The men behind the Varanasi attack

Photo courtesy: NDTV

Based on intelligence reports the police now say that the masterminds of the Varanasi blasts could be two men by the names, Asadullah Akhthar and Dr Shahnawaz. In addition to this they have also named the Bhatkal brothers to be behind this attack.

If the police are able to establish this then that would mean that this entire attack has emanated out of Sharjah. Iqbal Bhatkal, Dr Shahnawaz and Asadullah as per reports of the Intelligence bureau are all in Sharjah at the moment. While tracking the movements of prime operative of Riyaz Bhatkal who is the brother of Iqbal, the investigating agencies have found that he too has frequented Sharjah several times from Karachi where he is primarily based.

According to preliminary leads which have been mentioned by the Mumbai police, the Bhatkal brothers helped plan the operation while Shahnawaz and Asadullah executed the attack.

Iqbal Bhatkal or Iqbal Shahbandri who hails from the coastal town of Bhatkal in Karnataka went absconding two years back from his home town. He was accused of operating for the IM along with his brother Riyaz and the moment the police stepped up the hunt for this man, he went missing. Although people at his native claim that he left the country since he was framed and feared police arrest. However according to the investigators, Iqbal ran the module in Pune following his brothers departure and was even involved in recruiting cadres for their modules both in Maharashtra and Pune.

The first time the names of Shahnawaz and Asadullah cropped up was during the Delhi serial blasts and later once again during the Batla House encounter. Today the two of them are in Sharjah according to intelligence reports and it is said that the attack could have been masterminded from there.

Dr Shahnawaz an MMBS and Asadullah a pharmacist both hail from the town of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and began their association with terror when they first joined the Students Islamic Movement of India. However the duo later branched into the Indian Mujahideen have been part of that group for around four years now.

When the 27 year old Shahnawaz’s brother Mohammad Saif was arrested in connection with the Batla house encounter, the IB had sent out warning signals of a possible aggression by him. The IB had said that he would try and help re-group the IM in order to avenge the Batla House encounter. Shanawaz is not new to Varanasi. He is believed to have frequented that place many times when he stayed at Lucknow for two years while working at a hospital as a doctor.

Asadullah on the other hand left India after the Delhi blasts in the year 2008. Information available regarding him suggests that he was the one who had assembled the bombs for the Delhi blasts. According to the IB, Asadullah shares a longer relationship with the IM when compared to Shahnawaz. He was one of the core members who was part of the core group of the IM when it was founded. His first tryst with terror was during the Jaipur blasts in which he has been named as one of the accused.

His strongest case is however the Delhi serial blasts in which he has been accused of planting the bombs at Greater Kailash.

Why do IM mails come from Mumbai?

An interesting thing witnessed following the Varanasi blast that occurred yesterday was that the mail that was sent by the Indian Mujahideen was once again sent out from Mumbai. Even as the Mumbai ATS orders a parallel probe into this aspect.

The question now is whether there still exists a strong technical cell of the IM and also whether operatives of the IM continues to use servers in Mumbai and bounce their mails from other places.

Before getting into these aspects let us take a look at previous instances in which the Indian Mujahideen has used systems in Mumbai to send out mails before and after terror attacks.

In the month of July 2008, the Indian Mujahideen sent a mail ahead of the Ahmedabad blasts which was traced to a flat in Navi Mumbai.

Another mail speaking about the probe into the Ahmedabad blasts was sent out on August 2008 and the same was traced to Khalsa College in Matunga.

A month later in the same year a mail of the IM following the Delhi blasts was traced to Chembur.

The mail sent after the Jama Masjid firing was traced yet again to Mumbai.

The mail sent after the Varanasi blast was traced to Malad in Mumbai.

Indian intelligence agencies point out that this is an interesting trend to see the mails being sent out from Mumbai after all major attacks on Indian soil. Initially mails were being sent out from Mumbai since the Indian Mujahideen had basically set up its tech module in Mumbai under the leadership of Mansoor Pheerbhoy who was later arrested by the Mumbai police. Today they continue to use servers in Mumbai to send mails with the sole intention of playing hide and seek with the Mumbai police who according to them were the primary force to decimate their organization.

Look back at the mail that the IM sent in the aftermath of the Jama Masjid attack. It clearly takes a dig at the Mumbai police and Rakesh Maria in particular. The mail goes on to say that the Mumbai police need not feel happy that they had broken their organization and the core strength of the IM was still existent and was capable of striking at any time. The IB points out that the mail was more of a challenge to the police which gave the message, “ catch us if you can.”

When the IM started off it decided to set up a technical cell since it was aware that the Indian police were light years behind when it came to cracking technology. They were aware that if they sent out mails after every attack, the initial part of the investigation would be disturbed since the police would try and chase the mails sent out by them and in the meantime the real operatives could give the slip.

