What makes everyday terror, exemplified in the Pune blast, so much harder to fight? What makes an articulate, Anglicised software programmer turn into an Islamist radical? Questions with no easy answers.
What makes everyday terror so hard to fight? What makes an educated professional turn into a terrorist? Questions with no easy answers.
In the final weeks of November 2008, Mansoor Peerbhoy, the young Indian Mujahideen activist from Pune who had sent out hate-filled emails prior to a series of bomb blasts that rocked Indian cities earlier that year, explained why he had been gripped by the urge to kill.
“Oppression”, said Mansoor, slightly built, intense, with a head of thick curly hair, “is worse than death.” Ten days after he spoke these words, ten gunmen stepped out of a boat from Karachi and wiped the Indian Mujahideen off the headlines. For those who followed the story of Mansoor, and the boys of that bloody summer of 2008, the sudden renewed interest in the IM seems fatally delayed, in itself not surprising for a phenomenon marked by appalling lapses from the very outset.
The first lapse was the opportunistic stoking of conspiracy theories and denials that erupted in Delhi after the Batla House encounters, said to involve the Delhi ‘module’ of the IM. To preempt a similar outburst against the Mumbai arrests of the same group, a highly unconventional series of meetings were held between prominent maulvis, activists, select Urdu press editors and journalists and the arrested activists of the so-called Mumbai-Pune ‘module’ of the IM: recent recruits like Mansoor, seasoned jihadists like Sadiq Sheikh, an electronics engineer from Azamgarh via Mumbai, and foot soldiers like Akbar Choudhury, who drove a car filled with explosives to Surat, and who is the brother of Mohsin Choudhury, an accused in the German Bakery blast. The sessions were untutored, the accused unfettered, with no visible signs of third degree. After about an hour with the boys, the visitors would file out, grim but silent. The Mumbai arrests didn’t provoke a single protest. (The only protests came from Mansoor’s parents, but they too were tragically silenced after he met them. Mansoor said he tried to make them understand his anger, but gave up. “I can’t explain it to them. I have no control over my parents. It’s a very personal thing. It’s a matter of conviction.”)
It was in these interactions that Mansoor outlined his transformation from an articulate, highly Anglicised, software programmer at Yahoo to an Islamist radical. Troubled by the Gujarat riots, he joined Pune’s Quran Foundation to learn Arabic, where he met someone called Arif, who ‘’began to talk a little at first, and then more and more about doing something on the Gujarat problem’’.
As it turned out, Arif and another individual, Akbar, were spotters for Riyaz Bhatkal, the charismatic zealot from the Karnataka coast, who along with his brother Iqbal were putting together a series of sleeper cells to carry out the serial blasts of 2008. Mansoor, in words that seem prescient in the aftermath of the German Bakery attack, said he was “aware at times of other similar groups and at other times not”. By mid-summer, he found himself drafting the notorious Indian Mujahideen mails, which he sent out on three occasions after hacking unsafe wireless networks in Mumbai. Shortly after the blasts, the Bhatkals disappeared, leaving foot soldiers like Mansoor to face the heat. “I may have jumped in for the wrong reasons,” he said, choosing his word with care, “but my emotional weakness can’t be used to say that there is no smoke without fire.’’
From Sadiq Sheikh came the debunking of another early blind spot: the aversion to admitting that Indians can also be Mujahideen, a proposition arrived at by extending to absurd lengths the theory that the IM was solely a Lashkar red herring created to deflect Pakistani involvement in attacks on Indian soil. This was always a preposterous claim, given the depressing pattern of Indian executors plus Pakistani supervisors that has characterised every single major bomb blast in India since 1993. As Sadiq, a frail, soft-spoken chemical engineer says, the Indian Mujahideen moniker was coined in a McDonald’s outlet in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri in a November 2007 meeting between Riaz Bhatkal and Atif Amin, the young man from Azamgarh who was killed in the Batla House encounter.
