When three bombs tore through Mumbai on the rain-drenched summer's evening of July 13, more than a few people in windowless Washington, D.C., offices probably stopped eating their breakfasts, their hearts beating a little faster. If the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had hit the city once more, the beleaguered government in Delhi, sensing post-Abbottabad opportunities, might have felt compelled to strike out across the border.
As nameless Indian and American officials began hinting in anonymous press leaks that the "domestic" Indian Mujahideen (IM) was the more probable perpetrator, sighs of relief might have followed. Yes, this would be one more in the string of attacks that have killed 700 Mumbaikars since 1993, but its fallout would be wholly contained within India.
This complacency is unwarranted, however. It is true that the IM's distance from the Pakistani military establishment means that there will be no standoff like that of 2001-02, when India mobilized half a million men to the border. The IM's all-Indian membership and leadership, and its presence across the country, would seem to suggest that it's a purely domestic problem.
But it is no less important to understand that the group has flourished by plugging itself into transnational jihadi networks, enjoying the patronage of Pakistan-backed groups like LeT, which in turn remain the most serious threats to regional stability. Pakistan doesn't get off the hook so easily.
Who are the Indian Mujahideen?
The IM is an offshoot of an offshoot. In 1977, the Student's Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) emerged as a student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), a radical but non-violent Islamist movement headquartered in Delhi.
SIMI became progressively more radicalized through the 1980s, spurred on by Hindu extremists' destruction of a mosque (the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya) and consequent riots across Mumbai in 1992. An armed wing coalesced toward the end of that decade, with recruiting spreading from the group's northern heartland to southern India.
Around 2001, when SIMI was banned by the Indian government, IM formed as a splinter or successor organization (it remains unclear which). Its first claimed attack was a trio of bombings in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, described by the group as "Islamic raids." Other attacks followed in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmadabad, and New Delhi.
In 2002, horrific anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, in which the state's Hindu nationalist government was widely understood to be at least passively complicit, was a massive boon to the group's recruitment efforts. IM described its bombings in 2008, somewhat cynically, as the "revenge of Gujarat," even as it sporadically harnessed the language of Osama bin Laden's global jihad.
IM sits at the intersection of two interwoven strands. The first is India's own difficulties with integrating Muslims into a state whose noble secular promise has frequently been found wanting, in areas ranging from housing allocation to political participation to access to education.
In an unpublished paper, Praveen Swami, an authority on Indian jihadi groups, argues that Indian jihadists owe their rise to Muslim underrepresentation and marginalization. Though they "endorse the al Qaeda message," Georgetown University scholar C. Christine Fair writes, summarizing the article, "they appear to motivate cadres and leaders by focusing on the plight of India's Muslims rather than those of the larger Muslim world."
B. Raman, the former head of counterterrorism for India's foreign intelligence service, notes repeatedly in his memoirs that the 1992 mosque destruction "marked an important watershed in the attitude of sections of the Muslim youth" who were rendered into "fertile soil" for jihadi ideology. Before that point, there had been no jihadi terrorism on Indian soil outside of Kashmir.
This is not an argument for making excuses for terrorism, or a call for India to appease its neofundamentalists. Nor is this about money, as Swami notes elsewhere, as it can only be a short-term fix to deep problems of alienation and humiliation. Plainly put, India needs to do a better job in treating its 138 million Muslims equally under the law, thereby denying jihadi claims the ideological traction they seek.
A closer look at IM's makeup, however, undercuts the facile notion that better communal relations would cause its hardcore adherents to disintegrate, or that we can make easy distinctions between "homegrown" and "foreign" militancy.
The IM was more than just an armed Indian student group. Its birth was midwifed by the LeT and Harkat-ul-Jihad-Islami Bangladesh, as well as organized crime networks linked to Pakistan. The 2006 bombings of Mumbai trains that killed 209 were, according to Georgetown's Fair, "an LeT operation outsourced through SIMI," the earlier incarnation of IM. In an authoritative study of the groups, she notes that the LeT "serves as a provider of logistical and ideological infrastructure to the regional jihadist movement."
In South Asia's complex terrorist stew, it's often hard to distinguish one organization from another. For instance, in 2002, around 14 IM recruits from Hyderabad were trained in the Pakistani camps of LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed, a related group. It strains credulity to suppose that this was not done with the approval of the Pakistani spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. When an IM bomb factory was raided in October 2009, the bombmaker fled to a LeT safe house in Karachi. He returned to bomb a bakery in Pune in February 2010.
In other words, "homegrown" doesn't necessarily mean "domestic." LeT and its backers in the Pakistani state have every incentive to give their covert war against India an indigenous face. The Indian Mujahideen may have been born of India's communalism, but it was weaned on the unrelenting militancy of a certain country to the north.