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Is Kerala Emerging as India's New Terror Hub?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 22, 2006

    Not many in the security establishment would like to believe so. A state known for its religious diversity and secular fibre, Kerala also has a sensitive communal melange with conflicting interests holding stake over its political and social institutions. To an average security analyst in Delhi, the ominous trends of subversive activities in this farthest nook would not be as apparent as similar events in Aurangabad or Meerut. In the past half-a-decade, central intelligence agencies and the Kerala police have been on their feet to check the growing influx of pan-Indian and South Asian terror groups across the state. A chain of sporadic events in the past decade and more has disturbed many secular structures and the law and order situation in Kerala, with serious ramifications for national security. While many such events were directly or indirectly connected with national and global terror trends, Kerala's vast coastline and its proximity to international waters have made it a suitable landing point for extremist elements, after the intensified vigil across the Western coast from Goa to Gujarat. This has forced the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy to step up patrol in this region, especially off the Malabar Coast, where groups involved in smuggling and other nefarious operations are traditionally based. Like similar points off the Western coast, the Malabar coastal belt is reportedly used as a corridor for transiting resources and equipment for extremist groups operating in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

    While the western coastline has always been an active subversive corridor, the recent shift of such traffic through the Kerala coast has vitiated the communal atmosphere in the state, especially after the recent terror attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere. Though Kerala itself has not witnessed any major terror attacks, there are indications that many Pakistan-based terror groups have active modules or linkages with some fundamentalist groups in the state. Inspired by pan-Islamic reactionary movements across the country after the 1992 events, fundamentalist elements in this region have gained a firm footing with more groups emerging in different roles in the past few years. After earlier groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) were banned in the 1990s, they re-emerged in new incarnations and have reportedly established linkages with other pan-Indian extremist groups. With the focus shifting back to SIMI after its alleged role in the recent Mumbai blasts, the Kerala Police have in the past few weeks rounded up suspected SIMI activists, especially from Binanipuram in Malabar, and impounded inflammatory literature, including seditious graffiti, showing linkages with Pakistan-based terrorist groups. Besides, fervent investigations are on to trace the possible linkages of many other organizations in Malappuram and Kozhikode with pan-Islamic extremist elements.

    The emergence of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Malabar acquired a serious dimension from the mid-1990s after a series of insidious events. The abduction and murder of reformist scholar Maulavi Abul Hassan Chekannur in July 1993 was the first indication of the strong fundamentalist trend gaining ground in this region. Even after years of investigations involving even the Central Bureau of Investigation, the actual culprits could not be nabbed, causing a severe setback to the reformist movement. The seizure of pipe bombs (nitroglycerine charges in iron tubes) concealed in plastic bags under the Kadalundi Bridge in Malappuram in 1996 gave credence to fears of terror groups gaining roots and possible infiltration by Pakistan's ISI among extremist groups in this region. Also, two Tamil Nadu bomb blast suspects, Imam Ali and Hyder Ali, had reportedly revealed during interrogation about their visits to Malappuram and training people in handling explosives during this period. The recent spurt in fundamentalist violence - including intermittent small-scale explosions in Kozhikode early this year, periodic arms seizures across the state, and the burning of Tamil Nadu transport buses by suspected ISS/PDP activists in retribution to the incarceration of Abdul Nasser Madhani in Salem Jail - are all ominous trends pointing to Kerala turning into an extremist flash point.

    The Coimbatore bomb blasts in February 1998, allegedly stage-managed by Tamil Nadu-based Al-Umma, was the first instance of a Kerala terror link being established after investigators arrested Abdul Nasser Madhani for conniving with Al Umma. Madhani, incarcerated since then in Salem Jail, floated the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) in the early 1990s and quickly rose as a fire-brand leader inspiring Muslim youth to resist the Hindutva forces. Though ISS was banned after the post-1992 upheaval, he floated a political party called the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which aligned with the ruling Left Democratic Front in the recent assembly elections. Despite its political identity and limited activism after his arrest, police and intelligence agencies suspect PDP to be maintaining links with other pan-Islamic extremist groups. The occasional violence by PDP activists in recent months has only compounded the vigil over their activities.

    On the other hand, newly-formed groups like the National Democratic Front (NDF) have emerged as stronger alternatives to ISS and SIMI and have allegedly masterminded communal violence in recent years. The Kerala Police believes that this outfit, which masquerades as a human rights movement, is another re-incarnation of the ISS. Though the NDF leadership denies any extremist links, it is reportedly operating under different names to save itself from being banned or tracked down. Many of its activists were arrested or detained in connection with recent country-bomb blasts, like in Meppayyur, and other acts of violence in different parts of the state. SIMI, on the other hand, had been working in the shadows ever since the ban in the 1990s. However, a splinter group of SIMI activists, led by C A M Basheer who hails from Ernakulam, is suspected to be involved in the Mumbai blasts. Basheer, a trained aeronautical engineer, is known to have received training in Pakistan, and was already booked for his alleged role in the 2003 Mumbai blasts. The investigation team is also probing the likely role of three Keralite suspects of the Coimbatore blasts - K P Noohu, Ooma Babu and Shamsudheen. The Mumbai Police believes that Noohu was in touch with Dr. Tanvir Ansari, who was recently arrested in connection with the 7/7 blasts. According to reports, while Babu is lodged in Coimbatore jail, Shamsudheen was recently arrested by Coimbatore police for conspiring to undertake explosions in the town.

    Despite incriminating evidence of co-operation between Kerala based groups and major pan-Islamic terrorist organisations, there is general lethargy in the state police machinery and intelligence agencies to crack down on such groups owing to the political patronage they enjoy in Kerala. Many of these groups have openly allied with major political Fronts in recent years, thus stymieing a concrete response to their anti-national activities. Government inaction after the communal violence in Marad and Nadapuram, with culprits involved in these incidents still roaming free, demonstrates their leverage with political dispensations in the state. Despite reports by the Union home ministry of ISI-aided groups operating from Kerala, there is great inaction among concerned agencies to curb this dangerous trend. In recent years, central agencies had unearthed Kerala-based Hawala rackets facilitating the passage of funds from Middle East-based groups to the rest of the country through expatriate networks. However, such events have failed to move either the police machinery or the political establishment, which are seemingly wary of disturbing communal equations through proactive action. While bomb-hauls, seditious graffiti, and the murder of moderates have become common occurrences, the day may not be far when such sporadic eruptions coalesce into a major terrorist event.