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How Riyaz Bhatkal built the Indian Mujahideen

In that room that day, Tariq Anjum Hasan is alleged to have told police in the course of his long, meandering interrogation, there were just eight of them. There was a guy from Bihar called Tariq, who he didn’t know well, and another two called Hanif and Sultan, who he hadn’t met before either.

There was a man they called ‘Gora’ Ismail, Ismail-the-White, and Mohammad Ahmad Siddibapa. There was Iqbal Shahbandri, a young man who’d got bad case of god, and his brother Riyaz, who some people in Mumbai thought was, well, a small-time thug.

Indian Mujahideen founder Riyaz Bhatkal. IBNLive

Indian Mujahideen founder Riyaz Bhatkal. IBNLive

They were all angry, very angry, about the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat—and swore vengeance. The young engineering student didn’t quite realise it back then, but he’d just witnessed the exact moment the Indian Mujahideen was born.

Kardar Building, off Mumbai’s grimy Tulsi Pipe Road, isn’t the kind of place you’d expect important stories to begin. Ismail Shahbandri, father to Riyaz and Iqbal, left the small Mangalore-region town of Bhatkal in the 1970s, to start a leather-tanning works in Kurla. He did well—and so did his sons.

Riyaz studied at English-medium schools, and later studied civil engineering at Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College. He married a Bhatkal-area woman, Nashua Ismail, the daughter of an electronics store owner in Bhatkal’s colourful Dubai Market, in 2002. The family won’t talk to media, but she still lives in the town with their three children, the oldest in the early teens.

From the accounts of investigators, the two brothers’ turn to politics was shaped by Shafiq Ahmed, Nashua’s brother. Ahmed lived in the Shahbandri apartment while he pursued his studies. He was also active in the Students Islamic Movement of India, going to head its Mumbai chapter.

Founded in 1977 by the Jamaat-e-Islami, SIMI was disowned by its founders five years later—but was legal, and popular. It sought to re-establish the caliphate, without which it felt the practice of Islam would remain incomplete. Muslims comfortable living in secular societies, its pamphlets warned, were headed to hell. In the charged years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Yoginder Sikand’s authoritative history tells us, this kind of language gave some young Muslims a sense of agency they lacked in their lives.

Riyaz began to spend time at SIMI’s offices in Mumbai around 2001, at the peak of SIMI’s radical phase—a time when it openly came out in support of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

His friends, SIMI old-timers recall, included Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Mohammad Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who would go on to c0-found the Indian Mujahideen. The men had one thing in common: a frustration that SIMI’s leadership wasn’t willing to walk its jihadist talk.

Iqbal Shahbandri went down a somewhat different route. He studied Unani medicine, but his primary interests were religious. He became active in the Talibghi Jamaat, a neo-fundamentalist proselytising order whose annual gatherings at Raiwind in Pakistan are reputed to draw more followers than any Muslim congregation other than the Haj pilgrimage.

Later in his life, Iqbal Bhatkal appears to have been drawn to the work of the controversial neo-fundamentalist Mumbai-based doctor-turned-televangelist, Zakir Naik. Inside Bhatkal-area, Indian Mujahideen safehouses raided by Karnataka Police investigators found no traditional theological material—but plenty of pro-Taliban videos and Naik speeches.

Though he’s been barred from entry into several countries, including the United Kingdom, Naik has never been found to be involved in violence. His words have fired the imagination of a diverse jihadists—among them New York taxi driver Najibullah Zazi, who faces trial for planning to attack the city’s Grand Central Railway Station. Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation, which prior to the closure of the official Jamaat-ud-Dawa website in the wake of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai was listed on it as an approved theological resource.

“If he is fighting the enemies of Islam”, Naik said of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden in one speech, “I am for him. If he is terrorising America the terrorist—the biggest terrorist—I am with him.” “Every Muslim” Naik concluded, “should be a terrorist. The thing is, if he is terrorising a terrorist, he is following Islam”.

The lives of the two brothers, though, intersected in Bhatkal. Both, by Hasan’s testimony, became involved in mobilising small communal flare-ups that broke out around the town in the post-Gujarat period. The violence, culminating in the 2004 assassination of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Thimmappa Naik, was opposed by established élites in the region—but the communalism underlying it was a political tool for new, impatient youth leaders.

Inspired by call of Aligarh reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, Bhatkal notables had led a campaign to bring modern education for the community. The Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen school—where the Indian Mujahideen’s Muhammad Ahmad Siddibapa studied—spawned highly-regarded institutions that now cater to over several thousand students.

Education helped Bhatkal’s Navayath Muslims capitalise on the new opportunities for work and business which opened up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia during the 1970s. In the years after the Emergency, the Jana Sangh and its affiliates began to capitalise on resentments Bhatkal’s Hindus felt about the prosperity and political power of the Navayaths.

The campaign paid off in 1983, when the Hindu right-wing succeeded in dethroning legislator SM Yahya, who had served as a state minister between 1972 and 1982.

In the years that followed, both communities entered into a competitive communal confrontation, which involved the ostentatious display of piety and power. The Tablighi Jamaat drew a growing mass of followers. Hindutva groups like the Karavalli Hindu Samiti, too, staged ever-larger religious displays to demonstrate their clout.

Early in 1993, Bhatkal was hit by communal riots which claimed seventeen lives and left dozens injured. The violence, which began after Hindutva groups claimed stones had been thrown at a Hindu procession, and lasted for nine months. Later, in April 1996, two Muslims were murdered in retaliation for the assassination of Bharatiya Janata Party legislator U. Chittaranjan.

From 2002, the Maharashtra Police say, Riyaz Bhatkal came into ever-closer touch with Asif Raza Khan—a gangster later killed in a shootout with the Gujarat Police. Riyaz is alleged to have been involved in a 2002 attempt to murder Kurla businessman Deepak Farsanwalla—a plot some now think might have been meant to raise funds for his nascent jihadist enterprise.

Later, Khan’s brother, Amir Raza Khan, set up the Asif Raza Commando Force, a jihadist group dedicated to the memory of his brother. Amir Raza Khan, linked to a welter of jihadist operations including an attack on the United States of America’s consulate in Kolkata, is claimed by Delhi prosecutors to have provided passports and funds to facilitate the training of several Indian Mujahideen members in Pakistan.

In May, 2003, Mumbai Police investigators say, Riyaz first began to discuss raising volunteers for a jihad against India—tapping the mafia, and its connections with the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. His old SIMI friend, Sadiq Sheikh, tapped friends in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh for recruits; his key finds included Muhammad Atif Amin, the man killed by the Delhi Police in a 2008 shootout.

By 2005, the multiple Indian Mujahideen network components had fallen into place. Atif Amin’s Azamgarh cell was responsible for providing manpower for the attacks; Iqbal Shahbandri had raised cadre for a specialist computer-services cell; Riyaz Shahbandri and his cell sourced explosives and bomb components; and Abdul Subhan Qureshi travelled nationwide, liaising between cells.

Early in 2004, the Indian Mujahideen’s members met for the first time at Bhatkal’s implausibly-named Jolly Beach. It’s here they conducted their first experiments with explosives; local residents say they heard the sounds, but thought fireworks were going off.

Many of the men at Jolly Beach have since been arrested, and some killed. Bar Amin, though, all of the Indian Mujahideen’s top commanders are still at large. From his safehouse in Karachi, Riyaz Shahbandri has seen his jihad soldiers kill and die. His top commanders, though, are all still at their stations.