By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Between August 29 and September 2, 2012, Police arrested at least 18 persons across Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and claimed to have thwarted a terror module linked with Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). The module was operating from these States under direction from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as handlers in Saudi Arabia.
11 of the 18 arrested, were picked up on August 29, 2012. While six of these 11 arrests were made from the Muni Reddy Palya area of Bangalore (Karnataka), five were arrested from Hubli in the Dharwad District of Karnataka. They all confirmed plans to kill some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as some ‘right wing’ journalists, as well as to target critical strategic establishments.
On the basis of information provided by the 11 arrested in Karnataka, the Aurangabad (Maharashtra) Police arrested another four suspects from the Nanded District of Maharashtra on August 31. On the same day, another suspect was arrested from the Misrigunj area of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. On September 1, the Central Crime Branch (CCB), Bangalore Police, arrested another suspect from Bangalore. Finally, on September 2, Dr. Nayeem Siddique was arrested from Devangere, 265 kilometers from Bangalore.
The arrests, according to sources, followed an investigation over the preceding three months. During interrogation, three terrorists of the neutralized module admitted that they had been asked by Saudi handlers, to carry out surveillance of nuclear installations, including the Kaiga Nuclear Plant in the Uttara Kannada District of Karnataka. The suspects were also aiming to target the Seabird Naval Base at Karwar in Uttara Kannada.
According to investigators, the module was also involved in sending terror recruits to Pakistan with the help of their Saudi Arabia based handler, Abdul Majid, who acted as a link to the LeT. Sources indicate that some 50 persons had been sent to Pakistan through this link between 2003 and 2005.
Investigations also revealed that the self-radicalized group had been trying to broad base its contacts over an extended period of time. Travel details of some of the accused revealed that they had visited Kannur in Kerala, and travelled to Kollam from there, where they were suspected to have met Abdul Nasser Madani, leader of the radical Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), before his arrest on August 17, 2010. Further, the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) State president Ashfaq Ahmed confirmed that journalist Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui (one of the 18 arrestees) was a listed member of the SIO and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI).
The discovery of a terror module working under the aegis of ISI is not a new development. Investigators are, however, concerned over the extensive connections in Saudi Arabia, where some of the handlers were residing. Confirming the Saudi connection, the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka, R. Ashoka, disclosed, “We have seized laptops and accessed the calls made by the suspects. The calls have been traced to Saudi Arabia… More than 100 terrorism-related SMSs and emails have been accessed.” CCB (Bangalore Police) on September 3, 2012, further claimed that Obeidur Rehman (one among the 18 arrested) was in constant touch with LeT ‘commanders’ Furqan and Abu Hanzala in Saudi Arabia. Bangalore city Police Commissioner Jyothi Prakash Mirji reiterated, “Those arrested have links with Saudi Arabia-based LeT and HuJI and it is suspected that they have more supporters in other States. The arrested were taking orders from their handlers in Saudi Arabia.”
The arrestees included a junior scientist with Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), two doctors, and a journalist working with the Deccan Herald newspaper. Interestingly enough, the background of the arrested reaffirmed facts disclosed by Abul Bashar Qasmi Isalhi aka Abu Bashar, arrested on August 16, 2008, for his involvement in Ahmedabad (Gujarat) serial bomb blasts of July 26, 2008. Abu Bashar had revealed, “Terror Groups are on the lookout for young men who speak good English, are comfortable with using the Internet and computer and most importantly they would not look different… new terror recruits who wear clothes such as jeans and T-shirt dress up like any other youngster and be part of the crowd”.
Investigators probing the activities of the neutralized terror module have found, further, that the Saudi Arabia based handlers included Indians. According to sources, “We had reason to believe that a middle-aged medical doctor from Hubli, Dr. Zakir Mohammed, who moved to Saudi Arabia five to six years ago, is the alleged mastermind behind the entire conspiracy, and is responsible for the recruitment and radicalization of youth”.
Moreover, revelations by Abu Jundal alias Zabiuddin Ansari, prime handler of the November 26, 2008, (26/11) Mumbai terrorist attacks, arrested on June 21, 2012, after being deported from Saudi Arabia, and reports regarding the presence of Chinnaswamy Stadium Blast (Bangalore, April 17, 2010) suspect Fasih Mohammed in that country, suggest that Saudi Arabia is emerging as a major hub and operational base for Islamist terrorists operating on Indian soil. Earlier reports had already shown that money from Saudi Arabia was being used for funding the terror machinery of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Indian Mujahideen (IM) in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Funds are mobilized by terrorist organisations in the name of Kifalath (helping the needy). Significantly, two million Indians in Saudi Arabia account for the largest single expatriate community in the country.
India and Saudi Arabia had signed two recent agreements, both on February 28, 2010, relating to the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, which came into force on March 17, 2011; and an Extradition Treaty which came into force on March 4, 2011.
The recent arrests have also reconfirmed the ISI’s direct role in terrorist activities in India. Sources indicated that the seized electronic equipment, computers and accessed communications have shown that at least two of the suspects arrested on August 29, 2012, identified as Abdul Hakim Jamaadar aka Abdulla (an accountant) and Dr. Zafar Iqbal Sholapuri had ISI links. Central agencies learnt that these two had gone to Pakistan via Iran and met three ISI officers – Abdul Wahab, Deputy Director of ISI; Hamid, Senior Director of ISI; and Mustafa, a senior ISI officer in Karachi (Sindh). Bangalore-based HuJI ‘commander’ Zakir alias Ustaad alias Guru had directed them to go to Pakistan to meet the ISI officers.
Meanwhile, the existence and penetration of an Islamist terror web in South India has once again been demonstrated with these arrests. Intelligence Bureau Chief, Nehchal Sandhu has underlined the fact that outfits like HuJI and IM have developed a formidable network in Southern India, courtesy SIMI. Other terrorist formations working in the region include Al Badr, which is active in Mysore District, Darsgah-Jihad-o-Shahadat (Centre for Holy War and Martyrdom, DJS) and Tahreek-e-Tahafuz Shaair-e-Islam (Movement for Protection Lions of Islam, TTSI) having strong presence in North Karnataka.
Further, the arrest of five persons from Hubli has once again brought this location under scrutiny. Terrorist activities in Hubli can be traced back to July 2000, when a bomb blast was reported at a church on Gadag Road. Later, the arrest of ‘south Indian commander’ of LeT, Momahed Ghouse alias Riazuddin Naser in January 2008, brought the city back into the limelight. Hubli is also infamous as a SIMI hub, and several training camps had been detected by the Police in 2008 in the jungles on the outskirts of Hubli-Dharwad and the Uttara Kannada District. Riyaz Bhatkal of IM is reported to have set up training camps in this region during his stay there. Analysts believe that Hubli has emerged as a hideout for terrorists because of its strategic location. It is a central point for three states, Maharashtra and Goa in the west, and Andhra Pradesh in the east, facilitating easy movement. Another factor that has worked well with terrorists is the large forest cover that surrounds Hubli.
The pre-emptive detection and neutralization of the terrorist module with linkages across three States, as well as across international borders, is encouraging, but equally underlines the reality that, despite the absence of Islamist terrorism related fatalities outside Jammu & Kashmir through 2012, subversive groups remain active, recruiting and training new members, and planning new attacks. The highest measure of vigilance, as well as aggressive intelligence gathering and operations, remain urgent necessites if the absence of violence is not to become just another hiatus between terrorist outrages.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management