A botched-up operation led to the escape of three top suspects in the 13/7 Mumbai blasts case. Ashish Khetan on how this happened and why it is likely to happen again
SOMETIME LAST year, an over five-year- long intelligence operation of the Anti-Terror Squad of the Maharashtra Police seemed to be fructifying. The agency had intercepted a telephone call in Kurla, a densely populated suburb in Mumbai. The caller was Abdus Subhan Qureshi alias Tauqeer and the call had originated from Nepal. Tauqeer, 41, whose extended family still resides in Mumbai, had been a wanted accused in the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts, which had snuffed out the lives of 59 innocent civilians. Since the 2006 Mumbai train bombings in which he is suspected to have been involved, Tauqeer had been a prized catch for the Indian intelligence agencies that have invested plenty of resources and efforts in their bid to hunt him down.
The intercepted call provided the ATS the first definite clue of Tauqeer’s where-abouts in many years. Tauqeer wanted to speak to his family members living in Meera Road but he knew their phones were under surveillance. So he told his friend in Kurla that he would call again at 3 pm the next day and asked him to be present with his family around that time. He also informed that the number he was calling from was not his but belonged to an acquaintance he had made at a local madrassa.
The ATS had less than 24 hours to track Tauqeer. It quickly passed on the coordinates of the telephone call to the station chief of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) in Maharashtra. A team of RAW sleuths stationed in Nepal zeroed in on the phone’s location and swooped down on the identified locality the next day. But it ended up being a clumsy and chaotic operation. Instead of staking out the locality, the spies barged into the neighbourhood and picked up the acquaintance who owned the phone. Tauqeer slipped away in the resulting commotion.
A few months later, the Gujarat ATS intercepted a few emails of Tauqeer, which showed the IP address of a cyber cafe in Biratnagar city, Nepal. The ATS passed the inputs on to the Intelligence Bureau (IB). But ATS sources told TEHELKA that instead of making a discreet probe, the IB personnel made an open inquiry at the cyber cafe. Tauqeer was never found.
In its hunt for top terrorists, the Indian security establishment has invariably been outwitted by the enemy and shamed by its own inefficiency and clumsiness. Our agencies’ failure to neutralise mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, the architect of the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings, is well known. However, one of the biggest internal security threats now is the Indian Mujahideen (IM), a ramshackle but extremely dangerous terror outfit that is responsible for killing around 600 people in about a dozen terror strikes over the past eight years. For the past four years, the agencies have repeatedly failed to nab the top commanders of this shadowy outfit. In the past two years alone, IM members have executed as many as six major terror strikes.
TEHELKA spoke to highly-placed sources in intelligence and anti-terror agencies in various states and at the Centre and pieced together an alarming picture. Despite the much publicised initiatives of Union Home Minister P Chidambaram to ramp up our internal security establishment, India’s fight against terror continues to be marred by structural problems and disarray in our massive counter-terror set-up.
After the 26/11 terror attacks, crores of rupees have been spent in buying state-of-the- art gadgets, ultramodern weaponry, training and recruiting police personnel and setting up new agencies such as the National Investigation Agency (NIA), National Intelligence Grid and regional hubs of the National Security Guards. (The proposal to set up a National Counter-Terrorism Centre along the lines of the agency of similar nomenclature in the US was recently cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security). Yet very little has changed on the ground.
The lack of coordination between multiple agencies, the absence of a unitary chain of command, ugly turf wars between state and Central agencies and sheer incompetent management of the so-called elite forces is resulting in repeated failure to nab the most wanted terror suspects.
The tussle between Maharashtra ATS and Delhi Police Special Cell (over Naqi) gave Bhatkal the time to flee
At a hurriedly convened press conference on 23 January, the Maharashtra ATS announced the arrest of three terror suspects who, the agency claimed, had provided logistical support in the 13/7 triple blasts — coordinated strikes in three different localities of south Mumbai on 13 July 2011. However, ATS chief Rakesh Maria conceded that the accused who were central to planning and execution — IM co-founder Ahmed Siddibapa Mohd Zarrar alias Yasin Bhatkal and his two Pakistani accomplices — were still at large. The case was cracked, claimed Maria. But the Delhi Police Special Cell said it was a botch-up.
