Friday, August 22, 2008

How Gujarat police cracked the islamist jihadi terror blasts case

How Modi's police cracked the blasts case

Sheela Bhatt in Gujarat | August 19, 2008 | 19:02 IST

Besides many other things, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is certainly a lucky politician. In just 22 days his police claims to have solved the conspiracy behind the serial bomb blasts in Ahmedabad of July 26 and the mystery behind the bombs that were planted all over Surat but did not explode.

How did the Gujarat police manage what the police in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Bengaluru could not do in the last two years? reconstructs the investigations that went into unravelling the conspiracy on the basis of information from multiple sources in Ahmedabad and New Delhi.

The early leads

On the evening of July 26, as the news of the bomb blasts trickled in from Isanpur, Narol circle to the Maninagar area of Ahmedabad, the last being Modi's constituency, the police and political establishment were stunned. After the communal riots of 2002 there had been expectations of some kind of violent "reaction", but 22 blasts in 18 spots in a highly communally surcharged city were stunning to say the least. Not only that, it was also loaded with a stern political message for the chief minister who has won the popular mandate twice on the plank of security.

Chief Minister Modi and Amit Shah, his minister of state for home, do not lack the motivation to pick up difficult political or administrative challenges, but the blasts at the civil hospital was too shocking even for the seasoned politicos. Their desperation in facing the situation was obvious. Modi has projected himself as a "different" leader because he provided safety to people in a country wracked by terrorism. But 18 blasts in 80 minutes seriously dented his image, and his only redemption lay in going about the investigation with professionalism.

His police's and his own credibility was so low in matters of criminal investigations after the Sohrabuddin encounter case and the communal riots cases of 2002 that they needed to put in extra effort. Also, whatever the spin-masters claim, it's clear that somewhere the police and the administration failed to prevent the blasts which were committed by "home-grown" elements.

Terror's new faces

There was failure on the part of the police machinery. When the investigations started, the first thing all the IPS officers did was to read Students Islamic Movement of India chief Safdar Nagori's statement given to the Madhya pradesh police when he was arrested in March, and that of his associate Ameel Pervez. Pervez had attended an arms training camp in Gujarat and he also gave the names of SIMI members like Sajid Mansuri, Yunus Mansuri, Zahid Sheikh, Imran Sheikh and Usman Agarbattiwala who had attended it. Neither the concerned states nor the IB had acted on it and taken preventive measures.

However, the lessons were late in coming but they were learnt quickly.

It is credit to Modi's determination and the Gujarat police's zeal, aided by the Intelligence Bureau's extraordinary efforts in giving relevant inputs to the state police, that this case could be cracked.

There was an element of urgency in the police investigations since the state government took it as a war that needed to be won. After the blasts, for the first few days the Gujarat government's approach was tinged with nervousness because they wanted to avoid communal tension at any cost.

The political leaders' anxiety only heightened on reading the e-mail sent by the terrorists just moments before the blasts. The e-mail "in the Name of Allah" from Indian Mujahideen had challenged Modi and his police in its opening sentence itself.

It said, 'Indian Mujahideen strike again! - Do whatever you can, within 5 minutes from now, feel the terror of Death!'

The clumsily worded e-mail was so blunt in its political message that Modi had no option but to pick up the gauntlet against terrorism. The e-mail became the motivating force for some senior police officers, too.

While provoking the Muslims of Gujarat it said, 'Target these evil politicians and leaders of BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, who provoke the masses against you. Target and kill the wicked police force who were watching the "fun" of your bloodshed and who handed you to the rioting sinful culprits. Target their hired informers and spies even if they are the disloyal and betraying munafiqeen (hypocrites) of our Ummah. O Muslims of Gujarat!'

By midnight of July 26 the ruling political leadership sprang into action to make senior policemen understand that their investigations will get 100 per cent support, nothing less nothing more. They had at their disposal money, resources, manpower and even a chartered plane.

"As the news of the seventh blasts came in we knew that there more than 25 people were involved. And, we assessed that without the help of local Ahmedabadis the anti-national elements could not have planted bombs in such a perfect operation. We made these two assumptions and they proved right. We started looking within, without wasting any time," said a senior officer who was a member of the core team of investigators. The text of the IM's e-mail was sent to all officers including in Baroda, Bharuch and Surat where the investigations needed to be done on a war footing.

The e-mail was analysed thoroughly, and its careful reading helped narrow down the focus.

More than 11 teams were formed within the first few hours of the blasts. One team was asked to handle the investigations into the material used in the bombs. Another team was asked to investigate the use of bicycles. Another team was formed to thoroughly check all the phone calls made in Ahmedabad from certain areas just before and after the blasts. Another team was set up to reach out to all the police informers and gather their opinions on and information of the blasts. One team followed the cyber crime aspect of the case. The overall investigation of the case was assigned to the crime branch of Ahmedabad where more than 100 people started following whatever little leads that were available, from the midnight of July 26.

All of them were told that even if "communal riots (the possibility was always there) take place in Ahmedabad they should not divert their attention."�

"From July 26 to August 16 (when the breakthrough was announced) none of us went home to sleep. Every morning at 7 we would all go home and return after a shower and in fresh clothes. We would sleep on our chairs in the daytime. We haven't hit the bed yet," said Deputy Commissioner of Police Abhay Chudasama, who along with his boss Joint Commissioner of Police Ashish Bhatia and Rakesh Asthana, police commissioner of Baroda, played an important role in detecting the conspiracy behind the bomb blasts.

The Gujarat police claims that, probably for the first time, the central Intelligence Bureau and it have worked on the terrorism case as complementary teams and produced some excellent results. Between July 27 and August 16, on many days the political leadership was briefed in the Ahmedabad circuit house at 4 am. That was the kind of frenzy displayed by the Gujarat police and the political leaders to get to the bottom of the terror case.

Chudasama claims that for the first three days they had no clue of the culprits behind the blasts, but more and more assuredly all of them started believing that it seemed to be the work of the banned SIMI.

The Gujarat police's databank of SIMI members in Ahmedabad had some names including that of Zahid Sheikh. They picked him up and started interrogating him extensively.

"He is a fanatic. He is not a Gujarati, he is not an Indian. He claims he is merely a soldier of Islam. These accused don't belong to even their own families," said a source in the police.

"You will have to understand the identity of the perpetrators of the bomb blasts. Their "transnational" identity itself is an anti-national act," says one of the interrogators.

Hectic interrogation was going on at two places, one of them being the crime branch office in Haveli area of Ahmedabad.

Here, Joint Commissioner of Police Ashish Bhatia and his deputy Abhay Chudasama were working relentlessly to narrow down their search. In Baroda, under the supervision of Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana, independent investigations were going on. Asthana is a level-headed officer with 10 years of experience in the Central Bureau of Investigation. He shares the credit for investigating the fodder scam which tainted Lalu Prasad Yadav.

As soon as the news came out that Baroda might have been used as a conduit by the conspirators, Asthana formed a special team of hardly four-five people. In Ahmedabad and Baroda the most important thing was to keep the investigations and its processes a secret. A news-hungry media was all the time "fooled" by leaking irrelevant stories and even sketches of the 'accused' were made only to "feed" the media.

It was of no use to the investigators whatsoever. In reality, they were going down a different path. Once the role of SIMI emerged, Asthana specially asked his department to get on board two Muslim police officers.

Since he is merely two months old in his current post, he got from the databank a file on SIMI activists living in Baroda. The blue file had a professionally prepared dossier on SIMI activists, and the opening page featured Usman Agarbattiwala complete with his photograph.

Asthana went through the accompanying details like Agarbattiwala's telephone numbers, his work, background and the names of all his relatives that were in the dossier.

Immediately, details of Agarbattiwala's telephone calls, both made and received, were procured. It took relentless work through day and night to make the chart of the most frequently made calls from his phone. They were then narrowed down and owners of those numbers were detected and, in turn, the printouts of those phone calls were procured. A professional hard work done with the help of computers in the police headquarters in Kothi area yielded fantastic results.

Asthana's team created a cluster of cell phone movement among select persons. These movements were finally narrowed down to Agarbattiwala, Kayamuddin Kapadia, Imran Sheikh and Iqbal Sheikh. In no time Agarbattiwala, Imran and Iqbal were picked up. Along with others Joint Commissioner of Police Pravin Kumar Sinha and inspector Karimbhai Polra played an important role in Asthana's team.

