Print edition : July 11, 2014

The scene on Platform no. 9, immideately after two explosions ripped through two compartments of the Bangalore-Guwahati express in Chennai on May 1. Photo: G. Sribharath

Thameem Ansari. Photo: A. Muralitharan

Zakir Hussain being produced in a court in Chennai. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, believed to be operating out of the Pakistan Mission in Colombo, seems to be at the centre of a terror network spanning four countries that targets south India.

TWO failed terror attempts in south India should actually see Indian security agencies celebrating, right? After all, it was their alertness that saved the day. But no, a celebration is the last thing on the minds of the Indian Intelligence and security agencies.

Gone are the days of south India being a soft posting for the Indian intelligence community. Conversations with a section of officers across services indicate that the security forces have upped their alert levels and are watching the ports of entry very, very closely to spot the next David Headley.

Multiple agencies that Frontline spoke to and material that was shown to this correspondent indicate that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is again stepping up activity out of Sri Lanka. The Indian agencies have enhanced surveillance, are taking the lead in talking to their counterparts in the region, and making sure that inter-agency coordination gaps and ego trips do not come in the way of working together effectively. Pointing to an example, one agency official talked about the clumsy “siege” of the United States Consulate in Chennai by some Muslim groups protesting against a movie in June 2013 where the police were reduced to pleading with the attackers and said that incidents like these would be unacceptable and that officials in positions of responsibility would come in the line of fire for such lapses.

The Ansari link

Security agencies believe that the Thameem Ansari episode was the beginning of a new phase in the process of identifying potential targets for terrorist attacks in south India. Ansari, a small-time businessman based in Adhiramapattinam, was booked and later released after he made a confession and spent some time in prison. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has filed a case against him, which is before the court. A former Student Federation of India (SFI) activist, Ansari was no “spy” in the real sense of the term; security agencies say that he was used to gather real-time information.

Ansari was lured into exporting onions by a person identified as “Haji” and soon found himself deep in debt. It was around this time that Ameer Zuber Siddique, who, Indian agencies believe, is an ISI operative stationed in Sri Lanka as a diplomat, stepped in. Siddique detailed “tasks” for Ansari and offered him financial reward on their completion.

Soon, Ansari was taking photographs of vital institutions and installations such as the Madras Regimental Centre, Wellington, and Coast Guard and Naval Detachment areas in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam. He also gathered information on defence areas in Port Blair, which houses India’s only Integrated Command; he tried to get details of the upcoming high-tech Naval base, Project Varsha, in Visakhapatnam. Ansari’s cover was that he was making a film called “Power of India”. The ploy worked. For quite some time no one seemed to have asked the basic question: Why is a merchant from Adhiramapattinam interested in projecting India’s power through a movie? The “recces” he did were similar to what David Headley did in Mumbai and elsewhere before the 26/11 attack, insisted the officials.

Ansari also tried to recruit people working in Project Varsha and in Coimbatore’s Sulur Air Force Base and set off many alarm bells in the process. Background checks made by Tamil Nadu security agencies and national agencies based in Tamil Nadu indicated that Ansari had become overtly religious and had also been talking about Islamist struggles elsewhere. With enough material on their hands, the security agencies picked him up in Tiruchi in 2012.

In a subsequent confession, Ansari named Siddique, and, in what can only be described as a unique development, the Pakistani diplomat was named in a complaint filed by the Tamil Nadu Police. The charge against Ansari, who was arrested in September 2012 by the “Q” Branch CID while proceeding to the Tiruchi airport to board a flight to Colombo, was that he was carrying “two DVDs containing visuals of paragliding training of the Indian Army and an Army Signal Corps parade”. He was charged with aiding the ISI through two Sri Lankan nationals—Haji and Shaji—whom he had allegedly met during business trips to Colombo.

