Hyderabad blasts

Clue hunt

Print edition : March 22, 2013

A picture taken soon after the blasts at Dilsukhnagar in Hyderbad on February 21. Photo: THE HINDU

One of the blast sites cordoned off to collect evidence. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister N. Kiran Reddy at a blast site on February 25. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

The police and other investigating agencies are yet to make a breakthrough in the investigation into the twin blasts that rocked Hyderabad.

A BLURRED footage of the surveillance camera hanging from a pole in the busy Dilsukhnagar crossroads is the only piece of evidence gathered by the police investigating the two powerful explosions in Hyderabad on February 21 which left 16 persons dead and 120 injured.

The investigation, undertaken by multiple agencies right from the local police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), is still in its initial stages as the police are exercising extreme caution in picking up suspects in view of the bitter experience in 2007 when they rounded up several Muslim youth and detained them for months together in connection with the Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad. The Andhra Pradesh government and the police were left red-faced as the incident turned out to be the handiwork of Hindu fundamentalists. The government had to pay compensation, on orders from the National Commission for Minorities, to those wrongly implicated in the case.

The image captured on the CCTV camera showed a man walking a bicycle with a bag, which probably contained a bomb, strapped to its carrier and returning empty-handed towards the lens a few minutes before the blast. The police took the tape to colour laboratories in Mumbai and Bangalore for enhancement of quality but did not meet with any success. Nonetheless, it is used as a lead.

The two explosions that occurred minutes apart at 6-58 p.m. and 7-01 p.m. near the Konark and Venkatadri theatres fall into a pattern: creating bloodbath in the evening time when shoppers and people on their way back home from offices crowd the roads. The 2007 blasts that ripped through a popular eatery, Gokul Chat Bhandar, and Lumbini Park, which is famous for laser shows, took place at 7-30 p.m. and 7-35 p.m. respectively. Significantly, another bomb placed 50 metres away from the Venkatadri theatre then did not go off.

The police suspect the role of the Indian Mujahideen (I.M.) in the latest incident. (The I.M. was the first suspect in 2007, too.) However, a top police official said on condition of anonymity that the hand of the I.M. was suspected but it was not made public in view of the flip-flop in the investigation in the Mecca Masjid blast case. The civil rights activist Latif Mohammed Khan said that in the latest case, too, more than 20 youth were summoned to the police stations and then let off.

Riyaz Bhatkal and his brother Iqbal are the main suspects of the investigating officers although they claim to have an open mind. The brothers are among the 50 persons, reported to be sheltered by Pakistan, on the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) most-wanted criminals list. They hail from the fishing town of Bhatkal in Uttara Kannada district of north coastal Karnataka and are said to have been involved in 11 blasts across the country since 2005. They operated from Karachi with the assistance of “cells” in India. The official said Hyderabad was targeted by the I.M. as part of its cycle of terror plan. It was the turn of the city now after Pune, Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Jaipur. Everything, from the executioners to the nature of the explosive material used, was mobilised elsewhere so as not to leave behind any trace of the involvement of a local hand.

The I.M. is believed to be a proxy of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), but Muslim organisations dismiss it is as a myth. They contend that the police have given a fancy name to link Muslim youth with terrorist activity.

The police reject the theory that the blasts were a reaction to the execution of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani gunman involved in the Mumbai terror attack, and Afzal Guru, the main accused in the Parliament House attack case, because interrogation of a person arrested by the Delhi Police revealed that a reconnaissance had been performed at Dilsukhnagar in June last year. Both the hangings took place much later.

Additional Commissioner of Police Sandeep Shandilya said the investigation was a painstaking effort which involved piecing together all inputs and eliminating elements that did not fall in place. Each clue was being followed meticulously, he said.

The police did not even spare Jummerat Bazar area in the Old City area of Hyderabad where all types of scrap is sold every Thursday. They were of the view that the bicycles were purchased in the market on the previous Thursday (February 14). The teams also visited bicycle shops at Abids, Kothi and Secunderabad with the mangled parts.

