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    South Asia
     Apr 4, 2008
India 'decapitates' jihadi group
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a proscribed organization believed to be involved in almost all major terror attacks in India since 2001, suffered a major setback last week when 13 of its top leaders were arrested in Indore in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Among those who were taken into custody were the organization's general secretary and ideologue Safdar Nagori, his brother and chief of operations in Andhra Pradesh, Kamruddin Nagori, the leader of its Karnataka unit, Hafiz Hussain and Kerala-born software engineer-turned-terrorist Shibly Peedical Abdul. Seven other activists were taken into custody in raids in subsequent days.

Nagori and others have been on the run since September 2001


 

when SIMI was designated a terrorist organization. Nagori is said to have organized a meeting at Ujjain a few days ahead of the July 11, 2006, serial bomb blasts in suburban trains in Mumbai, which was attended - among others - by SIMI's then Maharashtra chief Ehtesham Siddiqui, one of the suspected bombers now facing trial. Nagori does not figure on the list of co-conspirators in the Mumbai bombings but he is suspected of having played a role in the planning of the attacks and in providing logistical support. All the 13 arrested in Indore were SIMI hardliners, "uncompromising warriors of its jihadist faction".

Police officials have described the arrests as a big blow to SIMI. They have described Nagori as a "prize catch". SIMI "is like an iceberg", a senior police officer in Bangalore told Asia Times Online, adding that "interrogating its leaders would provide security agencies with some glimpse of its functioning, its sources of funding, its external links and its plans to wage jihad against India".

So far, the police assessment has proved correct: after a week of interrogation Madhya Pradesh police have located an additional terrorist training camp at a popular holiday spot some 35 kilometers from Indore and discovered the existence of SIMI's women's wing called the Shaheen Force, the Times of India reported on April 3.

According to police, jihadi and explosives training were conducted at the camp in Choral, a riverside area surrounded by mountains. The police also found 122 super-explosive gelatin sticks, 100 detonators and switchboards buried underground in Gawali village.
Founded as a student organization in 1977 in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, SIMI was set up to energize the Jamaat-e-Islami's network among students. According to its founder Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi, it was set up as a "study circle", "to present Islam through lectures and seminars to students at colleges and schools". But within a few years of its founding, SIMI had little to do with student life on campus aside from recruiting students to become its cadres, according to officials in India's Intelligence Bureau (IB).

"SIMI's outlook was fundamentalist and while its activity in the early years might not have been anti-national, its ideology and objectives ran counter to India's secular-democratic constitution," an IB official said. Its literature was confrontational and vitriolic and its leaders routinely railed against the "moral degeneration" of "anti-Islamic cultures" like India and the West and called for waging jihad to establish Islamic rule in India.

In the 1990s, SIMI came under the control of extremist activists. Its transformation from a fundamentalist students' organization to a radical extremist group was rapid thereafter. The destruction of the Babri Masjid (Mosque)in December 1992 and the anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai that followed, added fuel to the fire and further radicalized SIMI cadres. SIMI pamphlets openly called on Muslims to avenge the death of their co-religionists by following in the footsteps of the 11th century conqueror Mahmud Ghaznavi, who repeatedly attacked India and is said to have destroyed many Hindu temples.

SIMI was suspected of inciting communal riots in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and of carrying out a bomb blast in the Sabarmati Express near Faizabad in 2000. SIMI activists were increasingly being arrested for engaging in violent attacks. Following the attacks on New York City on September 11, 2001, SIMI organized demonstrations in India lionizing Osama bin Laden and calling on Muslims to "trample on infidels".

It was designated a terrorist organization and proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). POTA was revoked in 2004 but the ban on SIMI remains under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

SIMI was charged with "anti-national and destabilizing activities" for "making controversial remarks questioning the country's sovereignty and integrity", "working for an international Islamic order" and of having "links with militant outfits and supporting extremism/militancy in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere".

Critics of the ban said the allegations leveled against SIMI were vague and not adequately substantiated, that the offenses it was accused of and the provocative statements its leaders were alleged to have made were tame compared with those made by Hindu extremist groups against whom no action was taken. The proscription of the organization was followed by sweeping arrests of SIMI cadres.

The ban pushed SIMI's leaders underground but did not stand in the way of the organization expanding its presence and profile. It is said that under Nagori's leadership, SIMI was restructured; separate wings for propaganda, finance and weapons procurement were set up.

From an organization that was centered in Uttar Pradesh, SIMI has grown into an organization whose tentacles extend from Kerala in the south to Kashmir in the north, from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the northeast.

It is this network across India that SIMI has to offer and which has made it an attractive partner for terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HUJI) and the Hizb-ul Mujahideen looking to expand their area of operations in India. It was thanks to foot soldiers, safe houses and support provided by SIMI that these outfits were able to carry out terror attacks across the country. A supportive hand from SIMI was visible in the terror attacks at Ghatkopar (2002), Ayodhya (2005), Bangalore (2005) Varanasi (2006), Mumbai (2006) Malegaon (2006) and Panipat (2007) among others.

The recent arrests in Karnataka have revealed the deep inroads SIMI has made into southern India and the growing influence it wields over well-educated, professional Muslims. Several of the hardcore activists arrested in Karnataka and Kerala in February were engineers and doctors with profiles quite different from the stereotypical SIMI recruit.

Police officials say that the arrest of the SIMI top brass is a breakthrough. But they are cautious about evaluating the impact it will have on the organization. "SIMI has been decapitated but this doesn't necessarily signal the beginning of the end of the organization," the senior police officer said, pointing out that the outfit's network is widespread and will be difficult to dismantle.

More importantly, "SIMI enjoys the patronage of politicians." Hardcore activists, who were arrested in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh "have often been released on orders from above [politicians]", the police officer said.

It is not just counter-terrorism officials and intelligence agencies that will be following the arrest and interrogation of the SIMI leaders. A section within SIMI - the moderate faction - is also likely to follow the developments closely.

In a recent article in the fortnightly newsmagazine Frontline, Praveen Swamy discusses an ongoing struggle between the jihadis and political Islamists in SIMI. It appears that the political Islamists have been uneasy with SIMI's jihad links, which they believe have "hurt both the organization and Muslims as a whole".
Moderates in SIMI are reportedly fed up with life on the run following the proscription of SIMI and are keen to come above ground. They have convened several meetings, even elected new leaders in an effort to shake off the jihadis' stranglehold over the organization. However, they have met with little success so far.

But that could now change. The arrest of Nagori, Abdul and others - all of the SIMI's terrorist faction - could loosen somewhat the grip of the jihadis over SIMI. It could provide space for the political Islamists to wrest control over the organization and its agenda. The question is whether the political Islamists have the stomach for the long tussle ahead.

Wresting control from the jihadis will not be easy but it has now become less impossible.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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