In an interview to The Hindu (May 15, 2013) a few days after his release (he was initially held under the National Security Act), Ansari termed the charges false. He claimed he was detained for inquiry at the airport as his passport was found to be damaged but was arrested subsequently. Ansari admitted that he knew Haji, also known as Siraj Ali, well but he maintained that he did not know Shaji or the Pakistani diplomat Ameer Zuber Siddique, who is cited as the fourth accused in the case.

“I had extensive contacts with Siraj Ali as he was my buyer. Another Sri Lankan trader with whom I had business links was Fazil. I don’t know anybody by the name of Shaji or any Pakistan official,” he had told The Hindu. Ansari, a double master’s degree holder who worked for some time as a medical representative, claimed to have met Siraj Ali in 2010 and subsequently made six or seven visits to Colombo, besides the Maldives and Singapore. “I was made a scapegoat by the government,” he told The Hindu.

The human rights activist A. Marx, who has published a fact-finding report on the arrest (log on to amarx.org to see the report, which is in Tamil), claims that the arrest had no basis. “He was released. The agencies have not proceeded after that,” he said. He said that he was more taken aback by the attitude of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which did not back its party worker. A top CPI(M) source, when asked about the case, said: “Either way we cannot say anything now.”

Siddique and Sri Lanka

“There are things we put out and there are things that we cannot put out,” said an intelligence officer, when asked if the agencies had erred in the Ansari case. In his view, the agencies had enough information to link Ansari to Siddique. The agencies often do not make available in a public forum all the information they have out of fear that an ongoing operation could be jeopardised. Even after the conclusion of an operation, the agencies are circumspect when it comes to speaking about it, again, for fear that the sources could be compromised. This is “normal” in the world of intelligence, asserted multiple authorities.

Despite this, Pakistan did not withdraw Siddique from Colombo, nor did Sri Lanka make such a demand of Pakistan. A spokesperson at the Pakistan High Commission told this correspondent that the High Commission was not aware of any first information report (FIR) filed in Tamil Nadu naming Siddique. In a private conversation with this correspondent in Colombo soon after Ansari’s arrest, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris made light of the Indian complaint and dismissed the incident, saying that there was not enough proof to support the charge.

Indian agencies believe that Siddique found a second recruit soon after Ansari’s arrest. This time, it was Zakir Hussain, a Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan from Kandy. Hussain had a history of being involved in passport fraud and human trafficking, and possibly came into contact with the Pakistani Mission in Colombo when he applied for a business visa. Hussain turned out to be better than Ansari when it came to reconnaissance trips. He was bumped up the ladder and asked to conduct a reconnaissance of the U.S. Consulate in Chennai and the Israeli Consulate in Bangalore.

In the first few months of this year, Hussain made a few trips to India and took several photographs of the U.S. Consulate in Chennai and the Israeli Consulate in Bangalore. He was asked to take photographs repeatedly, in a bid to search for security loopholes in the building. After this mission was completed, in March this year, Hussain was tasked to ferry two persons to India, from Sri Lanka’s Mannar coast. Around the same time, he got in touch with his friends to solicit recruits for a sabotage mission (which would entail handsome payments). He located a Sri Lankan based in Kuala Lumpur, identified as Mohamed Husnie. Together, they tried recruiting people for the task.

Indian agencies assert that Hussain was tasked by Siddique to arrange fake Sri Lankan passports for two Pakistani nationals who were to be flown from the Maldives to Bangalore to carry out an attack on the Israeli Consulate. Sri Lanka, wary of the Tamil diaspora and of the Tamil Tigers regrouping, has not been tracking much of any other activity on Sri Lankan soil or outside, one highly placed official in the establishment said. Besides, the Sri Lankan government has almost exclusively placed most of its resources in tracking arrivals at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. There was barely any check on those leaving, the official added. Corroborating this, an Indian immigration official said that he was horrified to see a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre walk out from a flight that had arrived in Chennai from Colombo.

