Terror junction

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

Tension at the Charminar in the Old City area on May 18, after the explosion in the Mecca Mosque.-

Tension at the Charminar in the Old City area on May 18, after the explosion in the Mecca Mosque.-

Communal violence, organised crime and the global jehad intersect in the Andhra Pradesh capital.

HOUSE 16-11-240, Moosaram Bagh, reads the address on the police dossier of the slight, unremarkable man the Hyderabad Police believes planned and executed the Mecca Masjid bombing. Underneath, the document records his known aliases: `Bilal', `Shahid'.

Like most of the buildings in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood that surrounds it, the well-constructed two-storey home in which alleged Mecca Masjid bomber Abdul Rehman grew up bears few signs of its past as a slum tenement. One of Rehman's brothers, Samad Rehman, works for a multinational corporation based in Saudi Arabia. While the Hyderabad Police claims he uses a part of his earnings to fund terrorism, what remittances he sends home have evidently been put to good use. Home to both Hindus and Muslims, Moosaram Bagh is the site of thousands of similar success stories.

It is also one of the sets for a story Hyderabad does not care to advertise: as one of the neighbourhoods that helped give birth to the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami's (HuJI) operations in Hyderabad, a city that has a unique significance for the Islamists engaged in the long jehad against India.

Starting in September 2002, at least 14 young men from Hyderabad set out on secret journeys to terror training camps in Pakistan. A decade earlier, the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists had led several recruits from Hyderabad into the lap of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. This time around, the hatred generated by the communal pogrom in Gujarat helped Islamist terror groups reap a fresh harvest.

Rehman, the Hyderabad Police says, was one of those 14 men. Now 26, Rehman dropped out of college less than a year after his graduation from the Asafiya High School in Hyderabad. It is unclear if he developed links with Hyderabad-based Islamist groups during this period, for Rehman's name only began figuring in intelligence records from January 2004.

What is probable, though, is that he had at least some knowledge of the networks that sustained the Lashkar's presence in the city. Rehman was related by marriage, through his brother Khaliq Rehman, to one of India's most wanted men - the Gujarat mafioso Yakub Khan Pathan.

Better known by the alias Rasool Khan `Party', Pathan had long-standing links with the Karachi-based mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar. In the wake of the Gujarat riots, Pathan took responsibility for transporting the new wave of jehadi recruits for training. According to the testimony of mafia operative Javed Hamidullah Siddiqui, who was arrested in 2004, Dawood lieutenant Shakeel Ahmad Babu arranged the new recruits' passage on flights through Bangkok and Dhaka. Pathan, who has been wanted by Interpol ever since 1993, was waiting for them on their arrival in Karachi. While some recruits trained with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, others were routed on to the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Within months of their departure, the new recruits executed their first successful strikes. Asad Yazdani, a resident of Hyderbad's Toli Chowki area, helped execute the assassination of former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya. Pandya, a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry found, was killed in reprisal for his role in the communal pogrom. Pathan helped put together much of the infrastructure for the assassination.

Although the new recruits had trained with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, they turned to the Bangladesh-based HuJI for operational support. Founded by Bangladeshi veterans of the anti-Soviet Union jehad in Afghanistan, HuJI operates at least six camps where several hundred Pakistani, Indian, Thai and Myanmar nationals are known to have trained. Its founder, Mufti Abdul Hannan, spent several years studying at the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, and developed a large network of contacts among Islamists in India. He also built links with key organised crime figures. Among the group's most high-profile actions in India was the January 2002 terror attack near the American Centre in Kolkata, executed in collaboration with the Dawood-linked mafioso Aftab Ansari.

Last year, the Delhi Police arrested two of Yazdani's Bangladeshi recruits, the twin brothers Anishul Murshlin and Muhibbul Muttakin. Both confirmed speculation that Yazdani had executed several major strikes in India.

One of these, they said, had been the June 2005 bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express at Jaunpur. Yazdani, it turned out, was also responsible for the October 2005 suicide bombing of the headquarters of the Andhra Pradesh Police's counter-terrorism Special Task Force. A Bangladeshi national, Mohtasin Bilal, had carried out the bombing - the first HuJI operation of its kind. From the twins, Indian intelligence also heard the name of the man whom Yazdani reported to - they knew him by the aliases `Shahid' and `Bilal'.

Investigators were able to establish that between April and June 2005 Rehman had been based in Bidar, Karnataka, organising the safehouses, communications infrastructure and escape routes that allowed HuJI's Bangladesh-based cells to strike with such efficiency and ease. Yazdani was shot dead in March 2006 just hours after the bombing of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi - another lethal attack, which was traced to HuJI's Bangladesh-based cells. Rehman's brother Zahid Rehman was arrested on charges of aiding this operation and is still in jail awaiting conclusion of his trial.

Of Rehman himself, however, there was no trace. Indian intelligence informants have reported sightings in Karachi and Dhaka, while Rehman's family insists he is in the undeclared custody of the Hyderabad Police. Whatever the truth, the fact is that Rehman is just a small part of a far larger story: the Islamist campaign against Hyderabad.

Speaking at a Lashkar-e-Taiba rally in February 2000, its top ideologue Abdul Rehman Makki announced that the organisation had set in place a new campaign to "liberate Hyderabad from Hindu rule". Hyderabad had been seized by force, he proclaimed, and would be won back through the sword.

Such language is not new. In 1948, over half a century before Makki's speech, the Islamist guerilla Kasim Rizvi had promised to fly the Nizam of Hyderabad's flag "on the Red Fort in Delhi". According to the memoirs of the former commander-in-chief of Pakistan's armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gul Hassan Khan, an unnamed "elder statesman" helped funnel covert military aid to the group.

