A wave of new recruits

Print edition : September 16, 2000
PRAVEEN SWAMI

IT took less than a fortnight for the Jammu and Kashmir Police to arrest key members of the Lashkar-e-Toiba group who set off the August 10 blast in Srinagar which claimed 15 lives, including that of The Hindustan Times photographer Pradeep Bhatia . This may give the families of the victims of the explosion some reason for satisfaction, but the real lessons of the affair are disquieting. Profiles of those arrested illustrate that far Right Islamist groups have begun to attract a wave of fresh recr uits among the young.

Abu Hurrera, the Lashkar commander who engineered the August 10 bombing, continues to be at large. A coherent version of the events, however, has emerged from his arrested associates. Among the most important testimony for investigators has come from Sha fat Reishi, a resident of the Taingpora area of Sumbal, Baramulla. Operating under the codename Zubair, Reishi joined the Lashkar five months ago. He had earlier worked briefly with al-Badr, but was told to leave the organisation because one of his relat ives worked for the police, and because his father Haji Mir Mohammad Reishi, an orchard owner and public works contractor, has had a long-standing Congress(I) affiliation.

Reishi told Frontline that Hurrera had received instructions from his handlers to engineer a big explosion in the wake of the Hizbul Mujahideen's ceasefire declaration. Srinagar's Humhama airport, he said, was considered and then abandoned as a ta rget because there was no prospect of parking a car-bomb for any length of time even at its first set of security check barriers. Residency Road, an upmarket area where police officers were certain to congregate at the site of a blast, was then decided o n. Hurrera's key associates from Baramulla, Kala Khan and his nephew Iqbal Khan, were assigned the task of setting up infrastructure in Srinagar, where the group had never operated before.

Ali Mohammad Bhat, a government employee who moonlighted as a property broker, provided just the resource the Khans were looking for. The group approached Bhat as a prospective property buyers. They left a Rs.5 lakh cash advance in his hands on August 8 and shipped in a cylinder packed with Research Department Explosive (RDX) which they hid in his attic. Although Bhat told Frontline that he had no idea what would follow, and that he only hid the explosive out of fear that he would be killed in th e event he refused to do so, investigators believe that the cash purchased his acquiescence. The next day, the group used Bhat's home to initiate the operation and to meet before dispersing.

The vehicle used in the bombing was a car that belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir Bank. Its driver, Farooq Ahmed Dar, lost his brother to terrorists two years ago. When Reishi and the Khans contacted him in a public park near Safakadal, he decided he had no wish to go the same way. Dar allowed himself to be persuaded that if he reported the car lost before the bombing, no suspicion would fall on him. "I had no desire to involve myself in the whole thing," he says. "Another driver from the bank had asked them for Rs.5 lakh to hand over his vehicle. I didn't take a paisa. All I wanted was my life."

In the event, the explosion went off before Dar could file a first information report. Dar drove Hurrera, Kala Khan and two women, who have not yet been identified, to Residency Road. When the vehicle was pulling up, a television news crew which happened to be in the area recording footage for an unrelated story captured the image. Shortly afterwards, Iqbal Khan and Reishi arrived by bus, and walked up to the end of the lane where the car was parked. There, Iqbal Khan threw the grenade that was to attra ct police officials to the car. Once a crowd had gathered, Hurrera, standing with Kala Khan some distance away, set off the device by remote control.

The first clues came from the Intelligence Bureau, which had initiated surveillance on Kala Khan in the course of a separate operation. Srinagar police officials followed up the tip-off. "Hurrera had ensured the bombing would be difficult to solve," says Deputy-Inspector General of Police K. Rajendra. "All the main figures were from outside Srinagar, and neither Dar nor Bhat would have told us the truth had we not confronted them with the material Reishi and the Khans gave us." Experience suggests a con viction is unlikely, given the poor forensic resources available to the State police, but this time at least one of the accused may turn approver. Abdul Hameed Bhat, known by the nickname Chini (sugar), became a part of the group only after his work as a n Army source was compromised, and may perhaps choose to give evidence for the prosecution.

Investigations have also thrown up evidence of procedural errors behind the tragedy. Minutes before the bomb went off, Superintendent of Police Pankaj Darar notified his immediate superior, Senior Superintendent B. Srinivas, that he had located a suspici ous looking vehicle. However, instead of vacating the area and awaiting the arrival of the bomb squad, police officials present chose to inspect the car themselves.

As the cases of Reishi and Iqbal Khan have once again shown, many young people have begun to be attracted to the furthest fringes of the Islamic Right, enabling organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba to operate independently of groups like the Hizbul Muj ahideen. Efforts to accelerate this process are certain to be made. Others, like property broker Bhat and car driver Dar, are drawn into violent activity because they feel they do not have a choice. Tackling these problems will prove considerably more di fficult than arresting those responsible for individual acts of terrorism.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor