence services did not succeed in interdicting - the media have not tired of informing us that jihadist terrorism has taken a dramatic new turn. Instead of Pakistan-based terrorists, it is claimed, a new generation of Indian jihadists is spearheading the attacks.

On point of fact, the claim is nonsensical: not one single Islamist urban terror cell since 1993 has not involved a preponderance of Indian nationals. But the claim does show how little Islamist terror groups, and the politics that have driven their growth, are understood in India.

Politics isn't welcome at the Lal Masjid seminary in Ahmedabad's Kaulpur area. Its students learn the six principles of Islam as enunciated by the founder of the Tablighi Jamaat, Mohammad Illyas, and are exhorted to give up frivolities like television and cinema. Maulana Sufiyan Patangia, who ran the seminary, often travelled to Saudi Arabia, seeking support for his students. After the January 26, 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the cleric put these networks to use to raise funds for relief work. It was his first foray into the secular world.

The al-Qaeda's bombing of New York and Washington D.C. gave Patangia a new cause. In the wake of the United States-led war on the Taliban, he declared that Islam was in danger. He set up a study group, Idara-e-Fadlullah-ul-Muslimeen (Institution of Charity for Muslims), to educate his earthquake volunteers. The IFM members monitored events in Afghanistan on the Internet, and listened to tapes of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Mohammad Masood Azhar's speeches.

Patangia used to be jokingly called 'Mullah Omar,' after the Taliban leader. His second-in-command Suhail Khan adopted an Osama bin-Laden-style headgear, acquiring the nickname 'Chhota Osama,' or Little Osama. In February 2002, when the communal pogrom in Gujarat began, Patangia was in Saudi Arabia on his annual pilgrimage. He turned to the South Asian Islamist there for help to defend his community - and to exact revenge. Abdul Bari, a one-time Hyderabad resident who is among the Lashkar's top financiers, put up Rs.3,75,000. Two Saudi-based JeM fundraisers of Hyderabad origin, Farhatullah Ghauri and Abdul Rehman, threw in another Rs.5,00,000.

Most important, though, Patangia made contact with Rasool Khan 'Party' - nicknamed with the Ahmedabad argot for 'contractor' because of his work for top Gujarat mafioso Abdul Latif Sheikh and his Pakistan-based boss, Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar. In May 2002, Khan and his brother Idris met Patangia in Mumbai to discuss just how vengeance might be planned.

Late in May 2002, five bombs went off on buses in Ahmedabad, injuring 26 people. It was the first act of violence by Gujarat-based jihadists. In December, Khan arranged for eight of Patangia's volunteers to travel to Pakistan for training. Along with other groups of young people from Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore, the Ahmedabad jihadists flew to Pakistan through Dhaka, Kathmandu, Dubai and Bangkok.

Soon, the vengeance they sought was delivered. Gujarat's Home Minister, Haren Pandya, who had led some of the most murderous mobs in Ahmedabad during the pogrom, was shot just 13 months later, by when he ceased to be Home Minister. Central Bureau of Investigation detectives later determined that he was killed by a hit-team directed by Patangia. Nine of the 12 assassins received life terms last year.

Despite the CBI's successes, plans for large-scale reprisal attacks in Gujarat continued apace. The LeT and the Maharashtra-based Students Islamic Movement of India operatives took the lead - helped by a steady flow of funds.

In June 2004, the LeT despatched two Pakistani nationals from Jammu and Kashmir to execute a fidayeen attack in Gujarat. Jishan Johar of Gujranwala in Pakistan and Amjad Ali Rana, who hailed form Sargodha, were killed in a controversial encounter in Ahmedabad along with SIMI activist Javed Sheikh and his friend, Ishrat Jehan Raza.