The first copy of the interrogation report was sent to the Ahmedabad team which was narrowing down on local SIMI activists including Zahid Sheikh. Agarbattiwala's cracking proved very crucial. Bhatia and Chudasama cracked Zahid Sheikh as much as they could. In Baroda, Iqbal was a new entrant to SIMI ranks but some of the detainees were tough nuts to crack who had undergone special training to withstand police methods. On the basis of the early lead provided by the interrogations in Baroda and Ahmedabad, teams of Gujarat police travelled to Kerala, Mumbai, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka to collect a variety of documentary evidence.

By August 8-9, Modi knew his state police was just days away from success that has eluded the police in other Indian states wracked by terrorism.

Gujarat cops hope they have an airtight case

Sheela Bhatt in Gujarat | August 22, 2008 | 21:25 IST

Part I: How Modi's police cracked the blasts case

The Gujarat police has almost reconstructed how the blasts were planned and executed, though with a few missing links.

The assembling of the bombs meant for Surat was done at Imran Sheikh's home in Baroda, while for Ahmedabad the bombs were assembled in Yunus Mansoori's hose in Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad. The forensic test of these places is on and the police is hopeful that they will get the necessary evidences soon.

Imran Sheikh has been arrested. His statement gives a lot of information, like how many times the militant SIMI chief Safdar Nagori and Mufti Bashir visited Gujarat and stayed in his house and what all they did in Gujarat.

"So far, conclusive evidence has not been obtained but in any terrorism case the turning points in investigations always come only after the confessional statements of the accused," a senior officer said.

Terror's new faces

From the confessional statements by the accused, which are most likely to be retracted, the police has got the entire sequence of conspiracy. They have the names of shops and witnesses from where the bicycles to plant the bombs were bought, shops from where the chemicals, timers, wires and detonators were bought. The police has taken care to find some Muslim witnesses in the case as well.

There were three types of bombs: tiffin bombs, bombs in the shape of� a boat, and car bombs. All the bombs kept on bicycles were blasted at the same time while the car bombs were fitted with gas cylinders.

The confessional statements the Gujarat police got from the arrested accused are also totally matching in detail. They have also recovered a 7.6mm pistol, a laptop belonging Iqbal and a number of CDs. The computer of Usman Agarbattiwala had a rough draft of the e-mail which was sent to the media before the blasts. Agarbattiwala was a well-known in his community and his brother is a medical practitioner.

Also, if one believes the claims of the Gujarat police, the Students Islamic Movement of India has only become more powerful after its ban in 2001. That also means the Intelligence Bureau and state governments since the last three years have completely failed to know, assess and analyse the internal changes in a banned SIMI while innocent people were being killed mercilessly in bomb blasts.

The investigators say the terror operation in Ahmedabad was planned by Nagori, Mufti Abu Bashir from Uttar Pradesh, Kayamuddin Kapadia of Baroda, Taufique Bilal alias Abdul Subhan Qureshi of Mumbai -- who provided the technical knowhow to make the bombs and to hack computers -- and Sajid Mansuri of Surat, who was the coordinator.

The Ahmedabad and Baroda police have gone through the records of lakhs of mobile phones which were discontinued on or after the July 26 blasts. It turned out that the people who have been arrested had switched off their regular mobile phones after the blasts or had thrown away the SIM card. All the arrested accused are members of SIMI, and six of them were on the police list before 2001.

The Gujarat police's interrogation of Zahid Sheikh and Sajid Mansuri suggests that the absconding Taufique alias Abdus Subhan Qureshi possibly had a role in the Mumbai train blasts of July 11, 2006. In the first week of August, a team from the Gujarat police which included a Muslim officer went to Taufique's residence in Nayanagar area of Mira Road outside Mumbai. While serving seviyan, the traditional sweet dish, Taufique's wife gave enough hints to the police that her husband is unlikely to be caught. She almost threw a challenge to them.

Taufique was detained by the Mumbai police but was released after six days of interrogation because they could not find anything against him.

Zahid Sheikh was also interrogated but was released. Mufti Bashir was also once interrogated by the Hyderabad police but was released because they could not find any information about his involvement.

The arrests of the SIMI cadre were not easy. When the Baroda police went to the provision store run by Iqbal Sheikh in the city's Yakubpura area he himself told the police, "Iqbal is not in Baroda."

He tried to mislead the police but the latter didn't budge. Iqbal is a new entrant in SIMI and was not involved in the planning stage of the bomb blasts.

Kayamuddin Kapadia, a fundamentalist subscribing to the orthodox Ahle Hadees sect, is the constitutional head of SIMI in Gujarat. His whereabouts are not known but he is as important to this case as Mufti Abu Bashir.

Usman Agarbattiwala, who was arrested in Baroda, gave initial hints of the operation to the Gujarat police. A confidant of Kapadia, Usman was doing a diploma in human rights from Baroda University. The SIMI leadership wants its cadres to penetrate the legal field, media and human rights outfits all over India.

The SIMI training camp organised at Khumtir dargah in the hilly areas of Pawagadh was organised by Mufti Bashir and Kapadia.

The Gujarat police was so lethargic till the bomb blasts occurred that as soon as the blasts inquiry started, Sajid Mansuri who was absconding since the last six years, was picked up after a brilliant operation. Sajid has half a dozen pseudonyms including Saad, Sajjad, salim and Ghulam Mansoori. All these years he had been hiding in Surat, Baroda or Bharuch. He knows these three cities better than any policemen would know.

It is claimed that these accused told the police, "As Gujaratis we wanted to prove that we were capable of doing something in Gujarat also. We wanted to teach s lesson to Modi and his supporters. And, we wanted to send across a message by establishing our presence."

The Gujarat police and the state's political leadership are reluctant to admit it, but the blasts were a 'revenge' for the 2002 communal riots in the state. But the police claim the attacks were meant to assert SIMI's clout to the young Gujarati Muslims.

The investigation of the arrested SIMI cadres is not at all easy. They are parting with a little information and later claim that whatever they said are lies. They shift their stance many times a day and thoroughly confuse the police.

Baroda Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana says, "These are committed people. Imran's old father was medically treated in the civil hospital recently. He stayed with him there. But, the same man was a part of conspiracy that planted a bomb in the civil hospital. They have no remorse. They dispute the idea of nationalism."

When Zahid Sheikh, a key man in Ahmedabad blasts who planted the bomb in the civil hospital was produced at the magistrate's court� on August 17 he proudly showed the victory sign to TV cameras. A police officer says, "Zahid and others think that, at last, now they are on the right track in life as guided by Islam."

Yunus Mansoori told the Gujarat police that when he asked Mufti Bashir why do you want to join them in the execution of the plan, Bashir reportedly replied, "Jannat sirf aap ko hi jana hai (only you want to go to heaven)?"

When Bashir was handed over to Himanshu Shukla of the Gujarat police, his first demand was for a green cloth cover on his face instead of the usual black one. He said green is the colour of Islam.

Zahid Sheikh, after his arrest, told the police, "We believe in a borderless world. Nationalism breaks the universe. Islam unites. You should convert to Islam."

Sajjad Mansuri had organised the infamous meeting of 124 SIMI workers in Surat's Rajshree hall in 2001 that had shocked everyone by its anti-India speeches by jihadis. After July 26 the Baroda police learnt that Mansuri was immensely fond of his children Mohmmad Zaid and Abu Zar, and simply followed the movement of these two children to nab him. Their names were found in a Baroda school but they had left after two years. Their school leaving certificate showed that they had shifted to Bharuch. The police kept watch outside the new school, spotted them, and found their home address through school records. And Mansoori was caught.

And he is proving to be a trove of information. He is a man of organisation, is quite cunning, very commonsensical but distrusts non-Muslims. He also hates Muslims who worship at dargahs.

Predictably, neither he nor his colleagues have any remorse of what they have done. Rather, one accused is so hardcore that when the police is giving him a tough time he starts reciting verses, or ayats, from the Quran.

