IDSA COMMENT

HuJI after the Death of its India Chief

February 13, 2008

The India Chief of Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami (HuJI), Bashir Ahmed Mir also called as Sabha, was killed in an encounter with the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on January 24, 2008. HuJI was allegedly involved in a number of deadly operations in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan in the recent past. Bashir Ahmed Mir is believed to be the mastermind behind some of these attacks.

HuJI’s objective is to establish Islamic rule by waging jihad. It is the largest international terrorist organisation created by Pakistan. There is little information about its exact origins and date of founding. However, it had a significant involvement in fighting the Soviets alongside the Afghan mujahideen, which indicates that, perhaps, it was founded sometime in the 1980s. In 1985, the outfit split into two groups, with the splinter group calling itself Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). Both groups continued to thrive even after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. They re-amalgamated in December 1993 to form the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA). But this unity did not last long and they split in the wake of the 1997 American proscription of HuA as a terrorist organisation because of its connections with Osama bin Laden. While HuM was fully involved in terrorist attacks in J&K, the HuJI was not that active.

In 1992, the Bangladesh unit of HuJI – HuJI-B – was established with direct support from al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The unit was involved in recruiting Bangladeshi, Rohingya (Myanmarese) and Indian Muslims to fight in J&K and other parts of India. It recruits students from madrassas, with several of which it has very close links. By 2005, the outfit had spread its tentacles to almost 24 countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Fiji, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland and parts of Africa. Apart from fuelling extremism in India’s Northeast, the Bangladesh unit is reported to have set its sight on carrying out subversive activities in other parts of India as well.

Over the past few years, the outfit has been involved in a series of bombings in India. The first significant attack was carried out on January 22, 2002 on the US Consulate in Kolkata, in which four security personnel were killed and 17 others, including civilians, were injured. It was also involved in the suicide attack on the Special Task Force (STF) office of Hyderabad police on October 12, 2005. On March 7, 2006, the outfit triggered three serial blasts at Sankatmochan Temple and the railway station in Varanasi, killing 21 civilians and injuring 62 others. Subsequently, the group was believed to have been involved, along with the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, in the 2006 Mumbai suburban train blasts. The blast in Samjhauta Express that left 66 people dead on February 19, 2007, is also believed to have been perpetrated by HuJI. Similarly, it was accused of setting-off blasts at Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad, on May 18, 2007, in which 11 devotees died. The Hyderabad police charged HuJI terrorist Mohammed Abdul Sahed alias Bilal for the attack and held that Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) and Trinitrotoluene (TNT), used in the attack, were procured from Bangladesh. Again, in Hyderabad on August 25, 2007, serial blasts claimed the lives of 44 civilians at the Lumbani Park and Gokul Chat Bhandar. It was suspected that the operation was carried out by the same group and investigators subsequently arrested a Bangladeshi woman, Shareefa Rustomji, in Hyderabad, in this connection. On October 11, 2007, HuJI reportedly set-off an explosion killing two devotees at a dargah (shrine) in Ajmer in Rajasthan. In the latest incident of this kind, the group is believed to have carried out the coordinated blasts in Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, killing 15 people and injuring 80 others on November 23, 2007.

The HuJI Chief has been accused of masterminding all these strikes across India. He and his assistant, Aftab Alam Ansari, who was arrested by the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department and the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force from Kolkata on December 28, 2007, were accused of organising the multiple bombings in UP in November 2007. Bashir Ahmed Mir went to Pakistan in 1992, trained in Pakistan occupied Kashmir from 1994 to 1995, and recruited youth from within and outside India. After serving as an instructor at Alaq-e-Ghair in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, he returned to J&K, but was arrested by the police in 2000. As soon as his detention was revoked in 2002, he went underground and became the Commander-in-chief of HuJI in 2004.

The death of its chief is unlikely to weaken the group or decrease its subversive actives in India. Perhaps, its activities may reduce in J&K, but will remain the same in other parts of the country. Unlike other outfits such as the LeT and HuM, its cadre strength in J&K is very limited given that most have been neutralised by the security forces.

HuJI’s terrorist activities in J&K over the past few years have been few. There was a lone report in 2007; one in 2006; three in 2005; four in 2004; and five in 2003. These reports were based on incidents such as killing, arrest or surrender of HuJI cadres.

While the outfit is arguably weak in J&K, it is challenging the Indian state in other parts of the country with support from HuJI-B, local sleeper cells and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Perhaps, HuJI’s abilities to operate beyond J&K today is based on the support from its well organised and structured counterparts, HuJI-B and local SIMI activists. HuJI-B has a stronger network than HuJI in India, because of the former’s relatively easy access to India’s Northeast and eastern states. Nevertheless, both have launched strikes together in Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, etc. The elaborate network came to light following the interrogation of activists arrested in connection with the various blasts.

In the immediate term, HuJI might seek to avenge the death of its chief. The group is known to have conducted revenge attacks. As the outfit claimed in an e-mail that originated in Delhi, the serial blasts in UP were perpetrated to avenge the arrest of three JeM terrorists on November 16, 2007. It is important to note here that Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of JeM, was closely linked with the HuJI chief. Both worked together in HuJI’s earlier incarnation as HuA.

The possibility of revenge attacks appears more likely in the wake of revelations made in late December 2007 by five HuJI terrorists, arrested from Barabanki (UP) and Doda (J&K). They reportedly told their interrogators that the outfit was planning to attack important and busy locations in India, including the Gateway of India in Mumbai.

Moreover, it may not be difficult for the outfit to launch attacks because it has an elaborate network –– comprising cadres, sleeper cells and local supporters/sympathisers –– across the country. Therefore, pragmatism persuades one to suggest that instead of rejoicing over the elimination of Bashir, or considering it a significant achievement, intelligence and security agencies should be extra vigilant in order to prevent a revenge terror strike by the outfit.