The enemy as an enigma
The inexplicable knowledge gap about the Indian Mujahideen continues to facilitate the group’s interminable violent campaign and contributes to its near unassailability.
Terrorist attacks serve a variety of purposes – avenging perceived injustices, sending out messages, and serving as reminders to the adversaries that the threat has not disappeared. They also underline the incomplete knowledge of the state about the dynamism of the terrorist movements. Apart from the usual blame game about intelligence failure, lack of preparedness among the police, and political opportunism, the Patna blasts on 27 October demonstrated that our insight into the world of Indian Mujahideen (IM)– the outfit responsible for at least 18 episodes of explosions in 14 Indian cities since 2005, accounting for hundreds of deaths– is elementary, if not pretentious. It is this acute and inexplicable knowledge gap, which continues to facilitate the group’s interminable violent campaign and contributes to its near unassailability.
Lets try to answer the following five questions, on the basis of what is known about the outfit.
First, what are the IM’s aims and objectives, which by all means remain extremely fluid, expanding and contracting as per its convenience? The first ever ‘manifesto’ of the group released in 2007, after the bombings of court complexes in Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad, claimed that the blasts are intended to “punish local lawyers who had attacked suspects held for an abortive Jaish-e-Muhammad kidnap plot.” Two other manifestos, released after the 2008 blasts in Delhi and the 2010 explosions in Varanasi, blamed “the Supreme Court, the high courts, the lower courts and all the commissions” for failing the Muslims. The focus from the judiciary has since shifted and in fact has become more mysterious with the outfit discontinuing the practice of mailing its manifesto following each attack, forcing the agencies to depend upon the interrogation of arrested cadres to unravel the intentions behind the explosions.
As per such interrogation reports, the Pune explosions of August 2012 were intended to avenge the killing of its cadre Qateel Siddique in Yerawada Jail. Blasts targeting the Buddhist shrine in Bodhgaya in July 2013 were supposed to avenge the attacks on the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The 27 October explosions in Patna were reportedly carried out to protest against the Muzaffarnagar riots. Does that make IM purely an ideology-based organisation with both local as well as global aspirations or an organisation that is controlled by external forces? Or is it an outfit that is willing to carry out attacks evoking almost any concern that suits its convenience? Since no answers are available to these questions, little can be predicted about the outfit’s plan of action.
Second, who are the leaders of IM? Names of the Bhatkal brothers, Yasin Bhatkal, Amir Reza Khan, Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Tahseen Akhtar have been quoted frequently. The National Investigative Agency (NIA) has announced a reward of Rupees four lakh leading to the arrest of Qureshi and ten lakh each for Amir Reza Khan and Tahseen Akhtar. But how important are these leaders for the outfit’s operational purposes? What explains the Patna explosions only two months after the high profile arrest of Yasin Bhatkal? Will the IM’s bombing campaign come to a halt if Tahseen Akhtar alias Monu, described as number two in the organisation and the prime conspirator in the Patna and Bodhgaya explosions and a range of earlier bombings is to be arrested?
Third, how much do we know about the group’s actual size? Few years back, “memos for internal use” by intelligence agencies estimated the outfit’s cadre strength at less than 100. Some of these ‘memos’ even claimed that beyond about 20 hardcore cadres, IM is only a motley of estranged youths who do not subscribe to any of the outfit’s ideology. Each explosion and interrogation of arrested cadres, however, have since expanded the outfit’s strength to multiples of the original estimates. The number of ideologically interlinked, yet functionally independent IM ‘modules’, too continue to increase. Small towns in Bihar and Jharkhand alone appear to host at least 12 such modules, as of now.
Fourth, how are IM cadres recruited? This is probably one of the most intriguing posers that continues to defy answer. Narratives based on intelligence reports point at a vertical split within the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), with a hyper radical group walking out of the extremist organisation and forming the IM. Founding members of IM then went about using a mix of personal connections, countrywide travels and persuasive techniques to recruit a number of young and not so young men into the outfit. The latter then were charged to seek more cadres. Also roped into the outfit were school dropouts, petty criminals, and history-sheeters who initially developed contacts with the outfit to provide logistical support and then became a permanent part of it. IM apparently has undergone another split after the Batla house encounter in 2008. These explanations still do not solve several riddles. What role has online radicalisation programme played in such recruitment campaigns? How has anti-India propaganda material on the web, uploaded from outside the country, helped swelling the ranks of the IM? What is the state of the SIMI faction that stayed behind with the parent organisation and how many of them over the period of time have made common cause with the IM? What is the percentage of Pakistani citizens in the IM?
Finally, has IM weakened over the years or has it gathered strength? Official’s assessments have varied significantly from one another. In 2011, based on the interrogation of IM cadre Danish Riyaz, the agencies concluded that the arrests of a large number of cadres have severely dented the group’s operations and badly affected its recruitment and fund-raising drives. Recent assessments, however, portray the picture of the IM not just regaining strength within India, but having spread into Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
A lot has been written about the absence of a culture of strategic writing in the country. That the think tanks are not allowed to contribute significantly to policymaking has been a common refrain among the researchers. However, how much field-based research on internal security is being done in the government and private funded think tanks remains a valid question. As a result, the void is being filled up by media snippets, which by their very nature are combinations of “churning of the known” and “feeding of the obvious” into the mainstream.
Past statements by leaders of various political formations have attempted to link origin of the IM to an assortment of issues including communal riots, alienation among the Muslims, and even India’s diplomatic relations with Israel. Some organisations and personalities have even termed the IM a conception of the Intelligence Bureau or an imagination of the media. The tragedy lies not in the ease with which these entities have managed to get away with such statements, but in the fact that no counter narrative to such wild and unsubstantiated presumptions are available with the country’s informed tribe of experts.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, a Singapore based security analyst, served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, New Delhi.