The 'liberation' of Hyderabad

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The police in Hyderabad cut down the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba cell and terminate the terrorist cell's operations, but rooting out such networks in the region will remain a challenge.

A ONE-PAGE note, 31 lines untidily scrawled across a crumpled sheet of paper, arrived at newspaper offices in Hyderabad on February 29, informing them of the formation of the Indian Muslim Mohammadi Mujahideen (IMMM). The organisation, the note read, was "committed to Eradicate the western culture from India" (sic). Cinemas which ran pornographic films, it recorded, had been bombed as a first part of this campaign. Unsurprisingly, most journalists who received the incoherent press release threw it in th e dustbin and returned to other pressing matters.

Officials at an elite counter-terrorism unit, the Special Task Force (STF) of the Hyderabad Police, however caught the scent. In January, there had been a bomb blast at a sweetmeats shop owned by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sympathiser in Moghalp ura in the city. Two unexploded devices had been discovered, at Lamba Talkies, and near the high-security Defence Research and Development Laboratory. More bombs exploded in February, at Venkateshwar Talkies in Karimnagar and Sharda Theatre, across the b order in Nanded. All the bombs had been made with combinations of potassium nitrate, potassium permanganate, aluminium powder and sugar, a trademark of the urban warfare cells of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist group active in the Kashmir Valley.

Azam Ghauri, the leader of a Lashkar-e-Taiba cell in Andhra Pradesh, who was shot dead by the Hyderabad Police in Karimnagar on April 6.-

It did not take much homework for STF officials to discover what was going on. On February 6, at the end of its three-day annual conference near Murikde near Lahore, LeT's top ideologue Abdul Rahman Makki had announced that the organisation had a new un it running in Hyderabad, which would soon liberate the city from "Indian rule". LeT's supreme leader, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, had in turn proclaimed that the organisation's campaigns in Hyderabad and Junagadh were among its highest priorities. One name on the press note dispelled whatever doubts remained. The IMMM's commander was Azam Ghauri, a Nizamabad resident and top LeT leader, who was wanted by the Indian police since the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. Ghauri was known to have returned to Andhra Prades h around May 1998, after training at LeT camps in Pakistan, crossing the Bangladesh border and then catching a train from Calcutta. There had been no sign of him since.

The Hyderabad Police tracked Ghauri down in less than six weeks. On April 6, the IMMM commander was shot dead at Jagityal in Karimnagar, after he pulled out his 7.65 mm Mauser pistol to fire at policemen. A string of arrests of his cadre followed, from H yderabad, northern Telengana and Nanded. But the termination of the IMMM's operations is unlikely to end LeT activity in Hyderabad. The commitment of far-right Islamic organisations in Pakistan to a pan-Indian war is one reason (Frontline, Februar y 4, 2000). Pakistan's Karachi-area Jamaat-e-Islami chief Naimatullah Khan, for example, recently proclaimed that his organisation's "ultimate objective is to overrun Delhi's Red Fort and end the Hindu Raj in India".

Growing evidence of LeT's deep linkages with elements in the overground Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and the arrests of operatives from as far away as Xinjiang in China, give reason to believe that there could be some truth behind the rheto ric.

In the Old City of Hyderabad.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

IN some ways, it all began in 1985, at a meeting in the Ahl-e-Hadis Mosque in Mominpura, Mumbai. Activists of the Ahl-e-Hadis' ultra-conservative Gorba faction had gathered to speak about the need for armed Muslim resistance to the wave of communal viole nce in India since early that year. Ghauri, the fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family, had flirted with the People's War Group (PWG) before discovering religion. He spoke with passion. With him was Abu Masood, a Gorba preacher from West Bengal , and Abdul Karim 'Tunda' (for he has a deformed arm). The latter went on to become the LeT's top operative in India. At the end of the meeting, they formed the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM), an organisation committed to the defence of Muslims during co mmunal riots.

