Gaps to fill

Print edition : October 20, 2006

In the "unassailable" Mumbai blast case, serious questions remain about the evidence.

PRAVEEN SWAMI in New Delhi,

AFTER THE BOMB blast at Mahim railway station on July 11.-AFP

IT was, Mumbai Police commissioner A.N. Roy told stunned television audiences earlier this month, an act of war carried out "on behalf of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] through the Lashkar-e-Taiba". Less than three months after the July 11 serial bombings, the Mumbai Police now claims to have a full account of just who carried out the attacks - and how. While there is little doubt that the Mumbai Police is headed in the right direction, it is unclear if the details of the story will survive the rigorous international scrutiny that it will be subjected to in the coming months.

Based on the interrogations of the 13 men arrested so far, the Mumbai Police believes that 11 Pakistani nationals and seven Indians executed the terror strikes. According to A.N. Roy, the Pakistani nationals entered India through Nepal and Bangladesh in March, to begin planning the bombings. One, it says, was a Lahore resident, so far known only by the name `Salim', who died in the explosion he helped set off. Another, Mohammad Ali, was shot dead in an encounter in the Antop Hill area in Mumbai soon after the bombings.

A separate cell of seven Indian nationals facilitated the Pakistanis who carried out the attack. Each bomb, the police say, was planted by a joint team of one Pakistani and one Indian national. According to the police, this system might have been put in place because the Pakistani nationals would not have known the workings of the city's train system and needed help to leave crowded compartments.

Forensic examiners were able to establish that the explosives, a core of between 2 and 2.5 kilograms of RDX, combined with some 3.5 to 4 kg of ammonium nitrate, were packed inside five-litre pressure cookers. The pressure cookers were concealed inside cloth bags and camouflaged with newspapers and umbrellas. From questioning shopkeepers, the Mumbai Police claims to have learned that eight pressure cookers were purchased. However, it remains unclear just what the devices were used for.

The seven teams of bombers hired taxis to get to Churchgate station in south Mumbai at about 6 p.m. on July 11. The team boarded local trains, placed the bags in the overhead luggage racks in first class coaches and apparently got off a few stations later. The first bomb went off at 6.24 p.m. at Khar. A minute later the next bomb exploded at Mahim. By 6.30 p.m. all seven bombs had exploded on local trains running on the western line.

By Roy's account, investigators had no idea where to begin their hunt for the bombers. The first breakthrough came when the police examined call records, which showed that several phone calls had been made from Navi Mumbai to a village on the Nepal border in the days before and after the blast. The calls, it turned out, had been made to a former Lashkar operative named Kamal Ansari. Ansari had served time in jail after he was held in the course of a 2002 Intelligence Bureau counter-terrorism operation. Since then, he had been thought to be making a living selling toys.

Ansari was promptly brought to Mumbai. Narcoanalysis tests, which involve placing suspects in a hypnotic state using barbiturates, helped the police gain some insights into the identities of other suspects. For example, police learned that SIMI's Maharashtra general secretary Etesham Siddiqui had played a key role in the operation. Among those interrogated, officers say, was Faisal Sheikh, who handled funds for the operation. Police recovered some 26,000 Saudi riyals from his residence, which they believe was just a small part of far larger hawala payments routed to Mumbai from the Lashkar's Pakistan-based bosses. Rizwan Dawre, an Indian national based in Riyadh, has now been named as the person who handled the hawala transactions on behalf of the Lashkar.

Meanwhile, interrogations of Lashkar operatives arrested in the course of a separate operation that led to the recovery of arms and explosives from the Aurangabad area produced separate leads. The men told the Mumbai Police that they had been instructed to contact Feroz Deshmukh, a librarian at the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) for orders on what to do with their weapons cache. Interestingly, the IRF is listed among a handful of approved religious information centres on the official website of the Lashkar's parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

A.N. ROY, Mumbai Police Commissioner.-

Deshmukh was then asked to chat on the Internet with Rahil Abdul Rehman Sheikh, a top Lashkar organiser, who had sent at least a dozen men for training at its Bahawalpur facility. From his safehouse in Dhaka, the Mumbai Police says, Rahil Sheikh gave Deshmukh the number for a Kolkata-based Lashkar organiser, Mohammad Majid Sheikh. Majid Sheikh, in turn, provided the Mumbai Police with details of just how the Pakistani nationals involved in the bombings transited through the India-Bangladesh border. According to Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad chief K.P. Raghuvanshi, the police are searching for three or four suspects, including some who planted bombs.

India has shared much of the evidence from the investigation with the United States in an effort to build pressure on Pakistan to act against the Lashkar's core commanders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also said that the evidence will be shared with Pakistan when the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries meet later this year.

