Too many spooks spoil the case

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ON 22 MARCH, New Delhi woke up and counted its blessings. Officers of the Delhi Police Special Cell claimed they had averted a major terror strike by arresting Hizbul Mujahideen commander Liaquat Shah on the Indo-Nepal border near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. A cache of arms and ammunition, including AK rifles and grenades, too had allegedly been recovered from a guesthouse in old Delhi. As 24×7 news channels showed a haggard-looking man, shouting his innocence, in the grip of gun-toting Special Cell men, the National Capital Region and perhaps the whole country heaved a sigh of relief. Memories of the twin blasts that rocked Hyderabad on 21 February were still fresh in their minds.

The police claimed that Liaquat, a resident of Kupwara in Jammu & Kashmir, had slipped into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 1997 and received arms training. They said Liaquat had returned to oversee a terror attack to avenge the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.

The terror story ruled the airwaves for a few hours before it exploded in Delhi Police’s face. As soon as news of Liaquat’s arrest went public, his family and the J&K Police debunked Delhi Police’s claims. According to the J&K Police, Liaquat was a reformed militant coming home to start a new life. His relatives claimed they had notified the cops on 5 February 2011 about Liaquat’s planned surrender. The route that he had taken, entering India through Nepal, is the most preferred one for reformed militants and many who availed of the state’s surrender policy had used it.

J&K Police also claimed that two policemen had gone to Gorakhpur to pick up 9-10 people, including Liaquat, and had kept the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Delhi Police in the loop. When the handover happened, the J&K Police allege that the Delhi Police didn’t allow them to take Liaquat into custody. Two days later, he was paraded as a terror mastermind.

However, a Delhi Police officer begged to differ and made some counter-claims.
• If the J&K Police had received the surrender application in February 2011, then why did they file an FIR against Liaquat in March for waging war against the nation?
• Why is the J&K Police refusing to reveal the identity of the two personnel who had gone to pick up the contingent?

The Delhi cop also wondered whether his colleagues were foolish enough to jeopardise an operation in which both the IB and the J&K Police were kept in the loop.

The Kashmir Valley, which was already reeling under curfews imposed after Guru’s hanging, erupted in protest. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was quick to remind the Centre that Liaquat’s arrest might deal a big blow to its flagship programme aimed at bringing back reformed militants who had crossed over to POK. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti added that Kashmiris are nabbed without evidence and treated as fodder for rewards and medals.

Two days after Omar made the demand, the Union home ministry announced that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) will probe the curious case of Liaquat.

This is not the first time such claims and counter-claims have exposed the lack of coordination between various intelligence agencies. And it won’t be the last.

As a home ministry official puts it, “Intelligence agencies have a ruthless desire to put one’s interest before everything and make sure they get all the credit. The nation’s interest can go to hell for all they care.”

So, how does one explain Liaquat’s arrest? Was it due to a bad intelligence input or an insatiable greed on the part of the security agencies to have a terror arrest against their names so that their annual confidential report looks good? There are close to 23 security agencies, 35 state anti-terror cells and special units operating in India on hundreds of cases in which people have been branded as terrorists, only to be found innocent after a trial extending from five years to eternity. By that time, the officer concerned has moved on in his life, with a gallantry medal pinned on his chest for exemplary courage. TEHELKA has relentlessly chronicled the plight of such innocents, who were falsely implicated. TEHELKA has also tracked the alarming chaos and difficulties faced by India’s anti-terror establishment (Dazed & Confused. Again by Ashish Khetan, 17 September 2011; Why are we losing the fight against terror by Ashish Khetan, 4 February 2012).

When P Chidambaram took over as home minister after the 26/11 attacks, it was seen as a welcome relief. He touted the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) as a magic wand that will rid Indian intelligence agencies of their turf wars. Four years later, the NCTC has turned out to be the biggest bone of contention between the Centre and the states. The fate of Chidambaram’s pet project will be known at the internal security meeting of the chief ministers to be held in Delhi on 15 April. So, with the NCTC’s dilution, are we once again taking one step forward and two steps back in the fight against terror?