The Maharashtra-based SIMI bomb-maker Zulfikar Fayyaz Kagzi built a sophisticated suitcase bomb that was planted on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Express train in February 2006. An error in the timer circuit resulted in the bomb exploding 12 hours after the scheduled detonation time, by when the cleaning staff had deposited the suitcase in an empty corner of the Ahmedabad station. And in May 2006, the Intelligence Bureau prevented a potentially catastrophic bombing in Gujarat, penetrating an Aurangabad-based SIMI unit, which was in an advanced stage of preparation for serial bomb strikes.
Intellectual infrastructure

Has the vengeance the jihadists sought been delivered? Not quite. Minutes before the latest bombing, the Indian Mujahideen - a Lashkar-SIMI front organisation which also took responsibility for the earlier bombings in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh - sent out a manifesto explaining just what it now seeks.

According to the manifesto, the Indian Mujahideen is "raising the illustrious banner of Jihad against the Hindus and all those who fight and resist us, and here we begin our revenge with the help and Permission of Allah - a terrifying revenge of our blood, our lives and our honour that will Insha-Allah terminate your survival on this land."

The manifesto calls on Hindus to "realise that the falsehood of your 33 crore dirty mud idols and the blasphemy of your deaf, dumb mute and naked idols of ram, krishna and hanuman [sic; capitalisation as in original throughout] are not at all going to save your necks from being slaughtered by our hands." It demands that Hindus change their attitudes, lest "another Ghauri shakes your foundations, and lest another Ghaznavi massacres you, proving your blood to be the cheapest of all mankind."

No great effort is needed to locate the intellectual genesis of this body of ideas: it draws heavily on long-standing LeT polemic. Indeed, the manifesto's plea that the LeT not take responsibility for the attacks is something of a giveaway, since the terror group has never owned up to actions targeting civilians. In 2003, for example, the LeT argued on its website that violence against Muslims in India was an outcome of the core character of Hindus, who "have no compassion in their religion." It was the duty of Muslims to wage a jihad against "Hindu oppressors," and it was "the Hindu who is a terrorist."

Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed also said, "the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers [who] crushed them by force." He made clear - just as the Indian Mujahideen has - that the objective of the jihad was extending Muslim control over what it saw as Muslim land. At a November 1999 rally, he promised that he would "not rest until the whole of India is dissolved into Pakistan." All those who participated in this project were promised "huge places in Paradise."

SIMI, like the Indian Mujahideen, also invoked medieval conquerors in its literature. In the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, SIMI called for Muslims to avenge the act by following in the steps of the 11th century conqueror, Mahmud Ghaznavi. SIMI posters appealed to god to send another Ghaznavi, and thus avenge attacks on Muslims and their mosques by attacking temples.
Local influences

Local religious influences are also evident. In its manifesto, the Indian Mujahideen describes itself as "terrorist," an apparently odd usage. However, it suggests that the author followed the neoconservative television evangelist Zakir Naik - just as several past Mumbai-based Lashkar operatives like Rahil Sheikh and Feroze Deshmukh did.

In a controversial speech on al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden, Naik proclaimed, "If he is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him. If he is terrorising America the terrorist - the biggest terrorist - I am with him." "Every Muslim should be a terrorist," Naik concluded. "The thing is, if he is terrorising a terrorist, he is following Islam."

Most Indian Muslims would dispute the proposition: it is not for nothing, after all, that the Indian Mujahideen manifesto devotes considerable space to railing against clerics who oppose its jihadism. But the fact remains that some numbers of young Muslims - angered by discrimination, enraged by pogroms - see jihadism as the sole option available to them. As the work of scholar Ashutosh Varshney points out, the roots of this tragedy lie in the breakdown of inter-communal institutions: in a creeping religious apartheid that enveloped Gujarat in the second half of the last century, decades before the pogrom.

In the weeks to come, the police and intelligence investigators will have to find out the perpetrators of the bombings. Politicians, however, have a far more important task: to ensure that justice and equity are placed at centre stage of civic life in Gujarat, and India as a whole. No other way exists to bring down the intellectual infrastructure of hate, on which the jihadist campaign rests.

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