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JIHADI TERRORISM: The Saudi Connection

Paper No. 778                                             04/09/2003

by B.Raman

In December 1993, coinciding with the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri masjid at Ayodhya, there was a number of explosions in different railway trains in North India. The interrogation of one of the suspects arrested during the investigation revealed that the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had organised them.

2. The suspect also alleged that C.A.M.Basheer, who was the President of the SIMI in the 1980s, had, along with one or two other members of the SIMI, attended a training course in the use of arms and ammunition and explosives in a camp of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) of Pakistan in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) run by one Salauddin, a Sudanese national, in the late 1980s.  During the training, the JEI arranged a meeting between the SIMI activists and Lal Singh, alias Manjit Singh of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), Canada, who was then living in Lahore.  Lal Singh, who was arrested by the Gujarat Police in the middle of 1992, is presently in jail.

3. The JEI urged the SIMI and the ISYF to co-operate with each other for the "liberation" of the Sikhs of  Punjab and the Kashmiris of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).  The co-operation project was code-named "K-2", standing for Kashmir-Khalistan.  It was also stated that Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the Amir of the JEI, had nominated Amirul Azim, the then Propaganda Secretary of the JEI, as the co-ordinator of the project.

4. The suspect also stated that the JEI had asked Basheer to send more members of the SIMI to Pakistan for training, but he could not do so due to logistic problems.  In the early 1990s, Amirul Azim, accompanied by Salauddin, the Sudanese instructor, entered India via Bangladesh and met Basheer and his associates  for discussing their future plans.  They were told that in view of the difficulties experienced by them in sending more activists to Pakistan for training, instructions had been given to Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), the Kashmiri terrorist organisation, which is a wing of the JEI, to train SIMI cadres in its camps in J&K itself. The SIMI was asked to send its future batches to J&K for training.

5. Despite intensive searches by the police of different States, Basheer and his associates, who had allegedly undergone training in Pakistan, could not be arrested.  Basheer, who must now be around 43, is from Parambayam in Kerala. After studying in the Union Christian College, Aluva, near Kochi, he worked for a brief while in the Safdarjung airport of New Delhi before taking to terrorism and absconding.  Subsequent reports indicated that he had taken up residence in Saudi Arabia from where he was guiding the activities of the SIMI in India and organising its branches in other countries of the Gulf.  In Saudi Arabia, he was also reported to have floated a new organisation called the Muslim Development  Force .

6. In 1992,  the "Time" magazine of the US had carried an interview with one Commander Abu Abdel Aziz, with  a picture of his  in his henna-dyed beard and Afghan style fatigue.  After the "Time", "al-Sharq al-Awsat", a Saudi-owned, London-based daily, ran a front-page story on Abu Abdel Aziz and his activities in Bosnia. In August 1994, "Al-Sirat Al-Mustaqeem (The Straight Path)", an Islamic journal published in Pakistan (Issue No. 33), carried an interview with Abu Abdel Aziz.  The journal, without identifying his nationality, reported  that Abu Abdel Aziz spoke perfect Urdu and that he had spent extended periods in Kashmir.  It was stated that  Abu Abdel Aziz's followers, believed to be mostly Indian Muslims from the Gulf,  were part of the seventh battalion of the Bosnian Army (SEDMI KORPUS, ARMIJA REPUBLIKE BH).

7. In the interview, he made the following points:
 

* "I was one of those who heard about Jihad in Afghanistan when it started.  I used to hear about it, but was hesitant about (the purity and intention of) this Jihad.  One of those who came to our land (presumably Saudi Arabia) was sheikh Dr. Abdallah Azzam.  I heard him rallying the youth to come forth and (join him) to go to Afghanistan. This was in 1984 -- I think.  I decided to go and check the matter for myself.  This was the beginning (of my journey with) Jihad.  Then the conquest of Kabul came.

*  "A new Jihad started in Bosnia, (we moved there), and we are with  it.  As to Arab Mujahideen (in Bosnia), they do not have a separate battalion. There is a battalion for non-Bosnian fighters.  Arabs are a minority compared to those of the Mujahideen (gathered from around the World). This battalion is under a unified command and is called Kateebat al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Battalion), or "El-Mudzahidin" as they call them in Bosnian.  Militarily, it has a link to the  Bosnian government under the general command of the Bosnian Armed Forces.  It is in fact part of the seventh battalion (SEDMI KORPUS, ARMIJA REPUBLIKE BH) of the Bosnian Army.  I am a field commander under the "General Unified Armed Command".  We have full jurisdiction in the region we are responsible for (Editor's note: Mostly central  Bosnia).  The general command of the Muslim forces wants to see  results, it does not dictate strategy or action.

