Harnessing hate

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

Lashkar terrorist Syed Abdul Karim `Tunda' has vanished after the Mumbai explosions, but his legacy refuses to disappear.


TO most people, soft-spoken, well-educated Tanvir Ahmad Ansari might seem an improbable terrorist. In Mumbai's Mominpura slum, though, there is little surprise. If the practitioner of Unani medicine who was detained on July 24 does turn out to be one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who executed the serial bombings in Mumbai on July 11, it will have a curious kind of fitness.

Twelve years ago, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had carried out a series of raids just up the road from the one-room tenement in the BIT Chawl where Tanvir Ansari lived with his 70-year-old mother. Jalees Ansari, a government-employed doctor, was arrested then for having executed a series of bombings in 1993 - the Lashkar's first terror strikes outside of Jammu and Kashmir. Azam Ghauri, who helped execute those attacks, managed to escape the CBI net. A third man also vanished.

In late June, Mominpura residents watched the twin stories of that third man, Syed Abdul Karim `Tunda', and Tanvir Ansari unfold in almost fugue-like fashion on their television sets. Neither Karim's strange arrest and bizarre disappearance, nor even the deaths he helped bring about, are the key motifs of this dark composition. Instead, his story, like that of Tanvir Ansari, illustrate the intimate embrace between Islamist terrorism and Hindu fundamentalism - the ways in which communalism feeds communalism.

Back in the summer of 1985, a handful of bored residents of Mominpura slum gathered to hear an obscure Bengali cleric call for vengeance. Hindu fanatics had unleashed a hideous wave of violence in the textile town of Bhiwandi, and the cleric said the time had come for Muslims to fight back - with guns. Standing amidst the crowd was the stocky man from New Delhi, then 52 years old, with a flowing henna-dyed beard, who local residents called Hakim-ji because of his part-time practice of alternative medicine.

Little is known about Karim's life before this time, even though India's intelligence and police services have documented his smallest action ever since. Born to a lower middle-class family in Delhi, Karim is believed to have moved to Pilkhuwa, near the town of Ghaziabad, in his teens. He briefly ran a homeopathic medicine store, apparently with no great success. After it collapsed, Karim moved to Mumbai, tapping relatives to help set up a business that specialised in dyeing fabrics.

By most accounts, Karim had little to do with politics during these years. He was, though, drawn to the ultra-conservative religious traditions of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis. The Mominpura meeting reflected the growing belief amongst the ranks of the Jamaat's far-Right Gorba faction that a war against India, which it saw as a predatory Hindu-fundamentalist entity, had become inevitable. At the end of the meeting, Karim agreed to join the new Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM), or Organisation for the Improvement of Muslims.

Mimicking the drills of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's shakhas, Karim paraded TIM recruits around the grounds of - ironically enough - the local Young Men's Christian Association. Most were young men upset at the pervasive discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai - among them, Jalees Ansari, the son of a worker at the now-defunct Raghuvanshi Mill, and Ghauri, the fifth of the 11 children of an impoverished Hyderabadi family who had flirted with Maoist groups before discovering religion.

Jalees Ansari's story helps understand just what drove TIM's cadre. His father had arrived as a penniless labourer from Uttar Pradesh, managed to save enough working at the Raghuvanshi mill to give his children a future. Interestingly, Tanvir Ansari's father was also an economic migrant from U.P., who paid for his son's education with savings he put away while working at a textile mill. For both men, though, the future their parents had hoped for turned out to be a mirage.

After earning a degree from the Sion Medical College, Jalees Ansari started to work for the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation. His achievement was, for a young person from the ranks of Mumbai's underclass, exceptional. Despite his success, though, Ansari was embittered by his past experience of communalism. Students and staff at his college, Ansari later said, often insulted Muslims. At work, Ansari believed, Hindu colleagues did not treat their Muslim patients with care.

On December 6, 1992, the day Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Masjid, Karim sat down with Ghauri and Ansari to discuss the outlines of plans to wreak vengeance. For years, the men had trained in making explosives - a bomb-making accident resulted in Karim losing his left hand, the source of the nickname `Tunda' - and now the time had come to act. Precisely a year after the Babri Masjid was brought down, the cell executed 43 small bombings in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and seven separate explosions on inter-city trains.

Compared with later strikes, the bombings had little impact: just two people were killed. Flaws in planning and communication among the cell's members, moreover, allowed the CBI to make rapid progress in locating the perpetrators. Ansari was arrested 13 days before he was to set off a second series of bombings, this time on Republic Day in 1994. But the sheer scale of the bombings had demonstrated the skill, resolve and lethal ambitions of the new terror group.

Karim now travelled to Kolkata, and with the help of TIM's old contacts in the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis, crossed the border into Bangladesh. There he was taken under the wing of Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, a long-standing Lashkar-e-Taiba commander who had been tasked with developing the terror group's pan-India capabilities. By 1996, operating through the Dhaka-based Islamic Chattra Shibir (Islamic Students Organisation), Karim was running a formidable network throughout North India.

Among the first recruits of what Lashkar headquarters called the Mohammad bin-Qasim dasta, or squad, was Amir Hashim. A young Delhi resident who had just completed his seventh grade at the Mazrul Islam Higher Secondary School when his family moved to Karachi, Hashim discovered the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis in Pakistan. From late-1994, he began to work for the Lashkar's new office in Karachi. He returned to India in 1996, and promptly executed a series of bombings in Delhi, Rohtak and Jalandhar.