Siddibapa and his accomplices — Waqqas and Tabrez (which appear to be their aliases) — had rented a flat in Byculla in March 2011. It was allegedly from this hideout that the trio carried out the blasts. TEHELKA learnt from its sources that while Siddibapa left the hideout immediately after the blasts, the Pakistani duo continued to stay there till last November and left only after the Delhi Police Special Cell announced that it had busted an IM module that had spread its tentacles in Bihar.
In the last week of November 2010, the Special Cell announced that it had arrested five Indian nationals — Mohd Qateel Siddiqi, Mohd Irshad Khan, Gauhar Aziz Khomani, Gayur Ahmad Jamali and Abdur Rahman — all from Bihar, and one Pakistani named Mohd Adil, who was from Karachi. The Delhi Police said that the module was behind three terror strikes — the Pune German Bakery blast of 13 February 2010, Bengaluru Chinnaswamy Stadium blast of 17 April 2010 and the New Delhi Jama Masjid shootout and blast of 19 September 2010. But the Delhi Police consciously made no mention of Naqi Ahmed Vasi Shaikh, 22, a resident of Deora Bandhauli in Darbhanga district, who owned a leather processing unit in Byculla, Mumbai, though he had been picked up along with the six others.
During interrogation, Naqi had told the Delhi Police that he knew about the hideout of Siddibapa in Mumbai. The Special Cell believed that Naqi, at best, was a fringe player in the IM network, and if handled well could lead the cops to Siddibapa who, if not caught, had the capacity to carry out more blasts.
What began then was a month-long stakeout by the Delhi Police over Siddibapa’s Byculla hideout. Though Siddibapa and his accomplices had left the place, they had not taken the security deposit of Rs 1 lakh from the landlady. The cops were hoping that they would get in touch with her for their money. The phone lines of Rubina Qureishi, the landlady, were put on surveillance. On 1 January, the cops got a new lease of hope. One of the Pakistanis made a call to Rubina from a public booth in Dadar. The phone was picked up by Rubina’s sister, who asked him to call back in an hour. The suspect instead called after three hours but Rubina told him that she needed more time to return the deposit as she had not yet found a new tenant.
The lower-rung staff of the NIA lacks the experience of terror probes. Even its technical set-up is below par
On 12 January, the Maharashtra ATS picked up Naqi and produced him in court on charges of procuring bogus SIM cards. A miffed Special Cell leaked the news that Naqi was their informer. In a tit-for-tat response, someone from the Mumbai Police leaked a story that the Special Cell cops had partied on New Year’s eve and were too drunk on the morning of 1 January to effect the arrests. Any remaining hope of nabbing Siddibapa and the two Pakistanis vanished into thin air.
Sadly, this was not the first time the turf war between agencies had led to the escape of top IM commanders.
LACK OF COORDINATION LED TO THE 2008 DELHI BLASTS AND ESCAPE OF TOP IM OPERATIVES
Soon after the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts in which two stolen cars from Mumbai were used to plant bombs, the Mumbai Police Crime Branch started looking for Mohd Afzal Usmani, a car thief who also had a record of past association with the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The Crime Branch (Maria was the chief then) picked up Usmani on 19 August. Usmani revealed that he was the one who had provided the cars for the blasts. He said that he did it for his old associate Riaz Bhatkal (both Riaz and Usmani were at one point active members of SIMI and used to attend meetings together). He also told Maria that the bombs were planted by some boys from Delhi whose real names he didn’t know. But he could show the place in Zakir Nagar where they were staying. Usmani had spent one night at the Batla House hideout of Atif Ameen, one of the IM founders.
This was the time when the Gujarat ATS in-charge of the Ahmedabad blasts probe had dug out some cell phone numbers used by the bombers while they were in Gujarat. Though the numbers were taken on bogus ID proofs and were now all switched off and thus led to no clue about the identity of the bombers, the analysis of call data records showed that one of the numbers had a call made to a Delhi number, which turned out to be that of Atif Ameen. The IB started tapping Ameen’s phone but it didn’t yield anything as one of the IM’s modus operandi was to not discuss anything remotely connected to terror activities over the phone. All this was happening in August 2008 while Ameen’s module, unbeknownst to IB and Delhi Police, was busy planning the Delhi blasts of 13 September 2008. As a result, the Central agencies were not sure about Ameen’s involvement and thus refrained from any action until after the blasts.
