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The new pawns

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

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The arrest of four people in connection with the August 25 blasts in Mumbai has shown that many like them are lured into terrorism to avenge the atrocities committed against their community, especially in Gujarat last year.

in Mumbai

REMORSE is a sentiment that is absent in the hearts of Sayed Mohammed Hanif and Ashrat Ansari, the main accused in the twin bomb blasts that killed 52 people and injured about 150 on August 25, in Mumbai. Ideology is a common thread that connects these two persons to a cause. And that "cause" is to retaliate against crimes and injustice inflicted on the Muslim community. "Their commitment is chilling," says a police official.

In the past nine months, Mumbai has witnessed a spate of bomb explosions, which have killed 65 people and injured over 200. This is becoming indicative of a larger plan in action - one that is designed to keep the city in a perpetual state of turmoil. Orchestrated by yet-unidentified persons or organisations, this terror machine seems to have a slew of people whose ideology is deeply rooted in revenge. This revenge is not against the perpetrators of atrocities against their people but against a whole section of people viewed to be inimical to their interests. Having met with success in Mumbai, they are unlikely to stop with this, says the official.

Hanif and Ansari may be responsible for the latest blasts. But about 23 others like Hanif have been arrested for the five other blasts that have rocked the city since December 2002. Those in custody have told the police that the attacks are acts of retribution against the communal pogrom that took place in Gujarat last year. The police believe that these men - and now women too - are just foot soldiers in organisations, which are part of a larger terrorist network belonging to the Islamic Right, whose agenda is to destabilise the country. The attacks have essentially become part of an undeclared war on the country.

Mumbai's highly populated areas make it a sure and easy target. Since it is the financial capital of the country, any untoward happening here is bound to generate tremendous publicity. Besides, in a city so big and so over-populated, it is a gargantuan task to track every suspected movement. Terrorist organisations have realised how easy it is to operate here. Once the deed is done, it is easy to melt into the populace, say the police.

A week after bombs exploded in taxis at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar in the heart of the city, a stunned Mumbai Police arrested Hanif, his wife Fahmida Sayed, daughter Farheen Sayed, and Ansari. A fifth associate remains at large. Hanif and his family are also suspected of planting the bomb that resulted in the July 28 Ghatkopar bus blast which killed three people. The culprits were traced after the driver of the taxi that blew up at the Gateway gave a detailed description of Hanif's family and the snatches of conversation he had heard. The driver, Shivnarayan Pande, lived to tell the tale only because he had gone to have his lunch at the time the blast occurred.

During interrogation, the foursome revealed that they belonged to the "Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force (GMRF)" and were in Mumbai to seek revenge for the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat last year. Hanif told the investigators that he was indoctrinated by the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in the aftermath of the Godhra riots. After training, the LeT sent him to Mumbai to carry out a series of attacks, particularly on the large Gujarati business community based in the city. The seizure of 25 kg of explosives, an assortment of timer devices and wires in Hanif's residence at the time of his arrest convinced the police that the group had other targets planned.

According to the police, Hanif had been working in Dubai as an electrician since 1993. He was sent by the LeT to Mumbai in September 2002 to carry out various assignments. With the help of Fahmida and Farheen he prepared and planted the bombs. A common friend called Naseer, the fifth accomplice who is absconding, put him in touch with Ashraf, a zari worker from Surat. The police believe that Naseer, whose antecedents are not known, was the one who showed Hanif how to assemble the explosives that were used in the Ghatkopar and Mumbai blasts. His arrest is expected to provide the vital link to the mastermind or organisation behind the attacks.

Hanif's connections in Dubai are also being probed. Dubai, say the police, has become a hub for militants. Several of those arrested in the previous blasts have either lived for a period of time in the Emirates or visited it many times. The police suspect that these men are in touch with conspirators such as C.A.M. Basheer, a key leader of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and Abu Hamza, a member of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, who are both holed up in the Gulf. No theories are available on the funding process. But the city's well-oiled hawala system is a likely source, say the police.

Initially, the police suspected the hand of SIMI along with that of half a dozen other militant groups in the twin blasts. Terror organisations have been using local operatives to plant bombs for some time, therefore SIMI was the most obvious suspect. Saquib Nachan, a SIMI leader with links to the ISI, is under arrest for orchestrating at least two of the previous blasts, and hence investigating officers assumed that a SIMI splinter group was behind the attacks.

