Not too long ago, they were students in a quiet coastal town in Karnataka, or members of a religious student organisation, or simply petty criminals in jail.
But in a decade, they have melded together to create the country’s most lethal terror outfit, whose rationale is revenge and calling card, gruesome attacks in crowded places.
Meet the Indian Mujahideen (IM), prime suspect in the Hyderabad blasts.
Under its belt is a list of terror strikes across the country that gave it birth: serial blasts in Delhi in 2005, the Mumbai train attacks in 2006, attacks on Uttar Pradesh courts in 2007, serial attacks in Jaipur and Ahmedabad in 2008, and in Mumbai again in 2011.
Next up, terrifyingly, could be a suicide attack.
Alleged IM operatives arrested for their role in an aborted attack on Pune last year have told interrogators they did a recce of the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya with an intention to carry out a fidayeen or suicide attack on the shrines to avenge so-called atrocities committed on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The group had also planned to target Delhi and Mumbai.
Despite its high-profile attacks, IM remains a shadowy presence. It has about 50 members on the run, say Indian intelligence sources. Its members maintain absolute operational secrecy, shunning phone conversations and using only coded emails. They use religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia as a pretext to hold planning meetings there with collaborators who fly in from Pakistan.
Most members are between 25 and 35 years old.
IM’s key members first met as students in Bhatkal in Karnataka, or were part of the Students Islamic Movement of India. Some found their jihadi calling in jail.
A precursor to the IM was an outfit led by the criminal Asif Reza Khan, accused of kidnapping shoe baron Partho Burman in Kolkata in 2001. Some of the R3.75 crore allegedly paid as ransom is suspected to have found its way to Mohammad Atta, the ring-leader of the 9/11 hijackers — through Omar Sheikh, who later went on to kidnap and kill US journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
Asif Reza Khan was killed in an encounter, but an organisation formed in his memory went on to attack the American Center in Kolkata in 2002 — the first attack by what was, in 2007, to become the IM.
In a clear sign that the suicide strike threat is very real, the home ministry sent another alert to Bodh Gaya on Friday.
The IM has wanted a suicide brigade since 2008, and even planned to name it after slain al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But the man tasked with raising the unit, Atif Ameen, was killed by Delhi Police in the Batla House encounter in September that year.