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The hunt for the Indian Mujahideen's 'al-Arbi'
Praveen Swami | September 14, 2008 12:26 IST
Less than forty eight hours before over thirty bombs tore Ahmedabad [Images] apart in July, Abdul Subhan Usman Qureshi caught an overnight train to Mumbai -- and disappeared.
Police forces across India, backed by the Intelligence Bureau, have made the hunt for the short, thin built man who the Ahmedabad bombers knew by the code-name 'Kasim', their top priority.
Based on the interrogation of Shahbaz Husain, a Lucknow businessman alleged to have led the cell responsible for a string of urban bombings carried out by a Students Islamic Movement of India front organisation calling itself the Indian Mujahideen, investigators are now certain that Qureshi trained the bomb-makers who fabricated the bombs used in the terror offensive.
Qureshi, police believe, was also the 'al-Arbi' who signed e-mail manifestos issued by the Indian Mujahideen after each bombing -- a finding supported by forensic detectives, who have determined that the rounded-'A' which 'al-Arabi' used to sign the documents matches the rendering of the same character in his personal correspondence.
Against the grain
The story of SIMI's [Images] top bomb-maker sits ill with the narrative often used to explain why Islamist terrorism has grown in India.
Qureshi studied at a secular school, not a seminary. He, unlike many inner-city Muslims, enjoyed access to both education and economic opportunity. Most important, Qureshi's political radicalisation seems not to have been connected to the win poles that marked the growth the jihad in India, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat.
Like many first-generation working-class migrants to Mumbai, Qureshi's parents -- who hailed from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh [Images] -- took education seriously.
Qureshi graduated from the Antonio DeSouza High School, a church-run institution which caters to children from all major religious communities in 1988, securing a more-than-reasonable secondary school certificate average of 76.6 per cent. Interestingly, Qureshi's parents offered all their children access to educational opportunity -- not just, as is common among religious conservatives, the boys. Qureshi's sisters, Asma and Safia, have Masters of Arts degrees; none of his three brothers, who also well-educated, appear to have been drawn to SIMI or other Islamist groups.
In the autumn of 1992 -- months before Mumbai was hit by a murderous Shiv Sena-led communal pogrom which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid -- Qureshi began studies at the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth in Navi Mumbai. Neither the communal pogrom, nor the serial bombings which followed them, appear to have directly touched Qureshi's life. In 1995, he obtained a diploma in industrial electronics, and landed a part-time job at String Computers in Mazgaon (northcentral Mumbai). Later, in 1996, he went on to earn a specialised software maintenance qualification from the CMS Institute in Marol (northwest Mumbai).
Armed with these qualifications, Qureshi had little difficulty finding work. He joined Radical Solutions, an independent computer firm operating out of the upmarket Fort area in south Mumbai in November, 1996, on a starting salary of Rs 2,450 per month. By the accounts of his co-workers, Qureshi was an exceptional worker -- an assessment that is borne out by his resume. Just three years into his professional life, Qureshi succeeded in quadrupling his pay. He handled several major independent projects, including an intranet implementation for Bharat Petro-Chemicals carried out by Wipro [Get Quote] in 1999, and then landed a job with computer major Datamatics.
But then, Qureshi suddenly decided to leave in his job. In his March 26, 2001, letter, he offered the firm only 'wish to inform you,' the letter read, 'that I have decided to devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters.'
Qureshi's friends and family claim to have no knowledge of what led him to make the decision. His family claims not to have met since SIMI was proscribed later that year. This seems improbable: Qureshi's youngest child, with his wife Aafia, is, after all, just two-and-a-half years old.
A career in terror
Mumbai police investigators have begun to reconstruct Qureshi's career in terror. No one is certain just how he was recruited, but by 1998, Qureshi appears to have been a committed SIMI activist. He was charged, that year, with defacing public property, by pasting SIMI posters. Later, he went on to edit one of SIMI's house-magazines, Islamic Voice, from New Delhi [Images].
Police sources told The Hindu that Qureshi participated in SIMI conference in October, 1999. Sheikh Yasin, the head of the Palestinian Hamas and the Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islamic chief Qazi Husain Ahmad, were among those who delivered speeches, through telephone links. Seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was reported to have been trotted out in front of the estimated 20,000-strong crowd to read out this couplet: 'Islam ka ghazi, butshikan, Mera sher, Osama bin Laden (Warrior for Islam, destroyer of idols/My lion, Osama bin Laden).'
SIMI's growing links with the global jihadist movement became increasingly clear in the months and years that followed. In January, 2000, for example, police in West Bengal arrested Chinese national Abdul Rahman just after he crossed the Bahirhat border with Bangaldesh. Investigators learned that Rahman, who had escaped from a prison in China's Xinjiang region where he had been serving time for the murder of a police officer, had been brought to India to train Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives. His handlers Aziz-ul-Haq and Nazrul Islam were both SIMI members. Later, in May, 2001, eight SIMI members involved in an abortive plot to bomb the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's headquarters in Nagpur were found to have trained with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir [Images].
By the time of SIMI's 1999 Aurangabad convention, which Qureshi is believed to have helped organise, many of the speeches delivered by delegates were frankly inflammatory. "Islam is our nation, not India," thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad, one of over a dozen SIMI-linked Lashkar operatives arrested in 2005 for smuggling in military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned series of attacks in Gujarat. Among those listening to the speech was Mohammad Azam Ghauri, one of the co-founders of the Lashkar's India operations. Ghauri, some SIMI members present in Aurangabad say, was offered SIMI's leadership, but refused.
Qureshi was, investigators say, one of the principal organisers of SIMI's last public conference in 2001. SIMI leaders told the estimated 25,000 followers who attended the conference that the time had come for Indian Muslims to launch an armed jihad which would have the establishment of a caliphate at its final aim.
In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001, SIMI activists organised demonstrations attacking the United States of America for being an 'enemy of Islam.' SIMI literature hailed Osama as a 'true mujahid (Islamic warrior' and celebrated the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban [Images]. Muslims were exhorted to 'trample the infidels.'
Finding Qureshi -- as well as figures like Qayamuddin Kapadia, the missing Vadodara based computer-graphics artist who police believe led the SIMI cell which targeted Surat [Images] (Kapadia has since been arrested) -- could prove key to preventing the next big terror bombings. But the threat will not end with his arrest. Investigations of other SIMI-linked terror cells have thrown up evidence which suggests Qureshi trained several hundred recent recruits to the Islamist group's terror cells, at camps held across India from 2007 onwards.
India, it seems probable, will be compelled to live with this threat for many years to come.
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