Although the police officers are very careful in talking about the motives behind the bomb blasts, a source in the police says one accused told him, "We hate Narendra Modi." He gave details of his wish-list of how he would like to target Modi in Gandhinagar.

Yunus mansoori, Usman Agarbattiwala and Samshuddin Arif have previous records of arrest in a case connected to SIMI activity. Mansoori, who is more than six feet tall, told the police: "There will be peace in India if everyone converts to Islam."

When asked repeatedly why would these militants remain in Gujarat after the bomb blasts, the Gujarat police says, "None of them thought the police will ever catch them. Even if they are caught they thought it will be for political reasons. Blasts after blasts took place in India and nobody was arrested, so they became brazen."

He adds, "The media may like to write what they want on the entire issue of Indian terrorism. But for us the lesson is simple. A few people in India are interpreting the Quran wrongly and interpreting the concept of jihad crookedly. We have to be careful and alert against them."

Gujarat cops' biggest problem: public scepticism

Sheela Bhatt in Gujarat | August 26, 2008 | 15:59 IST

After highlighting how the Gujarat police force cracked the Ahmedabad blasts conspiracy and how the they were going about building an airtight case against the terrorists, in this the final part of her 3-part series, Sheela Bhatt describes how the force is trying to overcome its biggest stumbling block: the disbelief over its claim of having cracked the case:

In cracking the Ahmedabad serial blasts case the Gujarat police may have opened a Pandora's box.

It claims to have not only got evidence against those who planned and executed the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad and Surat, but also that it has got definite insights into the conspiracy aspect of the blasts on Samjhauta Express and in Jaipur.

In fact, some unused explosive connected with the blasts on Samjhauta Express was recently recovered by Gujarat police.

In other words, what the Gujarat police is claiming is that the blasts in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and probably Samjhauta Express were conceived, planned and executed by the militant faction of the Students Islamic Movement of India formed after 2005. That also means the usual suspects -- like Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, Lashkar-e-Tayiba or HUJI of Bangladesh -- can't be blamed for some of the recent blasts that have killed more than 200 innocent Indians.

So far, revelations by the accused suggest that the terror strikes in Bengaluru, Jaipur and Gujarat are made in India and by Indians.

A senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader in Gujarat, whose party is in power in the state, says, "We have not found any external links to SIMI in the execution of the blasts in Ahmedabad and Surat."

The Gujarat police zoomed in on SIMI only after they interrogated Zahid Sheikh of Ahmedabad (who allegedly planted the bomb in the city's civil hospital) and Usman Agarbattiwala of Baroda. Their interrogation, read along with SIMI chief Safdar Nagori and his associate Ameel pervez's statement, made them believe that SIMI, a fiercely political outfit, turned militant after it was banned in 2001.

"Possibly SIMI's role behind the bomb blasts was overlooked while giving attention to the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. The Indian establishment went into slumber after banning SIMI," says a senior police officer in Ahmedabad.

He says four days after the bomb blasts, when the Gujarat police narrowed down their focus to SIMI and picked up Zahid Sheikh from his home in Juhapura, a political leader questioned its judgement in a meeting. "He said SIMI may not have done 'direct action' like planning to kill so many people," the police officer said.

If Nagori's statement had been studied properly, may be the story would have been different.

"It's the height of inefficiency," fumed Ajit Doval, former chief of Intelligence Bureau. "Senior officers are so 'busy' normally that they read only the summary of such confessional statements. In Nagori's statement, the mention of Gujarat and Rajasthan must be in the third paragraph of page number 17," he added, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

"We never got a copy of Safdar Nagori's statement," counters Ashish Bhatia, Ahmedabad's joint commissioner of police who is heading the investigation into the Gujarat blasts. "We were unaware that he has mentioned any plans of subversive activities in Rajasthan and Gujarat. We knew generally about the threat perception, but nothing beyond that."

Naturally, given the credibility problem investigations into terrorism-related suffer from in India, and more so by the Gujarat police in the light of the Sohrabuddin case, the latter's current achievements is looked at either with suspicion or complete disbelief. Any kind of communal violence or terrorism is a delicate issue in India; a number of people -- from whichever community the perpetrators belong to -- inevitably slip into denial mode.

