Author: Tejinder Singh, email@example.com
1 December 2008 - Issue : 810, New Europe
The Indian sub-continent is up in flames again and the alleged hand of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with the blessings of al Qaeda is there to see in the siege of Mumbai's iconic hotels, the Taj and the Oberoi Trident, and the lone Jewish centre, the Nariman House among other targets.
Operation Black Tornado may have lasted more than forty hours trying to end the siege and to eliminate the dozen or so militants in their twenties but it made crystal clear to what great lengths the alleged LeT operatives and their handlers have gone to plan, coordinate and mount their attack on the symbols of resurgent India in its very financial capital.
Audacity? Yes, in a way.
So far the LeT has been content with IEDs and RDX induced blasts in crowded market places and railway stations to inflict maximum damage and to incite a flare up, though without success between the Hindus and Muslims.
The ongoing interrogation of alleged LeT operative Ismail alias Zakiruallah, a Punjabi from Faridkot in Pakistan, shows that the Murdike, Lahore headquartered outfit with pan-South Asia network and presence in some 18 countries, had fine tuned the Mumbai attack plan over several months.
According to sources familiar with the ongoing investigation, the final go ahead came recently at a conference in Murdike. On the conditions of anonymity, the sources confided that Prof Hafiz Saeed, the LeT founder with direct access to GHQ and to political masters launched a frontal verbal attack on India at the meeting and declared that India ought to be punished for its activities in Afghanistan. Ismail was arrested by the Mumbai police on Nov 26 night during the terror attacks.
The reliable sources told this journalist that Ismail divulged some chilling details of the attack by the hitherto unknown marine wing of the Lashkar –e-Taiba. They have been trained for months at Karachi, he told the police.
Another LeT operative, Ajmal Amir Kamal, who was nabbed as he was injured during the fighting at the Taj hotel, has corroborated Ismail evidence. Two other Pakistani nationals had also been held in the course of intense fighting on Nov 27 and their interrogation shows that at least 12 terrorists reached Mumbai; the key man has been identified as Imran Babbar.
According to details provided by sources close to interrogations, Lashkar operatives left Karachi in a merchant ship early on Wednesday, Nov 26. Late that night, the fidayeen left the ship in an India fishing trawler which was hijacked off Gujarat coast earlier, and rowed some 10 nautical miles to Mumbai's Gateway of India area. Once they reached close to the alighting point near Colaba, where heritage Taj hotel is located, they had lowered themselves into a smaller inflatable boat with a 20 HP engine and split into two groups for their raid.
Based on their interrogation, Mumbai police believe that the fidayeen unit of which Kamal was a part then split up into at least six groups, each focussing on a separate target: Mumbai's Nariman House, which is home to a large number of Israeli families and a Jewish prayer house; the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus rail station; the Cama hospital –a 500-bed hospital specialising in pre and postnatal care, the Girgaum seafront; and the Taj and Oberoi Trident hotels.
Police across Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir working in close coordination have since traced the LeT plans to do something as daring as attacking Indian stock exchange in Mumbai in February itself. These reports were initially not given much credence though. Now after the Mumbai seize, the February interrogation of Uttar Pradesh resident Fahim Ahmed Ansar is being seen in a fresh light.
Ansari was arrested in February along with seven other suspects. A one-time activist of banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), he became a LeT man during a visit to Dubai in 2003. His front is a small enterprise of making paper-envelopes in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh.
Ansari has confessed to the police that he had carried out reconnaissance operations at the Oberoi Hotel — one of the targets in the Mumbai siege. The idea of strike at the Mumbai hotels and Bombay (Mumbai) stock exchange (BSE) was a sequel to a fidayeen attack on a police camp and training centre at Rampur on December 31, 2007.
Two specially-trained Pakistani nationals - Imran Shehzad from Bhimber in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Mohammad Farooq Bhatti from Gujranwala in Punjab carried out the attack though unsuccessfully. Both are being tried in an Uttar Pradesh court.