This task was assigned to Abdul Subhan and Mansoor Peerbhoy. The first idea deviced by them was to set up the cell and also use wifi networks that were not secure. However the idea was never to sit in a particular city and send out emails. Mansoor managed to impart knowledge on a lot of cadres on how to hack a wifi network from anywhere in the country using the IP address and bounce mails out of that server.

The IB says that these skills are known to a lot of people in the IM including the low ranking cadres. While during the initial part of their operations they sent out mails from Mumbai, today they are able to send mails using servers in Mumbai from other cities.<

Sending mails from servers in Mumbai does not necessarily indicate that their tech cell exists in the strength that it used to. This is just a challenge to the Mumbai police which was responsible for cracking down on this cell in the first place.

In addition to Mumbai, the IM had also set up a technical cell in Thane. This was infact revealed by a person by the name Abdul Bashir who was arrested in connection with the Gujarat blasts. This particular cell was headed by a person by the name Toufiq Bilal. The IB says that they would need to look into the working of this cell too since it was not active at the time of Operation Bangalore Ahmedabad Delhi, but could have well revamped now and is sending out the mails.

Who will carry out the attacks asked Riyaz Bhatkal

Riyaz Bhatkal

Who is going to bell the cat, if we have to come back strong in India, is what Riyaz Bhatkal, one of the founder members of the deadly Indian Mujahideen told Salman alias Chotu at a meeting at Pakistan a few months before the latter’s arrest.

This interrogation report of Salman who was nabbed while trying to cross over into through the Nepal border has the answers to all the plans of the Indian Mujahideen including the one pertaining to the sourcing of the explosives that were used in the Varnasi blasts.

The conversations between Salman and Bhatkal which took place in Karachi, Pakistan is proof of the fact that the Indian Mujahideen was desperate, wanted to strike but was unable to carry out a big operation due to the want of strong cadre.

After the decimation of the Indian Mujahideen by the Indian security agencies to a large extent there were plans being chalked out to revamp the unit. Salman who was a small time operative who managed to give the police the slip following the Batla house encounter was eager to carry out attacks in India. However he was finding it difficult since there was a complete breakdown of their mechanism and he thought he needed to meet with the biggies in Pakistan in order to chalk out a strategy.

Salman during his interrogation told the cops that he had managed to give them the slip following the Batla House encounter. There was a lot of anger among the youth in his community following this incident and they thought they needed to hit back. But they were facing problems with regards to man power and funding and that it when he decided to make a visit to Karachi to meet up with Bhatkal.

Bhatkal during the interaction said that his brother Yaseen would be working out a new strategy to carry out attacks in India. However nothing much could be achieved at the moment since there was a break down. We can carry out attacks and respond to the Indian agencies, but then who will bell the cat or who will carry out these attacks. We need strong cadres who are capable of planning and executing such attacks.

In addition to this Bhatkal also said that it was difficult to source ammunition into India since security was at an all time high. To this Salman responded by saying that there is still ammunition in small quantity left behind by those arrested and this could be used to carry out blasts.

The police who are probing the Varanasi blasts now say that this is a fringe group of the outfit which has carried out the blasts and the ammunition that has been used were left overs of the IM cadres before they were arrested. They had stacked up IEDs and also a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate which is accessible to these low rung cadres. Moreover these persons who are fringe elements within the IM have not been on the IB radar and that is the reason why they could have slipped in and planted the bombs. The bomb was assembled by a professional, but they lacked the equipment which usually was at the disposal of the IM when their network was strong. In addition to this they have also not been able to coordinate this attack to precision since the master minds too have gone missing.

Police sources say that they will need to step up the heat on these fringe elements who are found in abundance at Azamgarh, Old Delhi and Pune since if they are let away then they could well bring the IM back into shape as it used to be two years back.

 

The fringe factor of IM

Onlookers stand at the site of a bomb blast in Varanasi. Photo courtesy: http://www.guardian.co.uk/

There is much talk about the re-grouping of the Indian Mujahideen which once again continued its tradition of sending out an email after the Varanasi blast. A similar letter but with less improvised English was also sent out after a shoot outside the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi a couple of days before the Common Wealth Games.

While investigators continue to study the pattern and the motives behind these incidents, a new yet disturbing trend that is cropping is that these attacks are being carried out by low level operatives of the dreaded IM.

Both the above mentioned incidents show that the attacks were not sophisticated in nature and did not cause the kind of impact which the IM normally would have caused.

The biggest operation that the IM had carried out were the back to back blasts at Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Following this there was a massive crackdown on all their operatives such as Mansoor Pheerbhouy, Abdul Subhan and the rest. These persons who were appointed by former SIMI chief, Safdar Nagori who is now in custory were all given the chase. While Subhan managed to give the slip, Pheerbhouy was taken into custody. While the top rung was decimated to a large extent, there still remained people such as Riyaz Bhatkal and Salman who carried the organization forward. However after the blasts at Pune, the heat on these two men also grew and Bhatkal was forced to leave the country. Salman then became the most important person in the IM, but he too was nabbed while trying to get away from India. In addition to this, there was also a directive to Amir Reza one of the founders of the IM to stay underground since the numerous dossiers India sent to Pakistan post 26/11 takes his name.

These arrests and breaking down of the various modules of the IM created a huge vaccum within the group. In addition to this there was also a huge crackdown on their two most important modules at Pune and Uttar Pradesh.

Intelligence Bureau officials now tell rediff.com that these boys who formed the top rung of the IM have a lot of sympathizers and well wishers. These people believe that their role models had been wronged by Indian security agencies. The formation of the IM was seen as a hope for a lot of people in the old parts of Delhi and areas such as Azamgarh and to see their role models being reduced to nothing by security agencies has not gone down too well.

Even as there is a strategy being planned out in Pakistan to revamp the IM, a second rung of this group comprising rookies decided to come together and carry forward the outfit. According to the IB, this group does not enjoy the patronage to the extent the earlier modules did. They are constantly trying to carry out attacks in order to get noticed. The ISI is yet to show keen interest in this group and feels that these boys lack the sophistication that their seniors had to carry out major attacks.

The IB says that this fringe group within the IM will continue trying to shake up the security system and with whatever little skills they have they will continue undertaking such operations.

If one reads the mails that are sent out by them, they focus largely on emotive issues such as the Batla House encounter, the Babri masjid demolition and also the Kashmir issue which is a sign of desperation to garner local support. However this group is directionless and lacks the sophistication that their bosses use to have. Their networking is not as good as it used to be before and neither do they have access to sophisticated machinery to carry out attacks with a huge impact. Under the garb of seeking revenge on half a dozen issues, this fringe group’s major intention is the seek attention of the ISI so that they help them grow into a bigger outfit. However the ISI on the other hand has other plans and is roping in bigger persons on the field such as Shafiq Khafa to build up a home grown Indian module. The ISI has roped in these men and has asked them to open up fresh modules and have a new outfit on the lines of the old Indian Mujahideen which had carried out a series of deadly attacks in India. The revamp of a home grown module would rely heavily on the modules of the HuJI which is strong in areas of UP and in addition to this they would also look to create new modules in the rest of India.

Read More: On attempts of regrouping terror forces

Sea will continue to be Lashkar’s main terror route


Shahzad, the man the alleged Indian Mujahideen operative who was arrested in Azamgarh, spilt the beans regarding the IM and Lashkar-e-Tayiba’s plans to wreak havoc using air and water-based terror attacks.

Officials interrogating Shahzad told rediff.com said he spoke of the Lashkar’s plan on setting up hi-tech modules across north India. The LeT wanted to ensure that Indian terror outfits possessed the capability to carry out attacks by homegrown terrorists. Since the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the Lashkar has focused heavily on making the Indian terror organisations as capable as their Pakistani counterparts.

During the interrogation, Shahzad spoke of how the Lashkar along with the IM had been working closely on setting up more sea-routes into India. The Lashkar is interested setting up more sea routes since the navy has upped security along with the Indian coast.

During the interrogation, Shahzad says The LeT planned on air strikes and a team, which he had constituted were training for this. Shahzad is believed to have trained in a flying school at Bengaluru . Shahzad was also mobilising men to join similar programmes.

Shahzad told the cops that the sea route was being strengthened with a specific purpose. The groups in Pakistan were finding it extremely hard to transport men and ammunition through the over land route and hence they had decided to use the sea.

A team was being prepared so that arms and ammunition could be sent to India for further use. Even if fidayeen manage to enter the country, they would not have to carry arms and ammunition, along with them since it would slow down their progress.

The Lashkar had used a similar strategy for the Mumbai attacks. The terrorists who had attacked the Central Reserve Police Force camp in Uttar Pradesh were specifically ordered to carry additional arms and ammunition and dump it so that it would be picked up later and used by the Mumbai attackers. However that plan flopped since the terrorists were apprehended and during the interrogation they revealed details about the weapons.

IB sources said that the LeT would continue to target the sea route since they are aware of the vulnerable situation. There are over 200 minor ports in the country which do have an X-ray scanner which can scrutinise cargo and LeT is likely to target these.

The mystery surrounding the MLA who is alleged to have sheltered Shahzad still continues. Shahzad had told his interrogators that he was sheltered by a former MLA from Azamgarh who is currently living in Noida. He had said that he had been given shelter after the Batla House encounter, from which he managed to escape. Shahzad and the rest of his gang were hiding at Batla House after the Dehi blasts. However the residents of Azamgarh claim that there is no former MLA who lives in Noida.