For years before Makki's speech, the Lashkar had been attempting to build a network using local Islamists. Perhaps the most successful of the Lashkar's agents was Mohammad Ishtiaq, son of a shopkeeper from Kala Gujran in Pakistan's Jhelum district. Operating under the alias Salim Junaid, Ishtiaq obtained an Indian passport and even married a local resident, Momina Khatoon.

Ishtiaq, however, was arrested before he could do real harm. In late 1998, responding to desperate pleas from the Lashkar's leadership, Hyderabad resident Mohammad Azam Ghauri returned to India to help rebuild its networks. One of the three co-founders of the Lashkar's Indian networks, Ghauri had fled in the wake of the serial bombing of 43 trains in December 1993, an operation executed to avenge the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Ghauri turned to friends in Hyderabad's organised crime cartels for help. In 1999, his long-standing friend, Dawood-linked hit-man Abdul Aziz Sheikh, attempted to assassinate Shiv Sena leader Milind Vaidya. Help was also sought, and received, from remnants of the mafia of Mohammad Fasiuddin, which had executed local Hindu fundamentalist leaders Papiah Goud and Nanda Raj Goud in retaliation for the 1992 anti-Muslim pogrom in Hyderabad. Soon after Makki's speech, the new network set off bombs at cinemas in Karimnagar and Nanded.

Eight weeks after these bombings, Ghauri was shot dead in a police encounter. Islamists continued, however, to attempt to build new networks in Hyderabad. In August 2001, the Hyderabad Police arrested one of the most intriguing figures in this effort, an unassuming electrician named Abdul Aziz. While working in Saudi Arabia, Aziz had come into contact with an Islamist recruiter looking for volunteers to join the global jehad. Aziz served in Bosnia in 1994, and then fought alongside Shamil Basayev's Chechen Islamists in 1996. In 1999, Aziz again flew to Tbilisi in search of a second tour of duty. He was, however, deported. With the help of funds from a Saudi Arabia-based Lashkar financier, Aziz returned home to try and initiate a jehad of his own.

Aziz, investigators found, hoped to draw on the resources of the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat or Institute for Holy War and Martyrdom - an Islamist vigilante group set up in the mid-1980s. Although its website claims that the organisation's purpose is "protecting the life and properties of [the] Muslim community," and "preserving the honour and chastity of women," the organisation also candidly states that "Islamic supremacy is our goal". While such groups have no large-scale legitimacy among Muslims in Hyderabad, their hardline polemic attracts young people infuriated by communal violence. And HuJI is not the only organisation waiting to receive them.

In family photographs Sheikh Naim Sheikh is dressed like the executive his family hoped he would become. He chose, instead, an alternative career as a Lashkar organiser.

When he travelled to Saudi Arabia in January 2007, Naim's Aurangabad-based parents thought he was hoping to cash in on his Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. He was, however, scheduled to meet a top Lashkar operative code-named `Amjad' - the coordinator of a network investigators believe may cast light on the Mecca Mosque bombing.

Like over two dozen other young men from Maharashtra, Naim had been recruited to the Lashkar's ranks by local leaders of the proscribed Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Among his mentors was Zabiuddin Ansari, a SIMI activist who is now wanted for his alleged role in smuggling a massive cache of RDX and assault rifles into Aurangabad last year. Ansari, investigators believe, set up Naim's meeting with `Amjad', who in turn arranged for him to train at a Lashkar facility near Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Soon after his training ended, Naim was given a fake passport and tickets on a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Karachi to Dhaka. He was told to check into the New Star Hotel in Dhaka's commercial Moti Jheel area and wait for three men to join him: men who would help put together a new Lashkar cell that would operate in western and southern India.

Pakistani national Mohammad Yunus, 50, was the group's oldest member and overall commander. A resident of Haripur in North West Frontier Province, Yunus was a long-standing veteran of the Lashkar's jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. Yunus chose Karachi resident Abdullah Rafi, 25, who had just completed an advanced combat course called the Daura Khas, to accompany him. Muzaffar Ahmad Rather, a 22-year-old resident of Kulgam in southern Kashmir who had joined the Lashkar in 2003, also joined the group with orders to help equip it with resources drawn from the terror group's field units.

Personnel from the Border Security Force's (BSF) intelligence wing, the G-Branch, were waiting for the group when it crossed the Petrapole border into West Bengal. Sheikh, they found, had already received the funds and documentation they needed. Other similar groups have also been interdicted. In the build-up to the Mumbai serial bombings, the G-Branch arrested two Pakistani nationals along the India-Bangladesh border. Mohammad Bilal, who used the code-name `Zubair', and Adnan Yunus, code-named `Sohail', provided Indian intelligence with a graphic account of the Jaish-e-Mohammad's operational network in the State. The two men told their interrogators that they had been ordered to contact the Jaish's resident agent in Mumbai, a Pakistani national code-named `Rashid,' who would help them build the infrastructure for a series of suicide-squad attacks.

What the Mecca Masjid bombings - as well as other strikes that have been prevented - make clear is that the Islamist threat to India's cities remains in place, notwithstanding the decline in violence since the Mumbai serial bombings. Under intense pressure from the United States and Europe, Pakistan has been compelled to rein in the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Attacks on mosques, Islamist terror groups appear to hope, will be blamed on Hindu fundamentalist organisations - and thus provide the pretext they need to throw off the shackles. Under intense pressure from Islamists at home, it is unclear just how long Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf, will be able to fend off the pressure.

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