Pakistani nationals also had an important role in Karim's operations. In July 1998, for example, the Delhi Police arrested Abdul Sattar, a resident of Pakistan's Faisalabad district who had set up a covert terror cell in the town of Khurja. Karim had used his expanding network in India to provide Sattar with fake identification papers, cash, guides and a landlord willing to look the other way while the Pakistani terrorist built a bunker to house explosives inside a pottery kiln.

Perhaps the most successful of the long-term Lashkar agents was Mohammad Ishtiaq, the son of a shopkeeper from Kala Gujran in Pakistan's Jhelum district. Operating under the alias Salim Junaid, Ishtiaq obtained an Indian passport, set up a trucking business out of Hyderabad, which secretly served to transport explosives - and even married a local resident, Momina Khatoon. Indian intelligence broke up Ishtiaq's operations before he could execute major operations, but Karim's networks survived some blow.

Azam Ghauri's return to India in 1998, in response to desperate pleas from Karim after Junaid's arrest, made new resources available to the Lashkar. Ghauri turned to the world of organised-crime figures for help. Abdul Aziz Sheikh, a long-standing lieutenant of Karachi-based mafioso Shakeel Ahmad Babu, agreed to target Shiv Sena politicians in Mumbai. Maqbool Zubair, a hit-man who had worked for Nalagonda-based gangster Mohammad Fasiuddin, also joined the group.

By the end of 1999, the Lashkar announced a new phase of its pan-India campaign: "Today, inshallah, I announce the break-up of India," thundered Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the patron of the Lashkar-e-Taiba at a giant November 1999 rally organised by its parent organisation, the Markaz Dawat wal'Irshad. Many of the cells Karim had set up were broken by Indian counter-intelligence, and Ghauri himself was dead, but the speech indicated just how confident the Lashkar was of its capabilities.

Karim now retreated into the background, shuttling between Lashkar safehouses in Dhaka, Kathmandu and Lahore. His most important task, though, was to develop links between the Lashkar and Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar - the ganglord who organised the 1993 serial bombings of Mumbai and then fled to Pakistan. His interest was both tactical and strategic. The Lashkar's coalition partner in the International Islamic Front for Jihad, Al Qaeda, wished to expand into East Africa and offered cash for the mafia's networks. Dawood Ibrahim accepted the offer. His younger brother Anees Ibrahim had made substantial investments in shipping concerns in both East Africa and the United Arab Emirates to underwrite the mafia's narcotics operations. Haji Mohammad Ismail, a UAE-based magnate, was among several Dubai-based businessmen who had for long faced media allegations of links to the mafia. In 1997, a Nairobi court charged another Dawood Ibrahim-linked businessman, Madat Ali Chatur, with customs and tax fraud.

Some in India's intelligence community found that links between Al Qaeda and Dawood Ibrahim were in place by 1998, when a terror strike on the United States' Embassy in Nairobi which killed 213 people and injured 5,000. A simultaneous attack on the U.S.' Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 people and injured 70. Again, in 2002, Al Qaeda terrorists bombed an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa and fired two surface-to-air missiles at a chartered flight that had taken off from the port city.

In October 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department officially determined that Dawood Ibrahim's "smuggling routes from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa are shared with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network." It also said that Dawood Ibrahim had "financially supported Islamic militant groups working against India, such as [the] Lashkar-e-Taiba." Pakistani media reports made clear that Dawood Ibrahim was in that country - but its authorities refused to act.

On Karim himself, there was little news. After India demanded his extradition in 2001-03, rumours were that he had died. However, Abdul Razzak Masood, a Dubai-based Lashkar operative who was arrested by the Delhi Police last year, claimed to have met Karim at the organisation's headquarters near Lahore in 2003. Karim, he said, lived with his two wives and sons - one of whom also worked for the Lashkar. Indian spies also spotted Karim in 2005.

In the weeks to come, it will become clear whether Karim's own story has reached conclusion - or is in fact yet to approach its climax. Late July, authorities in Kenya told journalists that they had held Karim - only to announce, a day later, that they had in fact detained and then deported a Nigerian national Ismoila Olatunde Rufai, unconnected with terrorism. However, most journalists - and authorities in India - remain sceptical about Kenya's official version of events.

Part of the reason for the scepticism is that media accounts of Karim's arrest were unequivocal. The Nairobi-based Kenya Times had that a top terror suspect had been arrested in Mombassa, and then "transferred to Nairobi under a heavy anti-terrorism police guard" before being "deported to an unknown country". The newspaper said that the terror suspect was linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and wanted for bombings in India. Hours later, news agencies quoted a police spokesperson who named the suspect as Karim.

Journalists in Kenya have stood by their stories, pointing out that they had no knowledge of Karim prior to briefings from officials. Common sense also suggests that questions remain to be answered. Names like Tunde or Olatunde are common in both east and west Africa. As such, the mere similarity of Rufai's middle-name with Karim's nickname is unlikely to have caused the confusion. Nor is it clear how officials in Kenya could have confused a tall Nigerian, with both hands intact, with a short South Asian with one hand missing.

Interestingly, Kenya Times reporters Maxwell Masava and Abdullah Seif also wrote that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations and local authorities had sought Karim for the 2002 bombings. U.S. counter-terrorism authorities have often practised what they describe as `extraordinary rendition' in the cases of Al Qaeda related suspects. Dozens of key Al Qaeda operatives have been held by the U.S. in third countries, without charges being brought or even official confirmation of their arrest.

Whether Karim is in a Central Intelligence Agency-run jail, though, or still at a Lashkar safehouse in Pakistan, matters little: Tanvir Ansari's story illustrates, as nothing else could, that his legacy refuses to disappear - and will long outlive his death.

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