Story of Indian Mujahideen jihadist on death row casts light on lives of terrorism’s foot-soldiers

Praveen Swami
·16-min read

Ten Wills, and a can of Coke: The young student in blue jeans and a grey t-shirt paid cash, and then lit one of his cigarettes with the lighter dangling over the counter of the Prince Paan shop in Greater Kailash M-Block market. Then, he walked across the street to finish his smoke, quietly watching the crowd passing by. Finishing the cigarette and his cold drink, he was later to recall, took five minutes, perhaps six. Then, he walked to the main road and hailed an auto-rickshaw. No-one noticed he'd left behind a red plastic shopping bag, propped up on the back of a bicycle.

Five improvised explosive devices blew up on crowded Delhi streets on the evening of 13 September 2008, killing 21 people and injuring at least 90. The carnage could have been much worse if four bombs €" one of them planted in a dustbin at a children's park near India Gate €" hadn't been detected and defused.

Last month, a Delhi court sentenced Ariz Khan for planting the bomb which detonated outside Prince Paan, and his role in the killing of Delhi Police officer Mohan Chand Sharma in a raid on his home in Batla House.

In the years since that shootout, Indians have become familiar with the stories of the jihad commanders who led the Indian Mujahideen, India's most lethal urban terrorist group. Ariz's journey €" assembled by Firstpost from hundreds of pages of court records, as well as interviews with family members and investigators €" casts light on the largely unknown rank-and-file of the the Indian Mujahideen, and their seduction by a cult of blood.

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Like many of the other young men who joined the Indian Mujahideen, 1985-born Ariz belonged to the Muslim middle-class that had begun to emerge from small-town Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s. Ariz's mother, Tabassum Sehar, taught at a nursery school in Azamgarh's Takiya Mohalla when she married, and continued to do so afterwards. Zafar Alam Khan, Ariz's father, ran an independent business and wrote occasional English-language newspaper columns. Ariz's older brother, Shariq, studied information technology; his younger brother, Tabish, trained in medicine.

The mass-media memes that have shaped our imagination of young jihadists €" the hypnotic gaze of a fanatic cleric; the savage, intimate experience of police tyranny and Hindu-Muslim violence; the shadowy presence of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate €" are conspicuous by their absence in Ariz's story.

Expectations, family sources told Firstpost, were high for all the children in the extended Khan family. Badr-e Alam, one of Zafar Khan's brothers, was a government servant in Delhi; another brother, Fakhr-e Alam, was a physician, educated at the famous King George Medical College in Lucknow. Ariz's extended family was studded with cousins who had succeeded in medicine, engineering and information technology.

From his academic record, though, it's clear Ariz struggled to travel the same path. His efforts to enter Aligarh Muslim University's prestigious senior-secondary programme €" alma mater to his older brother and several cousins €" proved unsuccessful. His failure in the AMU entrance examination would become something of a pattern.

In 2003, as he struggled through high school at the Jyoti Niketan in Azamgarh, Ariz began to spend growing amounts of time with a small group of friends. They would, over time, shape the course of his life. Along with classmates Asadullah Akhtar 'Haddi' and Mirza Shadab Beig, Ariz would spend much of his time locked away with that most popular of teenagers: the one with an apartment of his own.

Atif Amin's family lived some 30 km away from school, in Saraimeer. His family had rented him a room in Azamgarh's Raja ka Qila Mohalla to spare him the long commute. Ariz and Atif had met shortly before the AMU entrance examination; then, as later, Atif had things other than studies on his mind. In Azamgarh, a family member recalled, Atif "got to live more or less as he liked". His teenage vices, though, were somewhat atypical.

In Atif's room in Azamgarh, Ariz and his friends were introduced to what might be called the pornography of violence: videos of Palestinian jihadists, the Taliban-linked Islamist magazine Tameer-e Millat and Jaish-e-Muhammad founder Masood Azhar Alvi's speeches.

The jihadist propaganda seems to have little actual impact on Ariz: His gaze remained firmly fixed on this world, not fantasies of the afterlife. Along with his friends, Ariz plodded through high school, and then buckled down to trying to get admission to an engineering course. The videos might have seemed cool €" jihadi cool, as it were €" but had no more power to define life-choices than gangster films or rap.