TIM's early activities were mildly farcical, mimicking those of the RSS shakhas. Ghauri and Tunda held drills at the YMCA ground in Mominpura, teaching their cadre unarmed combat techniques as well as the use of lathis. Among their most enthusiastic recr uits was Jalees Ansari, son of a worker at the now-closed Raghuvanshi Mill on Tulsi Pipe Road. Ansari's father, who had arrived as a labourer from Uttar Pradesh, had saved enough to give his children a future. In 1972, Ansari graduated from the Maratha C ollege at Nagpara, and went on to study at the Sion Medical College. After a brief stint at private practice, he joined the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation as a Junior Medical Officer.

Despite his success, Ansari felt embittered by what he perceived as pervasive religious intolerance. Students and staff at the Maratha College, Ansari was to tell interrogators, often insulted Muslims at large. Later, he came to believe that Hindu collea gues did not treat their Muslim patients with care. Although Ansari claimed to have been a "secular-minded person", the massacre of Muslims during the Bhiwandi riots of 1985 transformed him completely. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots tha t followed made him finally snap. Led by Ghauri and Tunda, Ansari helped set off a series of 43 explosions in Mumbai and Hyderabad and seven separate explosions on trains on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid's demolition.

Ansari had been tasked to set off a second series of explosions on January 26, 1994, but 13 days ahead of that day he was arrested. By the time the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) picked him up, however, Tunda and Ghauri had disappeared. Tunda is believed to have travelled to Calcutta, and then to Dhaka, where he again made contact with the LeT network. The LeT commander then responsible for its Indian operations, Zaki-ur-Rahman, took charge of Tunda's tasks. Intelligence officials believe that G hauri, in turn, first stayed in Andhra Pradesh, and then travelled on a fake passport to Saudi Arabia. In 1995, Saudi national Hamid Bahajib, a key financier of the LeT's India activities who has relatives in Hyderabad, arranged for his travel to Pakista n.

Pipe bombs, timers and explosives recovered from Ghauri.-

IF Ghauri disappeared from the radar screen, Abdul Karim Tunda kept himself busy, running the LeT network with renewed vigour. Using contacts in the revanchist Islamic Chhatra Shibir in Dhaka, Tunda began running a formidable network of operatives in Nor th India. Through 1996 and 1997, he engineered a series of bomb blasts in New Delhi, Rohtak and Jalandhar, using the services of a new recruit, Amir Hashim. Hashim, who operated under the codename Kamran, had just completed his seventh grade at the Mazru l Islam Higher Secondary School in New Delhi when his parents moved to Pakistan to be with their daughter and her husband. In Karachi, the Ahl-e-Hadis' right-wing religious establishment provided him with an outlet for the hostility he had learned to fee l for India. After working at a new office that the Markaz Dawa wal'Irshad, the LeT's patron political body, had opened in Karachi in January 1994, Kamran joined Tunda's apparatus.

Others arrived in Kamran's wake, many of them Pakistani nationals. In July 1998, the Delhi Police arrested three members of the Tunda cell, led by Abdul Sattar, a resident of Islamnagar in Pakistan's Faislabad district. Along with his colleagues Shoaib A lam and Mohammad Faisal Hussain, Sattar had built a base in the pottery centre of Khurja in Uttar Pradesh. In one firing kiln, the group had built a bunker to house explosives that were scheduled to arrive.

The steady flow of Pakistani personnel continued. In August last year, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested all 11 members of an LeT cell, consisting of operatives in that State, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. The cell's top operative , Pakistani national Amir Khan, had obtained Indian educational documents and a driver's licence and planned to marry into a family in Bhiwandi.

But the most successful of Tunda's agents was Mohammad Ishtiaq, alias Saleem Junaid, the son of a shopkeeper at Kala Gujran, in Jhelum, Pakistan. Junaid had defied his family to go through LeT training at Pashad in Afghanistan, and a three-month "elite" commando course, the Daura Khasta, under Zaki-ur-Rahman. After failing twice to cross into India with LeT groups in 1994, he was put to work at the organisation's Muzaffarabad office. Among those he worked with was Kamran, following whose footsteps Junai d crossed into India through the Jammu border in 1995. After spending time in Delhi unsuccessfully attempting to garner support from the Markaz Tablighi Jamaat for the LeT's campaign, Junaid travelled to Nepal, where fresh contacts were set up from him i n Mumbai, Bhiwandi and Delhi.

