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On the terrorist trail

Print edition : Dec 22, 2002 T+T-

Quick off the mark, the investigating agencies have made some major breakthroughs identifying persons and organisations behind the attack, as well as their modus operandi.

WHEN the head of the Indian counter-terrorist organisation sifted through the debris of the suicide squad assault on Parliament House, his first reaction must have been despair. There were no suspects to interrogate, no telephone intercepts, no names to match the faces of the five killed suicide bombers. All that his staff could do was to search through what remained - ammunition, grenades, rope, dry fruits - hoping against hope to find something resembling a clue. Then, someone discovered cellular phones in the terrorists' knapsacks. Within 48 hours, what had seemed certain to be a dead-end investigation moved with lightning speed to its conclusion: one that could have profound implications for the future of India-Pakistan relations.

Late on the night of December 14, the Inspector-General of Police in charge of Kashmir, K. Rajendra, was awakened by an urgent request from the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) to locate a fruit-laden truck that had left New Delhi the previous evening. All that he, and Superintendent of Police Sheikh Mehmood, had to go by was a licence plate number, HR-38-E-673. Policemen were mobilised to search the vast lines of vehicles parked on National Highway 1A, connecting Jammu with Srinagar. Wholesale markets were combed along with roadside restaurants used by truck drivers. Then, just before dawn, the Jammu and Kashmir Police found what they were looking for parked at a vegetable market in Srinagar. The principal suspects in the Parliament House assault were fast asleep in a truck, amidst its cargo of bananas.

By 12-00 noon the next day, Shaukat Ahmad Ansari and his cousin Mohammad Afzal Ansari were put in two different Indian Air Force turboprop aircraft to New Delhi, flown separately to avoid the prospect of losing both in the event of an accident. Officials inside the aircraft were carrying the laptop computer and cellular phone found in the truck, along with Rs.10 lakhs in cash. In New Delhi, officials from the Delhi Police and top I.B. investigators were standing by. They had already spoken to local residents who had identified them as the owners of a wholesale medical equipment supplies business, despite the fact that the Ansari cousins, as is the tradition in Kashmir, rarely used their last names in everyday transactions.

In the hours they had spent through the night at the headquarters of the Special Operations Group (SOG) in Srinagar, appropriately nicknamed 'air cargo' by those who work there, the Ansaris had identified the suicide bombers as Rana, Raja, Tufail, Hamza and Mohammad, all Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) cadre from the garrison town of Bahawalpur, in Pakistan's Punjab province.

In New Delhi, police officials had already picked up the last remaining member of the JeM cell that carried out the attack. Syed Abdul Rahman Jeelani, a lecturer at the Zakir Husain College in New Delhi who was also pursuing post-doctoral research, had also carried out several tasks for the JeM unit. Shaukat Ahmad Ansari's pregnant wife Afzan Guru, who had allegedly sat in on dozens of meetings held by the suicide cell at their home, was also arrested and moved to hospital. Telephone records made it clear that Jeelani, a college-mate of the Ansari cousins, had played an important role in the affair. All the members of the cell, it turned out, had lived in rented accommodation around Indira Basti, using Shaukat's home in Mukherjee Nagar, just a few kilometres away, for regular meetings. Jeelani, in turn, told interrogators about the Ansari cousins and the truck they had used to attempt to escape New Delhi unnoticed.

UNTIL last year, Mohammad Afzal Ansari used to work as a clerk at a medical equipment supplier in Srinagar's Batmaloo Masjid area, Lal Medicate. One of his co-workers, Mohammad Tariq, suggested that he consider starting a business of his own. All it would take, he pointed out, was a rented flat and some capital. Ansari found the idea attractive. A one-time Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front member, he had fled Srinagar for New Delhi under police pressure in 1990. He studied briefly at Delhi University along with his cousin, Shaukat Ansari, but was forced to return home in 1992 because of police pressure on his family and surrendered to the authorities in 1992. After his brief stint in jail, all that he could secure was the low-paying clerical job. Now, it seemed, he had a chance to return to the city he had learned to love, and to make real money.