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(Above: Ariz Khan being taken to a court by the Delhi Police Special Cell after his arrest in New Delhi on 14 February 2018. PTI)

Early in 2005, though, Ariz made contact with Amin again. Things hadn't gone well for Ariz in the years since he'd finished school. He'd failed at his first attempt in the engineering entrance examinations. Then, helped by a year of intensive coaching at an institute in Lucknow, Ariz made it into the SD Engineering College in Muzaffarnagar, but began to fail examinations, never making it past his second year. Finally, he moved to Delhi, staying with Baig, who was studying at the al-Falah Engineering College in Faridabad.

Amin was then living in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, sharing an apartment with his brother, who was then working as a cinematographer at Star News.

Thrown together by circumstance €" and spare time €" Ariz and Atif grew closer. Atif told Ariz that he had been to Pakistan in the previous year, for a month's instruction in fabricating explosive devices and handling weapons. The story, more likely than not, seemed considerably more glamorous than Ariz's less-than-successful engineering studies.

Atif's journey to the Pakistan had been organised by Sadiq Israr Sheikh, a key figure in the birth and path of the Indian Mujahideen. For much of his childhood, 1975-born Sadiq was shunted between Mumbai and Azamgarh, the consequence, family sources say, of the sometimes-troubled relationship between his mother, Asiya Bano, and father Israr Ahmad. He ended his schooling after Class 10, but went on to obtain technical qualifications from the Industrial Training Institute and began working as a mechanic at Godrej.

In his spare time, Sadiq became increasingly involved in the now-proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India meetings in Mumbai. SIMI's language turned increasingly violent over the years, as it sought to tap the anger of young Muslims. At rallies held in 1999 and 2001, it eulogised Osama bin Laden and called for Indian Muslims to launch a jihad aimed at the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

As the scholar Yoginder Sikand has perceptively noted, this aggressive polemic gave SIMI's "supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives".

Even this, however, was not enough for some radicals. The men who would found the Indian Mujahideen €" among them, Riyaz Shahbandari, Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Sadiq himself €" wanted action. Early in 2001, Sadiq stormed out of a SIMI meeting, complaining that the organisation did nothing other than "talk". "I found SIMI is not what I thought," he told police in one interview, "they were just into talking, but did not conduct any activities".

Islamic religious institutions had, interestingly, long worried that SIMI would give rise to just such a culture. The Jamaat-e-Islami's official student wing, the Students Islamic Organisation, had charged SIMI with propagating "katta [gun] culture" which would prove "lethal for Islam, Muslims and the country". Seminaries like the Jamiat-ul-Falah banned SIMI well before the Government of India finally acted against the jihadist organisation in the wake of 9/11.

The radicals, though, didn't have any means to put their new, jihadist ideology into practice. Then, in 2001, Sadiq met with a distant relative, Mujahid Salim Azmi €" later killed, controversially, in an encounter by the Gujarat Police. The two men, by Sadiq's account to investigators, ended up having a long conversation about the conditions of Indian Muslims and the need to defend them. Through Azmi, Sadiq made contact with Asif Reza Khan, an organised crime figure who had founded a jihadist group that year, shortly before his killing in an encounter, again with the Gujarat Police.

Later that year, Sadiq travelled on an Emirates flight from Dhaka to Karachi, on fake travel papers, and arrived at the Lashkar-e-Taiba's offices in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. He then underwent a training course at a Lashkar camp in Muzaffarabad, investigators say.

For several months afterwards, Sadiq worked in Dubai, at Yahiya Electronics in Sharjah, a firm run by Asif Raza Khan's brother, Amir Raza Khan. Then, he returned to India, allegedly participating in a 2002 attack on the United States consulate in Kolkata. Later, in 2003, Sadiq is alleged to have travelled to Pakistan again, this time with Azamgarh residents Shahnawaz Alam and Abu Rashid, for a second round of military training.