However, the arrest of Hanif has led the police to believe that the modus operandi has changed. The presence of RDX in the bombs used in the latest blasts also lead the police to believe that a stronger, more potent force is at work. RDX is mainly used by the military. It was used in the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts, for which the ISI was largely held responsible.

There is evidence that the LeT is directly guiding assignments for the ISI through several modules based in Maharashtra. There are at least 10 LeT modules like the GMRF in the State. Each module comprises three or four people, and each is unaware of the activities of the other. But they are all controlled by a central organisation or by a couple of larger organisations. Which is why it is difficult to infiltrate or break the nexus, says Rakesh Maria, investigating officer and Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime). Moreover, none of these perpetrators has a past criminal record or any vices - normally the latter is used to keep tabs on people. "None of our informants knew anything about them. How can you keep an eye on every young man?" asks Rakesh Maria.

MUMBAIKARS are not willing to buy this argument completely. The police, who are already facing a credibility problem following a series of corruption charges against them, are not being excused for lapses in surveillance. Such is the laxity of the system that interrogations of those arrested in the previous blasts revealed that an LeT mastermind, Abu Sultan, entered the State Secretariat and walked around the building undetected. There was also a plan to blow up the Gateway of India in December but it fell through. Besides, the arrest of two LeT members and the killing of Abu Sultan in an encounter in March this year would have given the police some idea of the terror groups making inroads into the city. In November 2000 and April 2001, LeT members were caught with weapons on the outskirts of the city. The police also have information about training camps in the SIMI stronghold of Padgah, near Mumbai.

Furthermore, following the first blast on December 2, 2001, the police arrested eight people allegedly belonging to SIMI and the LeT. Of those arrested, Saquib Nachan, Dr. Anwar Ali Khan and Imran Rehman Khan are allegedly among the main conspirators in the terror attacks. Another LeT kingpin in the State, Dr Abdul Mateen, the prime accused in the Ghatkopar blast, is also under arrest. With several SIMI and LeT operatives under custody, it seems hard to understand why the network has not been busted. "They seem to have the right leads, caught a whole lot of members but nobody seems be able to get to the main culprit. Or perhaps they don't want to," says a former Police Commissioner.

TWO things are clear from these series of bomb blasts: "Terrorist organisations are no longer concentrating on Jammu and Kashmir. Their activities are spilling into other parts of the country. The second is the use of disgruntled, in most cases educated, youth who are willing to carry out terror operations because they truly believe they are part of a cause," an intelligence official told Frontline. Invariably, the ISI is blamed for these incidents. "It is not far from the truth," he says.

Organisations like the LeT seek out Muslims who in some way or the other have been affected by the riots or some form of persecution. By showing them video clips of riots or telling them instances of crimes committed against the community, the organisations are able to recruit these vulnerable victims, says Rakesh Maria. Take the case of Ansari, who fled to Mumbai after the Gujarat riots. Ansari apparently saw women being raped and his brethren being brutally tortured and killed. Mateen is another person affected by the Gujarat riots. He was shown a video that had horrific scenes of people being massacred. Retaliation against the heinous crimes committed against Muslims in Gujarat last year may be the primary factor that motivated the perpetrators of the recent blasts. But discrimination and injustice over the years have led to deep-rooted anger, which is causing the youth of this minority community to get involved in various terrorist activities, Rakesh Maria says.

Unlike the 1993 serial blasts in which the underworld was used to plant 12 bombs that killed over 250 people, these blasts are performed by a different brand of people, says Maria. There is a rapidly growing list of men - and now women - who are committed to a cause and will do whatever it takes for that. They are not paid to do the work. These men are in fact well-educated and have held good jobs. For instance, of the 23 who have been arrested in connection with the recent explosions, five are engineers, three are doctors, two are doctorate holders, one is a Master of Business Administration and another is studying for his doctorate. "We need to understand what society is doing to make these people resort to this form of terror," says Rakesh Maria.

Investigations on the previous five blasts in Mumbai, which occurred on buses, trains and at railway stations, are still in progress. The State government has set up an anti-terrorist squad following public criticism. The State may eventually catch the terrorists who performed the blasts but the real perpetrators of these crimes will always remain at large.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 26, 2003.)

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