Islamist Militants Target the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, has emerged as a battleground for Islamist militants. In the past three years it has endured more jihadi terrorist attacks than any other Indian state outside of Jammu and Kashmir. The Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI)—an outlawed group with bases in Pakistan and Bangladesh—is at the forefront of this subversion.

Seven soldiers of India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and one civilian were killed in the early hours of January 1, when a group of four armed militants attacked a CRPF camp at Rampur in Uttar Pradesh (Hindustan Times, January 1). While no official determination has been made thus far regarding the group responsible for the attack, the HuJI is a prime suspect.

The HuJI is a Pakistan-based Islamist militant group with an affiliate in Bangladesh. While the exact formation date of the group is unknown, its origin can be traced to the Soviet-Afghan war. Qari Saifullah Akhtar along with two of his associates, Maulana Irshad Ahmed and Maulana Abdus Samad Sial—all seminary students from Karachi in Pakistan—were instrumental in laying the foundation of the group sometime in 1980. While the HuJI continued to exist even after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, it merged with another Pakistani militant group called the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to form the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which subsequently began terrorist operations against the Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir. In order for Harkat-ul-Ansar to avoid the ramifications of the U.S. Department of State designating it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, it rebranded itself as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in certain areas while its Bangladesh-based unit—formed in 1992—became known as the HuJI-Bangladesh (HuJI-B). In its early years, the HuJI-B functioned under the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh led by Fazlur Rahman, one of the signatories of the February 23, 1998, declaration of “holy war” under the banner of Osama bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders. The HuJI describes itself as the “second line of defense for every Muslim” and aims to establish Islamic rule by waging war. The group draws inspiration from bin Laden and the Taliban, at one point issuing a slogan: “Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan” (We will all become Taliban and we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan).

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, from April 2001 to 2008 there have been 57 incidents of terrorist subversion in Uttar Pradesh. At least 34 of the 70 districts in Uttar Pradesh—including the capital Lucknow—have been identified as sensitive from the viewpoint of terrorist subversion (Tribune [Chandigarh], July 4, 2007). According to Minister of State for Home Affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal, Indian authorities have dismantled 10 terrorist cells in Uttar Pradesh in the last four years (United News of India, November 21, 2007). India claims that these “espionage-terrorism cells” are backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in an effort to spread terrorist activities to India’s urban areas (Times of India, November 26, 2007). In November 2006, an Uttar Pradesh police report indicated that there had been terrorist-related crimes in 17 of the state’s 70 districts that year.

Available evidence indicates that the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami has a strong network in western Uttar Pradesh. The HuJI cells active in Uttar Pradesh are reportedly being monitored from Bangladesh and coordination among the units is allegedly being done by Muhammad Shahid “Bilal.” Bilal is the suspected mastermind behind the May 18, 2007 blast at the Mecca mosque in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, in which 11 persons died. The serial bomb blasts of November 23, 2007 in court premises at Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow, in which 15 persons died, were orchestrated by the HuJI. One of the militants arrested in that case, “Sajjad”—a resident of Kishtwar in Jammu and Kashmir—is a relative of Mohammed Amin Wani, a HuJI militant arrested in January 2007 by the Delhi police. According to police, Wani was trained in a camp at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and subsequently in a HuJI camp at Reeshkhore in Afghanistan. After his arrest, Wani informed police about Sajjad, who was then HuJI commander in Uttar Pradesh. Wani was himself instrumental in initiating several young men from western Uttar Pradesh into terrorism, according to police (The Hindu, January 3).

The December 22 arrest of Mohammad Tariq Qasmi and Khalid Mujahid—two HuJI militants involved in the November 23 serial bomb blasts and the May 22 Gorakhpur attacks—brought to light the deep tentacles of the group in Uttar Pradesh. Qasmi, a qualified Unani (alternative medicine) doctor, is the area commander of HuJI in Uttar Pradesh. Khalid Mujahid was the head of the action group of the HuJI. Qasmi was reportedly in regular contact with the Pakistan-based HuJI chief, Tauqeer. Brij Lal, the assistant director-general of police, stated that money was delivered to Qasmi (alias Mukhtar) through local contacts and the bombs were made and supplied by Aftab Alam Ansari (alias Raju), who has made several trips to Bangladesh through the Malda district in West Bengal (The Hindu, December 23, 2007).

Since 2005, militant groups like the HuJI, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have—with considerable assistance from local groups like the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)—established an extensive network in Uttar Pradesh. Furthermore, since the October 12, 2005 suicide attack on the Special Task Force of the Hyderabad police, signs of HuJi activity have been witnessed in each of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in India’s urban centers.

Within Uttar Pradesh, the SIMI have provided HuJI militants shelter and logistical assistance. A number of SIMI cadres have also reportedly joined the HuJI. For instance, on April 5, 2006, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested six persons, including Waliullah, the 32-year old prayer leader of a mosque in Phulpur near Allahabad. Waliullah, a former SIMI cadre, was the HuJI “area commander” for eastern Uttar Pradesh (Times of India, April 6, 2006). SIMI not only has a strong base in some universities of Uttar Pradesh, but also reportedly enjoys the support of a segment of the Muslim populace in cities such as Kanpur, Rampur, Moradabad, Saharanpur, Lucknow and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh.

While the HuJI has a strong network in western Uttar Pradesh, its operatives have reportedly infiltrated into all regions of the state. Recent trends have demonstrated the involvement of technically qualified youth within the HuJI fold and the ability of its cadre to operate autonomously in small cells and carefully select both soft and hard targets with a willingness to inflict mass casualties. HuJI’s continuing ability to recruit educated youth into its ranks poses a severe security threat for the authorities and civilian population of Uttar Pradesh.