The end of a chase

Print edition : October 25, 2002
A six-month-long manhunt ends with police commandos gunning down Imam Ali, Tamil Nadu's most wanted militant, and his four accomplices in their hideout in Bangalore.

IN a serious blow to Islamic fundamentalist militancy in Tamil Nadu, a team of 25 police commandos from the State shot dead Imam Ali and four of his associates on September 29 in their hideout in Bangalore, Karnataka. Imam Ali was a member of the Jihad Committee, a militant organisation founded by the late Palani Baba, and was a prime accused in the bomb blast at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) building in Chennai in August 1993 in which 11 persons were killed. He was allegedly trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and later by the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Islamic militant organisations have already become anaemic in Tamil Nadu after the arrest of 168 militants allegedly responsible for the series of bomb blasts that rocked Coimbatore in February 1998 and killed 58 persons. Besides, 71 other militants are in judicial custody on charges of exploding bombs on trains and at hotels, and a film director's home, storing huge quantities of explosives, killing Hindu fundamentalists, planting bombs in Chennai and Tiruchi, stabbing to death an imam, and other crimes. These militants belong to three organisations, Al Umma, the Jihad Committee and the Islamic Defence Force (IDF). Al Umma was mainly responsible for the Coimbatore bomb blasts. Those in jail include S.A. Basha, former president of Al Umma; Mohammed Ansari, who dethroned Basha in a power struggle in the organisation and declared himself Al Umma president; Basha's son Siddiq Ali; Erwadi Kasim, chief of the IDF; and Abdul Nasser Mahdhani, chairman, People's Democratic Party in Kerala. Al Umma and the Jihad Committee were banned within hours of the blasts at Coimbatore. Imam Ali is not an accused in the Coimbatore blasts case.

None of these 239 arrested in 1998/1999 has been able to obtain bail. Some of them have been convicted and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment in some cases. A top police officer said, "Their arrests, remand, their inability to come out on bail and their being sentenced to imprisonment in some cases have dealt a blow to these groups. Al Umma has lost its strength." The power struggle in Al Umma, which took place in the Central Prison in Coimbatore, where the arrested persons are held, has weakened it further. Although the hard-core members of these organisations are in jail, they have a network of supporters and sympathisers outside. Several hundreds of people, wearing black badges, attended the funeral of Imam Ali and others at Nelpettai in Madurai on October 1, and black flags were flown from poles and lamp posts.

Imam Ali, 32, was the most wanted militant in Tamil Nadu. He belonged to Melur, near Madurai. He was on the run from March 7 when he and another extremist, Hyder Ali, escaped from police custody at Tirumangalam near Madurai when they were being taken from the Central Prison, Chennai, to Palayamkottai. The escape took place after his accomplices exploded countrymade bombs and opened fire at the policemen escorting Imam Ali . During the incident, Imam Ali snatched an AK-47 assault rifle with 30 rounds of ammunition from a police escort. After the escape, Imam Ali pushed out his long-time associate Hyder Ali from the vehicle in which they were fleeing with Seeniyappa and Mohammed Ibrahim, because of a misunderstanding. Hyder Ali's relatives handed him over to police.

A police officer said that Imam Ali having the AK-47 rifle and ammunition made the hunt for him "dangerous and risky". Besides, he specialised in making remote-controlled bombs and had undergone intensive training in handling firearms in 1992 with the Hizbul Mujahideen at Kiralpura near Srinagar. He had spent time in Bangladesh as well. He had used the powerful RDX (research department explosive) in bringing down the multi-storeyed RSS building at Chetput in Chennai. He carried a reward of Rs.5 lakhs on his head. Although Imam Ali was not a member of Al Umma, he had contacts with it. He, Basha and Hyder Ali were the key accused in the RSS building blast case.

Imam Ali first came to adverse notice in 1991 when he was trying to make bombs on a hillock at Tirumoghur near Melur and there was an accidental explosion. He was arrested and remanded to judicial custody. But he escaped from prison in 1992 and masterminded along with Hyder Ali the destruction of the RSS building. The police arrested him again in 1995.

