What is the threat from the Indian Mujahideen?

The bombing of the German Bakery in Pune in February 2010 killed 17.

Last week was not a good one for India, as the world’s largest ever blackout plunged 600 million into darkness, shining a light on the continuing holes in its development story. But overshadowed by the gloom was one piece of good fortune that saved the country from added trauma, as a serial bombing in the city of Pune failed to go off as planned.

It was pure chance that Pune, in central Maharashtra state, experienced particularly heavy rains in the run-up to the attack on 1 August, with nearly 84 mm rain landing in 48 hours. Combined with an oppressive humidity, the damp degraded the ammonium nitrate before the bombs, which were hidden in cake boxes, went off in a busy restaurant and shopping area. Only one person was injured. The police say the explosives were effectively rigged and could have caused considerably more death and destruction.

Attention immediately turned to the Indian Mujahideen as the suspected perpetrators of the attack. However, “attention” in this case refers to the largely unsubstantiated finger-pointing of the media, whose evidence rests on some pretty vague similarities being drawn by the police to previous attacks (“evening was the chosen time to trigger blasts, bombs were planted on bicycles, bustling market places were targeted”).

The term “Indian Mujahideen” has become the go-to term anytime a bomb goes off in urban India. But the name gives the impression of a well-structured and purely domestic organisation that arguably no longer applies, if it ever did.

The name was first used in November 2007 in a press release claiming responsibility for multiple bomb attacks in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh which killed 17. The network had already been involved in a spate of major attacks killing hundreds since 2005, but had never given themselves a name. A young IT whizz, Mansoor Peerbhoy, was drafted in by the brotherly duo that spearheaded the terrorist network, Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandri, to organise their public relations. They apparently dropped initial plans to call themselves ‘Isabah’ – an Arabic term referring to companions of the prophet Muhammad – in favour of something that would work better in the media.

The PR effort backfired, helping investigators to track down members of the network by their web signatures and contributing to a blitz of arrests and shoot-outs in late 2008 that decimated the terrorist cells it had established around the country.

After a lull in 2009, terrorist attacks in India’s heartland resumed in 2010. But they were a shadow of previous incidents. Attacks such as the drive-by shooting in Delhi ahead of the Commonwealth Games or the explosion in Varanasi that killed a one-year-old girl, looked frantic and poorly planned. Last week’s fizzled-out bombings in Pune might have been more effective if the perpetrators had learned lessons from an attempted attack on a Bangalore cricket stadium in April 2010, which was similarly doused by rain.

The attacks grew deadlier last year – with a triple bombing in Mumbai in July that killed 22 people, and a bomb planted at the High Court in Delhi that killed 15 (the latter helped by a failed practice run the previous April). But while police have received emails from senders claiming to be the Indian Mujahideen following some of these attacks, the claims have lacked the credibility and professionalism of earlier emails. They have been suspected as hoaxes, such as the competing claims of responsibility from both the Indian Mujahideen and HUJI-Bangladesh that followed the High Court bombing.

The idea of a home-grown Islamist terrorists was once anathema to the Indian establishment after years of blaming Pakistan for such problems. It was reluctantly accepted after the press releases began arriving in 2007 and 2008. But now the pendulum appears to have swung too far in the other direction. The term “Indian Mujahideen” is trotted out by politicians, police and the media far more than it appears to be used by the terrorists themselves. That risks overplaying the scale of the threat, and downplaying Pakistan’s central role in the continuing violence.

The frequent, unqualified use of the name “Indian Mujahideen” gives the impression of a sprawling, regimented underground organisation embedded in India’s Muslim communities. It has reinforced a trend by the security forces of targeting – often wrongly – former members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned shortly after 9/11 and is seen as a precursor to the Indian Mujahideen. Almost all those linked to recent attacks have indeed had a history of involvement in SIMI, but they represented a tiny radical fringe within that group. SIMI’s leaders often used dangerous rhetoric but ultimately rejected violence.

It has also drawn attention away from the fact that recent attacks really are little more than Pakistan-based militancy with a few Indian passports thrown in to make things easier. The term “home-grown terrorism” is bandied about, despite the fact that all the key leaders are now thought to be headquartered in Karachi, including the Shahbandri brothers. Convicted American-Pakistani terrorist scout David Headley confirmed the existence of a ‘Karachi Project’ in which LeT-linked militants sought to radicalise and orchestrate terrorist cells within India. Even those who took part in the earlier, deadlier phase of India’s “home-grown terrorism” were dependent on training and logistical support from across the border. Pakistan’s failure to crack down on anti-India militants in its midst remains the deciding factor.

The one aspect of this ongoing terrorist campaign that remains truly home-grown is that every confession or claim of responsibility has pointed to violence by Hindu nationalists as their motivation – particularly the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 and the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, in which officials are considered complicit.

But it is a testament to the strength of India’s multi-cultural identity – and the lack of connection between general grievances and Islamist terrorism – that so few of India’s Muslims have become militant recruits. Only a few dozen, at most, appear to have joined the jihad and the quality of recent attacks suggests difficulty in finding new recruits.

On paper, India should be a terrorist paradise – many Muslim communities are ghettoized and face widespread discrimination; they fall far below others on almost every development indicator; there are vast and remote areas devoid of police and government oversight; and thousands of tonnes of explosives go missing every year. Yet, as the immediate aftermath of the 2002 riots has faded, so too has the terrorist threat and without the succor of India’s troubled neighbour, would perhaps not exist at all.

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