The video message circulated by al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in early September 2014 announcing his intention to raise the flag of jihad in the Indian subcontinent raised several questions regarding the capacity of the organisation, independently as well as through sub-contracting, to carry out its activities in the region. This commentary seeks to probe whether the Indian Mujahideen, with its avowed inclination to work alongside al Qaeda, would become a vehicle for hire for the latter?
According to the reports by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the IM leaders based in Pakistan nurture a hope that their organisation would operate with the AQ and eventually become a part of it. Media reports quoting security agencies have mentioned that the IM is training along with the AQ in the Af-Pak region. Apart from generic reports that the IM is now an AQ affiliate whose members are trained by the global terror network, there are also particular instances of IM operating on behalf of the AQ. According to the chargesheet filed by the NIA in February 2014, one of the IM operatives, Bada Sajid, was wounded in one of the skirmishes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Incidents like these elaborate the networking between the two organisations. In July 2014, IM cadre Anwar Bhatkal was also killed while operating alongside the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan.
The much talked about home grown jihad in India has always been supported externally. According to the NIA chargesheet, IM had close ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). However, their relations have reportedly undergone change after senior IM operatives decided to emerge out of the regime of control imposed by the ISI. As a result, IM leaders wanted to intensify their Jihad in India with the assistance of a global terrorist organisation, which in any case turned out to be none other but the AQ. It is thus that the real seeds of networking were sown.
Similar report also stated that Riyaz Bhatkal, the founding member of IM, travelled to tribal belts in the Af-Pak region for establishing contacts with the AQ and the latter gave specific tasks to the IM for execution and also agreed to train their cadres in terrorist activities. Riyaz also reportedly discussed the two modes of functioning with AQ vis-à-vis Taawun (assistance) and Bayat (pledge to obedience).
IM: Status Report
Such links would allow analysts to interpret the IM activities in India as outsourced AQ activities or at least efforts by the IM to demonstrate its worthiness as a partner for the AQ. However, mere cooperative intentions apart from the setbacks undergone by the IM in recent times is a hurdle the AQ would find too hard to overcome to carry out its activities through a vehicle for hire in India. The following three points substantiate its weaknesses.
Factionalism within the IM
The IM underwent a three-way split after the Batla House encounter in New Delhi in September 2008. This was followed by individual IM leaders trying to gain control over the factions and reclaim the legacy of the original outfit. There were squabbles over resource generation as well as spending the available funds on the IM's terror activities. Improper spending of funds by Pakistan-based founding member Iqbal Bhatkal resulted in a fissure between the Bhatkal brothers (Riyaz and Iqbal) and senior member, Amir Reza Khan. Reza Khan then decided to operate separately with his own set of people and formed the second IM faction. The third faction of the IM was headed by Mirza Shadaab Beg and Mohammad Sajid, both from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. While some of these factions showed interest in operating within India, the others focused on operations outside. This affected the overall capacity of the outfit.
Arrest of Top Leaders and Cadres
The arrests of a number of IM leaders and cadres over the years have pushed it to the brink of collapse. With the arrest of senior leaders like Yasin Bhatkal (August 2013), Tehsin Akhtar (March 2014), Assadullah Akhtar alias Haddi (August 2013), Waqas (March 2014) and very recently the mysterious Ajaz Sheikh (September 2014) who sent e-mails under the signature 'Al Arabi' claiming responsibility for the Varanasi serial blasts and the Jama Masjid terror attacks, have made the terror formation closer to annihilation.
Busting the Mystery of Operations
The confessions of the arrested cadres that reveal the modus operandi of the outfit has made it possible for the security agencies to dismantle the outfit. Such confessions according to Stephen Tankel included information about the militants allegedly involved in each attack, where they came from, the identities of the alleged masterminds, the explosives used, the logistical support provided, and the documented evidence of alleged assistance from external actors in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Persian Gulf. Yasin Bhatkal’s arrest, for instance, provided the intelligence agencies with some new inputs regarding the operational dynamics of the IM which helped in the further curbing of the activities of the outfit.
Thus, despite instances of links between the IM and AQ, the latter would find it difficult to locate a vehicle for hire in India. It will have to find other modes of operation as gaining a foothold in India and turning into an organisation of redemption for Muslims with the help of the IM is remote.