Bhatkal, obviously acting under instructions from his Pak handlers, wanted a dramatic nom de guerre that would underline the local involvement in a fresh wave of terrorist mayhem he was about to unleash, starting with a series of blasts in courts across Uttar Pradesh later that month. The six explosions, which killed 15 people, used several of the same foot soldiers deployed in previous blasts, but a mail sent out after the blast gave credit to a ‘new’ outfit, the Indian Mujahideen.
Mansoor and Sadiq claimed their candour stemmed from a sense of being betrayed by those who’d recruited them. “Riaz and his group”, says Mansoor, “thrive on public emotion”. For his part, Sadiq claimed he was sickened by the Mumbai train blasts, but that he was not allowed to ‘retire’ by Riaz (a testimony viewed with extreme scepticism, given Sadiq’s involvement in six bomb attacks: Delhi, the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Hyderabad, UP courts and Jaipur). For a while, it seemed that one or both might turn approver. Subsequently, both performed a familiar U-turn in court, claiming they have been wrongly charged, but their initial cooperation had allowed investigators to make rapid strides in making connections between previous cases and new ones, as well as providing leads that led to IM arrests in other states.
By the end of October 2008, more than 50 (mostly) young men had been picked up from across India, facing charges in at least five states. Several of these arrests were of dubious provenance, but others were not. Even counting only the more substantial arrests, they represent one of the most wide-ranging terror collectives in recent memory, a sweep both wide in geography—from Mangalore to Azamgarh—and social profile—from America-returned engineers like Mansoor to SIMI veterans like Sajid Mansoori.
Viewed collectively, they presented for police forces everywhere the massive lacunae in the kind of highly specialised policing and intelligence work required to combat jihadist terror. (In the context of Mumbai, the rise of ideologically driven sleeper cells made the old network of underworld informants almost redundant. As it turned out, a key factor in unravelling the IM network was that they had used Afzal Usmani, a Mumbai-based car thief with underworld links, the kind of breakthrough far too propitious to gamble on more than once.) Instead, for more than a decade, police forces have struggled to impart in their ranks even basic literacy of Islamic sects that are commonly used as recruiting grounds by jihadist groups, far less being able to develop moles within the closed codified world of such sects, or successfully eavesdrop on violent Islamist networks, which in turn leads to the unearthing of sleeper cells.
But even before this staggering battle could be joined anew, the 26/11 attacks ensued and shifted the debate and the response to terror in a dramatically different direction. With the kind of fickle-mindedness that does not spare even our more accomplished policymakers, terrorism was no longer what it has been for the past decade and a half, which is, of course, bombs quietly left in parcels by faceless ciphers.
Instead, terror is Kasab-type armed gunmen storming into a luxury hotel. And the response to this terror, of course, is more NSG hubs, sandbagged airports and local police armed with grenade launchers and assault rifles. While it’s no one’s case that the upgradation of our security forces wasn’t long overdue, the singular emphasis this past year on combating visible terror on the basis of an isolated (if spectacular) instance, has taken the emphasis away from the dogged, infinitely more demanding grind of fighting the more invisible, common variety.
Until, of course, one of those ciphers walked into a bakery in Pune, quietly left behind a backpack filled with RDX, and walked away.
And just as swiftly as they had been consigned to the dustbin of public memory, the boys of summer are back on centrestage. If this is to mean anything, for starters, the government will do well to club the sprawl of IM-related trials grinding away in different states for the past year into one streamlined case, heard perhaps by one centralised, time-bound authority. Mansoor, for instance, has been slapped with more than 40 FIRs by different states. So have many of the others, as they are passed from state to state. He is currently in a jail in Gujarat, the very mention of which acts as a self-evident cautionary note about delayed (or aborted) justice. Even at his most contrite, this was Mansoor in November 2008: “We realise that taking life is painful. But part of our belief system is that war begets war. People should think twice before attacking Muslims in future.”