Exactly what in Sadiq's life drew him to violence is impossible to reliably know. In a February 2005 conversation with Ariz, Sadiq claimed to have been motivated to become a jihadist by the demolition of the Babri Masjid €" an event which took place when he was 17 years old, and led to large-scale communal violence across Mumbai.

None of his brothers, notably, responded to events in the same way. (Muhammad Arshad, the eldest, had a job in Muscat; Muhammad Arif, in Singapore; Muhammad Aslam had a video-game business in Mumbai; the youngest, Mohammad Tahir, a computer-software job.) Neither did anyone else from Sadiq's immediate circle.

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(Above: Co-founder of Indian Mujahideen, Abdul Subhan Qureshi. PTI)

From early in 2005, using his new network of recruits, Sadiq began executing the long series of bombings the Indian Mujahideen would become known for. In February 2005, the group staged an attack in Varanasi, using explosives sourced from the now-incarcerated Bangladeshi Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami operative Jalaluddin Mollah also known as 'Babu Bhai'. The bombs didn't go off, but others did: on the Shramjeevi Express in July, 2005; at a Delhi market in October, 2005, before Diwali; at Varanasi in March, 2006. The most lethal, by far, were the multiple bombings on Mumbai's suburban train system in 2006, which claimed 183 lives.

Amin's successful recruitment of young students like Ariz had not a little to do with the group's growing effectiveness. The motives of his recruits, though, varied significantly. Zeeshan Ahmad, one of the members of the Delhi bomb cell, began spending time at Amin's home in Batla House after a relationship went sour. Ariz, for his part, began to spend ever-more time in Amin's company as his family became increasingly dismayed at his poor performance in his engineering studies.

In early 2008, Ariz failed his engineering examinations for the third time, and decided to drop out of his college. Ariz's extended family mounted growing pressure on him to get a job; in response, he moved into Amin's home in Batla House.

The Indian Mujahideen network, by this time, had expanded significantly, into several distinct cells. Ariz, along with Asadullah Akhtar, Mirza Shadab Baig, Zeeshan Ahmad, and Saif-ur-Rehman, formed the core of the group, operating out of the flat in Batla House. A second cell, made up among others of Amin's friends Muhammad Saif and Mohammad 'Bada' Sajid, was based in Azamgarh. There was a third cell, involving students at the Integral University. From Karnataka's Bhatkal, Riyaz Shahbandri's cell supplied explosives and detonators to the groups.

From November 2007, when it successfully executed serial bombings in Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow, the Indian Mujahideen showed it had the sophistication and resources to attack multiple targets. In May 2008, there was an attack in Jaipur, followed that July with attacks in Ahmedabad. In September, Atif Amin firmed up Delhi as the next target.

Late in August, the explosives that were to be used in Delhi had been collected from Udipi, in Karnataka €" some already shaped into charges, inside boat-shaped casing; others fabricated from pressure cookers stuffed with ball-bearings the group purchased from market in Delhi's Chandni Chowk. Atif wired up the explosives with analog alarm-clocks serving as timers, a technique he had learned in Pakistan.

For weeks, the group carried out surveillance at several locations across Delhi, choosing targets where the improvised explosive devices were most likely to cause the most harm. The ethics of taking human life were, pages of investigation records suggest, never discussed.

After the shootout with police at Batla House €" the result of a years-long intelligence and police work €" Ariz fled to Nepal, using money borrowed from friends and relatives in Azamgarh. For the next six years, he worked as teacher at the Paradise Public Academy, a small school in Pachera. Then, he travelled to Saudi Arabia on a Nepal passport identifying him as Mohammad Salim. For two years, Ariz worked at the Panda Supermarket Chain, before returning to his teaching in Pachera.

Even though Indian Mujahideen leader Qureshi met with Ariz in Nepal, and again in Saudi Arabia, hoping to reassemble the jihadist networks that had been forged from 1999 on, Ariz showed little interest in the effort. In 2018, Qureshi's luck finally ran out, and he was arrested. Ariz was jailed soon after, as the Intelligence Bureau pursued information from the top leader's interrogation.