“If everybody in the intelligence community had shared inputs, 70 percent of the terror attacks would not have taken place,” says an intelligence officer. “But then, given the stakes involved, it is also asking for the impossible.” This sums up the attitude of the intelligence agencies, who are busy fighting a turf war rather than the war against terror.

When two blasts rocked Dilsukhnagar, a crowded locality in Hyderabad, on 23 February, terror made its first visit to India in 2013. The twin blasts killed 17 people and injured more than 100. What followed was something that has played out again and again after every terror attack.

Within no time, the Union home ministry issued a statement that it had shared intelligence inputs with the Andhra Pradesh government, which they “failed” to assess and act upon. Not wanting to be left out of the action, Delhi Police Special Cell officers told friendly journalists that two Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives had confessed in late 2012 that Dilsukhnagar was one of the areas where they had done a recce. The officers claimed they had passed on the information. But the AP Police rubbished those claims, saying the intel inputs were not that specific.

Forty-eight hours later, the NIA took over the probe. A crucial piece of information emerged when CCTV footage revealed a man visiting the spot on a bicycle. He was seen leaving a bag and fleeing just minutes before the blasts. Going by the modus operandi, the NIA suspect that IM operatives Tabrez and Waqas, who were part of the 13/7 Mumbai attack, had a hand in this operation as well.

However, 12 days before the blasts, something interesting had happened in Mumbai. On 11 February, the Mumbai Anti- Terror Squad (ATS) had announced a reward of 10 lakh each for information on four IM operatives alleged to be behind various terror strikes across India in the past couple of years, including the 2012 Pune blasts. They were Yasin Bhatkal, the founder-leader of IM and one of India’s most-wanted terrorists, Asadullah Akhtar alias Tabrez, Waqas alias Ahmed and Tahseen alias Raju bhai. For a long time it was believed that Tabrez and Waqas were Pakistanis, but the Mumbai ATS claimed that they were, in fact, Indians.

But the Mumbai ATS failed to disclose that had it not been for a major goof-up, involving the Delhi Police, IB and Mumbai ATS, three out of the four IM operatives would have been behind bars and maybe the lives of the 16 people in Hyderabad could have been saved.

Chronicles of a Terror Foretold

Five cases where lack of coordination among the security agencies cost the country dear 

1. Hyderabad 2013 The 21 February blasts in Hyderabad could have been averted if the Mumbai Police had not arrested Naqi Ahmed Wasi in January 2012. Wasi, a Delhi Police informer, was on the verge of leading the police to Indian Mujahideen operatives Waqas and Tabrez, when he was nabbed for his alleged role in the 2011 serial blasts that rocked Mumbai. Security agencies suspect that Waqas and Tabrez were instrumental in the Hyderabad blasts
2. Kolkata 2009 Indian Mujahideen founder-leader Yasin Bhatkal was arrested by the Kolkata Police in 2009 on charges of carrying fake currency. But he was set free after only a month in jail as he could convince the police that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. Unfortunately, the police had no way of cross-checking with a national database
3. Mumbai 2008 Despite having concrete intelligence, the investigators could not join the dots, leading to audacious terror attacks on 26/11. The Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) knew of the training and sea movements of Lashkare- Toiba terrorists and the IB had a list of 35 cell phone numbers, but those leads were not pursued. The role of the Mumbai ATS also came under the scanner for its inability to access the information
4. Kargil 1999 The IB had 45 specific intelligence inputs. The most concrete input received in June 1998 said that Pakistan was building bunkers, but it was not shared with everybody. The then RAW chief Girish Saxena was livid enough to put his displeasure on record, saying that the turf war had cost the country dear
5. Purulia 1995 In the Purulia arms drop case, where automatic weapons and ammunition were dropped from an aircraft in West Bengal to be used by a militant group, RAW had the information at least a week prior to the incident. “We gave the information to the home ministry 4-5 days in advance. The ministry sent it by registered post to Calcutta,” says a former RAW official