The IB believes that if the Crime Branch and the Central agencies had worked in tandem, the controversial Batla House encounter could have been avoided, Ameen and Mohd Sajid could have been brought to justice by putting them to trial and the life of the cop Mohan Chand Sharma could have been saved. On the other hand, the Mumbai Police claims that it had shared the disclosures made by Usmani with the Central agencies and it was the Delhi Police Special Cell that should be held responsible for the goof-up.
It is difficult to ascertain who is telling the truth but the fact remains that at the time, different agencies were competing with each other to bust the IM network, which until then was a shadowy organisation. If the agencies had worked in tandem instead of being at each other’s throats, the narrative of the Batla House encounter would have been different. Instead of it being a source of social rupture, the operation, if executed well, would have led to arrests and a trial. The encounter took place only because disparate bits of information available with multiple agencies was not put together to join the dots.
The top IM commanders — Riaz Bhtakal, Iqbal Bhatkal, Mohsin Chaudhary, Dr Shahnawaz, Mirza Shadab Baig and Siddibapa — managed to escape (and are still at large) taking advantage of the operational mess created by the agencies. But more importantly, a greater coordination and collation of intelligence could have thwarted the plot of Delhi blasts of 13 September 2008, which killed 30 people besides injuring dozens.
Shockingly, no one was held accountable. And no lessons were learnt. Three-and- a-half years later, the same script of internecine rivalry in our security establishment is playing all over again.
FALLACIOUS INVESTIGATIONS TO PLACATE PUBLIC PRESSURE
The story of our dismal track record in combating terrorism is not all about the chaos and confusion prevailing because of a plethora of agencies. A part of the problem also lies in incompetent and, at times, dishonest investigations.
Many in our system continue to deal with terrorism as a state police subject and like any other regular crime. The recent history of terrorism shows that terrorists not only have inter-state linkages but also cross-border connections. IM is associated with Lashkar-e-Toiba and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Their operatives shuttle across different states and also across borders. Different state agencies have been working on different cases, which may be separated by place of occurrence, but are all connected in terms of a single running conspiracy. But because of multiple agencies probing different cases, the evidence put together by one agency is often at variance with that of another. The only beneficiary of such conflicting probes is the terrorist.
In many instances, state agencies have implicated the usual suspects (in a few cases, SIMI members with radical leanings) to placate the public mood, stave off the political pressure and created a false impression that the cases had been solved. But the multi-agency 2008 probe on IM led to a mountain of evidence showing that the 2005 Delhi blasts and the 2006 Mumbai train blasts were the IM’s handiwork. In the former case, Kashmiri militants were implicated and in the latter, SIMI radicals.
In the same year, the Malegaon blasts investigation led by Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare led to the unravelling of a vast Hindutva terror network. The arrest of Swami Asimananda in December 2010 confirmed what many had believed for the past two years — that the Malegaon blasts were carried out by right-wing Hindu groups and not SIMI, as the ATS had shown.
In fact, NIA sources have told TEHELKA that right from the 2006 Nanded (Maharashtra) blast to the 2008 Modasa (Gujarat) blast, all terror attacks were interlinked and carried out by the same set of rightwing Hindu radicals. The shells used in the Nanded blast and the Samjhauta Express blast were manufactured in the same factory at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. If the Maharashtra ATS had meticulously investigated the Nanded blast, the terror network of Hindu radicals could have been busted much earlier and many terror attacks could have been prevented.
INCONSISTENCIES IN THE GERMAN BAKERY BLAST INVESTIGATION
The recent arrests carried out by the Delhi Police Special Cell and the subsequent interrogations point towards some glaring inconsistencies in the German Bakery blast case built by the Maharashtra ATS. In September 2010, the ATS had arrested a man named Himayat Baig and chargesheeted him for the Pune terror attack.
This is how the ATS case stands: On 7 February 2010, Siddibappa and Mohsin Chaudhary (a wanted IM operative) went to meet Himayat Baig, their old associate, in Udgir in Latur district of Maharashtra. They carried with them explosives and other bomb-making material. Baig gave them shelter and other logistical support. They made the bomb on the intervening night of 11-12 February. Once the bomb was made, Mohsin Chaudhary left. Baig and Siddibappa took the bus from Udgir to Latur at 5 am on 13 February. From Latur, they boarded a bus for Pune. By noon, they reached Pune. There they timed the bombs and reached the bakery at 4.50 pm. While Baig waited outside, Siddibappa entered the bakery and after planting the bomb came out at 5.30 pm. Baig returned to Latur while Siddibappa left for an undisclosed location.
