Sandeep UnnithanTue, Mar 2 04:29 PM
In the 1977 cold war thriller Telefon, a rogue KGB agent creates mayhem in the US simply by picking up a phone and reading a Robert Frost poem 'the woods are lovely, dark and deep...' to hypnotise sleeper agents who then go on to plant explosives across the continent.
The scenario could well echo a nefarious plan that India's security agencies are now grappling with: The Karachi Project set up by the Pakistan Army's ISI and groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and HUJI which utilise Pakistani-trained Indian-operatives to plant explosives in selected cities in the Indian heartland.
For at least three years now, Indian security agencies have known of the outlines of this scheme, which Home Secretary G.K. Pillai held responsible for the German Bakery blast in Pune.
"The link between the LeT and Indian Mujahideen (IM), as part of the project, has been established. The LeT pushed David Headley into India to recce potential targets. IM operatives went to Pakistan and viewed videos shot by him, so that they could be sent to India to carry out attacks," he said.
Named after the Pakistani port city and crime hotbed which has turned into a sanctuary for fugitive Indian underworld dons like Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, the joint-venture project was conceived some time after 2003. It is part of an overall strategy which, Admiral Dennis Blair the director of National Intelligence told a US Senate committee on February 3, was for Pakistan to "use militant groups as an important part of its strategic arsenal to counter India's military and economic advantages".
The Karachi Project has been directly responsible for the deaths of over 500 Indians in 10 bomb blasts since 2005.
Details of the project were first revealed by Pakistan-born American jihadi David Coleman Headley to the FBI in December last year. According to him, the fugitive Bhatkal brothers Riaz and Iqbal who founded the IM, Mufti Sufiyan and underworld don Yaqoob Khan aka Rasool 'Party' were being sheltered in Karachi by the LeT and ISI.
Headley, who checked out Chabad House close to German Bakery, also told the FBI interrogators about serving and retired Pakistan Army officers being part of the project. Headley confirmed that the ISI had put together a team of Indian jihadis in the port city, calling it the Karachi Project. They were waiting to launch them into India for attacks.
Over 500 people have been killed in 10 terror attacks carried out by the Karachi Project since 2005.
Headley recceed targets for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks while shuttling between Mumbai and Karachi thrice in 2006 and 2008. Pune also figured prominently in his terror reconnaissance missions. He visited Pune twice, in 2008 and 2009, and stayed at the Surya Villa Hotel near the Osho Ashram and the local Jewish synagogue during his latter visit. This was part of his March 2008 survey of Israeli targets--Chabad Houses across Delhi, Pushkar, Goa, Pune and Mumbai--for future terror attacks.
More details of the plot emerged after the arrest of Abdul Khwaja, second-in-command of Shahid Bilal, who headed the Bangladesh HUJI unit. Khwaja was picked up by the R&AW in a clandestine 'rendition' operation in Bangladesh in December last year.
Spirited out to Sri Lanka and later to Chennai, he was brought to Hyderabad in January where he told interrogators that while he was at a terror camp in Karachi, IM chief Amir Reza Khan was also there during a briefing session when a retired Pakistan army officer showed them videos of terror targets like Pune's Osho Ashram and South Mumbai's Knesseth Eliyahu Synagogue. He revealed the targets include the R&AW headquarters in Delhi's CGO complex, the German Bakery in Pune, RSS offices in Nagpur and Kolkata, and oil refineries in Hyderabad and Chennai. Khwaja and Amir were then asked to take up the project, along with Asif, who is Amir's brother and a fourth IM activist Abdul Aziz.
Khwaja, wanted for a suicide bombing attempt on the Andhra Pradesh task force office in 2005, also told interrogators that the plan includes targeting police officers in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Echoing Headley's confession, he said a large number of highly indoctrinated jihadi Indian nationals were housed in the Pakistani port city waiting for orders to strike.
The contours of this nefarious joint venture were fairly simple, as an intelligence official puts it, "Use disaffected Indian youth to carry out terror strikes using locally available bomb material. The objectives of the project were twofold: strike terror in the Indian heartland without raising suspicions of Pakistan's involvement."
In intelligence jargon, this is called a plausibly deniable operation. Unlike the 26/11 Mumbai attacks which left behind damning evidence of Pakistani involvement--Pakistani national Ajmal Amir Kasab--this operation would use only Indian nationals. They were recruited by Lashkar spotters either in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh and indoctrinated using propaganda videos showing the Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat riots.
