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A tragedy foretold

Praveen Swami

It could take months to identify the perpetrators of the Mumbai bombings, but the recent past holds some clues.

TUESDAY'S MURDEROUS terror bombing in Mumbai was a tragedy foretold. A least half-a-dozen Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat ul-Jihad Islami cells planning major operations in western India had been interdicted since January: one, sooner or later, was certain to penetrate India's police and intelligence defences.

Investigators have already begun work that could led them to the perpetrators of the single worst terrorist outrage since the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993. Dozens of shards of forensic evidence, hundreds of phone calls in and out of Mumbai, the testimonies of thousands of witnesses will have to be carefully studied before even preliminary suggestions about just who might have been responsible can be arrived at.

What evidence is available, though, suggests that the tactics and techniques used in the Mumbai bombings are similar to those deployed in the wave of strikes that have taken place across India since the end of 2005. Fabricated from easily-available chemicals such as potassium permanganate or aluminium chlorate, with small amounts of RDX to accelerate the detonation, the kinds of explosives that seem to have been used in Mumbai are easy to manufacture — and lethal when used in crowded locations.

If recent experience is a guide, investigators are likely to find that the real architects of the bombing are outside its reach: the Lashkar is headquartered at Muridke, near Lahore, while the HuJI operates out of bases in Dhaka and Chittagong. More likely than not, though, the operation will have been facilitated by local operatives of these terror groups — part of a subterranean but still enormously dangerous movement of small numbers of recruits into the ranks of Islamist terror groups.

Whichever terror group executed Tuesday's bombing is likely to have drawn at least some of its operatives from the large pool of former Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) members in Maharashtra — an organisation that has survived a ban imposed in 2001 by operating under a variety of cover names. Several of the 11 Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives arrested from the Aurangabad area in May, while attempting to move a shipment of explosives, assault rifles, and grenades into Gujarat, had worked for SIMI before it was proscribed.

Zainuddin Ansari, the still-untraced head of the cell, had also worked as a SIMI ansar, or full-time activist, for several years. Another member of the cell, Shakeel Ahmad Shaikh, had been known to Indian intelligence since at least 1999, when he delivered an incendiary speech at a SIMI convention in Aurangabad. The Lashkar's then commander for its operations in Hyderabad, Azam Ghauri, was among those present at the convention, where the institutional links between SIMI and the terror group became evident for the first time.

Lashkar operatives seemed to have used contacts built from that convention onwards to recruit cadre in recent years. Interestingly, several of the members of the Aurangabad cell were well-educated. Sharif Ahmad, who was detained in Aurangabad on May 15, was a doctor, while Sayyed Jafaruddin was in the second year of a Bachelor of Science programme. Bilal Ansari, another member of the cell, was a professional calligrapher, while one of the men still wanted for questioning, Zahibuddin Ansari, worked as an electrician.

However, the Lashkar has also attempted to tap the estimated 3,000 seminaries in Maharashtra, where an estimated 200,000 students study. Irfan Moinuddin Attar, a Lashkar operative who was killed on May 30, 2006, while training with a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen unit in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district, had studied at seminaries at Shirol and Udgam in Kolhapur. Investigators believe he also attempted to recruit for the Lashkar from amongst seminary students in Gujarat — but with little success.

A wide canvas

SIMI's network, though, extends across much of India — a fact that has made it the principal ally of almost all major Islamist terrorist groups. Former SIMI ansars have played a key role in several major terror strikes in northern India, as investigations into the July 28, 2005, bombing of the Shramjeevi Express at Jaunpur, and the Varanasi serial bombings of March 7, 2006, demonstrated. In both cases, the links of SIMI cadre with the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami were instrumental in the action of the strikes.

Mohammad Walliullah, the 32-year-old cleric from the village of Phulpur who is now facing trial for having organised the Varanasi bombings, was a SIMI ansar who had served time in jail for harbouring Jaish-e-Mohammad cadre. Among his closest associates in SIMI was Mohammad Zubair, the HuJI terrorist from Bharaich in Uttar Pradesh who was killed in a recent encounter with the Jammu and Kashmir police at Handwara, along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that SIMI's Bangladesh links had been forged during its dealings with the Islami Chattra Shibir, the students wing of Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami — contacts that were entirely legal before the Islamist group was proscribed. Both Waliullah and Zubair were recruited by one-time activists of the Islamic Chattra Shabir who had gone on to join the HuJI. HuJI cadre from Bangladesh executed the bombings — but Waliullah and Zubair provided the safehouses and guides necessary for a successful strike.

SIMI cadre, interestingly, also appear to have attempted to expand their presence in southern India. According to an official declaration before the tribunal that examined the legality of the ban on SIMI, its one-time cadre in the State had begun to develop links with the Lashkar.

SIMI, the Kerala Government believes, operates through 12 front organisations engaged in charitable work, two of which are based in the State capital, Thiruvananthapuram, and a third in Kochi.

In West Bengal, too, former SIMI cadre have attempted to draw new recruits from seminaries, religious associations, libraries and other community bodies — all legitimate enterprises. In the summer of 2003, for example, Islami Chattra Shibir activist Jamaluddin Chowdhury is believed to have taken seven men from an education camp organised by former SIMI operatives for training at a HuJI-linked seminary. Islamist mobilisation in Bangladesh is a source of considerable concern for the West Bengal Government.

Uttar Pradesh authorities, though, remain curiously reluctant to act against key SIMI figures. In May, an Uttar Pradesh Home Department spokesperson asserted that the State Government would not support an extension of the proscription of SIMI, claiming that it was not involved in "any [terrorist] activities" — a proposition undermined by the State police's own investigation into the Varanasi bombing. Local politics has long complicated counter-terrorism work in the state, a problem that needs to be addressed.

Policing and intelligence work helped prevent at least a dozen major terrorist strikes just this year. What the Mumbai strikes have made clear, though, is that India must prepare itself for a long and brutal war ahead.

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