 

ON 20 NOVEMBER 2011, the Delhi Police Special Cell announced that they had busted a homegrown terror module and arrested six people. They were Mohd Qateel Siddiqi, Mohd Irshad Khan, Gauhar Aziz Khomani, Gayur Ahmed Jamali and Abdul Rahman (all from Bihar) and Mohd Adil (from Karachi). This module was allegedly behind the terror attacks at German Bakery in Pune, Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru and the Jama Masjid in Delhi.

It was a joint operation by the Delhi Police Special Cell and the IB, but what was not revealed in the press conference was the identity of the seventh person, Naqi Ahmed Wasi Shaikh, who was also arrested. Naqi was a resident of Darbhanga district in Bihar and owned a leather-processing unit in Byculla, Mumbai.

Naqi told the Special Cell that he knew about the hideout of Bhatkal and two other IM operatives in Mumbai and could lead the police to it. Though Bhatkal and his accomplice had vacated the place, they were yet to collect their advance of 1 lakh. The Special Cell had put the phone line of Rubina, the landlady, on surveillance. On 1 January, they got a lucky breakthrough when one of the “Pakistanis” made a call to Rubina, who asked him to call back in an hour. The suspect called after three hours but Rubina told him that she needed more time to return the money. The call was traced to a phone booth in Dadar. The sleuths were confident that they were on the verge of effecting a big breakthrough.

On 23 January, the Mumbai ATS announced to the world that they have arrested two people from Bihar in connection with the 13/7 Mumbai blasts. One of them was Naqi. A stunned Special Cell then leaked the news that Naqi was their informer, triggering a war of words between the Special Cell and Mumbai ATS. The moment Naqi’s arrest was made public, all the clues simply disappeared.

This is touted as a classic case of how lack of coordination, inflated egos and the constant game of one-upmanship are compromising the fight against terror.

However, this was not the only embarrassing story that emerged out of that breakthrough. During the course of interrogation, the revelations made by Mohd Irshad stunned and embarrassed the Delhi Police. Irshad told them that Bhatkal had lived in New Delhi for 8-9 months in 2011.

Bhatkal was married to Irshad’s daughter and was living in the industrial belt of Meer Vihar, in west Delhi’s Nangloi area. When the police raided the area, they found a small ordnance and weapon factory. The locals told police that Irshad and Bhatkal mostly kept to themselves and didn’t interact much with others. The police believe that Bhatkal was in the city even after the 2011 Delhi High Court blast.

But if you thought that the intelligence agencies’ tryst with embarrassment and Bhatkal ended here, think again.

In late 2008, on an alert given by the IB, the Kolkata Special Task Force busted a fake currency racket and arrested Bhatkal. He claimed that he was Mohammad Ashraf from Darbhanga in Bihar and showed a voter’s ID card as proof. The address and other information checked out to be true. After a month in jail, he was let off.

However, when the footage of the German Bakery blast was released by the IB, the Kolkata Police was shocked to find that the person they thought was a petty thief was India’s most-wanted terrorist.

Intelligence officers and security experts agree that in cases like these, if even a little cooperation is extended, big results can be achieved. Bhatkal is not the only case where lack of coordination botched up the case, it’s just the latest.

“The 2006 Mumbai train blast is yet another example of how the lack of coordination led to this situation,” says a senior IB officer. “RAW was aware of the movement of the LeT module, which came to do the recce, and even the IB knew this. However, none of them shared the information with the higher-ups and therefore a golden chance was lost to prevent that attack.”

Months before the 1999 Kargil War, the IB had 45 specific intelligence inputs. In June 1998, the IB had intelligence that Pakistan was building bunkers but they did not share the information with anyone. The result was there for everyone to see.

