Disappearing act

Print edition : February 02, 2002

It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will ever hand over Dawood Ibrahim or his accomplices to India, as there is the danger of its own hand being revealed.

"Dawood Ibrahim is not in Pakistan".

- Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, July 14, 2001.

PAKISTAN'S police services insist that they just cannot find Dawood Ibrahim. However, oddly enough, until recently in Mumbai businessmen faced with extortion demands and journalists seeking interviews found that he and his top lieutenants were just a phone call away.

When a Karachi residents' organisation protested against the encroachment of public space by Ibrahim's top gun Abdul Razzak Memon, better known as Tiger Memon, it was promptly asked to mind its own business. "The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) told us it is a Dawood Ibrahim building," a member of the residents' organisation told Karachi-based journalist Ghulam Husnain. "They said this is a man who has done a lot for Pakistan, so we should not raise our voices," the member added.

Since India demanded in December Dawood Ibrahim's extradition, his phone lines have gone silent. No one knows for certain just where he is; but Indian intelligence officials believe that he has gone to ground in a safehouse in the town of Orkazai, near Peshawar. Ibrahim and his second-in-command Shakeel Ahmad Babu, better known as Chhota Shakeel, are believed to be under the protection of a local jehadi leader, Mullah Rahman. Ibrahim was last seen by Indian intelligence agents in Karachi on January 5, after he returned from Dubai, where he attended a relative's wedding in late December. Memon, for his part, is believed to have moved to a penthouse in the Creek Towers at Dera, in Dubai, after travelling on a Pakistan passport but one issued under a false name.

Dawood Ibrahim.-

All of this is wholly in character as far as Pakistan's unstinted backing for the mafia baron goes. Shortly after Ibrahim left Dubai for Karachi in the wake of the Mumbai serial bombings, he was issued a passport back-dated to August 12, 1991, bearing the number G-866537, in Rawalpindi. Soon afterwards, he moved into a 6,000-sq m plot in the upmarket Clifton area of Karachi that had amenities such as a swimming pool, gymnasium and tennis court. Shakeel was gifted with a similar premises in the Defence Housing Authority enclave, while Memon, the other co-executor of the Mumbai serial bombings, purchased several properties, including the multi-storey Kashif Crown plaza situated on the Shara-e-Faisal boulevard.

In case Indian intelligence or Ibrahim's rivals in the underworld decided to threaten his life, security was laid on. Two bullet-proof cars were at his disposal round the clock, and a 12-member official guard was placed at his Clifton residence. Dawood, as Husnain reported in the Pakistani newspaper Newsline, invariably woke up past noon, and after a game of tennis or snooker, set off "for any of his safehouses in Karachi for an evening of revelry - usually comprising drinks ( he prefers a certain 'Black Label' brand), mujras (performances by female dancers) and gambling. Carousing through the night, Dawood and his companions quit only at dawn and then collectively offer prayers. This has been his routine for years".

WHEN Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told Home Minister L.K. Advani that Ibrahim was not in Pakistan, he was not telling an outright lie: the mafia don had left for Singapore a week earlier. But the extraordinary level of resources that Musharraf was willing to marshal in Dawood's aid goes to illustrate just how useful the don's empire is proving for Pakistan's secret state, the ISI. In September 2001, Dawood's criminal apparatus put in place two agents - Sagir Sabir Sheikh and Ishaq Atta Hussain, who uses the code-name Ali Moosa - for what proved to be an abortive attempt to assassinate Advani. The two escaped to Karachi via Chennai and Bangkok after the Intelligence Bureau picked up their associates in Mumbai. Memon, for his part, is known to have been in touch with elements of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front, an organisation set up to carry out terrorist attacks outside Jammu and Kashmir.

Evidence of the mafia's key role in sponsoring and funding terrorism continues to trickle in. Consider, for example, the kidnapping of Kolkata businessman Partha Roy Burman in July 2001. Burman was released for a ransom of Rs.4 crores, which was paid by his family through a hawala dealer to a recipient in Dubai. Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials handling the case found that the kidnapping was carried out through a bizarre network of underworld figures and terrorists of the Islamic Right. Dubai-based mafioso Aftab Ansari, once a resident of Lalapur in Varanasi, is believed to have hired members of Pakistan-based terrorist groups to execute the operation. Ansari, who has claimed responsibility for the attack on the United States consulate in Kolkata, is believed to fly regularly to Karachi, where he maintains close contact with the Ibrahim group.

