Over the years, southern India has become a hotbed for several extremist and radical outfits like SIMI, Al Ummah, Indian Mujahideen, and AQIS. Some of these have aligned and identified themselves with bigger terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda, and Daesh or Islamic State

India this month pointedly spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) about how Pakistan had failed to meet the global demand for the dismantling of its “terrorism mill” that churned out jihadists across South Asia. This demand to curb terror organisations follows up on the 2020 United Nations report that warned India of a significant rise in the numbers of homegrown terrorists.

The report specifically mentioned the states of Karnataka and Kerala being the locations from where al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) had been identifying and training militants. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) along with state intelligence departments have been keeping a close watch on the movement and growth of several Indian-origin terror outfits.

The Rise of Terror Groups In Southern India

Over the years, southern India has become a hotbed for several extremist/radical outfits like SIMI, Al Ummah, Indian Mujahideen and AQIS. Since the early 1990s, there has been an exponential growth in radicalisation and radical groups in the region. Some of these have aligned and identified themselves with bigger terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda, and Daesh or Islamic State (ISIS).

The recent arrest of three members of the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) for threatening Karnataka High Court judges of “possible" murder over the hijab verdict brings back to focus the role of small outfits linked to various terror organisations, particularly in southern India.

TNTJ has been perceived to be linked to the Popular Front of India (PFI), though it calls itself a “non-political, socio-religious, community service” organisation.

“Earlier the madrasas were used to indoctrinate young minds. The seniors would talk of how their religion is under threat and it is these young minds that will let Islam flourish. Slowly, they began to use technology like social media platforms and messaging services but in stealth mode,” said a senior Tamil Nadu-based police official who requested anonymity.

Many of the terror groups claim to be organisations dedicated to social service. They target young impressionable minds and brainwash them to “help protect their religion. Groups such as TNTJ are no less. Their speeches threatening the judges smack of inciting a rebellion and anti-national feelings,” said Gopal Hosur, former Inspector General of Intelligence, Karnataka Police. “These radical groups target uneducated or semi-educated youth to indoctrinate them. They follow the policy of catching them young, impart training while they are fit, and then let them out to spread their extremist views.”

Many of them receive funding from terror organisations like the LeT and ISIS, said a senior Karnataka police official associated with several investigations related to terror cells in the state. “These small splinter groups receive training, weapons, and, when the time comes, are expected to join hands and provide local support on the ground,” he added.

Even during the protests against the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) beginning in 2019, Indian agencies found several sleeper cells trying to exploit the situation to radicalise and attract more people into their fold. They claimed that their religion was being threatened and the “young and willing” should join hands to save it.

“The sleeper cells of such radical groups have always been there, but they always wait for an opportunity to raise their heads. They wait for the opportune time to act,” the official added.

These terror organisations would largely target young vulnerable men and women who are heavily influenced to take the path of “jihad". They talk to them about the greater “Islamic cause” and ensure the potential recruits are completely radicalised before inducting them full-time. They would be shown videos and graphic photographs of those who became “martyrs”. The young impressionable minds would also be subjected to images of torture to create anger and fear.

Increased Radicalisation After Babri Masjid Demolition

The trend of radicalisation is said to have gained momentum after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Islamic cleric Abdul Nasser Madani, who founded the Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS), began delivering speeches and meetings to influence the “community to stand up against atrocities”. The now-banned ISS radicalised individuals like Thadiyantavide Naseer, who Indian agencies believe is the South India commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Here are some of the extreme radical groups that are being closely monitored by agencies such as the NIA and state intelligence departments-

Popular Front of India: The Popular Front of India (PFI) predominantly operates out of Kerala, a state where the NIA believes several Muslim radical organisations have been mushrooming. The PFI is an offshoot of its predecessor, the National Democratic Front (NDF), which was formed in 1993, a year after the Babri Masjid demolition. The NDF allegedly was formed to wage war against the oppressors of Muslims in India.

In 2006, the NDF merged itself with other like-minded organisations— Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) in Tamil Nadu and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) to form the Popular Front of India. According to the NIA, the outfit has a presence in almost 23 states in the country. Many states in India have banned the organisation for “anti-national activities” and the Centre is also contemplating outlawing it nationwide.

The PFI began portraying itself as a platform to help change the lives of the Muslim community and emphasising on bringing about socio-economic, cultural and political empowerment of those living in India. The group also has immense political clout, so much so that political parties in Kerala and Karnataka feel that a ban on the PFI could be perceived as an anti-Muslim move. However, the organisation continues to remain on the radar of the government as it has been observed that many PFI followers switched loyalties to the Islamic State.

