Tuesday, Jan 25, 2022

The Road to Maximum Terror

The JuD is arguably the best-organised political force in Punjab. Dismantling its infrastructure will prove a formidable challenge to Pakistan, even if the State does, indeed, decide it wishes to take that course. Failure to compel Pakistan to act, h

The Road to Maximum Terror
The Road to Maximum Terror

"The only language India understands", the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) supreme amir (chief) told top functionaries of his organisation on October 19, 2008, "is that of force, and that is the language in which it must be talked to".

Less than six weeks later, around 9:00 pm on the night of November 26, a woman in the koliwada — or fishing village — off south Mumbai’s upmarket Budhwar Park area saw an inflatable dinghy nudge up against the beach. She, and a few fishermen who were drinking near the beach, watched as ten men got off the boat, and made their way towards the road behind the slum. "Don’t bother us", growled one of the men, in response to a friendly query. The villagers, wisely, kept their peace.

Much of what we know about what happened next comes from the testimony of the dark young man who, dressed in a knock-off Versace T-shirt and grey cargo pants, was caught on closed-circuit camera just minutes before he opened fire at commuters at Mumbai’s crowded Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station.

Mohammad Ajmal Amir has told the Mumbai Police he was part of group of ten men who spent months training in guerrilla warfare, marine commando techniques and navigation skills at Lashkar camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Punjab.

Lashkar military commander Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, Amir has told investigators, showed the group Google Earth maps of South Mumbai, and films of the targets each of the five two-man units had been tasked to hit. Iman, along with his partner ‘Abu Umar’ — whose name, he learned, was in fact Mohammad Ismail Khan — were tasked with attacking the CST. Once they had reached their destinations, the men were told to kill, take hostages, and then — holed out on the roofs of their targets — phone Indian television stations. Once the inevitable rescue operation began, the men were to slaughter the hostages.

Amir’s journey to Mumbai began on September 15, 2008, when the five groups of fidayeen (suicide squad) were ordered to travel to Karachi after leaving Muridke, home of the Lashkar’s parent-political group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). The group reassembled near Karachi, where the fidayeen were told that they would leave for Mumbai on September 27. For reasons that are unclear, the departure was delayed and fresh orders did not come in until November 22.

Lakhvi, Amir has said, personally saw off the group when it finally pushed off the Karachi coast at 4:00 AM on November 23. Amir and Khan rowed out to the Pakistan-flagged merchant ship al Hussaini along with men they knew as Abu Akasha and Abu Umar; ‘Bada’ [‘elder’ or ‘big’] Abdul Rehman and Abu Ali; ‘Chhota’ [‘younger’ or ‘small’] Abdul Rehman and Fahadullah; Shoaib and Umar — all Pakistani nationals who spoke Punjabi.

Each man carried a Kalashnikov rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition and grenades. Five men had larger bags, packed with integrated circuit-controlled improvised explosive devices. The group also had at least one state-of-the art Garmin Global Positioning System set, and several mobile phones fitted with Indian SIM cards.

Near Indian coastal waters, the men hijacked a fishing boat, the Gujarat-registered Kuber, which had strayed away from the main fishing fleet in bad weather. Four of the five-man crew on the Kuber were taken aboard the al Husaini, where they are believed to have been executed. The fifth crew member, Amar Narayan Singh — a 45 year old father of three — guided the fidayeen unit to the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai. Once there, the men slit Singh’s throat, and reached Budhwar Park in their inflatable dinghy.

From Budhwar Park, the men travelled on to their targets by the simplest means possible: they hailed taxis or, in three cases, simply walked the few hundred metres to their targets, all clustered in south Mumbai. Bombs later went off in two taxis in Mumbai’s suburbs, which are thought to have been planted there by two of the teams. Once at their targets, the men began opening fire. The operation went almost precisely as planned, bar two factors: against impossible odds, a few ill-equipped Mumbai Police officers put up an unexpected fighting, derailing the hostage-taking plans — and Amir, when halted by one police team, took two bullets in his arm, and lived.

Amir’s account — disputed by Pakistan’s State apparatus and media, until a welter of western reports confirmed that the terrorist was indeed a resident of the village of Faridkot, in Pakistan’s Okara District — isn’t however the sole piece of evidence on the Mumbai massacre’s planning and authorship.

Evidence on the route used by the fidayeen to reach Mumbai has been recorded in detail on the GPS system used by the terrorists, which maps their journey from Karachi in minute detail. In addition, a satellite phone used by the terrorists to make calls from the Kuber has five Pakistani numbers in its call records. 

US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) detectives have also determined that the IEDs used in Mumbai closely resemble, in their fabrication, devices used by Pakistan-linked terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. 

