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Fractured truths

Print edition : Oct 06, 2006 T+T-
The Hameediya Mosque, the scene of bomb explosions on September 9.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

The Hameediya Mosque, the scene of bomb explosions on September 9.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

Weeks after the Malegaon terror strikes, the police struggle to determine the identity of the perpetrators.

A MUDDY stream runs through the middle of Malegaon, partitioning the Muslim-dominated quarters on the east bank from the mainly Hindu neighbourhoods on the west.

The Mausam river is, of course, a metaphor for the divide created by decades of communal violence - it represents a fracture that the perpetrators of the shab-e-baraat bombings wish to make permanent. It also, however, signifies a state of mind. On the left bank, few are willing to believe an Islamist terror group carried out the assault, which claimed 31 lives. Just as few on the right bank will admit of the possibility that a Hindutva terror organisation might have had both the motive and the means to do so.

Six weeks after the September 8 bombings, the Maharashtra Police appears nowhere near bridging these fractures with facts. So far the police have sketches of two men who purchased the cycles on which the bombs were fitted, and testimony suggesting that one spoke with a western Uttar Pradesh accent. On just who they might have been, though, there is no hard evidence - and investigators seem to be getting desperate. One Malegaon resident, textile worker Mohammad Irfan, has even claimed that the local police offered him a bribe of Rs.500,000 to admit to a role in the bombings.

On his way to the Non-Aligned Summit in Havana, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made clear his concern at the wave of innuendo and rumour emanating out of the police headquarters in Mumbai. Responding to reports that the police had ruled out the prospect that a Hindutva terrorist group had carried out the bombings in Malegaon, the Prime Minister said flatly that it would be "inappropriate for us to rule out anything or rule in anything." "I think there should be a fair investigation," he continued, "which inspires confidence and brings out the truth."

Maharashtra Police officials have been telling a credulous media that their principal suspect is Rahil Abdul Rehman Sheikh, the one-time Mumbai resident whom The Hindu first identified as the commander of July's serial bombings in Mumbai. A top Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who is now thought to be hiding out in Dhaka, Sheikh, without dispute, had the means to execute the bombing. He also had a motive - bringing about the Hindu-Muslim war his organisation believes will help establish an Islamic state stretching from Spain to Indonesia.

However, motives and means mean nothing without evidence, and there is little of this so far. Intelligence sources in New Delhi told Frontline that no terrorism suspects arrested recently had disclosed plans to attack mosques or Muslim religious processions. Nor, the sources said, had Indian communications intelligence operations detected any discussion of such ideas by jehadi cadre.

Even if an Islamist terror group did execute the shab-e-baraat bombing, the Lashkar is by no means the sole suspect. In August, the Border Security Force's (BSF) intelligence wing, 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.

Earlier investigations also threw up evidence that at least one large consignment of Research Department Explosive, or RDX, had entered Mumbai in preparation for a large terror strike. This, however, remains untraced. Mehboob Ali Mandal, a West Bengal resident arrested for his role in the Varanasi serial bombing, admitted to having delivered 20 kg of RDX to a Bhiwandi-based Harkat ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) operative code-named `Umar'.

Mandal, investigators found, had worked under cover for three weeks in April 2005, at a restaurant near the Andheri railway station, often calling HuJI headquarters from a nearby public phone. However, none of his contacts in the city could be arrested. Frontline has obtained official documents showing that calls were made to HuJI in Bangladesh from at least 12 mobile telephone numbers, and a Parbhani landline during March. These lines were placed under surveillance as a result of Mandal's disclosures - but without result.

Police investigators have demonstrated a similar inability to advance their investigation against the second major category of possible perpetrators - Hindu fundamentalist terrorists who might have been seeking to avenge Islamist terror strikes. In April, Bajrang Dal cadre Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse were killed in a bomb-making accident at Nanded. Along with their fellow Bajrang Dal terrorists, Maruti Wagh, Rahul Pande and Ramraj Guptewar, Kondwar and Phanse had succeeded in putting together at least one bomb before the explosion.