THE shootout in a house at M S Ramaiah Layout, Bangalore, lasted nearly 90 minutes with the Madurai City and Karnataka police providing backup support. Thirteen policemen sustained minor injuries in the operation. Along with Imam Ali, four other extremists were killed. They were: `Mangai' Basheer alias Anwar (35) of Melapalayam, Tirunelveli; Mohammed Ibrahim (28); Seeniyappa alias Saifullah (30); and his wife Yasmeen (23), all from Madurai district. A fifth associate, Shaji alias `Doha' Shahjehan, was not in the house when the operation took place. Ibrahim and Seeniyappa had played important roles in the escape of Imam Ali at Tirumangalam. Basheer reportedly supplied the explosives that were used in the escape.

According to Ashutosh Shukla, Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Coimbatore range), and an officer from Tamil Nadu who led the operation, incriminating material found in the house and telephone intercepts indicated that Ali had hatched a conspiracy to assassinate Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani, Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Vishwa Hindu Parishad international president Ashok Singhal. He had allegedly made plans to trigger a series of blasts in major temples in South India, including the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai and the Iscon temple in Bangalore, blow up bridges, and destroy strategic installations such as the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bangalore. After his escape in March, he had formed an outfit called Al Mujahideen.

A Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Tamil Nadu police was after Imam Ali since his escape. Police sources said Ali was sighted last July first at Vallakadavu and Beemapalli in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. By the time the SIT personnel went there, he had vanished. The hunt gained some momentum in early September when the SIT obtained specific information from both the Central and State intelligence agencies that Ali and his associates were planning to trigger explosions at many locations. On a specific tip-off and after intercepting Ali's cellular phone, the team zeroed in on Bangalore. Tapping his phone led the police to his hideout. Shukla and Shakeel Akther, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Madurai) and commander of special operations, camped incognito in Bangalore for 10 days, identifying his hideout and keeping the gang under surveillance.

Imam Ali and his associates came to Bangalore in July after fleeing Kerala. They rented the ground floor of a three-storeyed house at the M.S. Ramaiah Layout under false names, claiming to be timber merchants. After they had rows with the owner of the house over the sharing of water, they were asked to vacate by October 1.

In a bid to trace the house where the group stayed, two Karnataka police sub-inspectors (a man and a woman) posed as a newly married couple on the lookout for a house. They met the owner of the house and entered the ground floor. The faces of the four residents matched the photographs the sub-Inspectors were carrying. Yasmeen gave laconic replies to the general inquiries they made. Imam Ali hid in a bathroom.

Confident that it was Ali and his gang, the SIT, consisting of 25 commandos and a few support officers, stormed the house around 2 a.m. Since Ali and his group had an AK-47, pistols and revolvers, a platoon of the Karnataka State Reserve Police was requisitioned to provide an outer support cordon. Tear gas shells were first lobbed through a window and the residents asked to surrender in 10 minutes. When they refused, the police broke open the front door and opened fire. According to the police, Ali and his associates took up positions and returned fire. But the resistance was feeble. Four of them were killed inside the house, while the fifth, Mohammed Ibrahim, was shot at as he tried to escape. The operation was over by 3-30 a.m.

THE police were able to recover from the house the AK-47 (on which Imam Ali had inscribed the words "God's gift"), two pistols, a small diary with several telephone numbers written in a coded format (the English alphabet used in place of numbers), a map of South India with the locations of temples and bridges marked on it, a map of India, a ready-to-shoot camera, a poster of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, tools (like a drilling machine and a small motor) and literature for manufacturing arms and ammunition, sketches of revolvers and various springs used in the assembling of arms, circuit boards, home-made bombs and detonators, two mobile phones , a list of phone numbers of all the police stations in Bangalore and a four-page letter written in Tamil. The letter, purportedly written by Ali, described how he was in the process of assembling an AK-47 and said he therefore wanted Rs.3 lakhs immediately. It was yet to be addressed. The police said Imam Ali had contacted a Mumbai dealer for buying long-range binoculars.

