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Politics of hate gave birth to top terror commander

Praveen Swami

Fugitive Indian Mujahideen operative Shahbandri’s story


IM was responsible for a series of urban bombings

The operatives used crime to fund jihadist operations


MUMBAI: 17, Kardar Building, looks out over the industrial bustle of west Kurla, a grimy monument to the grimly struggle of millions in the city to build a better future.

Hundreds of kilometres to the south lie the gracious traditional mansions and beautiful beach-front villas of the small town of Bhatkal: built, in the first case, by centuries of Indian Ocean commerce, and the second, by Gulf remittances.

Both these worlds helped make Mohammad Ismail Riyaz Shahbandri: the fugitive who, by the alias Riyaz Bhatkal, has become known to newspaper readers across India as a key commander of the Indian Mujahideen networks responsible for a series of urban bombings which have claimed hundreds of lives since 2006.

Gujarat pogrom

Ismail Shahbandri, Shahbandri’s father, left Bhatkal more than three decades ago to set up a leather-tanning factory in the Kurla. He earned enough to ensure his son was able to study at local English-medium schools and later earn a degree in civil engineering from Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College. Soon after, in 2002, Riyaz Shahbandri was married to Nasuha Ismail, the daughter of an electronics store owner in Bhatkal’s Dubai Market.

But, soon there was a turn in this typical middle-class story.

Infuriated by the Gujarat communal pogrom, Riyaz Shahbandri took a job very different from that his parents had envisaged: engineering the birth of the Indian Mujahideen.

Radicalisation

Shahbandri’s anger was likely given political form by two close kin. First among them was his brother, Iqbal Shahbandri, a cleric and Unani practitioner who introduced several future Indian Mujahideen men to the neo-fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat. While the Tablighi Jamaat focuses on pietism instead of politics, its teachings have often proved the catalyst for south Asians’ journeys into jihadist groups.

Just as important was Nasuha’s brother, Shafiq Ahmad, who lived in the family’s Kurla home and later went on to become the head of the Students Islamic Movement of India’s Mumbai chapter. Riyaz Shahbandri began to spend time at SIMI’s offices in Mumbai around 2001, much of it with men who would play a key role in the development of the jihadist movement of India. Among them were Abdul Subhan Qureshi, a co-founder of the Indian Mujahideen; Ehtesham Siddiqi, who is now being tried for his alleged role in the bombings of the city’s suburban train system in July 2006; and Rahil Sheikh, who recruited dozens of Maharashtra jihadists.

Around this time Riyaz Shahbandri also appears to have made contact with Asif Raza Khan, a gangster killed in a 2002 encounter with the Gujarat Police. Just how the two men met is unclear, but the two men hit on the idea of using crime to fund their jihadist operations.

Mumbai Police records show criminal proceedings were first initiated against Riyaz Shahbandri in 2002 for the extortion-related attempt to murder Kurla businessman Deepak Farsanwalla.

Later, Asif Raza Khan’s brother, Amir Raza Khan, set up the Asif Raza Commando Force, a jihadist group dedicated to the memory of his brother. Amir Raza Khan, linked to a welter of jihadist operations including an attack on the United States of America’s consulate in Kolkata, is thought to have provided passports and funds to facilitate the training of several Indian Mujahideen members in Pakistan.

In May 2003, Mumbai Police investigators say, Riyaz Shahbandri and Siddiqi held the first of a series of meetings to discuss the prospect of using Nepal as a base to train jihadists. Nothing came of this plan, but Riyaz is alleged to have used Amir Raza Khan’s funds to send several terror operatives for training in Pakistan.

Among them, the police say, was Sheikh Mohammad Ali, who is alleged to have been among the perpetrators of the 2006 bombings.

It seems probable that Riyaz’s political radicalisation was a response by events in Bhatkal.

Back in April 1993, not long after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Bhatkal saw a succession of communal riots which dragged on for the best part of nine months, leaving 17 people dead and another 90 injured. Hundreds of homes and shops were burned down. Since then, Bhatkal has often seen skirmishes between the cadres of the Bajrang Dal and Islamists.

For Bhatkal’s Muslims, the violence was a rude shock. Known as ‘Navayaths,’ the community traces its origins to Arab traders who ferried spices across the Indian Ocean.

The Navayaths, who benefited from educational institutions built by religious revivalists early in the last century, are well integrated into India’s political system: Karnataka’s former Finance Minister S.M. Yahya is just one of many eminent products of the community. But the riots appeared to show to some young people that neither prosperity nor political influence could ensure peace.

In recent decades, Bhatkal saw the dramatic expansion in the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat, a phenomenon of which Iqbal Shahbandri was a particularly extreme manifestation. Just in January, a Tablighi Jamaat congregation, led by the preacher Qasim Qureshi, drew thousands of adherents from around the area.

At the heart of the Indian Mujahideen story, Riyaz Shahbandri’s story once again demonstrates, lies communal hatred — a tragic tale his eventual arrest or killing will do nothing to bring to an end.

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