Maharashtra Police investigators found that Kondwar and Phanse were the key figures in the April 2006 bombing of a mosque at Parbhani, in which 25 people were injured. Bajrang Dal operatives linked to the Nanded terror cell, investigators believe, also carried out the bombing of mosques at Purna and Jalna in April 2003. Eighteen people sustained injuries in these twin attacks.

What most disturbed the Maharashtra Police about the Nanded explosion, though, was that it demonstrated the Bajrang Dal's growing bomb-making capabilities. In an interview given to the magazine Communalism Combat earlier this year, Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad Joint Commissioner of Police K.P. Raghuvanshi candidly admitted that the Nanded incident could have "frightening repercussions". Raghuvanshi noted acidly that the "bombs were not being manufactured for a puja".

Despite police concerns the Maharashtra government has been reluctant to take the Bajrang Dal head on, fearful of providing political capital to Hindu fundamentalist organisations such as the Shiv Sena. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government has refused to consider proscribing the Bajrang Dal. Some 30 Hindu fundamentalist suspects were briefly detained in Malegaon, but no raids have been carried out at the offices or the homes of key leaders.

Forensic evidence suggests an Islamist terror group executed the attack. On September 11, the Nashik branch of Maharashtra's Forensic Science Laboratory released test results concluding that the explosives used in Malegaon contained traces of cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, widely known as Cyclonite or RDX. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Hyderabad later confirmed these findings. Bombs containing a core of RDX, surrounded by other explosive substances, have been used by the Lashkar and other terrorist groups in dozens of attacks, including the serial bombing of Mumbai two months ago.

Yet, this forensic fact is less unequivocal as it might appear. Unnoticed by much of the media, the Nashik and Hyderabad laboratory results were disputed by no less a person than the bureaucrat responsible for internal security across India. Speaking to the Press Trust of India late on the night of September 9, Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal emphatically stated that the bombs used in Malegaon "were low-intensity timer devices, and no RDX was used in them". Duggal went on to suggest that the fabrication of the devices did not "need a huge technical know-how", and that available evidence suggested they were "fabricated locally".

Duggal spoke after briefings by experts of the National Security Guard's (NSG) National Bomb Data Centre (NBDC), a crack forensic organisation charged with investigating terror strikes across the country. NBDC experts use trace detectors manufactured by the United States-based Rapiscan Technologies to analyse rapidly the chemical residues left at bomb-sites. Based on a technology called ion mobility spectrometry, which picks up on the unique electrical properties of explosive substances, trace detectors can give investigators within minutes an idea of the materials used to fabricate a bomb.

It is possible, of course, that the NBDC experts and their machines got it wrong, but that is an admission neither the NSG nor Duggal has made so far. At the time of writing, the NSG had yet to submit the results of its tests on the bomb residues from Malegaon. Just why the state authorities chose not to wait for its final findings before going public is unclear - and this could, moreover, exacerbate widespread fears among the Muslim community in Maharashtra that experts are being hustled into giving pre-determined results.

More important, it is far from clear what conclusions can be drawn from the use of RDX. On September 2, the police in Ahmednagar seized from a local scrap dealer some 195 kg of a cocktail of explosives that included RDX. Shankar Shelke, investigators found, had retrieved the material - more than adequate to execute an operation of the scale of the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings - from decommissioned Indian Army ordnance. Investigators also found that Shelke had made over 200 phone calls from a mobile phone acquired under a false name, provoking fears that the Army's slack disposal procedures were feeding a large explosives black market.

Shelke himself committed suicide on September 10, before the police could secure his arrest. His key employee, Shankar Gaikwad, has told the police little. What information is available, though, blows away gullible media claims that only a skilled terrorist bomb-maker could have put together the kind of device used in Malegaon. Anyone with access to the explosives black market or a contact amongst security force personnel serving in Jammu and Kashmir can acquire RDX. Experts who spoke to Frontline noted that even sophisticated timers can be fabricated from parts available in any high-street electrical goods store by individuals with a knowledge of circuitry. Instructions are available even on the Internet.