He rented a flat from a Subhash Malhotra, through a property dealer named Virendra Pal. Both have now been arrested for failing to inform authorities that they had taken in new tenants, an obligation under city police regulations.

What the Ansari cousins did not know just yet was that Tariq was a key figure in the JeM's covert apparatus in Srinagar. In mid-2000, the five-member suicide squad, led by Mohammad, had been despatched to India to identify potential targets of attack. Tariq had been assigned the job of liaising with this unit. Mohammad travelled frequently to Mumbai, although the purpose of his visits is still not known. Nor is it clear just when he made the decision to choose New Delhi as his cell's final target. All that is known for certain is that in October, after the JeM-led carried out a major terrorist attack on the Assembly complex in Srinagar, Tariq told the Ansari cousins who he was and what he needed. They, along with Jeelani, agreed to cooperate as long as they had no direct role in the attack itself.

In early November, Tariq held a final meeting with the JeM's operations commander Ghazi Baba, alias Jihadi, in the mountains above Aroo, near Pahalgam. Although Baba has been referred to as the JeM's India chief by Delhi Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma, he is in fact responsible only for operations in Jammu and Kashmir, and has a long record of violent crime in the State. It was from his mountain hideout, investigators believe, that final orders for a suicide squad attack in New Delhi were issued.

Mohammad arrived at Indira Basti in mid-November, carrying cash and the laptop computer recovered from Srinagar. He moved into premises rented for him in the Christian Colony area of Mukherjee Nagar, near Delhi University, one of two safehouses the Ansaris had hired for the group. The Ansaris told their I.B. interrogators that Mohammad frequently bragged that he had played a key role in the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC-814 to Kandahar in December 1999, and that he had personally murdered one passenger on the flight, Rupin Katyal. Intelligence sources are, however, sceptical about his claim to have in fact been the hijacker Sunny Ahmad Qazi.

Other members of the deadly cell trickled in over the following month, bringing in weapons and explosives. Raja and Haider followed a week after Mohammad, carrying weapons and explosives. Rana and Hamza arrived last, RDX packed into two canvas holdalls, along with two Kalashnikov assault rifles, a grenade launcher attachment, 15 rifle-fired grenades, and 12 hand grenades. Interestingly, investigators believe that many of these weapons were acquired and transported using the Lashkar-e-Toiba's (LeT) infrastructure, the first time such inter-organisation cooperation has been noticed. Although there is no real confirmation of this proposition, and it is possible that this part of the narrative is intended to save External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh from embarrassment (for he had asserted on December 14 that LeT was responsible for the attack), I.B. officials believe that the resource-sharing arrangement was worked out at the highest levels of the respective organisations, during meetings between JeM chief Massod Azhar and the LeT's overall operations commander, Zaki-ur-Rahman, the architect of its pan-India armed operations.

In New Delhi, the group proceeded to purchase a second-hand motorcycle from a dealer in the Karol Bagh area, along with fatigues, jackets and shoes from the Tibetan Market near Civil Lines, a shopping area favoured by Delhi University students. The suicide group first considered an attack on the Indira Gandhi International Airport. This proposal, however, was rejected in favour of an assault on Parliament when the group realised that it would be fairly easy to secure entry to the premises of power using a vehicle set up to resemble a government car. This was purchased on December 11 and fitted up with sirens and command lights the same day.

Sketches of the Parliament complex had already been drawn up by Jeelani and on this basis the group made a detailed assault plan. Interestingly, it would appear that the group expected to survive the assault. Delhi Police officials who searched the Indira Basti house found ammonium nitrate, sulphur and aluminum powder, key ingredients used in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices, and 17 detonators bearing the markings of the Pakistan Ordnance Factory at Wah - similar to those used in the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993.

Before setting off to Parliament, a final set of purchases was made from a local grocer's store in Mukherjee Nagar, outside the Gandhi Basti hideout where the fidayeen had assembled for the last time: rope, intended to tie up hostages, dry fruits and nuts possibly to be consumed through a long showdown. Both purchases suggest that the suicide squad had hoped to hold a group of Ministers or MPs hostage, a stark departure from past suicide squad or fidayeen attacks of the kind seen in Jammu and Kashmir. In this sense, the action was to be similar to the hijacking of IC-814, although no one knows for certain just what the JeM cell might have demanded in return for the safety of their prisoners. Mohammad made over his laptop and remaining cash to Mohammad Afzal Ansari. Then, on his way to Parliament House, he made one fateful decision - a call asking Afzal Ansari to watch proceedings in Parliament.