Finding limited support in these cities, Junaid finally shifted base to Hyderabad. Bahajib, at a meeting held at Mumbai's President Hotel before Junaid's departure, provided him with initial finance and contacts. An Indian passport, bearing the number A 0685880, was obtained, along with a driver's licence. Abdul Qayoom, the owner of Hyderabad's Mushkeen Hotel, later travelled with Junaid to Dhaka, crossing the border at Lalgola in Murshidabad, for a refresher course in bomb-making, along with Kamran, un der Tunda. Qayoom's elder brother, Ismail Qayoom, provided a safehouse for explosives, timers and detonators, while Abdul Rauf, the proprietor of a poultry feed company at Masheshwaram, 22 km from Hyderabad, employed a second LeT operative of Pakistani o rigin sent in with Junaid.

By the time Junaid was finally arrested on July 1, 1998, he had a near-perfect cover identity. Momina Khatoon, the daughter of a retired Army soldier, had become his wife. Cash sent in by Zaki-ur-Rahman's successor, LeT commander Azam Cheema, enabled Jun aid to buy a Canter model light truck to set up a front business. The truck was used, for example, to deliver RDX and switches to Dehradun in July 1997, where it was planted on a compartment reserved for the military on an express train to Delhi. Two oth er LeT operatives of Pakistani origin had been smuggled in through Bhuj to help Junaid after the departure of Saeed, with whom a fight had broken out. Mohammad Mansoor, code-named Abu Kafa, of Kasur, and Farooq Ahmed, code-named Shakeel, of Faislabad, we re arrested along with Junaid.

Most important of all, Junaid had acquired a degree of political legitimacy within India-based chauvinist organisations, notably SIMI. Interrogations of activists of the Al-Umma, the organisation responsible for the serial bombings in Coimbatore, suggest ed a top SIMI leader of Andhra Pradesh origin had offered Junaid the leadership of the organisation, despite being aware of his origins and activities. Al-Umma chief S.A. Basha and his son, who was arrested in Rajahmundry in late 1998, said Junaid was sl ated to take over the organisation the next year. Although Junaid's arrest meant the plan had to be terminated, the fact that it could be considered in the first place illustrates just how deep the LeT's network had become, transcending its Gorba core gr oup to organisations like SIMI with their roots in the Jamaat-e-Islami and mainstream Islamic religious organisations.

Only one person escaped the 1998 arrests, the results of a sustained Intelligence Bureau operation. Ghauri, who had returned to Hyderabad and met Junaid just one day before his arrest, vanished again.

LeT operatives of Pakistani origin now in Indian custody, (from left) Saleem Junaid, Farooq Ahmed, code-named Shakeel and Mohammad Mansoor, code-named Abu Kafa.

GHAURI arrived in Andhra Pradesh through Bangladesh, after a fresh meeting with his old friend Tunda. The time in Pakistan had not been particularly pleasant. His key recruit had broken ranks during training in Pakistan, incensed by ethnic jokes directed at him by the largely Punjabi instructors. Abdul Aziz Sheikh, well known to old-time Hyderabad Police officials as 'Bombay Javed', with a long history of extortion, theft and murder behind him, joined the mafia of Shakeel Ahmed Babu, better known as Chh ota Shakeel. He was arrested in June 1999 for an attempt on the life of Shiv Sena leader and former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya. At the time of his arrest, 'Bombay Javed' was in a Lucknow hotel room, waiting for a consignment of automatic weapons for Shak eel's organisation to arrive from Kathmandu. And Junaid's arrest had led to the end of the network that Ghauri had planned to use.

For the best part of a year, Ghauri worked his contacts in the Gorba sect, attempting to raise fresh recruits. To fund the enterprise, he tapped the remnants of the Fasi-ud-Din mafia, a criminal outfit which had been motivated in 1992 to avenge the anti- Muslim pogrom of the previous year by executing right-wing Hindu leaders Papiah Goud and Nanda Raj Goud. Fasi-ud-Din had been eliminated, but one key hitman, Maqbool Zubair, survived. Ghauri reactivated his connections with Zubair. The contract killing o f a jeweller in Vijayawada and the armed robbery of a tyre shop in Bhainsa, followed. By November 1999, Ghauri had recruited Mansoor Khatik to handle the IMMM's operations in Nanded, and a young science graduate, Sayyed Mukhtar Ahmed Shafiq, to reopen co mmunications with LeT headquarters in Pakistan.