Three years later, the PFI launched its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), with the tagline “to fight for the advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry, including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis". The same year was launched the Campus Front of India (CFI), said to be PFI’s student wing, and the forum at the fore of the hijab controversy that has rocked Karnataka. The CFI though had told News18 that it doesn’t have an affiliation with any political party or organisation.

Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI): Formed in 1977 in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, SIMI has been known to be the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The organisation banned by the Indian government in 2001 under the subsequently-repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) has been known to have led to radicalisation and formation of terror groups such as the Indian Mujahideen and Al Ummah. Claiming to be a voice against Western ideals, SIMI leaders spoke of restoring democracy through the caliphate and creating Dar-al-Islam (Islamic land) in India.

Manitha Neethi Pasarai and Karnataka Forum for Dignity: Smaller outfits like Manitha Neethi Pasarai and Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) formed in 2001 were seen to be offshoots of SIMI. They later merged themselves with the National Democratic Front (NDF) to form the PFI.

MNP, a Tamil Nadu-based group, is believed to have links to Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front as well as PFI. In October 2004, the Cuddalore police raided MNP offices for their alleged involvement in converting Dalits to Islam and imparting weapons training. The KFD, which also merged with the PFI, was seen to be active in the Dakshina Kannada region of Karnataka. The Karnataka police have probed the group’s involvement in the 2009 Mysuru communal violence and the terror attack at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru in 2005.

Indian Mujahideen (IM): The banned terror organisation that was born in the year 2000 in Karnataka’s Bhatkal town was created by two brothers who shared the area’s name: Riyaz and Yasin Bhatkal. At first, the IM was called Usaba (meaning congregation in Arabic) and enlisted members from across states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The outfit claimed its main objective was to bring together like-minded people who were committed to waging a holy war against anti-Muslim people and the Indian state.

According to the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), the IM is not a well-knit organisation with a hierarchical structure like other more established groups such as the LeT. It is seen as an Islamic terror organisation that includes a loose network of groups like SIMI, PFI, HuJI, Al Umma, and supporters of the LeT. The IM’s first attack was in 2002 on the American Center in Kolkata. NIA sources tell News18 that Amir Reza Khan and Aftab Ansari were the masterminds behind it. They wanted to avenge the death of Amir’s brother Asif Reza Khan, who had been killed by police in Gujarat in 2001.

By late 2007, the IM began gaining support in southern India. Several top-rung SIMI leaders supported the formation of the IM and had even imparted training to 50 SIMI cadre members in Kerala’s Aluva. India faced a number of terror attacks across cities, which the intelligence agencies confirm were masterminded by the IM. The 2008 bomb blasts in Jaipur and Ahmedabad followed by a series of blasts in Bengaluru, Guwahati, and Delhi in the same year were seen to have the IM footprint. It was after the Guwahati bomb blast that an insignificant group called Islamic Security Force renamed itself as the Indian Mujahideen.

Al Ummah: Just like the PFI, this Tamil Nadu-based terror group was founded in 1993 by Syed Ahmed Basha, a year after the Babri Masjid razing. The name came up after a bomb blast took place near the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Chennai that killed 11 people. Al Umma was now under the scanner of India’s defence and investigation agencies and once again hit the headlines in 1997 when it was accused of planning to assassinate senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani using pipe bombs. Advani was travelling to Coimbatore to participate in an election campaign and escaped as his flight was delayed. Serial blasts in 18 places caused the deaths of more than 50 people. Al Umma’s name surfaced once again in 2013 during the Malleswaram bomb blasts in Karnataka.

Deendar Anjuman: This is a Hyderabad-based radical group that has been involved in a series of bomb blasts across churches in southern India. According to information from sources in the NIA, Deendar Anjuman carried out blasts in Bengaluru, Wadi and Hubballi, apart from other places in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh.

Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has been slowly radicalising the existing radical groups in India since their mission is quite similar. They have been identifying radical groups ready to align themselves with ISIS in hopes of funding and training. India has voiced its serious concerns about the continued presence of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the increase in the number of recruits to the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K).

India’s representative to the United Nations, Ambassador TS Tirumurti, while speaking at the Security Council briefing on March 4 this year, said, “Terrorism continues to pose a serious threat to Afghanistan and the region… We need to see concrete progress in ensuring that such proscribed terrorists, entities or their aliases do not get any support, tacit or direct, either from Afghan soil or from the terror sanctuaries based in the region." While ISIS is monitored by intelligence agencies across the world, its links to several Indian splinter groups have been found. “Agencies like the NIA have been systematically arresting and dismantling them," said a senior source from the agency.