Yasin Bhatkal’s war against India

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yasin_mohammed_arrest-1Delhi; When a joint crack team of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Bihar Police and Nepal authorities swooped down onYasin Bhatkal, living in arented 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.

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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.

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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 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.

Why Nitish got cold feet on Bhatkal
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 worked 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.

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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.{mosimage}

India’s most wanted
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 protege 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.

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