It is at least possible that no firm agenda for hostage negotiation was made up. Several elements of the assault showed poor preparation. The Lok Sabha's in-house video surveillance cameras, for example, recorded the following scene: One suicide squad member spent almost 30 seconds after the first exchange of fire taking off his coat, apparently standing by in confusion and waiting for orders. Although the Ambassador car used was laden with explosives, the terrorists had no standby mechanism in place to detonate it remotely in the event of the group failing to penetrate Parliament. No wireless set was recovered from the group, making it clear that the intention was to blow up the vehicle or its explosive devices only at a later stage, and that too without the use of a remote control device.

But the biggest mistake the JeM fidayeen made was to use cellular phones extensively, down to the last minutes preceding the attack. These provided investigative breakthroughs that other evidence was simply unable to provide. The Jammu and Kashmir Police had at first picked up four residents of the State, only to discover that they had nothing to do with the suicide attack. An identity card belonging to one of the JeM units bore the name of Ashiq Husain Khan, a resident of Khwaja Gilgit village near Sopore. However, police investigators found, there were two Ashiq Husains, both sons of the same mother but by two separate marriages. Neither, it turned out, had any connection with the terrorist attack. Then, one member of the suicide squad had provided a Baramulla telephone number to the New Delhi second-hand car dealer who sold them their white Ambassador. This turned out to be at a home jointly inhabited by two cousins, Abdul Rashid Rather and Nazir Ahmad Rather, along with their families. Again, neither had links with the suicide squad.

If the group had not chosen to use mobile phones, it is probable that the course of the investigation would have been quite different. In a sense, the mobile phone record made the same kind of difference to the swift detection of the crime as the Haribabu photographs did to the detection of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination crime in 1991. Intelligence sources say they have traced a welter of calls made to handlers in Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. The calls to Germany, investigators believe, were to phones which automatically make onward international calls, a tactic used to place a cut-out between operatives and their handlers. Dozens of calls were made to Karachi and many more to Dubai. "The phone numbers we have secured from the call records," one intelligence official asserted, "leave no doubt that Pakistan's intelligence establishment was directly involved in the operation. We believe that mid-ranking officials of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), based in Karachi, initiated the attack, perhaps without the express sanction of the Pakistan Army's top command."

While there is as yet no real way of verifying such claims, the fact is that this falls well within an established pattern of ISI activity. Writing in the December 2001 issue of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst, defence expert Rahul Bedi noted that former ISI Director-General Hamid Gul, who oversaw Central Intelligence Agency-backed operations against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and went on to set up an Islamic fundamentalist party, "allowed his operatives not only to execute important strategic decisions independently, but also to raise money through private sales of arms and narcotics." "This operational culture," he noted, "led to the ISI playing a double game, helping the Taliban on the one hand, while on the other feeding selective information of limited value to the CIA." In the South Asian context, this means that while the Pakistan military establishment may wish to tone down the levels of terrorist activity in India, field units handling forces like the JeM and the LeT have their own agendas.

Many of the unresolved questions may be settled by the arrest of Tariq - should it take place. On December 17, the Jammu and Kashmir Police announced his apprehension. However, the identification turned out to be false. The individual picked up, another medical equipment dealer called Mohammad Tanvir, knew Afzal Ansari. However, when investigators in New Delhi presented his photograph to their prisoner for identification, he turned out to be unconnected to the Parliament House plot. Tanvir was a resident of Srinagar, not of Tral, the southern Kashmir town where Tariq is believed to have lived. But the evidence gathered makes clear that hard decisions will have to be made in the weeks to come. What, for example, will India do if Pakistan refuses to arrest and hand over top JeM and LeT leaders? How will India respond to any further attacks on major political targets? Officials say they are working on the answers. Unfortunately, it took an attack on Parliament House to make the Union government apply itself to such issues.