Worry over Fake Indian currency

But what worried the Indian agencies more was the fact that fake Indian currency was being brought in from the Maldives and Sri Lanka to fund the terror operation. “This is high value FICN (fake Indian currency notes),” an official said. “It is very difficult to detect because it looks like actual Indian currency. One needs to be specifically trained to notice that this is fake currency,” he added.

There are safe localities in cities like Chennai (Mannady in this case) where such currency is offloaded and enters the circulation stream. Security agencies here say that they are shocked by the number of fake currency notes in circulation. “A few years ago, we came across one or two cases once in a while. And the fake currency used to be clumsily made. Now, there is a new sophistication, and this is being done by professionals. There is serious reason to worry,” said another official.

In fact, Indian agencies are more concerned about the new routes by which fake Indian currency reaches India. Until recently, overstaying foreigners who were departing from Chennai’s Anna International Airport could easily pay a small fine in cash at the airport and board their flights. It appears that a few of the overstayers —only Sri Lankan Tamils—paid the fine with the “high quality” fake Indian currency, which went undetected by the Indian officials manning the counters. When the discovery was made, Indian immigration made all overstaying foreign nationals submit a bank demand draft for the amount and take clearance from the Foreign Residents’ Registration Office in Chennai city.

Until now, Bangladesh was the main point of transit for fake Indian currency. Indian security agencies believe that the ISI has a mint where the currency is printed and routed to Bangladesh’s Chittagong port in containers. Sometime back, The Pioneer reported the existence of a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) report maintaining that the Pakistan Security Printing Press (the country’s official currency printers) at Malir in Karachi has set up a full-fledged unit for printing high-quality FICN. This has been corroborated by many accounts, including that of Abdul Karim Tunda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) main bomb maker who was picked up by the Indian agencies in 2013.

Through a series of predetermined land routes, the money made its way either to Nepal or to West Bengal/the north-east. A variety of people act as couriers in this racket, including a section of militant Sri Lankan Tamils. The courier operation had even established rough “standard operating procedures”, central to which was staying in touch. If a courier did not make a “missed” call after a gap of a specified number of hours, the “handler” would conclude that the courier had run into trouble. If a call is not received from the courier in about 12 hours, then the network activates its machinery to inquire what went wrong. In many cases, the courier would have been “held” by a security agency (held because agencies often delay recording an arrest for various reasons). In a few cases, the handler would then file a habeas corpus plea after ascertaining where the courier went missing from.

Security agencies are unwilling to say when they began the surveillance on Hussain, but a team led by a senior officer worked undercover for at least four months, one official with knowledge of the operation said. Hussain’s brief was qualitatively different from that of Ansari. Ansari was, at best, someone who provided information, but Hussain was used to actively select targets and carry out even more complex tasks. This is why at least one Indian security agency believes that Hussain is a rare “catch” in the south: a freelancer who works with multiple undercover or intelligence agencies for a fee.

Indian officials were in touch with their Malaysian counterparts early this year and had briefed them about the seriousness of the issue. Hussain was picked up by the agencies in Chennai in late April, along with the two accomplices who were experts in FICN. The two, Sivabalan alias Balan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, and Mohammed Salim, an Indian, were caught with two and a half lakh rupees in fake currency. Simultaneously, Malaysia arrested Mohamed Husnie on May 14. The Tamil Nadu Police have sought his deportation to India.

On May 16, Malaysia announced that it had foiled a terror attack on a target in India. No names were given; one person was arrested by the Malaysian police and identified as a “South Asian”. A Press Trust of India (PTI) report said: “He [DIG Bakri Zinin] said information obtained from surveillance of the suspect was channelled to Indian authorities on April 9. On April 29, three men were detained in India, all believed to be major players in a terrorist network.”

The arrest was no fluke: it was the result of monitoring identified people in four countries. The enormous inputs shared between Malaysian and Indian agencies resulted in coordinated arrests in India and Kuala Lumpur and averted one terror mission.

