Bhatkal’s War Against In­dia

The ar­rest of the ter­ror mas­ter­mind un­cov­ers more plots and once again links Pak­istan to the as­sault on In­dia

India Today - - INSIDE - San­deep Un­nithan with T. S. Sud­hir and Amitabh Sri­vas­tava

The ar­rest of ter­ror mas­ter­mind Yasin Bhatkal un­cov­ers more plots and once again links Pak­istan to the as­sault on In­dia.

When a joint crack team of the In­tel­li­gence Bureau ( IB), Bi­har Po­lice and Nepal au­thor­i­ties swooped down on Yasin Bhatkal, liv­ing in a rented house in Pokhara, Nepal, on Au­gust 28, the ter­ror chief­tain looked un­per­turbed. “I’m an en­gi­neer,” he in­sisted. “You are ar­rest­ing the wrong man.” It was a ruse Yasin, di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of over 200 In­di­ans, had of­ten em­ployed in his five- year run from the law.

Yasin was whisked away blind­folded to an undis­closed des­ti­na­tion and in­ter­ro­gated. He kept his pre­tence up and claimed to be a Pak­istani pass­port holder. The dis­cus­sion ended when Yasin was left with a bro­ken nose. He con­fessed.

Now, as National In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency ( NIA) sleuths in­ter­ro­gate their star catch in Delhi, they are con­vinced of his im­por­tance. “So far, we had only caught foot soldiers. Yasin is dif­fer­ent, he is one of the foun­der­mem­bers of the In­dian Mu­jahideen ( IM), an on- ground com­man­der who steered other bombers,” says an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. Yasin was also highly mo­ti­vated and com­pletely un­re­pen­tant. There was a ca­sual, cal­lous method to his five- year mad­ness: Tourists who sipped cold cof­fee at Pune’s Ger­man Bak­ery, small traders at rush hour in South Mum­bai and col­lege stu­dents go­ing in for steam­ing dosas in Hyderabad’s Dil­sukhna­gar sub­urb, all fell vic­tim to his bombs. Asked about the chil­dren his bombs had killed, he was im­pas­sive. “So what?” he snapped. “Peo­ple die all the time. My job was to

send across a mes­sage to the In­dian Govern­ment. I sleep peace­fully— from my first op­er­a­tion to the last one, I haven’t had any bad dreams,” he said.

Yasin even cited scrip­ture in de­fence of his deeds. He quoted the Bha­gavad Gita to ex­plain he was not re­ally killing any­one, but only send­ing souls back to their abodes. A se­nior IPS of­fi­cer who ques­tioned the bomber places him along­side re­morse­less Maoists who ca­su­ally sign off on mass mur­der. “I haven’t seen a ter­ror­ist as hard­ened as him in my ca­reer,” he says.

Yasin’s cap­ture is help­ing sleuths thwart other bomb at­tacks. He has, for in­stance, told them that two ter­ror­ists: Sa­mas­tipur, Bi­har- born Tah­sim Akhtar, alias Monu, and Pak­istani ter­ror­ist Waqas, have en­tered In­dia to strike im­por­tant tar­gets. It also gives them a glimpse into the in­ner work­ings of the Karachi- based IM, whose global sup­port­ers were un­happy at their “pa­thet­i­cally low strike rate”, says Yasin. This had forced IM to set up new teams to strike ‘ big tar­gets’ in the run- up to the Lok Sabha polls, when pub­lic lead­ers are most vul­ner­a­ble. Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi was the top IM tar­get, he said, be­cause reach­ing him would mean an in­crease in the flow of funds to the ter­ror group from its global sym­pa­this­ers. Like LeT, IM was flush with funds af­ter the 26/ 11 at­tack. Days be­fore Yasin’s ar­rest, Karachi- based Riyaz Bhatkal ( no re­la­tion) had sent him Rs 2 lakh via a hawala trans­fer.

Sleuths are yet to ver­ify Yasin’s other claims about re­sent­ment and a split in IM ranks, but they have noted that a more rad­i­cal and im­pa­tient group within IM has stopped tak­ing or­ders from Pak­istan- based IM founders, Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal, and in­ter­acts di­rectly with Pak­istani han­dlers. Yasin’s ques­tion­ing may help solve other cases, such as the July 2006 Mum­bai train bomb­ings that killed 209 peo­ple, and re­veal the hid­den hand guid­ing IM from across the bor­der.

Headley Re­veals Pak­istan’s Hand It was 26/ 11 scout David Cole­man Headley who re­vealed de­tails of the bomb­ing cam­paign against In­dian cities. Speak­ing to four NIA sleuths in a US fed­eral prison in the sum­mer of 2010, a re­laxed and vol­u­ble Headley shone a spot­light on the ‘ Karachi pro­ject’. In­dian agen­cies only knew the bare out­lines of a plot that has been brew­ing since 2002. The op­er­a­tions were based out of Pak­istan’s largest city, and rad­i­calised Mus­lim youth into ex­pert bomb mak­ers, to wage a deadly, low- in­ten­sity war against In­dian cities. Th­ese at­tacks had a two- fold strate­gic ob­jec­tive, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say: To at­tack the In­dian econ­omy through a se­ries of bomb strikes, but at the same time with­out in­volv­ing Pak­istan.

Headley added a name that brought this pro­ject closer to ISI: Ma­jor Ab­dur Rehman Hashim, 45, a re­tired Pak­istan army of­fi­cer. Ma­jor Ab­dur Rehman, de­scribed in NIA’S most wanted list as ‘ round- faced, well- built’, who used the alias ‘ Pasha’, is third in a list of In­dia’s 50 most- wanted fugi­tives, af­ter JuD’S Hafiz Saeed and 26/ 11 plot­ter Sa­jid Mir. He quit the Pak­istan Army in 2002, af­ter which he trained sui­cide at­tack­ers for LeT, al­ways un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a serv­ing ISI of­fi­cer whom Headley iden­ti­fied as a ‘ Colonel Shah’.

Ab­dur Rehman split from LeT in 2008 to ex­clu­sively run the Karachi ‘ set- up’ in­de­pen­dent of LeT. Rehman claimed he was close to Osama bin

Ab­dur Rehman split from LeT in 2008 to ex­clu­sively

run the Karachi ‘ set- up’ in­de­pen­dent of LeT. For that, he re­cruited young In­dian Mus­lims, in­clud­ing Bhatkal.

Laden. While in the Pak­istan army, he had re­fused to crack down on Al Qaeda fight­ers flee­ing Tora Bora in 2001. Rehman told Headley that the July 2006 train bomb­ings had been car­ried out by his “boys” and that bin Laden had even called his out­fit the Jund- ul- Fida ( Army of Fe­day­een). The boys were In­dian young­sters from across the bor­der, Rehman told Headley.

The Boy from Bhatkal One of th­ese boys came from a sleepy sea­side town of Bhatkal, 140 km north of Man­ga­lore, Kar­nataka. “Jao. Baat nahi karna hai ( Go away, I don’t want to talk to you).”: The an­noyed voice of the woman shoots past the walls of the Bhatkal home in Maq­doom Colony. The

reaction isn’t sur­pris­ing. For years now, es­pe­cially af­ter ev­ery ter­ror at­tack in which an IM hand has been sus­pected, po­lice­men and jour­nal­ists have sought out this home. Be­cause this is where the fam­ily of Ahmed Sid­dibapa, alias Yasin Bhatkal, lives. The woman is Yasin’s mother Re­hana, who, ac­cord­ing to her brother- in- law Yakub Sid­dibapa, spends all day weep­ing. We find Yakub sit­ting on a chair in the mar­ble- lined porch of the house. “An ac­quain­tance called me to break the news of Ahmed’s ar­rest. You see, I’m quite fa­mous in Bhatkal,” he says, with a half- smile that does not hide the pain in his heart. Later that evening, a fax from NIA con­firms to Ahmed’s fa­ther, Zarar Sid­dibapa, the break­ing news on all TV chan­nels.

Most Bhatkalis re­mem­ber Ahmed as a “shy, good- look­ing, God- fear­ing boy who would not look at any­one in the eye”. “I’ve not known Ahmed— or Yasin as you me­dia peo­ple call him— as the ag­gres­sive type. He was pa­tri­otic. He would be there for all national hol­i­days to hoist the flag,” says Nis­sar Ahmed, a so­cial worker in Bhatkal.

The Yasin Bhatkal name evokes un­com­fort­able re­ac­tions among Bhatkalis to­day. One of Ahmed’s class­mates re­quests that his iden­tity not be re­vealed, lest it jeop­ar­dise his planned move to the Gulf. “I knew Ahmed when he was in Class X. He was a very quiet per­son, who would keep to him­self.” But the mo­ment Yasin’s al­leged ter­ror ac­tiv­i­ties hit the head­lines, the friend was picked up for ques­tion­ing thrice by Mum­bai ATS and once by Ban­ga­lore Po­lice, to iden­tify him in dif­fer­ent get- ups.

With news that Yasin is no longer on the run, those who have known him in the past ex­press shock that they could not see through the in­no­cent face. Za­reena Kola, who taught him at Naunihal Pub­lic School in Bhatkal, says, “He was a well- man­nered boy who stud­ied at our school from Class III to VII. I’ve never seen him hit an­other stu­dent. He’d al­ways sup­port In­dia dur­ing cricket matches. I am in ut­ter dis­be­lief.”

“When Ahmed was in Class X, he sat for the first two ex­ams. The third test fell on a Fri­day and Ahmed chose to spend time do­ing na­maz at the lo­cal mosque in­stead. That was the end of his ed­u­ca­tion,” says Yakub. He moved to Dubai in 2004 to be with Zarar who ran a gar­ment busi­ness there. But with Zarar re­luc­tant to spon­sor Ahmed’s busi­ness plans in the Gulf, the miffed son left Dubai in 2007. His fam­ily claims that was the last they saw of him.

The Brother­hood of Hate No one in the town is quite sure at what point Ahmed be­came Yasin, but the alias he gave him­self marked his jour­ney down the road less trav­elled. Sleuths claim he met Riyaz Bhatkal in Dubai but came un­der the in­flu­ence of Iqbal Bhatkal in 2007, pos­si­bly in In­dia, who rad­i­calised him with videos of Mum­bai and Gu­jarat ri­ots. From here he is thought to have gone to Karachi, the largest refuge of In­dian fugi­tives in Pak­istan.

The Shah­ban­dri broth­ers, Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal, who also hailed from Bhatkal, were there, as was Kolkatabased gang­ster Amir Reza Khan, who had fled there and headed the ‘ Asif Reza Com­mando Force’ ( ARCF), a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion named af­ter Amir’s gang­ster brother who was killed by Gu­jarat Po­lice in 2002. ISI welded the banned Stu­dents Is­lamic Move­ment of In­dia ( SIMI), ARCF and the Bhak­tal net­works into the IM in 2007, os­ten­si­bly a home­grown ter­ror­ist group ded­i­cated

to pan- In­dian ter­ror­ist strikes.

Only sketchy de­tails have emerged of the pro­ject, most of them from cap­tured op­er­a­tives. But it is cer­tain that Yasin was among the early batches of In­dian young­sters who passed out of ISIrun train­ing camps in a re­mote re­gion of Balochis­tan, close to the Ira­nian bor­der. They were taught to fabri­cate Im­pro­vised Ex­plo­sive De­vices ( IEDS) from lo­cally- avail­able ex­plo­sive ma­te­rial like am­mo­nium ni­trate and TNT ( as RDX could in­di­cate state in­volve­ment). They were taught to fabri­cate, de­sign and plant IEDS with less ex­plo­sive but more shrap­nel to wound and maim, and to se­lect un­guarded tar­gets such as pub­lic trans­port sys­tems, mar­kets, cin­ema halls and tourist spots to max­imise im­pact. The bombs were equipped with highly so­phis­ti­cated trig­ger mech­a­nisms, hy­brid re­mote con­trol switches and cell phone trig­gers, which al­lowed the bombers to walk away safely. The In­ter­state Bomber An in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial re­veals how spies and sabo­teurs are trapped when they make a mis­take. A four- man team of IM bombers who tar­geted Delhi, Mum­bai and Jaipur, were shot and ar­rested on Septem­ber 18, 2008, at Batla House in Delhi, af­ter sleuths had tracked down their mo­bile SIM cards. Yasin, who in­fil­trated In­dia via Nepal some­time in 2007, was in­scrutable. Though he had dropped out of school, his com­mand over Kan­nada, English, Urdu, Hindi, Per­sian and Ben­gali en­abled him to pass off as well- ed­u­cated.

Yasin’s prac­tice of in­tel­li­gence field­craft was well- honed. He did not use email to com­mu­ni­cate with his han­dlers in Pak­istan. He changed his ad­dress fre­quently and used his cell phone only to make short few- sec­ond- long calls. He never used the same SIM card and hand­set twice. Each of the 11 se­rial blasts he has con­fessed to, were pre­ceded by months of liv­ing un­der false iden­ti­ties, rec­ces and fi­nally procur­ing ma­te­ri­als and as­sem­bling IEDS.

His cover slipped briefly in De­cem­ber 2009 when he was rounded up with two other sus­pects in a petty theft case in Kolkata. The quick- wit­ted Yasin, who spoke a smat­ter­ing of Ben­gali, iden­ti­fied him­self as a lo­cal, Bulla Mul­lick, from a sub­urb. He served a twom­onth jail stint be­fore he was bailed out by an ac­com­plice. It is still not clear where Yasin lived in Kolkata. The ad­dress he gave the po­lice was fake. It was clear he used the city, with its prox­im­ity to Bi­har and the por­ous bor­ders with Bangladesh and Nepal, to source ex­plo­sives. This he proved just days af­ter flee­ing bail in Kolkata, when a CCTV grab caught a bearded young man sport­ing a base­ball hat and haver­sack on his back in Pune’s Ger­man Bak­ery. When the young man stepped out, he had left his haver­sack be­hind. The bomb in­side ripped through the diner, killing 17 peo­ple and in­jur­ing 60 oth­ers. The bomber was back.