Shafiq spent much of his time sending e-mail messages to the LeT at Muridke, informing them of Ghauri's work. Meanwhile, Ghauri got to work rebuilding his political network. In early November, he attended a meeting of the right-wing SIMI at Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Fresh members of the cell were also brought on board, some of them peripheral associates of the Junaid network who had escaped the police's attention. On November 25, the IMMM carried out its first terrorist action, executing an RSS worker, Devender Sharma. By March this year, after the string of bomb blasts, the LeT headquarters finally responded to Shafiq's desperate letters. Cash was sent in through the hawala network, part of which Ghauri used to pay for a cellphone.

On the morning of his death, Ghauri gave his last orders. If the earlier IMMM actions had been packaged as a crusade against social evils, the mask was now due to come off. Mahavir Prasad, a Hyderabad jeweller, had sparked a furore in 1997 when he had or dered his staff to search a burkha-clad woman he accused, wrongly, of shoplifting. While the search was carried out by other women, she first claimed that it was conducted in the presence of men, and then withdrew the charge. Hyderabad had almost witnessed a riot on the issue. Now, Ghauri decided to express the IMMM's Islamic credentials. Hours after Ghauri was killed, his cadre shot Mahavir Prasad dead at point-blank range.

WITH the arrests of Ghauri and his associates, have the LeT's dreams of a pan-Indian campaign ended? Intelligence officials are disturbed by the fact that a small, but steady, stream of young recruits are moving to the Gorba faction, the ideological powe rhouse that gave birth to Tunda, Ansari and Ghauri. The Ahl-e-Hadis, the LeT's parent religious organisation, rejects the key doctrinal notion of Ijtehad, the process of reasoned interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith to address actually existing cul tural circumstances. But where mainstream Ahl-e-Hadis bodies like the Delhi-based Ahl-e-Hadis Conference accept the legitimacy of the Indian state, the Gorba sect rejects its right to exercise power. Unlike the Conference, the Gorba has no elected leader ship, and its Amir wields absolute power.

LeT commanders have also succeeded in making linkages with similar organisations elsewhere in Asia, and are using those linkages to sustain their own campaigns. On January 30, 2000, for example, the West Bengal police arrested Abdul Rahman, a Chinese nat ional, on the Bahirhat border with Bangladesh. Rahman, an activist of the Dulkan organistaion of ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, had been arrested on charges which include the murder of a policeman. He escaped from prison and fled to Kathmandu . There, he was recruited by the LeT, and brought to Calcutta en route to Dhaka for an explosives course under Tunda. Both Aziz-ul-Haq, arrested by the West Bengal Police for harbouring Rahman, and his guide to Dhaka, Nazrul Islam, were SIMI members.

The flow of recruits from Indian organisations like SIMI to the LeT, although still small, is clearly aided by deepening communal fissures. Recent events in Hyderabad have not helped matters. Andhra Pradesh Home Minister T. Devendar Goud's somewhat hyste rical proclamations of a grand conspiracy involving Muslim terrorists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the PWG have incensed the city's Muslim community. Media accounts that Ghauri attracted hundreds of recruits, allegations which figured even in mainstream newspapers, have added to the tension. Some occasionally ham-handed lower-level police investigation has also fuelled fears that the community as a whole is being defamed.

Azam Ghauri's mother arrived to bury him in Warangal on the morning after his death. She had not seen her son for over 12 years, after he committed himself to full-time work with the TIM in Mumbai. Local Muslims refused to allow her to bring the LeT lead er's body into the local graveyard, claiming its very presence would give them a bad name. That, if nothing else, illustrates just how much support the LeT's vision of a generalised Muslim uprising against the Indian state actually has. But there is litt le doubt that each Hindu communal mobilisation will drive more young people, already insecure and frustrated, to share the LeT's vision. Quality intelligence work has helped contain the fallout of events from 1980 onwards. Communal politicians, Hindu or Muslim, could end up undoing those gains.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor