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Deadly plot

Deadly plot

Author: Uday Mahurkar with Subhash Mishra
Publication: India Today
Date: September 1, 2008
URL: http://indiatoday.digitaltoday.in/index.php?option=com_content&Itemid=1&task=view&id=13556&sectionid=36&issueid=68&latn=2

Introduction: A swiftly coordinated crackdown by police forces and security agencies from eight states yields vital clues to the serial blasts across the country. The leads point to a single home-grown jihadi group behind all the recent terror attacks.

As India celebrated her 61st Independence Day, police officials of the Ahmedabad crime branch were busy in their office in Gaekwad Haveli.

A team led by Joint Commissioner Ashish Bhatia and Deputy Commissioner Abhay Chudasama was interrogating some of the 43 suspects detained for the July 26 Ahmedabad blasts.

They were allegedly linked to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), now rechristened Indian Mujahideen (IM).

The team was trying to unearth leads to the several unsolved blast cases that rocked the country over the past three years from Mumbai to Varanasi to Jaipur to Hyderabad. By noon, their efforts had begun to yield results.

By 8.30 p.m., a country-wide list of about 84 SIMI activists culled from the interrogation was faxed to the police of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. The action was swift. By the next day, 80 of the suspects in the fax list had been picked up across the seven states.

However, the only glitch came from Uttar Pradesh where senior police officials were reluctant to hand over Mufti Abu Bashir, 28, to the Gujarat Police. Bashir, a resident of Azamgarh district, is the main accused in the Ahmedabad blasts case.

A Gujarat cop-who was interrogating Bashir in Lucknow-threatened to shoot him if they didn't get an instant transit remand to take Bashir to Gujarat. The hesitation of the Uttar Pradesh Police to hand him over was apparently due to political pressure.

The picture that emerged from interrogation of the suspects-now 89 in all with 35 from Gujarat alone-was both alarming and heartening. It yielded vital clues to the 2006 Mumbai blasts, the Jaipur blasts, the Hyderabad Lumbini Park blasts and the Uttar Pradesh court blasts.

Leads are also expected in the Samjhauta Express and Malegaon blasts. However, the fresh picture of the SIMI network showed that a new and deadlier organisation had emerged, capable of planning and executing devastating blasts on its own without any logistical support.

The breakthrough in the Ahmedabad blasts by the Gujarat Police and national security agencies has discredited the belief of the intelligence agencies that SIMI was not involved in direct action and that it was running for cover after its ban.

Instead, it emerged that SIMI had not only grown but had also acquired striking capability with regard to planning and executing terror operations.

As Bhatia, an expert on SIMI, puts it, "In all, five terror training camps were organised by arrested SIMI chief Safdar Nagori in four states in the past one year. Around 200 radical Muslim youths participated. If all of them are arrested, most of the key terror cases in the country in the past two years would be solved." The statement was only pointing to the transformation of SIMI to a deadly terror outfit.

The biggest example of SIMI's new-found capability was the Ahmedabad blasts operation, carried out with precision. It involved over 60 SIMI activists, including 35 from Gujarat with the rest providing support from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Around 15 of them have been arrested. The main conspirators in the case were Bashir and Abdus Subhan Qureshi, 27, alias Tauqir, a software expert from Mumbai's Mira Road area, now absconding. He is also a key conspirator in the 2006 Mumbai train blasts (which took nearly 200 lives) and in the Jaipur and Uttar Pradesh court blasts.

The two had emerged as Nagori's right-hand men till his arrest with 12 others from Indore in March last. After Nagori's arrest, Bashir became 'jimmewar' (president) of IM and Tauqir was installed as 'ansar' (general secretary).

Bashir's arrest was carried out with precision. A joint team of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh police reached his house in Dinapara village of Azamgarh on August 14 pretending to discuss a marriage proposal for his younger brother.

The moment Bashir emerged, he was pushed into a waiting Tata Sumo and whisked away. His family registered a case of kidnapping only to be informed that he had been taken away by the police.

Azamgarh is not new to criminals- underworld don Abu Salem, convicted in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, is originally from here. The region is known to be a breeding ground for Mumbai-based mafia gangs and for terrorist outfits, who are swelling their cadres from this district.