 * "I met several prominent Ulema.  Among them Sheikh Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Bin Baz and Sheikh Muhammad Bin Otheimin and others in the Gulf area.  Sheikh Nasir ad-Din al-Albani is one of the great Ulema of this time and one seeks guidance in the light of his knowledge and view.  (I say) in my last meeting with him, he was supportive of Jihad in Bosnia-Herzeg (as a religious duty).  However, he told us not to attack - that is we, the Arab Mujahideen - since we were the smaller host The Sheikh was afraid we might get killed in  large numbers if we engaged people in the fight.  However, he requested that we dig in and be at the most advanced defense-lines (Khat ad-Difa` al-Awwal) to defend those persecuted.

 * "The rest of the Ulema support Jihad by any means (defensive or offensive).  You must understand that - militarily speaking - the number of those killed in defense is (far) higher than those killed in attack.  This is due to the fact that in attack, clashes and skirmishes take place between Mujahideen and Kuffar (non-believers).The Kafir (unbeliever) does not throw himself arbitrarily in the cross-fire for fear of killing his companions. This fact lowers the number of the dead and this is the most important fact of the matter.

* "Jihad in Kashmir is still going on.  It is healthy.  Our Kashmiri brothers have achieved a lot.  Some of our Mujahideen brethren, whether Arab or (Ajam non-Arab), such as the Pakistanis and our brethren from South-East Asia, have also helped.  Their actions have been very successful, especially in the lands under Indian government control.  Mujahideen execute hit-and-run operations.  However there is a lack of support by Islamic governments and a lack of media coverage by Islamic outlets, on the level of atrocity and destruction by the  non-believers in those lands. "

 8. Subsequently, this Abu Abdel Aziz appeared at a conference of the LET (Lashkar-e-Toiba) at its headquarters in Muridke, near Lahore, in November,1994.  He was  introduced to the audience as an Indian Muslim living in Saudi Arabia, who was playing a heroic role in helping the Muslims of Bosnia in their  fight against the Christian Serbs and in helping the Kashmiris fighting against the Government of India.

9. Other reports indicated that in May 1995, like-minded jihadi groups had  formed a "Rapid Deployment Force" called "Katiba (Kateebat?) al –Mujahideen" (Batallion of the Mujahideen) at a meeting held in the Philippines.  The  meeting was attended among others by "al-Sheikh Abu Abdul Aziz," described as the Chief Commander of the 7th Brigade of Muslim forces in Bosnia, Salamat Hashan, the Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Philippines), Abdul Karim, Chairman of the Islamic Front (Eritrea) and Prof. Hafiz Mohd Saeed, Amir MDI (Markaz Dawa Al Irshad, the political wing of the LET), Pakistan. "Al-Sheikh Abu Abdul Aziz" and Abu Abdel Aziz were probably identical, but one was not certain on the basis of available evidence.

10.The meeting reportedly agreed on  the following (a) nationalities and frontiers on the basis of races was an un-Islamic perception; (b) to work in support of Muslims in all those parts of the world where action was being taken against them; (c) the Mujahideen of the newly formed Kateebat Al-Mujahideen would carry out militant operations and fight in Kashmir to eliminate un-Islamic  perceptions of nationalities and frontiers.

11. Till 1997, Abu Abdel Aziz either used to attend the annual conventions of the LET at Muridke or his recorded speeches used to be telecast. He disappeared from public view thereafter.  There were rumours in Islamic circles in Pakistan that he had been arrested by the  Saudi authorities, apparently because of his suspected links with Osama bin Laden, who is against the Saudi monarchy. In  August, 2001, the police of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh claimed to have arrested  one Abdul Aziz alias Ashrafi, who had fought in Bosnia and Chechnya.  From published reports, it was not clear whether they had questioned him about the identity of Abu Abdel Aziz and other Indian Muslims from the Gulf, who had allegedly fought in Bosnia and their subsequent whereabouts.

12. The real identity of Abu Abdel Aziz still remains a mystery. If he was an Indian Muslim living in Saudi Arabia, as claimed by the LET, what was his real name, to which part of India he belonged, what was his political affiliation, did he have any links with the SIMI? Of the five Pakistani jihadi organisations, which are members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF), only the LET follows the Palestinian example of concealing the real identity of its jihadis by giving them "kuniyats" or assumed names chosen after the names of the companions of the holy Prophet. The Palestinians follow the practice of not giving the same kuniyat to more than one person. When that person dies, they do not allot that kuniyat to any other jihadi. But the LET follows the practice of allotting the kuniyat of one "martyr", after his death, to another jihadi. It is not, therefore, unusual to find more than one jihadi of the LET being referred to by the same kuniyat.

13. All that one could conjecture was that Basheer could not be operating under the kuniyat of Abu Abdel Aziz because the Pakistani Urdu media projected him as operating from Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, whereas Basheer was reported to have moved over to Saudi Arabia only in the early 1990s, possibly after the Babri masjid demolition.