Although both the Government of India and the Mumbai Police appear convinced that an unassailable case has been built up, serious questions remain on the integrity and the content of the evidence available so far. Most important, the scientific literature suggests that the foundations of the case - narcoanalysis of the key suspects - may be flawed.

Narcoanalysis is a controversial procedure. In 1989, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, U.S., disallowed the use of evidence obtained from sodium amytal-induced interviews, after finding that it was not a valid scientific technique. Among other things, the court heard evidence that drug-induced interrogations could cause hypermanesia, a state where subjects fill in gaps in their stories with imaginary or false material; hypnotic recall, where non-existent thoughts or feelings became embedded in the original memory; and memory hardening, a process by which subjects come to confidently believe that imaginary events were in fact true.

In a recent paper prepared on the subject for the Andhra Pradesh Police's Criminal Investigation Department, Superintendent of Police M. Sivananda Reddy pointed to the "baffling mixture of truth and fantasy in drug-induced output". By disrupting the suspects' defences, Reddy noted, barbiturates "may sometimes be helpful in interrogation, but even under the best conditions they will elicit an output which is partially contaminated by deception [and] fantasy". In general, they "provide rapid access to information that is psychiatrically useful but of doubtful validity as empirical truth".

Sivananda Reddy observed that the comprehensive examination of the issue by the U.S.' 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of U.S. v. Solomon had concluded that "narcoanalysis does not produce reasonably reliable statements". "The almost total absence of controlled experimental studies of `truth drugs' and the spotty and anecdotal nature of psychiatric and police evidence," he concluded, "require that extrapolations to intelligence operations be made with care." Indeed, the real use of the test appears to be as a form of deception. "A major vulnerability they produce in the subject," Sivananda Reddy observed, "is a tendency to believe he has revealed more than he has and this can be used by the interrogator for subsequent interrogation of the subject under normal circumstances."

Psychiatrists involved in narcoanalysis have long been clear about the limitations of the science. As early as 1954, the American psychiatrist John McDonald noted that suspects subjected to narcoanalysis sometimes confessed to crimes they could be demonstrated not to have committed or continued to practise deceit. "It is clear from these accounts," McDonald observed, "that narcoanalysis is often unsuccessful in eliciting the truth." While defending the utility of narcoanalysis he flatly noted that it could neither be used to "determine the truthfulness of a statement made to the police", nor to "obtain confessions from suspects". In McDonald's view, psychiatrists called on to participate in such exercises "should on ethical grounds refuse to perform narcoanalysis".

Why, then, has the Mumbai Police built its case around drug-induced statements? "It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade," wrote the British colonial administrator James Stephen in 1883, "rubbing red pepper in a poor devil's eyes, than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence." In the century and a quarter since, police forces have often turned to technical variants on the same practice - with little success. While high-technology processes such as P-300 brain-wave mapping can detect whether certain kinds of visual information is stored in the brain, for example, knowledge of a murder weapon; science is yet to arrive at a means to render painstaking investigation redundant.

A good deal of investigation remains, notwithstanding the Mumbai Police's progress. Explanations are needed, for example, as to why the Lashkar took the unprecedented decision to commit large numbers of Pakistani nationals for the Mumbai bombings, risking detection of the operation and international exposure, when it had trained Mumbai-based cadre to execute the operation. An answer will also have to be provided for just why Mohammad Ali chose to stay on after the bombings, when all his counterparts left, and why the police at first claimed he was a Jaish-e-Mohammad operative. Most important of all, there is so far no evidence on just when, where and why the decision to bomb Mumbai was made, and who made it.

All of this is a big ask. Top western India Lashkar operatives Rahil Sheikh, Zabiuddin Ansari and Fayyaz Kagdi, all succeeded in escaping from the country, and now seem safely outside the reach of Indian law-enforcement organisations. Pakistan has already made it clear that it will not turn over Lashkar operatives to India, even if evidence is provided of their involvement in terrorist crimes. It most certainly will not make ISI officers available to Indian interrogators. The ISI is, after all, part of the Pakistan Army and its Director-General, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Zaki, reports directly to General Pervez Musharraf, in his capacity as the Chief of the Army Staff.

If a coherent and full account of the serial bombings is to emerge, the Mumbai Police must heed James Stephen's admonition, and "go about in the sun". India, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said recently, wants Pakistan to "not only talk but take action against terrorism on the ground". Pakistan, though, will only be compelled to do so if India arrives at its doorstep armed with hard facts - facts robust enough to survive the most sceptical scrutiny.

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