K. Radhakrishnan, I.G. (Vigilance and Anti-Corruption), Tamil Nadu, said the Tamil Nadu and Bangalore police had done "a fantastic job" in eliminating the group. Radhakrishnan, who was earlier Police Commissioner, Coimbatore, and Paramvir Singh, chief of the SIT, Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department, worked in tandem after the Coimbatore bomb blasts to solve the case.

Imam Ali's death turns the spotlight on Al Umma, the Jihad Committee and the IDF. Police sources said that a large number of their members being in judicial custody had prevented these outfits from regrouping. The sentence of life imprisonment awarded to Siddiq Ali in 1999 for the murder of Kottai Ameer, a secular Muslim leader, was a big blow to Al Umma as he was projected as the successor to his father, Basha. The revolt in Al Umma against the leadership of Basha has hobbled it further.

The police have also cracked open "a secret service" agency of Al Umma, called "Truth Voice". This was formed after the proscription of Al Umma. "Truth Voice" was active in killing Hindu fundamentalists and mobilising funds. For collecting funds its members visited mosques and made demands on wealthy businessmen and those having relatives working in the Gulf countries. Though Al Umma had only nominal presence outside prison now, the police said there was no let-up in the vigil.

Trial is under way in a special court in Coimbatore in the Coimbatore bomb blasts case. There are 168 accused including one approver, and the charge-sheet runs to more than 1,000 pages. Out of 2,339 witnesses, 142 have been examined. It would take a few years for the large number of witnesses to be examined.

So far 10 cases involving religious fundamentalists have resulted in conviction in Tamil Nadu — seven cases against Muslim fundamentalists and three against Hindu fundamentalists. On March 8, 2001, Basha and 12 others were convicted and sentenced to four years' rigorous imprisonment (R.I.) for storing explosives in a premises at Triplicane, Chennai, and for conspiring to plant bombs in important towns in Tamil Nadu. On June 18, 2002, Akbar, an Al Umma activist was sentenced to seven years' R.I. for sending sweets mixed with cyanide to P. Muthuraj, Inspector of Ukkadam police station in Coimbatore, from Thrissur in Kerala. Nine persons were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for exploding bombs at Udumalpet on December 3, 1997, killing three persons. Yasuddin, `Nettai' Ibrahim and `Koolai' Ibrahim, Al Umma terrorists, were sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2001 by the Second Additional Sessions Judge, Coimbatore, for murdering Kannan alias Palanisamy, a Bharatiya Janata Party activist, in September 1997.

Trial is under way in the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) court in Chennai of 18 persons accused of planting explosives at the RSS building in Chennai on August 8, 1993. In the case relating to the bomb blasts that took place on three trains at Tiruchi, Erode and Thrissur on December 6, 1997, the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, there are 10 accused belonging to the Jihad Committee and the IDF and arguments are being heard.

Thirteen Al Umma militants have been charge-sheeted in the case relating to the murder of Dr. P.V. Sridhar, president, Tiruchi unit of the BJP in Tiruchi on February 2, 1999. The IV Judicial Magistrate, Tiruchi, is conducting the trial. Members of the IDF have been charged with exploding bombs in three hotels in Chennai. The trial is still on. In the case involving the murder of Palani Baba at Pollachi near Coimbatore on January 28, 1997, five of the accused received life imprisonment. For murdering Jaan Basha, a Muslim fundamentalist at Tiruppur in 1993, one of the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment and another to seven years' R.I.

In the case involving the murder of Palani Baba at Pollachi near coimbatore on January 28, 1997, five of the accused received life imprisonment. For murdering Jaan Bashaa, a Muslim fundamentalist at Tiruppur in 1993, one of the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment and another to seven years' R.I.

Vigil continues in Coimbatore against both Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism. There were a couple of incidents of arson in a mosque and shops owned by Muslims at Tiruppur and Coimbatore during and after the September 28 bandh to protest against the attack on the Swaminarayan temple at Gandhinagar, Gujarat. But with active involvement of the community in policing through area committees, Police Boys' Clubs in slums and night patrol committees in which Hindus and Muslims are members there was no major trouble.

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