The terror trail in Kolkata

Print edition : February 02, 2002

KOLKATA was enveloped in thick fog when four gunmen on two motorcycles appeared at the gate of the American Centre on January 22. Clad in Army fatigues, their assault rifles hidden under black shawls, the terrorists killed four policemen and wounded 20 persons before disappearing into the morning mist. Of the injured, one was a passer-by, one a private security guard hired by the American Information Resource Centre (formerly the United States Information Service) and the rest policemen who were assigned to guard the Centre.

The three-dozen policemen posted outside the American Centre were too stunned to respond. The terrorists fired 54 rounds, leaving a small number of rounds in each of their assault rifle magazines as reserve. "We were so surprised that we could not react," said Roshan Chettri. At the time of the attack, some policemen were just arriving to join duty and those on the night shift were preparing to leave. Kolkata police Commissioner Sujay Chakravarty explained that policemen unload their .303 rifles before handing over the charge to the next shift and those who join duty load the rifles afresh after taking charge. These drills are generally dispensed with in terrorism-affected areas, but the Kolkata police had just not expected this kind of offensive.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the U.S., security had been stepped up at the American Centre and the U.S. Consulate in the same area. American Centre director Rex Moser said that the attack was apparently carried out to create panic as there was no attempt to blow up the building. It is not as if the city has never seen terrorist activity before. Kolkata was targeted along with Mumbai for bombings in March 1993.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee conceded that there had been a security failure. "You may say it was an intelligence failure," he said. "I and my administration could not even anticipate that such a dangerous attack might take place in the city. Security arrangements have been made at the American Centre considering the usual programmes of demonstration. But we should have anticipated that such an incident may occur there." Bhattacharjee later discussed investigation-related issues with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. U.S. Consul-General Christopher J. Sandrolini also held a meeting with the Chief Minister.

Who carried out the attack, and why? Several newspaper offices and private television channels received phone calls from people who identified themselves as leaders of the Asif Reza Commando Force, a wing of the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Jehad-i-Islami, or HuJI. HuJI was a name used by the predecessor organisations of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which now seem to have been recycled after the ban on the JeM. A person claiming to be top Dubai-based mafioso Aftab Ansari called a senior Criminal investigation Department officer in Kolkata and said the attack was launched to avenge the killing of their operative Asif Raza Khan on December 7 by the Gujarat Police in Rajkot. The call was traced to Dubai, and matched the number of the caller who had made ransom calls after the kidnapping of Kolkata businessman Partho Roy Burman.

Raza Khan, a Kolkata resident, joined HuJI following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In early 1993, intelligence officials say, he attended a Harkat training camp in Pakistan. In 1994, however, he was arrested and served a five-year sentence in Delhi's Tihar Jail. There he met Aftab Ansari and top JeM leader Syed Ahmad Umar Sheikh, who was released in the Indian Airlines IC-814 hostages-for-prisoners deal on December 1999.

On January 23, the West Bengal Police recovered a motorcycle they believe may have been used in the attack, and arrested its owner, Korban Ali, one of five religious figures arrested since the attack. The arrests were made at Basirhat, close to the India-Bangladesh border. Five other Bangladeshis have been arrested in West Bengal, and some 50 held for questioning.

Perhaps the strangest part of the Kolkata attack is the U.S.' refusal to accept that its facility was the intended target. Speaking to journalists on January 23, U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said his government had "seen reports that a phone call to police and newspapers claims the attack targeted the West Bengal Police in retaliation for police actions against a group active on the India-Bangladesh border."

The fact is that the U.S. has for long chosen to ignore evidence that terrorists operating on Indian soil have sought to target its interests. On August 14, 2001, the Delhi Police filed charges against four persons who are believed to have planned to blow up the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Udaipur-based Abdul Raouf Hawas, a doctoral student from Sudan who had spent over a decade in India, is believed to have organised the bomb plot, along with Patna resident and small-time mystic preacher Mohammad Shamim Sarwar. Sarwar put two of his followers, Abbas Husain Sheikh and Mohammad Arshad, at work on its logistics. Hawas in turn reported to Osama bin Laden's lieutenant Abdul Rahman al-Safani, a Yemen national believed to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (Frontline, September 11, 1998).

U.S. officials were dismissive of the arrests, saying that India's claims were "overblown". That, however, did not stop its Embassy from writing to Delhi Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma, asking for increased security. Similar two-faced behaviour was evident in January 1999, when the Delhi Police arrested Bangladesh-based Lashkar-e-Toiba activist Syed Abdul Nasir. At first, the U.S. let it be known that it did not believe official claims that Nasir had been tasked to blow up U.S. facilities in Chennai and Kolkata. However, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) psychologist Frederick Gonnel carried out three rounds of lie-detector tests on Nasir, which led him to conclude that Nasir was indeed involved in a plot to blow up the facilities.

U.S. intelligence officials have, indeed, been less blase than their political masters about terrorist groups in India. In October, for example, FBI investigators were in Kolkata to meet Nasir Khan, arrested again on charges of targeting the U.S. Consulate. All charges were dropped and Khan was released shortly after the meeting, leading many people to believe that the operative had struck a deal to provide information on his ISI handlers in Pakistan. While the U.S. intelligence is pressuring the ISI to put its house in order, politicians there are just not willing to endorse evidence which leads straight to the door of their favoured ally in South Asia, General Pervez Musharraf.