“Hussain told us that he regularly met Siddique in hotels and the Pakistani Mission in Colombo. He also told us that Siddique had been funding his trips from India to Sri Lanka,” an official who investigated the case said. Another agency believes that Hussain knows much more and could throw light on many recent terror developments in the region.

With Bangladesh cracking down on anti-India activity on its soil based on specific inputs from India, new bases have come up in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Pakistani Mission in Colombo is believed to be at the centre of the efforts to foment trouble in India.

Despite the crackdown in Bangladesh, the intelligence community in India believes that the FICN threat from Bangladesh has not come down significantly. They are stunned by the volumes of fake currency that various agencies are confiscating in south India. The Tamil Nadu CB-CID (Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department), on June 4, arrested Shahul Hameed and Rafiq with Rs.8.95 lakh in FICN in Chennai. On June 10, a special CB-CID team nabbed Fakhrul Ismail, believed to be the kingpin of the gang, from a hideout in West Bengal.

There are two new worries for the agencies. A check on the country of origin of the currencies in the terror plot points to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This is of much significance. So far, FICN made its way to India from Bangladesh and Nepal. Now two more neighbours have been added to the list. “You somehow plug one major leak, and say ‘Phew!’ and a few others pop up,” said an agency insider. FICN of Maldivian origin is of serious concern to India because there have been no such instances of FICN coming in from that country earlier. The second is the arms angle. “This is another new, and very dangerous, trend,” the official notes. The June arrests made by the Tamil Nadu CB-CID also recovered arms and ammunition, which is unheard of. So far, FICN traffickers have stayed clear of carrying arms. “It is certain that arms are also being pushed into India now,” asserts another official.

Waiting for the next one

While the agencies are upbeat over their victory in neutralising one terror plot this year, they believe that the next one is already being hatched. “You see the case in 2012 and now. The 2012 one failed to take off. The 2014 one made significant headway before we intercepted it. We are on the lookout for the next one,” a senior official based in New Delhi said. “We lie in wait and hope for the best,” he added. In the meantime, the agencies are reworking their strategies and looking back to share the lessons learnt from past operations. Two high-profile cases stand out as examples of “how to” and “how not to” handle a situation.

The “how not to” is the manner in which the Tamil Nadu police handled the blasts in a train compartment at Chennai Central on May 1. Two low-intensity bombs went off in quick succession in two coaches (S4, S5) of the Bangalore-Guwahati superfast express train at the railway station, killing one person and injuring more than 10 people.

In a knee-jerk response to the incident, the police did not take care to preserve intact the scene of crime. Importance was accorded to accommodating the passengers in the two coaches in two other coaches, and they were sent off. Passengers in the two damaged coaches were not interviewed carefully and critical evidence was lost because the scene was thrown open to all kinds of officials. Though many photographs were taken, there seems to have been no attempts made to take samples to conduct a DNA testing and pressing into use related high technology, which are routinely done by the police. By the time a CB-CID team began the interviews of passengers, it was already too late. The result: more than a month later, there are no leads.

The “how to” example is the manner in which the agencies handled the April 2013 Bangalore blasts, which happened near the office of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In this case, priority was accorded to preserving the scene of the crime even as rescue operations were on in the area. The rubble threw up a crucial bit of evidence, which led to the agencies zeroing in on those responsible for the blasts.

Lessons are also being drawn from the Cuddalore railway track blasts. In March 2000, the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) blasted a portion of the railway track in Thiruppapuliyur. The agencies admit that there was a specific intelligence input of a bomb blast happening in Tamil Nadu. A few days before the blasts, the administration was aware that the blasts would target railway tracks in Cuddalore district. Despite this, the police could not figure out where the TNLA would strike though Cuddalore has only 60 km of railway track.

Armed with these lessons, the agencies say that they will work towards achieving the objective of appearing like a single force in action. Central to this is not ignoring any warnings, summoning expertise from various security agencies, and sharing inputs real time. It helps that an officer trained in intelligence heads the Tamil Nadu Police.

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