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(Above: Policemen rush to Batla House in New Delhi, September 2008. PTI)

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As Atif's young recruits prepared to bomb Ahmedabad €" where, on 26 July 2008, they set off 21 improvised explosive devices, killing 56 people €" a young cleric had arrived at their Batla House apartment, armed with Salamat-e-Kayamat, an evangelical video replete with scriptural prophecies of the triumph of Islam before the day of judgment, and a copy of Faruk Camp, a paean to Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The cleric, Abdul Bashar, wanted to ensure the young jihadists understood the religious seriousness and significance of the operation.

Bashar left dismayed: Bored by his religious instruction, the young jihadists instead watched Anurag Kashyap's movie Black Friday, a gripping account of the hard-drinking gangsters who executed the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993.

The story of the Indian Mujahideen's rank-and-file stands in stark contrast to their leadership. Figures like Atif, Sadiq and Qureshi learned their Islamism in SIMI; their student recruits had no indoctrination beyond watching the occasional video, nor any apparent interest in either religion or ideology. Personal friendships and the excitement of engaging in action appear to have driven the recruits' decisions.

In the minutes after the Ahmedabad bombing, the Indian Mujahideen e-mailed a manifesto to newsrooms, as it had done on several occasions: "Haven't you still realised that the falsehood of your 33 crore dirty mud idols and the blasphemy of your deaf, dumb, mute and naked idols of Ram, Krishna and Hanuman are not at all going to save your necks, Insha-Allah, from being slaughtered by our hands?"

The e-mail carried pseudonymous digital signatures of the Indian Mujahideen's leadership. The handwriting in those signatures is believed, by investigators, to belong to Ariz. There's no indication, though, that he even once bothered to read the manifestos themselves, or discussed their contents. Ariz and his fellow student recruits had no great interest in matters of religious observance and ritual either.

Even though Ariz arrived at the Prince Paan shop in the midst of Ramzan €" the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting for observant Muslims €" his religious conscience does not seem to have been troubled by his cigarette and Coke.

Like many of the foreign volunteers who joined the Islamic State €" described by one study as "single and economically disadvantaged men from large families, between the ages of 18-29, with low education levels, and a limited understanding of Islam" €" the Indian Mujahideen's student recruits appeared to have no deeply-held ideological convictions. Their terrorism was almost an aesthetic affectation, a little like membership of a violent street gang or groups of football hooligans.

Indeed, while the hard core of the Indian Mujahideen drifted towards al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the young students who had formed its rank and file showed no interest in later jihadist mobilisations. Few Indian nationals travelled to join the Islamic State; those who did were overwhelmingly part of the diaspora in West Asia, or members of neo-fundamentalist cults in Kerala.

Ariz's jihadism, then, was intellectually inconsequential: Islamism was a pretext for the inchoate rage of the Indian Mujahideen's rank-and-file, rather than its cause. While his story might be ultimately banal, however, it is very far from trivial. The ease with which young students like Ariz were recruited by the Indian Mujahideen's leadership holds out troubling questions on what role youth violence will play in shaping India's political future.

Every society confronted with large youth cohorts has come to learn this: Too many young people with too little to do means trouble. Jack Goldstone has shown that this demographic phenomenon underpinned crises from the English civil wars of 1642-1651 to the European revolutions of 1848. In a review of European history 1700 to 1900, Mary Mattossian and William Schafer found links between political violence and an "increase in the number of young adult males in proportion to the total male population". Herbert Moller has shown that the high proportion of young adults in Germany helped lay the foundations for Fascism.

As it confronts the largest youth bulge in its history €" a prospectless generation, their lives are characterised by lack of opportunity and disempowerment €" India is being swept by multiple forms of religious and ideological extremism. Hindu nationalism, Islamism, Sikh chauvinism, identity movements of caste and ethnicity, Maoism €" all these are competing, ferociously, for legitimacy and an audience. It may prove easier than we imagine for these movements to acquire lethality.

Except in the scale of its lethality, and its specific cultural idiom, there is nothing in the story of Ariz that a member of a Gau Rakshak gang, a Kashmiri jihadist or a young North-East insurgent would find unfamiliar. That is reason for India to worry.

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