The sources told Tejinder Singh that Ansari disclosed that Imran and Bhatti have been asked to undertake the Mumbai mission. "I and my superiors entrusted the task of attacking the stock exchange to them. In all, we formed three assault teams," said he, the sources quoted from his interrogation report.
The Uttar Pradesh police records show Ansari returned to India through Kathmandu in late 2007. He stayed at the Sunlight Guest House in Mumbai from November 28 to December 10 before renting a room off Falkland Road. He became Samir Sheikh to secure a driving license, and enrolled himself as a student in a computer institute near the BSE.
All three BSE assault-team volunteers held Pakistani passports, which they hoped would enable them to escape by catching flights through Nepal. Shehzad carried a passport (number EK5149331), issued on March 14, 2007, while Bhatti used a passport with the number AW3177021, issued a day earlier. Ansari's Pakistani passport, BM 6809341, issued on November 1, 2007, bears the pseudonym Hammad Hassan.
Moreover the sources alleged that these fidayeens, like all other suicide squads of Lashkar-e-Taiba, have received special training to storm the gates of premises using grenades, following it up with indiscriminate assault rifle fire — tactics used with effect at Rampur police camp, and in dozens of similar operations in Jammu and Kashmir.
LeT has been active in India and most dastardly attacks in Indian cities in the past seven-eight years have been traced to LeT, which has re-invented itself in December 2001 to duck the American eyes as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Global Jihad is the goal of LeT and its parent, MDI and its pamphlets preaching virtues of jihad have been found from Kashmir to Palestine, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Eriteria.
LeT, which is closely aligned with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has the most extensive network in Pakistan with estimated 2, 200 cells across the country and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Its cells have been discovered in more than 18 countries including US, UK, France and Bangladesh. According to sources in the Afghan intelligence the LeT is facilitating the movement of suicide operatives, fabricating improvised explosive devices, both independently and in conjunction with the Taliban.
Focus on westerners in the Mumbai siege suggests al-Qaeda is pulling strings of the LeT, which is known for its trade mark suicide attacks.
LeT has denied any involvement in the Mumbai siege. It has always denied any role in the fidayeen attacks in India over the past five-six years and has, in fact, been inventing outfits which are neither here nor there, like, for instance, the Indian Mujahideen, and Deccan Mujahideen. This is an ingenious attempt to create more plausible deniability for Islamabad. And also deflect attention of the United States away from its activities and thus avoid more pressure on Islamabad.
LeT's involvement is bound to cloud the US strategy for South Asia, as Jane Perlez says in his despatch from Islamabad to the New York Times on November 28 saying: "Reconciliation between India and Pakistan has emerged as a basic tenet in the approaches to foreign policy of President-elect Barack Obama, and the new leader of Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus. The point is to persuade Pakistan to focus less of its military effort on India, and more on the militants in its lawless tribal regions who are ripping at the soul of Pakistan."Put bluntly, the United States wants Pakistan to move its military's focus away from India to an all-out effort against the Taliban and their associates in Al Qaeda. This is to weaken the militants who are fiercely battling American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Hard-liners in and outside the Pakistan army and ISI, which is an extension of army, appear determined to foil the American plan. According to Western defence experts in Brussels, ISI is an agency dominated by officers, particularly in the middle level, and other ranks who subscribe to Islamist hard-line. It acts independent of the political executive with an agenda of its own in entire South Asia, and answerable only to the army headquarters. The agency also undermines the authority of President Asif Zardari, who is willing to reach out to India. He has already called for a visa-free travel between India and Pakistan. How much turf space he has even otherwise is doubtful since his plate is full – what with the meltdown of the economy and Islamists spreading their tentacles across the country.
Stratfor has put the issues in perspective. "The shape of the crisis will consist of demands that the Pakistanis take immediate steps to suppress Islamist radicals across the board, but particularly in Kashmir. New Delhi will demand that this action be immediate and public. This demand will come parallel to US demands for the same actions, and threats by incoming US President Barack Obama to force greater cooperation from Pakistan," it said in a commentary even as the Mumbai events were unfolding in their full terrorist fury.
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