The disconnect is also illustrated by Riyazuddin Nasir’s arrest. In 2008, a sub-inspector in Bengaluru saw Nasir carrying several car number plates and enquired about it. Unable to get a satisfactory reply, he booked him under a vehicle theft case. In a chance encounter, the SP crosschecked Nasir’s details with the IB, and found that they had arrested one of the country’s most-dreaded terrorists.

Even the 26/11 attacks, one of the most audacious that the country has ever seen, is not without its share of goof-ups.

“We had a lot of information about 26/11 and that too well in advance,” says SD Pradhan, former chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee and former deputy National Security Adviser (NSA). “In 2006, RAW knew that 150 LeT men were undergoing training in water tactics. In June 2008, we got inputs that the Taj Mahal hotel and Leopold Café were going to be attacked. But the biggest problem was that these inputs were with different agencies — RAW or IB or DIA. In mid-November, another input was given to the Coast Guard, Indian Navy and the Mumbai Police that 10-12 people were coming towards Mumbai from Karachi. They scanned the coast but didn’t find anything. Another alert was sounded on 19 November, but they thought they had already checked. There was plenty of intelligence to be acted upon. If only somebody had connected the dots.” Even these inputs were not shared with the NSA.

Incredibly, highly-placed sources have told TEHELKA that the cell phone numbers used by the 10 LeT terrorists were available with the IB at least five days before the attacks. The sources shared the contents of a ‘secret’ note that mentioned 35 cell phone numbers. Of the 35 SIM cards, 32 had been bought from Kolkata and three from New Delhi by LeT’s “overground workers”, and sent to POK by mid-November. The precise contents of the ‘secret’ note could not have been more direct. “The numbers given below have been acquired from Kolkata by overground workers and have been sent through Pakistan-trained militants based in Kashmir to POK,” the note said. “These numbers are likely to emerge in other parts of the country… and need to be monitored and the information taken from these numbers regarding the contents of the conversation and call detail records are required for further developing the information. The monitoring is possible at Kolkata.”

Sources reveal that this crucial piece of information was received by the IB on 21 November, at least five days before Ajmal Kasab and his nine accomplices got off the inflatable dinghies on the evening of 26/11. Both the prime minister and the home minister were aware that the numbers were available, but they were not being monitored. The lapse is all the more critical because at least three of the 32 numbers contained in the secret note were the exact same cell numbers that the terrorists used to keep in touch with their handlers in Pakistan. It is possible that the terrorists only activated their cell phone numbers after reaching Mumbai but why were the numbers not put under surveillance despite the knowledge that they had been sent to terrorists in POK?

Former Uttar Pradesh DGP Prakash Singh agrees that had a national commission like the one formed by the US after 9/11 been appointed by India after 26/11, several heads would have rolled.

AFTER 26/11, the then home minister Shivraj Patil resigned and Chidambaram took charge and advocated the NCTC’s formation. However, the plan ran into rough weather. It was scuttled by at least seven non-Congress CMs. The biggest stumbling block proved to be the NCTC’s power structure. That it would be reporting to the IB director and have the power to arrest people without informing the local police made non-Congress CMs see red. After stiff objection, the Centre decided to place the NCTC under the home ministry and clarified that whenever any arrest is made, it will inform the local police. Besides, the DGPs of respective states will be on the NCTC board, so that any action will have their consent or be in their knowledge.

When Sushil Kumar Shinde took over, he sounded out a conciliatory message that until all the CMs’ concerns are addressed, the NCTC won’t become a reality.

Experts like Pradhan feel that since the Indian model of NCTC has been borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the US, there was no need for Chidambaram to change it. The US NCTC makes it abundantly clear that the agency will have no power to arrest or assume operational responsibilities. “The NCTC is a very powerful body. The states are legitimately worried. Only the KGB had the power to arrest and needless to add, it was grossly misused,” he says.

