Arrests in Karnataka reveal a disturbing new trend in the recruitment strategies of jihadist groups.
A police counterterrorism raid in southern Karnataka state turned out to be fruitful, yielding 18 suspects. Even more significantly, officials say, it has provided evidence of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) militant group's efforts to sow seeds of extremism in young Muslims -- including young professionals.
Historically, extremist ideologies have had their greatest allure among the less-educated and marginalised. But the men arrested in the Karnataka operation, which began on August 29th, and continued into September, do not fit that description.
Two of the arrested suspects were attempting to reach Afghanistan, evidently to fight alongside the Taliban. Police identified them as Abdul Hakeen Jamadar, a 25-year-old accountant and Zafar Iqbal Sholapur, a 27-year-old physician.
"Their passports are with us and have given away their travel details of the past couple of years," Central Crime Branch of Bangalore Police Spokesperson Hari Nagabhushana told Khabar South Asia.
He said the two men were aroused by jihadist rhetoric which they encountered on the internet. In December 2011, they allegedly took an Air Arabia flight to Tehran and then tried to cross into Pakistan, where they were detained and then sent back across the border.
"They were kept captive for 15 days and then literally pushed back into Iran. Left with no choice, they returned to Bangalore," Nagabhushana said.
Talent gone astray
Senior officers contacted by Khabar said the composition of the group is the most socioeconomically diverse seen in India by counter-terror forces. "While the overwhelming majority of previously-held jihadis belonged to the poorest level of Muslims, this one has doctors and engineers who were willing to kill and be killed," Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister of Internal Security R. Ashok told Khabar.
One example is computer applications student Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, 25, nicknamed "Chotu".
Police said though he had a "brilliant academic record," he also was directly in touch with Abdul Majid, sought by authorities for a 2005 terrorist bombing in Bangalore and believed by authorities to be in Saudi Arabia. Shoaib's brother Aijaz, a junior researcher with Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO), is now under police custody for questioning.
Muturahaman Siddiqui, said to be a journalist working with The Deccan Herald newspaper, is another detainee. He is a member of Jamaat-e-Islami and the Students' Islamic Organisation (SIO), which has expressed doubts about the case against him.
The 18 suspects were picked up in stages from Bangalore, Hubli and Hyderabad in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. They are all in judicial custody, undergoing questioning.
Nagabhushana, the police spokesman, said much money was circulating among the group. Based on statements given by one of the arrested men, 21-year-old Obedulla-ur-Rehman, police believe the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist network was involved.
In particular, LeT handlers Abu Hanzala and Abu Furkhan may have been mentoring the 18 men, according to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
"A catastrophe has been averted in Karnataka thanks to the arrests of these motivated, talented people," Karnataka Director-General of Police Lalrokhuma Pachau told Khabar.
According to Ashok K. Behuria, a fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, told Khabar, there have been past cases of educational professionals becoming ensnared in terrorist activities. In 2006, he said, an Indian scientist was arrested in connection with an airport bombing conspiracy in the United Kingdom.
"What is intriguing, however, [about the recent arrests] is so many at the same time being caught – two doctors, a defence scientist, a journalist, etcetera," he said. "There is every reason for heightened alertness."