Indian Mujahideen founder Yasin Bhatkal arrested

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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

The intelligence agencies of the country, which had been at the receiving end of criticism for their inability to arrest Yasin Bhatkal alias Zarar Siddibaba, seem to have made a major breakthrough . On the night of 28 August, two teams of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) held Yasin Bhatkal from the Indo-Nepal border and handed him over to the Bihar police .

“We had received a tip off that Yasin and his colleague Assadullah Akhtar alias Haddi were moving across the porous border, which is a route mostly used by anti-nationals. This secret monitoring has been taking place since the last one month and our officials nabbed him last night,” officials said. According to them, Yasin, who was taken aback, tried to dissuade them by suggesting that he was a doctor from Bihar. However, as the agencies were armed with information and his recent photographs and sketches, Bhatkal could not slip this time like he had on many previous occasions.

Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, while refusing to name the agencies involved, said, “Yasin has been traced and he is under the custody of the Bihar Police. The interrogation is going on. Till now, this is the only information.” Meanwhile, IB officials said that there was no tip-off from the FBI on Yasin Bhatkal.

Home Ministry sources told TEHELKA that they have issued strict orders to all agencies working on his interrogation to not leak or give any misleading information on Bhatkal’s interrogation as this wiould only create a rift. This statement is relevant keeping in mind events of the past when Bhatkal gave the slip to agencies due to lack of coordination and turf-war between the IB, NIA (National Investigation Agency) and other anti-terror outfits.

Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar who have been handed over to the Bihar police will turn out to be a major catch for the agencies as most of those arrested so far for the eight blasts across the country were only footsoldiers of the IM. Besides, not much is known about the existence and formation of the IM, the only source of whose existence has been the emails which were sent to various media houses after every blast that took place.

Bihar Police, meanwhile, claimed that they played a major role in the arrest of Yasin Bhatkal. Bihar Police chief, Abhayanand said, “It was Bihar Police that mainly helped the NIA (National Investigation Agency) and other government agencies to arrest Bhatkal. A team of Bihar Police officials interrogated Bhatkal at a secret place after he was arrested.”

Yasin Bhatkal, who according to his family was born in 1983, was working with his father in  Dubai. A press release issued by the family this morning said, “Ahmed Siddibapa was born in 1983. He  studied at Bhatkal from grade 1 to10. Ahmed could not pass his 10th grade. He left for Dubai in November 2005 and disappeared  from Dubai in January 2007. He had never set foot in Pune, to our knowledge, until he disappeared from Dubai.”

Yasin Bhatkal’s arrest is seen as a major breakthrough by the agencies involved because he had given the slip to them on many occasions despite being in the country and being nabbed once. He was seen in the CCTV footage in the Pune German Bakery blasts of February 2010, which killed 17 and injured 60. It is believed, and has earlier been reported by TEHELKA, that right after the blasts, Bhatkal, who is a smooth operator, visited his friends at Pune’s Azam campus right beneath the nose of the Pune ATS which was on the lookout for him.

On 13 July 2011, three powerful bombs exploded at Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Dadar, killing 26 people and injuring 130. This blast threw agencies on a wild-goose chase of Yasin Bhatkal, who shares his second name Riyaz Bhatkal, one of the other IM founders allegedly operating out of Karachi. It is alleged that after planting the bombs at Zaveri Bazaar, Bhatkal returned to his rented apartment at Nagpada, a crowded area in South Mumbai, located barely half-a-kilometre from where Maharashtra ATS chief Rakesh Maria holds fort at a sprawling office.

Bhatkal managed to get there within hours of the blasts at a time when the Mumbai Police had sealed all exit routes, jammed cell phone networks, beefed up surveillance across the state and rounded up more than 150 suspects. Bhatkal and his fellow operatives Waqas alias Ahmed and Tabrez alias Asadullah Akhtar, who the security agencies thought were Pakistani nationals, but later turned out to be from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, went about their routine activities, while the Mumbai Police groped in the dark for leads.

Bhatkal and his associates had been renting the apartment since April 2011. The three men quietly left the building after the blasts without collecting their security deposit from the landlord. The details came to light when officers of the Mumbai ATS and the Delhi Police Special Cell pieced together information obtained from interrogation reports and CCTV footage from the blast sites in Mumbai. They came to the conclusion that the trio had planted the bombs in Mumbai and later that year in Pune. Their identities were revealed this February by Maria at a press conference in Mumbai

Hailing from Bhatkal, a coastal town in Karnataka that saw a spate of communal riots, Yasin Bhatkal was born in 1983 and studied at a madrasa at the Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen. There are fascinating stories that could well be the subject of a Bollywood potboiler about how Bhatkal was indoctrinated by the Shahbandari brothers — Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal (no relation to Yasin). The brothers were activists of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) before launching the IM. But considering the fact that the brothers have fled India, these details remain in the realm of speculation.

The information available in the public domain, if we are to believe the chargesheets filed by anti-terror agencies of 12 states, is that Bhatkal planted bombs in at least 10 of the blasts that rocked the country since 2008 — Ahmedabad (2008), Surat (2008), Jaipur (2008), New Delhi (2008), Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi (2010), Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru (2010), Pune (2011), Mumbai (2011), Hyderabad (2013) and Bengaluru (2013).

Interestingly, the law did catch up with Bhatkal once. In 2008, the Kolkata Police had arrested him in a counterfeit currency case. Bhatkal was let off on bail after serving a month-long sentence. Officials maintain that no alert was sounded then because the police had no idea who he was. Bhatkal had identified himself as Mohammed Ashraf from Darbhanga in Bihar and claimed that he was waiting for a consignment of fake currency from Bangladesh. The Kolkata Police couldn’t verify his identity because there was no national database.

In November 2011, Bhatkal gave the slip to the police in Chennai. Apparently, he managed to disappear from his hideout within hours of intelligence officials from Delhi and Chennai reaching there. His father-in-law Irshad Khan told the police team that Bhatkal had gone to the market. He never returned.

However, now that Bhatkal and Haddi have been arrested , agencies believe that there could be DNA testing of Bhatkal to put to rest any speculation which may arise over his identity. “We want to be hundred percent sure and will not leave any stone unturned,” said an official who added that he would now be handed over to the NIA which handles the blast cases.

It would now be interesting to see what Yasin Bhatkal has to reveal about the existence of the Indian Mujahideen. This would include many aspects, including the funding of the organization and if there were other sleeper cells active in the country as has been alleged by the ATS and the special cell in the past. Family members of those arrested in the Gujarat and Mumbai blasts on charge of being Indian Mujahideen members had alleged earlier that their kin were being made scapegoats to save the agencies from the embarrassment of not being able to arrest either Yasin or Riyaz Bhatkal and that their arrest might prove their family members’ innocence.

While it is too early to suggest anything as Yasin’s interrogation is underway, his arrest might certainly tie the loose ends that the Indian Mujahideen narrative had thrown up after the successive blasts.

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