Moreover, the Mumbai Police and India’s intelligence services were able to intercept several phone calls made by the terrorists from their mobile phones, during the attack, to their controllers in Pakistan. The calls were made to virtual phone numbers in New Jersey and Vienna, purchased from the voice-over-internet service provider Vox Phone, paid for through a Western Union branch in Karachi.

The intelligence harvest also appears to bear out Amir’s account. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), notably, delivered two warnings to India of possible attack on Mumbai. The first, couched in general terms, was delivered to India through the Research and Analysis Wing on September 18. In response to an Indian request, the CIA delivered further details on September 24, warning expressly that the Lashkar was planning to hit targets with large numbers of foreigners, including the Taj Mahal Hotel. Read against Amir’s testimony to the Mumbai Police, it would appear that the CIA had picked up the movement of the Lashkar fidayeen from Muridke to Karachi.

The CIA’s warnings corroborated information generated by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which, in September, warned that the Lashkar had conducted reconnaissance operations in several parts of Mumbai, in particular around hotels in south Mumbai as well as the suburbs. The IB’s warnings had led the Mumbai Police to step up security around south Mumbai. Pamphlets were distributed to store owners, asking them to report suspicious movement. Top management at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Hotel were also briefed on the threat. 

Bar imposing parking restrictions for a brief period, neither hotel acted. The chronically understaffed Mumbai Police, too, was forced to move out the additional police force deployed around the hotels in October, to deal with persistent law-and-order problems related to a local ethnic-chauvinist mobilisation. In any case, it is unclear that the additional Police presence in Mumbai would have altered the course of events: some officers had not trained with firearms for a decade, and even the elite Anti-Terrorism Squad’s Quick Reaction Teams had not used their assault rifles for a year, because of an ammunition shortage.

On November 18, RAW itself intercepted a satellite phone conversation from the al Husaini, which suggested that an unspecified ‘consignment’ was on its way to Mumbai. RAW analysts, who determined that the satellite phone call was made to a number known to be used by Lakhvi and his subordinates, notified the Indian Coast Guard of a potential threat.

Late on the night of November 20, coast Guard authorities, in turn, launched a day-long hunt for the al-Hussaini, based on the GPS coordinates provided by RAW. The search, however, proved unsuccessful — not surprisingly, since from Amir’s testimony, we learn that the Lashkar group was yet to board the al Husaini. Coast Guard patrols kept an eye out for the ship in coming days, but not the Indian fishing boat on which the terrorists were eventually to arrive.

Without full cooperation from Pakistani investigators, though, it is unclear how much of the technical evidence can be turned into material that will facilitate the criminal prosecution of the command-level perpetrators. 

From the available evidence, however, it is clear that the Lashkar had long been planning attacks using sea routes across the Indian Ocean. From as early as 2002, Indian intelligence assets reported that Lashkar elements were receiving some basic marine-skills training at the Mangla Dam reservoir in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and at the organisation’s private lake in Murikde.

American journalist Steve Coll provided independent corroboration for these reports in a recent article, noting that it "has long been an open secret, and a source of some hilarity among foreign correspondents, that under the guise of ‘humanitarian relief operations’, Lashkar practiced amphibious operations on a lake at its vast headquarters campus, outside Lahore".

Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar operative who commanded the terror group’s India-focussed operations out of Bangladesh, helped concentrate India’s intelligence concerns on the issue sharply. In September 2006, Haroun was briefly held by Bangladesh authorities before being quietly deported. But a west European covert service obtained transcripts of his questioning by Bangladesh’s Directorate-General of Field Intelligence. Haroun, it turned out, had been using a complex shipping network, using merchant ships and small fishing boats, to move explosives to Lashkar units operating in India. Among the end-users of these supplies was Ghulam Yazdani, a Hyderabad resident who commanded a series of attacks, including the assassination of Gujarat pogrom-complicit former Home Minister, Haren Pandya and the June 2005 bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express. Investigators probing the Haroun story determined his network had helped land a giant consignment of explosives and assault rifles on the Maharashtra coast for an abortive 2006 Lashkar-led attempt to bomb Gujarat.

India’s intelligence services determined that Haroun had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the Lashkar. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun had studied the prospect of using a deserted Indian Ocean island for building a Lashkar storehouse, from where weapons and explosives could be moved to Kerala and then on to the rest of India. In 2007, when evidence emerged of heightened Islamist activity in the Maldives — including the bombing of tourists in Male’s Sultan Park, and the setting up of a Sharia-run mini-state on the Island of Himandhoo — the seriousness of the threat to India’s western seaboard became even more evident.

Former Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil was shaken up enough by the flow of information to make a special reference, in a 2006 speech, to the emerging maritime terror threat. Patil’s Ministry moved, its Annual Report for 2007-2008 records, to strengthen "coastal security arrangements [and], to check infiltration". In liaison with the nine coastal States and Union Territories, the Report discloses, funds had been earmarked to set up "73 Coastal Police Stations which will be equipped with 204 boats, 153 jeeps and 312 motor cycles for mobility on coast and in close coastal waters. The Coastal Police Stations will also have a Marine Police with personnel trained in maritime activities". While about two-thirds of these Police Stations have, indeed, been built, there is no Marine Police in place, since there are no locations of facilities for their training.