But the interrogation report of Mohd Qatil Siddiki, exclusively accessed by TEHELKA, indicates some lacunae in the ATS case. This is what Siddiki told the Delhi Police: Siddibapa alias Imran alias Yasin Bhatkal had rented a room at Katraj adjoining NH4 in Pune in January 2010. Siddiki, a resident of Darbhanga, joined Siddibapa in Pune in early January. On 11 February, Siddibapa assembled two bombs between 10 am and 12 noon. He kept the remaining material in a haversack. On the afternoon of 13 February, Siddibapa set the timer for three hours. The bombs were timed to go off around 6.50 pm. One bomb was to be planted at the Dagduseth Halwai temple and the second at German Bakery. Siddiki tried to plant the bomb at the temple by leaving the bag at the entrance but as he was about to leave, a bystander told him to take his bag with him. Then Siddiki went to the railway station, removed the timer from the second bomb and took a shared taxi to Mumbai. He got off at Dadar and went to Worli beach and got rid of the bag containing the bomb. Then he boarded a train to Delhi.
The Central agencies claim they have cross-checked Siddiki’s story and have found it credible. If Siddiki is to be believed, then Himayat Baig comes out as a nonplayer in the German Bakery blast case. According to Siddiki, the bombs were made at Katraj in Pune and not at Baig’s residence in Udgir, which is seven hours from Pune. It would be interesting to see how the ATS would reconcile these glaring inconsistencies.
THREE YEARS AFTER ITS CREATION, THE NIA REMAINS A PAPER TIGER
The Centre had enacted the National Investigation Agency Act in 2008 to tide over such crippling lack of coordination between multiple agencies. The idea was to streamline all terror-related investigations, no matter which part of the country they occurred in, by bringing them under one command. But three years down the line, the NIA remains a paper tiger.
After considerable delay, in April 2011, the Union home ministry transferred all right-wing Hindutava terror cases — Malegaon 2006 and 2008 blasts, Samjhauta Express blast, Modasa, Nanded and Ajmer and Mecca Masjid blasts — to the NIA. But in none of the cases has the NIA been able to achieve a breakthrough.
Consider this: In less than a year, the Ajmer blast case has seen three chief investigating officers — one resigned, another went on sick leave and now the third, Rajesh Yadav, an IPS officer of 2003 batch from the West Bengal cadre, has put in his papers. Additional SP Arvind Negi (a deputy SP from Himachal Pradesh on deputation to NIA), who is investigating Malegaon 2008 and Modasa blasts, has a team of just two people.
Additional SP Vishal Garg, investigating officer of the Samjhauta blasts, was recently castigated by the NIA court for lack of progress in the investigation.
The lower rung personnel of NIA — constables, sub-inspectors and inspectors — have been drafted from paramilitary forces such as the CISF and ITBP, who don’t have any experience of terror investigations. The technical infrastructure of NIA is also below par.
Highly placed sources in the NIA told TEHELKA that lack of trained manpower is leading to goof-ups in investigations. For instance, the NIA recently seized a hard disk from the cyber cafe in Kishtwar (around 230 km northeast of Jammu) from where email regarding the 2011 Delhi High Court blast had originated. But at the time of seizure, the hard disk was not properly packaged. Though it was in working condition in Kishtwar, by the time it was brought to Delhi, the hard disk was damaged. The agency has now sent it to the FBI for data recovery.
It’s also not clear what is the criterion for training and deputation at NIA. Recently the agency sent a DIG-level officer, Satwant Atwal Trivedi (a 1996 batch IPS officer of Himachal Pradesh cadre), to the US for three months’ advanced training in counter- terrorism. One month after she returned from the training, she went back to her parent cadre. Is the public money being used to send people on junkets or is it for combating terrorism?
A staff strength of 75 people headed by a DIG-level officer is manning the zonal office of NIA at Hyderabad. But sources told TEHELKA that the DIG has to write to the headquarters for seeking a sanction for even Rs 5,000 from the Secret Service Fund. Like other agencies, the NIA too has a few committed and bright officers, but in its current avatar, the NIA is a premium counter- terrorism agency only on paper.
The time has come for the government to take corrective measures. The US has managed to foil all major terror plots since 9/11. The UK has ensured that there has been no repeat of the London tube bombings. Why can’t we do the same?
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations with Tehelka.