14. From the various reports received till last year, one could make the following surmise without being totally confident of the entire accuracy of it:
 

* There were at least two Indian Muslims operating from Saudi Arabia and associated with jihadi terrorism.

* One of them referred to by Pakistani jihadis as Abu Abdel Aziz was linked to the LET. He had played what the jihadis considered as a legendary role in organising jihad in Bosnia and was also closely involved in assisting the jihadis in J&K.

* There was no evidence to believe that Abu Abdel Aziz was connected with the SIMI.

* The SIMI's links were more with the JEI of Pakistan than with the LET. Unlike the LET, a pro-Wahabi organisation which does not admit women into its ranks and does not use them for its operations, the SIMI admitted women and used them. There were believed to be about 300 women in the SIMI's ranks, some of them reportedly  highly educated.

* Basheer co-ordinated the the activities of the SIMI in India and the Gulf from Saudi Arabia.

15. After the Gujarat riots of last year and coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, reports started circulating in Pakistan that some of the Indian and Pakistani Muslims working in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, had started a drive for the collection of funds to be utilised for assisting the Muslim victims of the riots and for mounting acts of punishment terrorism in India to avenge the killings of Muslims in Gujarat. Compilations of Indian media reports about the anti-Muslim atrocities in Gujarat and video recordings of these atrocities were used as part of this fund collection drive.

16. In December last year, the Tamil Nadu Police claimed to have unearthed a new organisation, apparently inspired and controlled by jihadi elements in Saudi Arabia, called the Muslim Defence Force (MDF). It was not clear whether this was identical with the Muslim Development Force of Basheer. Published reports about the Tamil Nadu Police's detection indicated as follows:
 

* One Abu Hamsa,alias Abdul Bari, an Indian Muslim living in Saudi Arabia and associated with the LET, and one Abu Omar, a Pakistani Muslim working there, had together formed the MDF after the Gujarat riots. They had also met a Muslim leader from Tamil Nadu who had gone to Saudi Arabia on haj pilgrimage.

* On his return to Tamil Nadu, this leader held a clandestine meeting at Tenkasi in Tiruvelveli district, which was attended by about 30 Muslims. At this meeting, plans for organising MDF activities in India were discussed.

* Subsequently, two of those, who had attended the Tenkasi meeting, went to Sri Lanka (the Eastern Province?), where they were to have another meeting with Abu Hamsa, but he did not turn up from Saudi Arabia. They, therefore, returned to Tamil Nadu without meeting him.

* Abu Hamsa alias Abdul Bari was wanted in connection with an explosion in Andhra Pradesh. He had given instructions to his contacts in Tamil Nadu to organise the activities of the MDF and also to float another organisation called New Vision to propagate Islam amongst the so-called backward classes of the Hindu community and recruit them for jihad.

* The associates of Abu Hamsa in Tamil Nadu were instructed to form an elite force to establish hide-outs and protect jihadi terrorists visiting Tamil Nadu and to recruit youth for training in jihad at an undisclosed destination in the Gulf.

* Amongst those arrested by the Tamil Nadu police during their investigation into the activities of the MDF was Noohu Thambi Hamid Bakri, described as a suspected sympathiser of the LET. He was the principal of the Ayesha Siddique Arabic College for Women at Kayalpattinam and also the President of the All-India Tauhid Jamath Federation. He also used to be associated with an organisation called the Kayal Islamic Defence Force, which is now believed to be dormant.

* It was Hamid Bakri, accompanied by one Zakkaria, who had met Abu Hamsa in Saudi Arabia and subsequently gone to Sri Lanka for another meeting, which did not materialise.In November,2002, Zakkaria was allegedly in receipt of Rs.1,50,000 from Abu Hamsa in Saudi Arabia through hawala.

17. None of the reports relating to the unearthing of the activities of the MDF in Tamil Nadu had referred to any role of Basheer in this connection. However, his name has again cropped up as possibly amongst the dramatis personae associated with the series of explosions in Mumbai since last December.

18. It should be evident that for some years now there have been indicators of the cladestine creation of a jihadi web in Mumbai, south India and possibly in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, with the SIMI and the LET playing an active role in this matter, either in tandem or separately of each other. It  is also evident that much of the inspiration and financial support for this came not from Pakistan, but from Indian and Pakistani jihadi activists in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

19. Important breakthroughs in connection with identifying the various strands of this web had been made by the police of Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, but no attempt would appear to have been made for a co-ordinated effort to investigate and neutralise this web. One has the impression that each police has been investigating independently and there has not been adequate sharing and co-ordination not only amongst the police and other security agencies of different States, but also between the agencies of the Government of India and those of the affected States.

20. A similar state of affairs seemed to have prevailed in the US as brought out by the joint Congressional investigation into the terrorist strikes of 9/11. If attention is not paid to rectifying the matter in India, we are in for a nasty surprise as the USA was on 9/11. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convednor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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