The countdown to solving the Ahmedabad blasts case began on July 29 when a shaken Muslim in Bharuch took a morning bus to Ahmedabad. He went straight to Crime Branch officials and told them that he had seen the two Maruti cars used in the blasts being driven by four Muslim youth.

They had been tenants at his two-storey house for a couple of months before vacating it a few days before the blasts. He identified the cars from their numbers published in newspapers on the third day of the blasts.

Police traced the calls on his mobile and tracked down one of the tenants' number. They later discovered that he was Tauqir. Next was a tip-off from the Central Intelligence Bureau that an old SIMI worker called Zahid Sheikh who lived in Juhapura in Ahmedabad could be a prime suspect.

He was picked up on August 3. On the third day during intense interrogation, he confessed to his involvement in the blasts and named SIMI activists from Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Bharuch.

Simultaneously, monitoring of the phone calls of some Vadodara-based SIMI suspects and intense vigil at the behest of Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana revealed vital clues.

In Ahmedabad, the police picked up Yunus Mansuri, 31, a stationery and grocery shop owner; Samsuddin Sheikh, 32, a sewing thread seller; Mohammed Arif Kagzi, 34, a former Arabic teacher; Gyasuddin Ansari, 29, a senior SIMI activist and garment store owner along with an embroidery worker.

In Vadodara, Imran Sheikh, 34, who has done a course in journalism and human rights from MS University, was detained. So were Usman Agarbattiwala, 24, a commerce graduate, and Iqbal Sheikh, 20.

Sajid Mansuri, a notorious SIMI leader who had been absconding since 2001 in a case of anti-national activity registered against SIMI in Surat, was picked up in Bahruch. He also figures in the Jaipur blasts case.

Iqbal was with him on May 13 in Jaipur when the blasts rocked the city. But the most important names that were revealed during the interrogation of Zahid and Yunus were those of Bashir and Tauqir.

The cross-questioning threw up the involvement of SIMI activists who attended terror camps in the Wagamon jungles of Kerala in December and in Pavagadh jungles near Vadodara in January last but were not directly involved in the Ahmedabad blasts. The conspiracy to plant the bombs in Gujarat was hatched at Wagamon camp and was carried forward into the Pavagadh camp.

At least nine SIMI activists from Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra planted the bombs in Ahmedabad. It helped that they were not locals, making it difficult for them to be identified. They were assisted by a team of Gujarati SIMI workers.

The reconnaissance was carried out by Iqbal and Qaimuddin Kapadia of Vadodara, who is absconding. One of the dry runs was carried out on July 14 when Ahmedabad observed a bandh on the Asaram Bapu issue.

The reconnaissance of the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital-where 36 people died in the blast-was also carried out by Iqbal while his father was in the same hospital for a surgery from June 23 to July 9. Iqbal had stayed at the hospital for three nights where he met Zahid, Samsuddin, Yunus and Agarbattiwala.

They identified the spot where the car bomb would go off. It was Zahid who planted the car before walking away. Agarbattiwala played an additional role-his laptop was used by Tauqir to programme the IEDs in Surat which failed to explode due to a technical error.

During interrogation, Imran told the police how parts of the bombs were assembled in a Vadodara house while the rest were put together in Bapunagar and Vatva area in Ahmedabad where Bashir and Tauqir had stayed. Forensic experts have confirmed traces of ammonium nitrate-used to make the bombs-in all the three houses.

Responsibilities in the operations were clearly earmarked. Yunus and Kagzi-who are experts in delivering jihadi speeches- were entrusted with organising and coordinating meetings of the core groups. The group held four core meetings between April and July. The last one was on July 20 at Zahid's house in Juhapura.

Bashir did not attend the meeting as he is believed to have left Ahmedabad for Azamgarh around July 15 after finalising the blasts plan and leaving it to the executioners to carry it out. Tauqir reportedly left Ahmedabad on July 26 morning. Two of these meetings were held in Yunus's house in Bapunagar.

Zahid and Sajid carried out the planning and procurement of cycles and the materials for the bombs. Tauqir bought ammonium nitrate and timers for the bombs. Sajid was one of the main links between the executioners and the masterminds. Sleuths say he is the only one apart from Bashir and Tauqir who knows about unsolved blast cases involving SIMI.

One of the main factors that led to the cracking of the case was the analysis of 125 GB of mobile phone data by the Gujarat Police and forensic experts. They tracked calls made between July 23 and July 26 from five phones, which were switched off at 4 p.m. on July 26, less than three hours before the blasts.