Chhota Shakeel.-

Ansari met his key associate in the Burman kidnapping, former Students Islamic Movement of India leader, Asif Raza Khan, in New Delhi's Tihar jail. Ansari was facing trial for at least eight separate criminal offences, while Khan had been arrested in June 1994 for ferrying explosives. There, they also met top Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Syed Omar Sheikh, a British citizen who had kidnapped tourists from New Delhi in an attempt to secure the release of its commander, Masood Azhar. While Sheikh was released along with Masood Azhar in the IC-814 hostages-for-prisoners swap in December 1999, both Khan and Ansari obtained bail. Ansari seized the first opportunity to flee the country, while Khan chose to stay on in India. However, their contacts developed over subsequent years.

By early 2001, Ansari was in business again. However, in order to expand his operations, he needed weapons and skilled operatives. Predictably, he turned to Khan. Shortly afterwards, Khan travelled to Karachi through Bangladesh on a fake passport. In Karachi, he met Sheikh as well as Azam Cheema, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) commander responsible for the outfit's all-India operations. The deal was simple: Ansari would hand over a percentage of the profits, in return for armed assistance. Two Bhopal-based LeT operatives, Aqib Ali Khan and Aslam Mohammad, were assigned to carry out the kidnapping. After the kidnapping, Ansari is believed to have transferred part of the money to Sheikh, who in turn may have passed it on to Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks.

WHILE Musharraf may no longer wish to encourage this kind of brazen terrorist activity, many in the Pakistan intelligence establishment feel that they owe a debt of gratitude to Ibrahim and his aides. For example, since 1998 the Shakeel group has targeted almost a dozen Shiv Sena leaders, claiming to be avenging the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-1993. Among the most spectacular attacks was the one in March 1999, when the Shakeel group attacked former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya. Assault rifles were used in the attack, which is believed to have been carried out by Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Azam Ghauri's one-time aide Abdul Aziz Sheikh. Arrested in July 1999 from a safe house in Lucknow, Sheikh told interrogators that the Shakeel group had secured further supplies of assault rifles through Nepal - one of which may have made its way to the would-be Advani assassins.

More important from the ISI's point of view is the likelihood of the repatriation of the members of the Ibrahim group, stripping Pakistan of the little cover that remains of its official involvement in the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993, in which at least 228 people were killed. The organisation has allowed Ibrahim to build considerable interests in the Karachi narcotics business, sidelining the ethnic Pushtun groups that have traditionally controlled the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Their role in the city's grimy property mafia, not dissimilar to that of Mumbai, has earned it the displeasure of groups such as the Muttahida Quami Movement, Karachi's long-standing arbiters of fortune. The resulting feuds have often been bloody. For example, an ambush on the Malir road in Karachi on August 18, 2001 left four policemen dead, while top Ibrahim aide Shoaib Khan was seriously injured.

This suggests that if push came to shove, Pakistan would rather eliminate Ibrahim and Shakeel rather than hand them over to India. At present, the ISI may well feel that the organisation's assets, which help ship weapons into India and provide resources for covert operations, do not justify such a course of action. However, should pressure for their extradition build up in the weeks and months to come, this option may no longer be open. At least some long-term observers of the mafia, such as Mumbai Police Commissioner M.N. Singh, are certain that their extradition will never take place. "There is simply no way," he says, "that they will ever be repatriated to India. They simply know too much for Pakistan to take that course of action. They will, I suspect, meet the fate of all paid agents".

However, authorities in India need to ask themselves some hard questions about just why the Ibrahim mafia continues to wield such influence. The fact remains that for many young Muslims in Mumbai's ghettos, the mafia represents the sole prospect of defence against violence by communal fascists. Although such support may be tactically foolish, and politically suicidal, Shakeel's offensive against the Shiv Sena has doubtless won him considerable grass-roots legitimacy. In a larger sense, Muslim revanchist politics of the kind that provides legitimacy to Ibrahim and his associates thrives in the very climate of hatred that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have assiduously fostered. The end of Dawood Ibrahim's run might be in sight, but the consequences of his reign may be felt for decades to come.