Few months later, in 2011, Yasin sur­faced in Mum­bai as “Dr Imran”, a po­lite, cir­cum­spect Unani doc­tor, who rented a room in 53, Habib Build­ing, Mum­bai Cen­tral. “Imran” was ac­com­pa­nied by Waqas. On July 13, 2011, bombs ripped through three lo­ca­tions in South Mum­bai, killing 27 and leav­ing 100 wounded. One of the tar­gets was the street out­side a busy Pan­charatna Di­a­mond Bourse in Opera House, less than two kilo­me­tres away from Habib Build­ing. By then, the soft- spo­ken man who replied in mono­syl­la­bles and wor-

ked out in Arun Gawli’s gym­na­sium in cen­tral Mum­bai, had van­ished. The room was empty. It had no fur­ni­ture and only news­pa­pers on the floor.

Yasin went back to be­ing Imran in Delhi. It was an iden­tity he had as­sumed in 2009 in the Cap­i­tal’s western sub­urb of Sha­heen Bagh, where he set up a rudi­men­tary bomb- mak­ing fac­tory with one Ir­shad Khan. It was Ir­shad who con­vinced his pretty 26year- old daugh­ter Zahida that “Imran” was a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer from Lucknow, and got them mar­ried. Here, he lived the life of a de­vout Mus­lim who prayed five times a day and slept on the floor. When the po­lice came knock­ing in Novem­ber 2011, how­ever, “Imran” had van­ished. While on the run, he made one small con­ces­sion. He made brief calls to Zahida from pub­lic booths, en­sur­ing they were at least 20 km away from where he stayed.

In May this year, IB in­for­mants in Nepal told the bureau about a man who matched Yasin’s de­scrip­tion in Pokhara, Nepal’s sec­ond largest city. Af­ter this, IB put the bearded youth un­der sur­veil­lance. He drove a red mo­tor­bike, had two lap­tops, four cell phones and an end­less sup­ply of cash. Yasin’s beard, which he re­fused to trim de­spite ex­plicit in­struc­tions from his Pak­istani han­dlers, helped sleuths make a pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. He was tailed in­side Nepal for more than a week by Vi­nay Kumar, su­per­in­ten­dent of po­lice, Moti­hari, a dis­trict of Bi­har on the Nepal bor­der. As SSP, Gaya dis­trict, Kumar had in­ter­ro­gated four IM ter­ror­ists ar­rested by Delhi Po­lice for the Ger­man Bak­ery blast. Just be­fore Eid on Au­gust 9 this year, Yasin made an­other mis­take. He tele­phoned his wife Zahida three times from two mo­bile num­bers in Nepal, and, soon af­ter, wire- trans­ferred $ 1,000 to her. The op­er­a­tion, closely mon­i­tored by IB Di­rec­tor Asif Ibrahim, ended with his cap­ture by the joint IB and Bi­har Po­lice team.

Strangely, the Bi­har po­lice were not too keen on tak­ing Yasin into cus­tody— they hinted that Chief Min­is­ter Ni­tish Kumar was wor­ried at the im­pact Yasin’s ar­rest could have on his Mus­lim con­stituency.

Yasin’s ar­rest does not end the war on ter­ror. Still- at- large IM fugi­tives, such as Ab­dul Sub­han Qureishi, an ex­pert bomb maker, or Monu, a Yasin pro­tégé and an ac­cused in the 2010 blast in Ban­ga­lore’s Ch­hin­naswami sta­dium, could pos­si­bly step into his shoes. Ma­jor Ab­dur Rehman’s Karachi Pro­ject set- up has ac­cess to dozens of metic­u­lous recce videos and GPS fixes of likely tar­gets in Delhi, Mum­bai and Pune col­lected by David Headley. Th­ese in­clude the National De­fence Col­lege in Delhi that trains se­nior bu­reau­crats and armed forces per­son­nel, the Prime Min­is­ter’s res­i­dence on 7, Race Course Road, and Pune’s Osho com­mune.

But so far, IM does not have any­one of Yasin’s cal­i­bre to carry out th­ese threats. His cap­ture buys In­dia a brief respite. “It will take ISI be­tween six months to a year be­fore they can plan and carry out an­other ef­fec­tive bomb at­tack,” one sleuth says. A brief respite in a long war.

Graphic: RAHULAWASTHI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

RAVI S SA­HANI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com



M ZHAZO/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com


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