In this case, most experts deemed secular and Muslim leaders do not buy the Gujarat police's version of events. A Bengaluru-based expert on India's madrassas refused to respond to because he said the police's findings are based on confessional statements of arrested people, and extracted under pressure.

Doval, however, disagrees. "In the absence of any other evidence I would think the Gujarat police investigation is credible," he says.

Bhatia was emphatic: "I can tell you that we have enough evidence in this case to plead for death sentence for the culprits. Our investigations will withstand trial in any court."

So, given these two opinions, should one believe the investigations of the Gujarat police?

Here are pointers to form one's judgement.

Special police teams from Rajasthan, Haryana, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru have already lined up in Ahmedabad to interrogate the arrested accused, especially Mufti Abu Bashir and Sajid Mansuri. What they do beyond this will indicate the authenticity of the Gujarat police's claims.

The Kerala government has confirmed that an arms training camp was organised by SIMI in December 2007 and even a First Information report was filed against it in the area, but investigations were abruptly discontinued.

The Gujarat police claims that it has details of the involvement of some 40 persons in the recent bomb blasts in India out of which they have arrested 10 who are directly involved in the serial blasts in Ahmedabad and in planting of bombs in Surat. They also claim that a separate press conference will be held to reveal how, when and by whom the bombs were planted in Surat.

Baroda police commissioner Rakesh Asthana says, "We have no doubt that the same group which planted bombs in Ahmedabad was behind the Surat bombs. The technique used in it didn't work but the bombs were not kept to just scare the people, they were meant to explode. We know where these bombs were assembled in Baroda."

It is noteworthy that before the Gujarat government responded politically to the sceptics, the Congress-led central government has already given its stamp of approval to the investigations by using it against SIMI in the ongoing hearings in Supreme Court over the organisation's ban.

The Gujarat police has admitted that Intelligence Bureau has lent enormous support to its investigators to unravel the conspiracy.

IB chief P C Haldar is a confidant of National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, and it's quite unlikely that his establishment will wholeheartedly support the Gujarat chief minister's cops or allow the him to reap any political benefit from the investigations.

It is well known in intelligence circles that Mufti Abu Bashir's arrest from Uttar Pradesh would have not been possible but for IB's speedy efforts. As Zahid Sheikh, Sajjad Mansoori and Agarbattiwala started singing in custody, it was IB which helped the investigations move in the right direction by instantly -- in some cases in just four hours -- providing dossiers of names that cropped up in the interrogations from their databank in Mumbai and Delhi.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil himself has congratulated Gujarat Minister of State Amit Shah for cracking the case.

But there were hiccups too. Around August 13-14, when the Mufti was traced to his village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati asked her police officers if any case against him was pending in the state. Her idea, initially, was to keep him in the state government's custody. But somehow wisdom prevailed in Lucknow and she allowed the Mufti to be handed over to the Gujarat police.

At one point of time, the Gujarat police wanted to interrogate Mufti Bashir before his arrest, and efforts were made at the highest levels in Gujarat and in New Delhi to detain the Mufti, interrogate him and then seek his police custody. It is well known that accused don't reveal much after their formal arrest. This practice, despite being a violation of human rights is a common one in India, but was not allowed by Home Minister Shivraj Patil in this instance.

He categorically denied to the Gujarat government any access to Bashir without first arresting him.

Despite all this and the sceptics' vocal criticism, the political leadership and the police in Gujarat are confident that this case will be built as professionally as it can be.

Giving some details of the investigations, police officers told that all the arrested terrorists are Deobandis, and some of them follow one of its conservative sects, the Ahle Hadis.

Most of the arrested accused are tough, well-trained in how to deal with police interrogation and have a fairly good knowledge of functioning of the media, judiciary and the police. All of them know they are safer if arrested, illegal detention is what scares both criminals and innocents.

While parting with inside information, a police officer who did not want to be named told, "It's easier to withstand and tackle external aggression because it unites Indians. Internal subversion divides society."

"One should wait for more revelations from the police, but we are in precarious times," comments Bhanu Pratap Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research. "Why are so many people feeling alienated?"

India can no longer pass the buck. It is time to introspect why some of her own citizens are taking to terrorism against her.

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