A major drawback in the investigation is the involvement of multiple agencies as each of them is picking up every available piece of evidence from the blast site and analysing them in their own way. The State Forensic Science Laboratory is getting a number of samples for analysis from all these agencies. In the process, blown-up pieces of the aluminium container, which was said to have concealed the bomb made of ammonium nitrate, are missing.

The police do not believe that plastic explosives were used in the incident as they are difficult to procure. They visited the explosives factories near Alair, Bhongir and other places in Nalgonda district (adjoining Hyderabad) to collect details of recent transactions. The investigation was also extended to Kadapa, Nizamabad and Nellore districts. They are also following up on the protests that took place in the Old City after the execution of Afzal Guru.

The police picked up Rayeesuddin, who was suspected to have sheltered Maqbool, an I.M. activist who is now in the Tihar jail. The August 2012 Pune blasts were studied to check the similarities in the modus operandi. The houses in the vicinity of Dilsukhnagar were checked to see if any new tenants had moved into or vacated them recently. The focus is also on youth who were found missing for several years after they were identified with terrorism. Details of visitors to jails to meet those arrested for terrorist activity are also being gathered.

Interestingly, the recovery of a driving licence with a Hyderabad address from a person who was crossing over to Nepal on the Bihar border after the blasts raised several eyebrows. He was identified as Mohammed Adam, a resident of Hyderabad for over a year. He had allegedly secured a driving licence with fake certificates. But, the police did not get any clues linking him to the blast.

The NIA officials interrogated those arrested in connection with the Bangalore serial blasts and lodged in the Parappana Agrahara jail there. They also visited the house of Obaid-ur-Rehman, a journalist, who was arrested in connection with the blasts. Searches were also conducted in Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.

A police officer said they were likely to interrogate Feroz Khan and Abid Hussain, who are lodged in the Nellore jail in Andhra Pradesh, after obtaining the permission of the court. The two were accused of meeting Maqbool during mulaqat (meeting time) in the Tihar jail last year. Maqbool is another centrepiece of the investigation as he had declared in the past that Dilsukhnagar would be the target of explosions some day. The NIA has already questioned Maqbool.

The police have gathered details of calls made over mobile phones from the Dilsukhnagar area before and after the blasts. The data obtained from the mobile operators revealed that 42,436 calls had been recorded at the mobile transmission towers nearby. In the process, SIM cards of two numbers were identified with addresses in Jammu and Kashmir. The phones were switched off after the explosion. The subscribers were found to have made calls to three numbers registered in Hyderabad but all three subscribers had migrated to Bihar or Uttar Pradesh after the explosion.

The findings relating to mobile phones were the only big headway the police could make a week after the blasts. They were hoping that enhancement of the quality of the video footage would provide a breakthrough in the case, but the cinema laboratories in Mumbai reportedly expressed helplessness in providing better images.

Meanwhile, G. Kishan Reddy, State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, dropped a bombshell by claiming that he had received a letter from the LeT saying that Begum Bazar, another busy commercial centre in the city, would be the next target. The letter is supposed to have said that having succeeded now, the LeT was preparing for the next mission.

The police stepped up vigil in Begum Bazar immediately. Intelligence inputs revealed that the Bhatkal brothers had surveyed Begum Bazar, Abids and Dilsukhnagar in the past. The temple town of Tirupati and the Nagarjunsagar dam are other areas on the radar of the security agencies.

A close watch was kept on the activities of Muslim youth in Nizamabad where the followers of Azam Ghori, who was killed in an encounter in Jagtial, are residing. Ghori was accused of jehadi terrorism, which raised its ugly head in Hyderabad in 1999. The activities of the jehadis gained momentum with a blast near the Saibaba temple in Dilsukhnagar in 2002 and the human bomb explosion that ripped through the office of the police task force at Begumpet in 2005.

The Central intelligence agencies, mainly the Intelligence Bureau, have always focussed attention on Hyderabad as a sensitive place. They have identified 175 youth as suspects, whose movements come under the scanner whenever similar incidents take place anywhere in the country. The efforts of the agencies culminated in the setting up of a regional office of the NIA in the city.

Forensic experts from the National Security Guard (NSG), the premier counterterrorism force, rushed to the city in the aftermath of the Dilsukhnagar incident. Expectations are high that the multiple investigations will soon find the culprits.