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The arrest of Aftab Ansari

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

A DAY after claiming credit for the January 22 attack on the American Centre building in central Kolkata, Aftab Ansari had booked himself on a flight to Islamabad. He arrived at the plush Dubai international airport along with his associate Raju Sharma, certain that the local police would, as ever, look the other way. But he was wrong. The top underworld figure and financier of terrorism spent three weeks in jail, hoping that he, like mafioso Abu Salem Ansari, would be quietly released. Instead, he was deported to India without his claims of being a Pakistan national being given a hearing, and without even the formalities of extradition proceedings.

Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials who arrived in the United Arab Emirates on February 5 were, until the very last minute, nervous about just how their request for Ansari to be handed over would be dealt with. Last year, after the Dubai Police arrested Abu Salem, the UAE authorities dithered, then made requests for additional information, and finally ended up letting the mafioso leave on the basis of his Pakistani passport, issued under a pseudonym. This was of a piece with the UAE's record. India has for long sought in vain the extradition of over 40 Indian criminals, many of them alleged to be involved in terrorism-related crimes.

But the events of September 11 transformed the political situation in the UAE. For one, figures like the Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan an-Nahyan, were always uncomfortable with terrorists and mafia figures hiding out in the country. Other important sheikhs, notably Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Makhtoum, saw Pakistan as a counterweight to Iran. This lobby triumphed in policy-making, helped not a little by India's own failure during the period of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to extradite Indian nationals wanted for acts of fraud in the UAE. Although the UAE did sign an extradition treaty in 1999, suspicions and policy concerns meant that it was not implemented with any level of seriousness.

Then came September 11. The UAE was the last among the three countries to join the group that recognised the Taliban, and was the first to sever ties with it. But the stigma remained, and the sheikhs realised that they would have to work hard to erase it. Then came stern warnings from Washington calling on Dubai to end the flourishing money laundering activities on its soil, followed, in January 2002, with a formal diplomatic demarche. And after Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller arrived in India and checked up on the events in Kolkata, Indian officials complained bitterly about the UAE. Mueller dropped by in the desert sheikhdom on his way back, and, diplomats say, put in a strong word or two supporting India's position.

In the wake of the Kolkata attack, Indian diplomats had engaged in extensive lobbying with the UAE authorities, making available detailed briefings on Ansari and his activities. Much of the information they had was already known. Ansari, who used the aliases of Aftab Ahmad and Farhan Malik, had met top Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Syed Omar Sheikh, who was released in the December 1999 IC-814 hostages-for-prisoners deal, while both were serving time in New Delhi's Tihar jail. After his release in November 1999, Ansari left for Rawalpindi on an Indian passport issued in the name of Farhan Malik, obtained through fraudulent and corrupt means in Nalanda, Bihar. He was issued a Pakistan passport, bearing the number J 872142, in the name of Safir Mohammad Rana, valid up to the year 2006. He also married a local woman whose brother, Mohammad Tahir, is serving time in Tihar for terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir. She, along with their daughter, lives in a twin-storey home near the Rawalpindi cantonment, with her parents running a pharmaceutical business on the ground floor. Ansari owns a house in Dubai as well.

Sheikh's Pakistan intelligence-facilitated deal with Ansari was a simple one. The Jaish would make its network in India available for Ansari's criminal operations, in return for a part of the money it made. Ansari would recruit cadre for training in Jaish and Lashkar-e-Toiba camps in Pakistan, who would serve both as foot-soldiers of his organised crime activities, and covert operatives for the jehadi groups. The Jaish leader, now wanted for the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl, is believed to have used funds raised from the abduction of Kolkata businessman Partha Roy Burman to pay Mohammad Atta, one of the suicide bombers who crushed a plane into the World Trade Centre. Burman was released after his family paid a Rs.3.75-crore ransom to Ansari through the hawala channel.

CBI officials say that Ansari has so far made available a considerable amount of detail on his associates, notably their e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. Interrogators are also seeking to establish the precise nature of his contacts with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, and the supply routes through which weapons were shipped in to his group. Asked whether it was the U.S. or the Kolkata Police that was Ansari's main target on January 22, CBI Joint Director Neeraj Kumar said that Ansari had three major motives: signalling that the death of his cadre would be avenged; letting his jehadi associates know that he shared their objectives; and emerging as a serious competitor to underworld top-gun Dawood Ibrahim. FBI officials, sources say, have also been asking for information on the funds that Ansari had transferred to Sheikh, and were then allegedly sent on to Atta.

Ministry of External Affairs officials reacted with delight to the UAE's decision to deport Ansari, and see it as a major turn-around with long-term consequences. That assessment remains to be tested, as it will soon be when India presses for the return of other terrorists and criminals who have found safe haven there. Just how effective U.S. pressure will be in terminating hawala enterprises, which after all are not just used by terrorists but the influential elites and middle classes of South Asia, remains to be seen. Interestingly, India itself has made no great progress in this direction, and new legislation which was to replace the supposedly-draconian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act has not yet been effectively implemented.

Perhaps the most interesting will be Pakistan's reaction. Having first accused India of a role in the Pearl kidnapping, Pakistan has been forced to admit that it was in fact carried out by Sheikh, who it first denied was on its soil, and then refused to extradite to India. The UAE's example will undoubtedly be used to pressure Pakistan to return at least Indian nationals wanted by New Delhi for terrorist crimes, such as Dawood Ibrahim and Abdul Razzak "Tiger" Memon. Just how it reacts could hold out valuable clues for the future of India-Pakistan relations.