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Target, L.K. Advani

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The Dawood Ibrahim gang may be targeting politicians in India at the behest of their Pakistani masters in return for protection from rival gangs in Karachi's turf wars.

ONE of the Mumbai underworld's top hired guns, Shakeel Khan, almost had Union Home Minister L.K. Advani in his cross-hairs on September 23. Armed with a fake press card and a .32 millimetre automatic weapon, and accompanied by a female Bangalore bar attendant who uses the stage names Sonu, Sahiba and Aman, Shakeel Khan had orders to penetrate a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh function Advani was scheduled to address in Lucknow that day. Despite the fact that the Union Home Ministry had issued warnings, journalists present at the function said security was casual. Cars were allowed to drive in without checks for explosives, and identification cards were checked only cursorily.

Khan escaped the massive Intelligence Bureau-led operation in which six of his co-conspirators were arrested from Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai in early October. No one is certain what went wrong with the assassination plot put together by his boss, Karachi-based Shakeel Ahmad Babu, best known by his alias Chhota Shakeel. Two other key conspirators, Sagir Sheikh and Ali Moosa, are also believed to have left India at the end of September, possibly flying to Karachi through Bangkok. But those arrested have served notice that the Chhota Shakeel group and its mentor Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar have initiated a dramatic escalation of their involvement in political terrorism in India.

Plans to assassinate Advani were put in place shortly after Sheikh, a Mumbai resident with a long record of underworld involvement, was released on bail on September 4. Sheikh had been jailed in 1997 after he was picked up on charges including that of possessing a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Slowly, however, he obtained bail in each case. A Hyderabad court was the last to grant him bail, this time for relatively minor charges of violating railway laws.

With the help of his brothers Zakir Sheikh and Mohammad Sadiq, Sheikh set up about building the infrastructure for the plot. A Chennai-based member of the Shakeel mafia, Akbar Husain Khan, was tasked with renting safehouses in the city. Similar facilities were also obtained in Bangalore, while the Sheikh brothers set up a motor workshop in Mumbai's Behrambaug area as a cover for their activities.

I.B. moles began reporting unusual levels of activity from the Shakeel mafia by mid-September. Technical surveillance operations also indicated this, but other than the plot's intended target, little hard information could be obtained. Around September 16, investigators believe, the group was in place in Lucknow. Almost all of them had cover identities. Akbar Khan, for example, was found to be in possession of papers identifying him as a member of the press corps, issued by a non-existent New Delhi publication, Apradh Virodhi (Against Crime), carrying the stamp of the Registrar of Newspapers of India. Then, suddenly, the group was told to abort the mission. "Something went wrong for the gang in Lucknow," said an official connected with the case. "But none of those we have arrested know why they were ordered to call off the operation."

Why might Dawood Ibrahim and his protege Chhota Shakeel have embarked on this kind of venture? One plausible explanation is that the Pakistani intelligence establishment is starting to demand payback from the assets it has cultivated at great cost since the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993, in which at least 228 people were killed. Both Dawood and Chhota Shakeel are known to have built considerable interests in the Karachi narcotics business, eating into the earnings of the Pushtun groups which have traditionally controlled the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Their role in the city's property mafia, not dissimilar to that of Mumbai, has also earned the displeasure of groups like the Muttahida Quami Movement, Karachi's long-standing arbiters of fortune.

Such trespassing on protected turf is believed to have led to a bloody ambush on August 18 on Malir Road in Karachi. It left four policemen dead. Top Dawood Ibrahim aide Shoaib Khan, whose interests in the gambling business earned him the alias 'Rummywala', was seriously injured. Reports in the Pakistan press suggested that the attack was carried out by the gang of Haji Ibrahim Bholoo, Khan's former business partner. Khan, underworld gossip had it, eliminated his one-time partner, who has been missing since January, in order to strike a deal with Dawood. The encounter fuelled rumours that Chhota Shakeel had been killed. Given the escalating levels of violence in Karachi, the Pakistani intelligence establishment is now obviously better placed to use Dawood's resources in return for protection.