VK Singh, former Joint Secretary (technical wing), RAW, narrates how multiple agencies work at cross-purposes. “After I took over, I had a chat with the army. We knew what equipment the Pakistan and Chinese forces were using and I offered to exchange information. When I told my superiors, they didn’t buy the idea.

“The aim of the NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) was to bring all technical resources under one umbrella. Everyone is doing the same job, monitoring radio or microwave link. Besides duplication, it’s resulting in a wastage of effort. The aim almost became a reality during APJ Abdul Kalam’s time but RAW refused to play ball. The IB and army also did the same and we were back to square one.”

But former RAW chief Vikram Sood questions the very need for NCTC. “Whenever we are in a crisis, we create a new agency,” he says. “After 1962, we had the ARC and SSF. After the Mizo mess in 1965- 66, we created RAW. In 1971, we won the Bangladesh war, so nothing was created.

In 1999, after Kargil, we created the NTRO. After 26/11, the NCTC proposal came up, which has still not taken shape. Have you thought through the concept? It has to be a bottoms-up, not a top-down system.”

A serving senior IB officer agrees with the potential of misuse. “Even in the IB, there are various stories of misuse,” he says. “After 1977, the Shah Commission had documented the IB’s misuse during Emergency, and this is when the agency didn’t have any power to arrest. So you can understand the fear of these states when the powers of arrest and independent investigation are given to the IB.”

Security experts are also of the opinion that instead of creating more bureaucratic hurdles and agencies, the government should concentrate on beefing up the existing system. “How will the NCTC be helpful in preventing attacks?” asks noted security expert Ajai Sahni. “Show me anything the NCTC brings to the table that does not already exist in the IB or the Multi- Agency Centre (MAC). All they are doing is cannibalising existing institutions to create a new and weak institution. In a country with 1.2 billion people, how can you be successful when you have barely 300-400 people committed to anti-terror intelligence gathering in the IB?”

The crippling shortage of manpower in the IB is also manifest in the response of Minister of State, Home, RPN Singh in the Rajya Sabha on 12 February. Reflecting the apparent state of disarray, he said, “Despite a sanctioned strength of 26,867, the IB has only 18,795 personnel. Nearly 1,500 slots in the deputation quota could not be filled due to non-availability of suitable officers.”

The figures mean the IB is functioning with only 70 percent of the required manpower and the gap is increasing every year. The minister added that the “actual induction figures are much less because many selected candidates don’t turn up”.

But experts like Prakash Singh are in favour of setting up the NCTC as they feel that without it the individual agencies will keep indulging in turf wars. “If the states feel that the NCTC is encroaching on their territory, then why do they ask for Central forces after terror attacks?”

Intelligence experts also question the need for vesting investigative powers with the NCTC when the NIA already exists. The NIA was created in 2008 to ensure that all terror-related investigations are streamlined. Four years later, the NIA is still grappling with internal issues. The government’s seriousness about its creation can be gauged from the fact that the agency was initially operating out of a shopping mall in south Delhi. The agency also got a taste of the turf war during the probe into the 2011 Delhi High Court blast when the police was left fuming after the home ministry transferred the case to the NIA.

“A major flaw in the current proposal is that the sub-structures needed for the NCTC’s functioning have not been included,” says Pradhan. “It must be understood that the mere creation of the NCTC won’t suffice. Unless the sub-structures are created at the state and district levels, it won’t be able to function efficiently.

“There is a need to create district-level collation centres (under district police chiefs) for examining the collected inputs from thanas, which are needed for counter- terrorism. Such inputs should be sent to the subsidiary MACs for examination and integrating related information. These centres should be chaired by the state DGs to ensure that they are fully aware of the developments and place their resources for further action or developments of leads.”

Following the outrage over Liaquat’s arrest, the Centre has announced a new policy framework for the rehabilitation of surrendered militants, as the arrest is seen as a symbol of the lack of coordination among security agencies. In the coming months, the Centre is expected to consult with the states to firm up the policy.

brijesh@tehelka.com
vishnu@tehelka.com