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Lashkar's new wave of recruits from Indian expatriates

By Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI Jan. 1. Even as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba has come under pressure to de-escalate its jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, the organisation has unleashed its formidable capabilities to inflict a far more painful all-India war. Lashkar cells operating from Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have succeeded in drawing a new wave of recruits from among Indian expatriates abroad, many of whom were incensed by the massive communal pogrom in Gujarat.

While the carnage in Gujarat has drawn recruits to the Lashkar, its infrastructure in West Asia long predates the communal violence. From the late-1990s onwards, Lashkar activists began distributing copies of their house journal, Majallah al-Dawa, at the Ahl-e-Hadis sect's mosque in Salmiya, Kuwait. The Lashkar's top ideologue, Abdul Rahman Makki, began visiting the city-state soon afterwards, often preaching to audiences of Indian and Pakistani origin on the need for armed jihad to protect Muslims against the Indian state.

Among Makki's audience was Farhan Ahmad Ali, whose family had moved from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, to Kuwait in 1974. An 11th-grade school dropout, Mr. Ali worked as a sales representative for a firm dealing in business directories. His introduction to the Lashkar came through Fahim Ahmad, a Pakistani national with whom he had studied in school. Mr. Ahmad had taken charge of the Lashkar's Salmiya unit, and persuaded Ali to come on board.

In February 1998, Mr. Ali flew to Pakistan for weapons training. Mr. Ali told Indian police officials that he had stayed at a Lashkar guesthouse in Islamabad, along with some 70 other new recruits, before being moved to another facility at the Yateemkhana Chowk in Lahore. There were, Mr. Ali claimed, at least eight Arab recruits, five from Saudi Arabia, and one each from Egypt, Yemen and Morocco. Soon after, the group was despatched to the al-Aqsa training camp near Muzaffarabad, an exclusive facility for residents of Arab countries. According to Ali, some 1000 Arabs, along with four British converts to Islam and one Romanian, were in training at the camp.

Training at al-Aqsa lasted just a week, during which Mr. Ali learned how to use a variety of automatic weapons, lob hand-grenades and fabricate explosives. Advised to return later for the Daura Khas, a more rigorous advanced course, Mr. Ali returned to Kuwait. Following the communal massacres in Gujarat, however, Ali threw himself into his Ahl-e-Hadis work with renewed vigour. It was at a propaganda meeting that Ali first met another new Lashkar recruit, Shahid Bakshi. The two then left to recruit more cadres from refugee camps in Gujarat. Mr. Ali was arrested at New Delhi as he was boarding a flight back to Kuwait.

Several key members of another Dubai-based Lashkar cell which executed the twin bombings at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar in August this year — killing 51 and injuring 162 — also had concerns about communal violence in India. Ashrat Shafiq Ahmad Ansari, who is charged with having planted the Zaveri Bazaar bomb, was like many Muslims incensed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Working in Surat during the 2002 riots, Mr. Ansari saw the worst of Hindu fundamentalism first-hand. The experience made it easy for Mr. Ansari to be recruited by the Dubai-based architect of the bombings, Zahid Yusuf Patne. Mr. Patne, recently extradited to India, worked as a forklift operator in Dubai.

Syed Abdul Rahim, who hails from a lower middle-class family in Mumbai's Marol Naka area, worked from 1992 to 1999 in Jeddah as an electrician with a company that carried out works at the Royal Palace. After an unsuccessful attempt to start a business in India, Rahim left again for Dubai. He joined in protests against the Gujarat riots, where videotapes of the violence were screened.

At these meetings, Mr. Patne motivated Mr. Rahim to join the Lashkar, and he soon began to regularly attend lectures by the head of the organisation's Dubai office, Maulana Haroon. Soon afterwards, Mr. Rahim returned to India, where he is now being tried for his alleged role in the worst single terrorist act to take place in the country in 2003.

Gulf states, increasingly concerned about Islamist activities, are less tolerant of terrorist groups like the Lashkar operating from their soil — a fact underlined by the rapid deportation of several key accused in the Mumbai bombings.

Nonetheless, the evidence is that the Lashkar continues to be active, fishing in waters warmed by communal forces in India.

(Concluded)

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