Meanwhile, the Lashkar was closing in. India first learned of the Lashkar’s efforts to use the Mumbai-Karachi sea route in 2007, when the IB successfully penetrated a plot to land eight Lashkar fidayeen. Travelling in a boat investigators believe was hired through the Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar organised crime syndicate, captained by a man who spoke Mumbai-accented Hindi, the eight fidayeen landed off the Mumbai coast on March 3, 2007. 

Later, the group spent time at a safehouse provided by a Mumbai-based Lashkar operative in the city’s suburbs, before travelling by train to join Lashkar units operating in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Two of the fidayeen, Pakistani nationals Jamil Ahmad Awan and Abdul Majid Araiyan, were arrested and are now held at the Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu; the rest are believed to have been killed in follow-up counter-terrorism raids.

In February 2008, the IB hit on yet more evidence that Mumbai was being prepared for assault. Investigators probing a New Year’s Eve attack on a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Rampur found that the Lashkar unit responsible for the attack also had plans to hit the Mumbai stock exchange and the Taj Mahal Hotel. Uttar Pradesh resident Fahim Ahmed Ansari, who was recruited by the Lashkar while working in Dubai in 2005, and then trained at its camps in Pakistan, was arrested along with Pakistani fidayeen, Imran Shehzad from Bhimber in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Mohammad Farooq Bhatti from Gujranwala in Punjab. Ansari provided investigators with a graphic account of his training, as well as the abortive plans to stage a fidayeen attack in Mumbai.

All three men carried legitimate Pakistani passports, presumably intended to secure their escape through Nepal. Shehzad held passport number EK5149331, issued on March 14, 2007, while Bhatti used passport number AW3177021, issued a day earlier. Ansari’s Pakistani passport, BM 6809341, issued on November 1, 2007, bears the pseudonym Hammad Hassan.

Saeed and other top Lashkar functionaries have also become increasingly aggressive in their recent public proclamations. In his October 19, 2008, speech, which was delivered before an audience of key Lashkar leaders like Maulana Amir Hamza, Qari Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh and Muhammad Yahya Mujahid at the organisation’s headquarters in Muridke, the Lashkar chief made clear he saw India as an existential threat. India, he claimed, was building dams in J&K to choke Pakistan’s water supplies and cripple its agriculture. Earlier, in an October 6 speech, Saeed claimed India had "made a deal with the United States to send 150,000 Indian troop to Afghanistan". He claimed India had agreed to support the US in an existential war against Islam. Finally, in a sermon to a religious congregation at the Jamia Masjid al-Qudsia in Lahore at the end of October, Saeed proclaimed that there was an "ongoing war in the world between Islam and its enemies" and that "crusaders of the east and west have united in a cohesive onslaught against Muslims".

It takes little to see that Saeed’s pronouncements were, in fact, a manifesto for Mumbai’s night of maximum terror.

Where might things go from here? For one, it is clear that further progress in the investigation will, in no small part, be contingent on support from the Pakistani State. While the mass of electronic evidence, as well as Amir’s testimony, point unequivocally to the fact that the authors of the attack were in Karachi and Lahore, demonstrating who they were — and proving their identities in a court of law — will need investigation on Pakistani soil.

Pakistan, as things stand, appears to have little incentive to back such an enterprise. For one, a full investigation of the Mumbai massacre will lead, without dispute, to embarrassing revelations on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate’s relationship with the Lashkar — a relationship ably documented not just by scholars like Hassan Abbas, but by Islamabad’s envoy to Washington D.C., Husain Haqqani. More important, mired as it is in multiple confrontations with jihadis in the North West Frontier Province and Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, the Pakistani state cannot but wish to avert another conflict – this time, in the country’s heartland Punjab province. 

Given its enormous financial resources and a wide popular reach that extends into the ranks of the Armed Forces, the JuD is arguably the best-organised political force in Punjab. Dismantling its infrastructure will prove a formidable challenge to Pakistan, even if the State does, indeed, decide it wishes to take that course.

Failure to compel Pakistan to act, however, could have incalculable consequences. If the "crusaders of the east" were the Lashkar’s main target till now, the Mumbai massacre demonstrates their western counterparts are no longer guaranteed immunity from its guns. The Pakistan State itself will come under increasing threat from a group that will, without doubt, be emboldened by its ability to survive the fallout from Mumbai. India and the world will have to act — or confront immeasurably larger horrors in the only-too-foreseeable future.

Praveen Swami is Associate Editor, The Hindu. Courtesey, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal 


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