The sleuths also matched the phone data with the movement of the two cars that came to Ahmedabad on July 9 and 17 respectively from towards Mumbai. These cars were used in the Civil Hospital and the LG Hospital in Ahmedabad. While on roaming, the five mobile phones could only receive calls, which all came from STD booths.

Incidentally, SIMI's funding remains a mystery, with most of its money coming from secret donations. One of its main donors is believed to be a Gujarat-based Muslim businessman who is very close to a top politician of a national secular party.

The strategic training given to SIMI cadres teaches them to pick up journalism and legal professions. The countdown to the Ahmedabad blasts began in December last when Nagori and his brother Kamruddin Nagori organised a full-fledged training camp for the SIMI cadres in the Wagamon jungles near Idduki in Kerala.

The camp trained over 35 boys in terrorist activities inflamed by fiery speeches from Bashir. This was the third camp to be held under Nagori's direction after he fell out in 2006 with Mizbul Haq, a moderate who was against his aim to plunge into terrorism.

Haq had taken over as president (jimmewar) from Shahid Badr Falahi in 2006. Haq wanted SIMI to join politics while Nagori wanted to turn to terrorism. The two parted ways and the majority went along with Nagori who rechristened SIMI as IM.

The earlier three camps were held under Nagori's leadership at Castle Rock near Hubli in April 2007, in Dharwad district of Karnataka in August 2007 and in Choral near Indore in November 2007.

The terror camp in the Pavagadh jungles near Vadodara in January was crucial for the Ahmedabad attacks. It trained nearly 24 SIMI activists, including 16 from Gujarat, of whom most have been arrested.

Here, the blue print for the Ahmedabad and Surat blasts started taking shape, a theme that had been initiated at the Wagamon camp. But for Nagori's arrest along with his brother in March, Ahmedabad and Surat would have been hit probably in February-end or in March.

With Nagori's departure, SIMI's leadership passed on to Bashir and Tauqir, who started putting the plan in shape. In April-end or May, they rented two houses in Ahmedabad and another in Bharuch, which has emerged as a key centre of Deobandi radicalism in Gujarat. Mansuri, a native of Surat, too had moved to Bharuch around the same time.

There is great excitement in the Gujarat Police and security agencies about the early success in the investigation which is like a first in India's history of tackling terror. Says Gujarat Director-General of Police, P.C. Pande, "We have strong evidence to pin them down on charges of conspiracy and execution. There are still some loose ends which need to be tied up."

What is significant is the fact that the Ahmedabad blasts probe has opened the doors for tracking the roots of home-grown jihad.

Close on the heels of the indications that Mansuri and Imran had played key roles in the Jaipur blasts, the Rajasthan Police nabbed 17 SIMI activists including two doctors. Tauqir is now the man being chased. The country could still contain the menace of terrorism if it follows the path shown by Gujarat.


Modus operandi

The informer: A man in Bharuch who had rented out a house to four persons saw a newspaper report and recognised the two cars used in the Ahmedabad blasts as the same cars were used by them. He informed Ahmedabad Crime Branch. The quartet turned out to be SIMI terrorists.

The IB lead: The Intelligence Bureau informed the police that Zahid Sheikh, an old SIMI hand was involved. Zahid was picked up on August 3 and he revealed the names of two more accomplices, Sajid Mansuri and Imran Sheikh, on the third day.

Phones: Zahid's further inputs along with Imran's and monitoring of the phones of Vadodara-based SIMI activists led police to Yunus Mansuri, Samsuddin Sheikh, Mohammed Arif Kagzi and Gyasuddin Ansari.

Terror camps: Their interrogation revealed the involvement of SIMI activists who attended terror camps in jungles in Kerala and near Vadodara.

Making the bombs: Imran told the police how the bombs were assembled in his Vadodara house and that the rest of the bombs were put together in Vatva and Bapunagar areas of Ahmedabad.

Mobile phones: Calls made from five other cell phones, which were switched off three hours before the blasts, were tracked.

Mastermind: Mufti Abu Bashir, 28, the main accused in the Ahmedabad blasts who studied at the Deoband madrasa, charted the deadly plan and left it to SIMI executioners to carry it ahead.

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