Return of terror

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

The fifth bomb explosion in Mumbai in the past eight months reconfirms the city's status as being a target of terror strikes.

in Mumbai

AFTER a three-month lull, terror returned to Mumbai on July 28, with a powerful bomb explosion in a crowded bus killing three people and injuring 35. This was the fifth explosion in Mumbai in the last eight months. Thirteen people were killed and over 100 injured in the earlier four blasts.

The latest explosion, which occurred on a Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) bus at Ghatkopar, a suburb of Mumbai, was the second blast on a bus in that area. No organisation or person has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the police suspect the involvement of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).

The police believe the city is a target for terror attacks. Yet, in spite of investigating, arresting and charging members of suspected organisations for the previous blasts, they seem unable to avert such explosions.

According to the police, the bomb was planted under a seat at the rear of the bus. The explosion took place at 9.03 p.m., ripping apart the rear part of the bus. Three autorickshaws and two motorbikes, which were driving alongside the bus, were severely damaged. Window-panes of nearby buildings cracked under the impact. According to the forensic report, the explosive device was made of gelatin sticks, which have a high concentration of ammonium nitrate. This particular bus route - Number 340 - runs between Andheri, a western suburb and Ghatkopar station and is always packed with commuters. Bus is the most popular form of public transport between the western and eastern suburbs. The police believe that since the buses are always full, they are sure and easy targets for attack.

Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister Chhagan Bhujbal told reporters that "the blast may be aimed at dislodging the ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan". Bhujbal speculates that the blast was timed for the start of the Nashik Kumbh Mela, which began on July 27. He said the government had reason to believe that a newly constituted module of members from the suspected organisations carried out the blast. The explosives used and the modus operandi, he said, was similar to the first blast that occurred in Ghatkopar. An LeT leader, Dr. Abdul Mateen, was arrested in connection with the blast.

A police officer told Frontline that on July 27 four people arrested for the March 14 blast at Mulund had been charged under Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). He said the police suspected the explosion was a reaction to that. According to the police, ever since the communal carnage in Gujarat, minority fundamentalist groups have been seeking retaliation. They believe that Pakistan-sponsored terrorist outfits have been recruiting educated Muslim youth to plant low-intensity and low-tech bombs in public places. "Destabilising a city like Mumbai is a way to make a statement," said the officer.

Since December 2002, Mumbai has witnessed a series of bomb blasts - two in buses and three at railway stations. In addition, two bombs were deactivated in time by the police. The first blast took place on December 2, 2002, in a BEST bus at Ghatkopar. On the same day, the police defused an explosive device found in another BEST bus. Four days later, a bomb exploded at the Mumbai Central railway station, injuring 23 and damaging a restaurant and parts of the station. On January 27, a bomb placed on the carrier of a bicycle, exploded in the busy market area outside the Vile Parle railway station, injuring 30 people. A day later, a similar bomb was found in the same vicinity. On March 13, a bomb exploded in the first class ladies compartment of a local train at Mulund station, killing 11 and injuring 66. The bomb, which ripped through two coaches, was by far the strongest.

These explosions would seem tame compared to the serial bomb blasts of 1993, in which 12 bombs exploded at difficult parts of Mumbai killing 235 people. Nevertheless, with so many blasts occurring in rapid succession, it seems clear that the city has become a target for attack. Yet, the puzzle is: if the police are quick to pick up suspects soon after the incident, why is it that they do not pre-empt the explosion. "Either it is a complete breakdown in the State's intelligence, or the activities of the suspected perpetrators are ignored deliberately,'' said a retired police officer. "There seem to be enough clues for the police to prevent the terror attacks." For instance, materials used in the explosives leave tell-tale signs of the organisations involved. The March 13 blast was probably an anniversary incident. It happened a day after the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai serial bomb blasts. Besides, after picking up several suspects, investigations should by now have revealed an agenda.

Following the latest blast, the police arrested eight people allegedly belonging to SIMI and the LeT. The suspects have been identified as Abdul Rehman and another known only as Rawal allegedly belonging to the LeT. Another person, Nisar Ahmed alias Janab, is also wanted in the Mulund blast. Ahmed was an aid of Dr. Jalees Ansari, who is accused of masterminding 60 bomb blasts in different parts of the country. The suspects have also been linked to Saquib Nachen, the prime accused in the Mulund, Vile Parle and Mumbai Central blasts. Nachen, a member of SIMI, led a module, which was "neutralised" after his surrender in April 2003. Fifteen members of Nachen's module were arrested in July. Another module, led by Mateen, prime accused in the Ghatkopar blast case was busted in December. Nachen and Mateen are both in judicial custody charged under POTA.

Police forces have spread out across the State in an effort to flush out these modules. "It seems such a paradox that at one level the police seem to be on their toes, knowing whom to search for and where to look, but at another level are taken by surprise every time an incident takes place," said the retired police officer.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena called a bandh on July 30 to protest against what is described as the lack of security in the State. But with elections around the corner, nobody seems fooled by the Sena's "concern" for security.

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