Mumbai probe focuses on local Indian terror group

July 26, 2011 - 8:59 AM
India Indian Mujahideen

FILE- In this July 27, 2008 file photo, a policeman stands amongst vehicles destroyed in an explosion outside the Trauma Ward of the Civil Hospital in Ahmadabad, India. The shadowy domestic terror group Indian Mujahideen (IM), which sprang out of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India and Indian officials say is linked to Pakistani extremists, appears to be emerging as prime suspect in the July 13, 2011 triple bombing in Mumbai. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

NEW DELHI (AP) — The prime suspect in the deadly bomb attack in Mumbai — the Indian Mujahedeen — has re-emerged three years after authorities believed they virtually wiped out the terror group in a crackdown that left many of its leaders dead, in jail or hiding abroad.

The return of the shadowy extremist network, which Indian officials have linked to Pakistani extremists, could herald a new wave of terror attacks across the country after three years of relative calm and threaten the recently renewed peace process with Islamabad.

The July 13 rush hour attacks in three busy Mumbai neighborhoods killed 20 people and rekindled memories of 2008, when deadly explosions across the country struck fear in Indians.

Police said the Mumbai bombs, fabricated from ammonium nitrate, were similar to those used by the Indian Mujahedeen in the past, leading police to focus on the group.

"It is one of the most likely targets for us," said Deven Bharti, a senior Mumbai police official.

The coordinated bombings followed three smaller attacks in the past 10 months, two of which the group claimed responsibility.

The Indian Mujahedeen was not destroyed, said Ajit Doval, the former head of India's Intelligence Bureau. "It was reorganizing itself," he said.

Though similar to earlier bombings, the Mumbai attacks were not accompanied by an email claiming responsibility, which had been a hallmark of Indian Mujahedeen attacks, Bharti said.

A Western diplomat following the case said the lack of a claim of responsibility was surprising, but most people were working under the assumption the group was responsible.

Nevertheless, investigators have been cautious about attributing blame for the new attacks to a group accused of ties to Pakistan, especially with fragile peace talks between the two countries' foreign ministers under way this week.

Until arrests are made, "I cannot say with 100 percent comfort level that this is IM," Bharti said.

The Indian Mujahedeen, which sprang out of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India, is "a radical fringe of technically-savvy disaffected Indian Muslims who embrace Islamic extremism in response to perceived injustices by the Hindu majority," according to a 2008 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi obtained by WikiLeaks.

The youth were galvanized by Hindu extremists' 1992 destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque — and the bloody riots that followed — as well as a 2002 spasm of communal violence in the western state of Gujarat that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim.

Militants in rival Pakistan took advantage of this anger, recruiting Indian Muslims they met on trips to Saudi Arabia and giving them weapons and bomb-making training in camps run by the militant Lashkar-e-Taiba group in Pakistan, said a former Indian intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The recruits were then sent back home to India to wreak havoc, the official said. While their specific attacks were not organized by Lashkar, they did receive funding from the extremist group through the unregulated hawala Islamic banking network, the recently retired official said.

Because of the clear operational links to groups in Pakistan, the Indian Mujahideen is not really seen as an indigenous terror group, said the Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.

Pakistani officials were not available for comment, and Pakistani militants denied any connection with the group.

"We do not have any links with the Indian Mujahideen and had never had even historic links with them," said Yahya Mujahed, spokesman for Janaat-ud-Dawaa, the new name given to Lashkar-e-Taiba after it was banned in Pakistan several years ago.

In his book, "Indian Mujahedeen: The Enemy Within," journalist Shishir Gupta describes how two brothers, the top Indian Mujahedeen leaders Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, ran terror training camps on the beaches of the southern Indian state of Karnataka with the help of militants trained in Pakistan in preparation for a series of strikes.

At 1 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2007, the previously unknown group sent an email to TV news channels declaring it was about to attack courts in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Five minutes later, blasts shook courthouses in the cities of Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad, killing 16.

Another coordinated bomb attack claimed by the group hit the crowded markets and streets outside Hindu temples in the city of Jaipur on May 13, 2008, killing 80.

Two months later, the Indian Mujahedeen sent an email daring police to stop a planned attack in Ahmedabad. Five minutes later the first of 16 bombs exploded in the city in a strike that killed 45. Two months after that, there was another email followed by another series of blasts, this time in New Delhi, where 21 were killed.

Six days later, police in the capital raided an Indian Mujahedeen hideout, leading to a series of arrests across the country that nearly destroyed the group, Gupta said.

Some members were killed in shootouts. Others fled.

Last year, India gave Pakistan a dossier containing the names of Indian extremists — including the Bhatkal brothers and other group leaders — believed to be hiding out in Pakistan. Pakistan dismissed it as "literature."

Aside from the February 2010 bombing of a cafe in the city of Pune that has been linked to the group, the threat from the Indian Mujahedeen appeared to have dissipated.

But smaller attacks in recent months led to fears the group might be reforming.

Last Sept. 19, two gunmen on a motorcycle shot and wounded two Taiwanese men outside a famous New Delhi mosque. A few minutes later, a bomb rigged to a nearby car malfunctioned and caught fire. An email from the Indian Mujahedeen claimed responsibility. On Dec. 7, another bomb exploded on the banks of the Ganges River in the city of Varanasi, killing a 2-year-old. The group claimed responsibility for that as well. On May 25, a small explosion that appeared to be a failed car bomb hit the parking lot of the High Court in New Delhi.

Then came the deadlier Mumbai bombings.

Over the weekend, a man was arrested in Nepal on suspicion of having links to the Mumbai blasts, according to Nepal's government-run Gorkhapatra newspaper. But authorities there would not comment Tuesday and the significance was not known. Indian Mujahideen members have been accused in the past of hiding across the relatively porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Doval, the former intelligence chief, said the group has little support among India's Muslim community and is making no political demands of the government.

"It's just mayhem without a defined cause," he said.

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Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon contributed to this story from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Ravi Nessman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ravinessman