As important is the fact that Shakeel has seen political terrorism as an instrument through which he can win legitimacy among Mumbai's poor and the politically alienated Muslim community. Since 1998 the Shakeel group has targeted almost a dozen Shiv Sena leaders, claiming to avenge the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-1993. The most spectacular among the attacks came 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. Vaidya had survived an assassination attempt on December 17, 1998. Sheikh, who was arrested in July 1999 from a safehouse in Lucknow, told interrogators that the Shakeel group had secured supplies of assault rifles through Nepal - one of which may have made its way to Sagir Sheikh in Mumbai.

Interestingly, Shakeel's arch-rival, Rajendra Nikhalje alias Chhota Rajan, used similar communal tactics. He broke ranks with the Dawood empire shortly after its leaders fled en bloc to Karachi from Dubai in 1993. Although Rajan was a member of the Dawood mafia when it engaged in the serial bombings, later he claimed to have been out of the loop during the operation.

In a subsequent bid to win support from the Hindu Right, Rajan began eliminating individuals facing trial for their alleged role in the 1993 serial bombings. In September 2000, the battle climaxed with a near-successful bid in Bangkok to eliminate Rajan. The effort to recruit communal sympathies, however, has continued apace. On September 4, the Special Court of Judge A.P. Bangale ordered investigation of reports that Rajan was funding Ganapati festivities organised by a club in his home neighbourhood of Chembur.

Placed in this context, the pressures on Dawood and Chhota Shakeel to cooperate with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are only too easy to understand. A recent expose by Karachi-based journalist Ghulam Husnain blew apart Pakistan's repeated claims, made most recently by General Pervez Musharraf during the Agra summit, that Dawood and Chhota Shakeel were not in Pakistan. Writing for the magazine Newsline, Husnain reported that Dawood had been housed in a palatial yellow brick mansion in Karachi's upmarket Clifton area.

Shakeel, for his part, was residing in Karachi's Defence Housing Authority. Their co-architect in executing the serial bombings, Abdul Razzak Memon alias Tiger Memon, had even purchased property, including the multi-storey Kashif Crown Plaza on the Shara-e-Faisal boulevard.

Husnain's reports made it clear that Dawood and company had official protection in Pakistan. "They now live in Karachi," Husnain wrote, "using fake names but genuine Pakistani passports and identity cards allegedly provided by the government for services rendered to Pakistan." Armed guards, he wrote, were posted outside their homes, and the street leading to Dawood's Karachi residence was blocked off to traffic. The home sprawls across more than 5,000 square metres, and has a swimming pool, gymnasium and tennis courts. When a Karachi residents' organisation, Shehri, protested against Memon's violation of building laws and encroachment on public space, they were told to back off. "The ISI told us it is a Dawood Ibrahim building," a Shehri member told Husnain. "They said this is a man who has done a lot for Pakistan, so we should not raise our voices."

Dawood seems to have been given not a little length of rope by his handlers. The Newsline reports detailed his extravagant lifestyle. Dawood, Husnain wrote, woke up after 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, mujras (performances by dancing girls) and gambling". "Carousing through the night, Dawood and his companions quit only at dawn.... This has been his routine for years." Such a high-profile lifestyle can only be paid for through substantial levels of criminal activity, which the ISI is unlikely to tolerate unless Dawood puts his resources to work for it.

Many in the intelligence community are deeply worried about what could follow. "Dawood and Chhota Shakeel will not be seriously deterred by the recent arrests," a senior intelligence official told Frontline, "because Mumbai has an endless pool of frustrated young people from whom they could draw." By some estimates, Dawood was willing to commit a Rs.50-lakh advance for the Advani operation. Many others are willing to work for less.

On October 12, the Mumbai Police shot dead four hit-men working for the Abu Salem Ansari gang, who had targeted top film star Aamir Khan and the producers of the hit film Dil Chahta Hai for an extortion attempt. Tanvir Sheikh, Sanjay Kumar, Abdul Javed and Imran Khan were all drawn from the suburban slum lumpen proletariat that two decades of Mumbai's casino capitalism has given birth to. None would have made more than Rs.1 lakh if their attempt had been successful. A new front of terror, then, could be opening up: one for which few defences are yet in place.