Neither the composition of the explosive nor the structure of the bomb is proof of the identity of those who perpetrated the Malegaon bombings. Indeed, terror groups around the world have long known that easily available chemicals can be used to deliver death on a massive scale just as easily as military-grade explosives.

In April 1995, for example, neo-Nazi Timothy McVeigh succeeded in blowing apart the Alfred P. Murrah federal government building in Oklahoma, using 2,000 kg of nothing more complicated than the agricultural fertiliser ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil. The effects of the bomb were felt as far as 30 miles (48 km) away. Known to experts as ANFO or Kinepak, ammonium nitrate-fuel oil bombs have been used by terrorist groups of every conceivable ideological hue.

Even when unambiguous forensic results are in, the real question of who planted the bombs in Malegaon will still have to be answered.

Does this mean an Islamist terrorist group did not execute the shab-e-baraat bombings? Quite simply, no; there are good reasons for them to remain suspects. Islamist terror groups have a long record of attacks against Muslims whose religious and ideological beliefs they oppose. In April, for example, 57 people were killed in Karachi when Islamist terrorists attacked a rally of Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, a body of the Barelvi religious sect.

In Jammu and Kashmir, too, a violent ideological battle has pitted Islamists against practitioners of the syncretic traditions of folk Islam. In late June, the Lashkar attempted to murder the mystic Ahad Ba'b Sopore, one of the best-known custodians of Jammu and Kashmir's Sufi tradition. In June last year, Lashkar operative Bilal Magray threw a grenade at a congregation in Bijbehara, injuring 15, just days after cadre from his organisation burned down the shrine of the saint Zainuddin Wali at Ashmuqam. Perhaps the most prominent incident in the Islamist campaign was the May 1996 siege at Chrar-e-Sharif, which led to the destruction of the town's famous 700-year-old shrine.

Deobandi and Salafi theologians believe that the religious practices of most Indian Muslims, such as the veneration of holy relics or the worship at the tombs of saints, are heretical. Indeed, as the scholar Mohammad Ishaq Khan has pointed out, some extremist Salafi organisations even believe that Muslims in India are unbelievers, who "need to be converted afresh".

Fundamentalist theologians, for example, are critical of the commemoration of the shab-e-baraat, noting that there is no mention of the festival in the Koran.

Scholars of Islam, though, note that there has been no history of such doctrinal disputes leading to large-scale violence.

"While doctrinal disputes have led to venomous polemical exchanges and even clashes between supporters of various sects," notes India's foremost scholar of contemporary Islam, Yoginder Sikand, "there is nothing to suggest that matters have come to a point where they might have driven a large-scale terrorist attack."

Of course, there is always a first time. Terrorists like the Jaish's Bilal, who dropped out of school after Class 8 to study at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom Taleem-e-Quran seminary in Rawalpindi, is a case in point. Bilal served briefly with the Lashkar-e-Taiba before finding himself drawn by Jaish chief Maulana Masood Azhar's incendiary polemic against not just India but Pakistan's own Shia and Barelvi sects. Both he and Yunus, a Class 10 dropout who acquired some computer skills after joining the Jaish, hold religious beliefs that would have left them with no moral qualms about targeting fellow Muslims.

It is entirely possible, then, that Islamist terror groups hoped to precipitate large-scale communal violence by bombing Malegaon - an act they knew many Muslims across India would attribute to Hindutva organisations. Without evidence, though, this speculation has only as much value as any other possibility, including the thesis that the bombings were executed as an act of Hindutva vengeance for the July serial bombings.

Like their Islamist counterparts, Hindutva terrorists have long been engaged in search for a catalyst to bring about the apocalyptic moment they believe will lead to the foundation of a theocratic state. Their record of doing so through riots, massacres and assassinations, just as that of Islamists, is well documented.

Under pressure to produce a breakthrough in the Malegaon investigation, Maharashtra Police investigators must be aware that haste could lead to a breakdown instead.