Through Khwaja and others like him arrested earlier, the agencies deduced that the youth were being trained by the ISI in a remote region of Balochistan. How they figured this was through a detailed study of the interrogation reports of at least a dozen Pakistan-trained Indian militants. The recruits were ferried across the border for arms training in the rugged province of Pakistan.
Here, starting in around 2003, the ISI began training these operatives in small groups of four to five. In two years, intelligence sources estimate, between 40 and 50 jihadis had been similarly trained and infiltrated into India.
Interrogations of at least 12 captured jihadis built up a picture of nondescript two-tent camps along the rugged coasts where candidates were given one-month training capsules, not in firing AK-47s but in bomb-making. "The four of us were driven out of Karachi for nine hours in a covered truck. We reached a camp in a desolate part of Pakistan, ringed by barren hills.
There were a few tents, four instructors and a few sentries. For one month, they trained us in the use of chemicals and locally available materials to fabricate IEDs. We were never told the location of the camp, but when we faced the rising sun, the sea was to our right. One day, one of the trainers pointed out a Pakistani border outpost on the Iran border," reads the confession of a militant trained in one of these camps.
If this sounds exactly like the training given to hundreds of Pakistani recruits in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK), there is a subtle but visible difference. Unlike the LeT camps in the hills above Muzzafarabad, the five-times-a-day prayer was not mandatory. Recruits in the Balochistan camps were allowed to play carrom and watch satellite television, mundane pleasures denied to the by-the-book jihadis in the POK camps. The trainers were Pakistani armymen in salwars. The camps were occasionally visited by evidently higher-ranking officials whom the trainers snapped to attention and addressed them by that very military salutation, 'sir'.
After completion of the training, many of the agents were infiltrated into India as sleeper cells, waiting for the command to strike. The agencies are unsure just how many operatives passed out of the camps and like Headley and Khwaja indicated, waiting for the signal to strike.
The template for the project was already there. The March 12, 1993, blasts in Mumbai which killed 257 people were executed by the then Dubai-based Ibrahim's gang. The ISI supplied the RDX for the 13 explosions using the same smuggling routes that landed gold, textile and watches in the 1970s and '80s. It trained Ibrahim's lieutenants and foot soldiers to handle, store, and finally plant the explosives.
Trail of Death
Shramjeevi Express, near Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, July 28,2005 IED kill 10 passengers and injures 79 on the Patna-New Delhi train.
Delhi, October 29, 2005 Three serial blasts before Diwali kill 62 people.
Varanasi, March 7, 2006 Three explosions at Sankat Mochan temple and railway station kill 21.
Mumbai, July 11, 2006 Seven bomb blasts in six local trains at peak hour kill 209.
Hyderabad, August 25, 2007 Twin blasts at garden and snack stall kill 42 people.
Lucknow, Varanasi, Faizabad, November 24, 2007 16 people killed in blasts in court complexes in the three cities.
Jaipur, May 13, 2008 Nine blasts in market place kill 63 people.
Ahmedabad, July 26, 2008 22 IED blasts at 17 places kill 53.
Delhi, September 13, 2008 Five blasts in various locations kill 30 people.
Pune, February 13, 2010 Eleven killed as IED explodes in a popular restaurant.
Ibrahim's syndicate, said the US Congressional Research Service Report released last month, provides an example of how a profit-motivated criminal syndicate morphed into a 'criminal-terrorism fusion model'. It is not the first one. The Taliban funds their insurgency through their formidable drug trafficking structure. But Ibrahim's syndicate is unique in that it has found state sponsorship and shelter.
A facility that the Karachi Project has now extended to an assortment of India's most wanted. Mobster Amir Raza Khan of Kolkata, Rasool 'Party', a don from Ahmedabad, and Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal of Karnataka and a Tablighi Jamaat maulavi Mufti Sufian Patangiya-- a group of fugitives whom one intelligence official calls a "bewildering array of poisonous snakes". Each had good reason to flee into Pakistan.
Patangiya was the main accused in the March 2003 murder of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya. Rasool was a former accomplice of slain Ahmedabad gangster Abdul Latif Shaikh and Amir, wanted by the police for his role in the 2002 attack on Kolkata's US consulate. Amir, who fled into Pakistan after the attack was recruited by the LeT military commander Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi.
The fugitives from Indian justice brought with them extensive knowledge of the lay of the land, local intelligence and contacts of the cities they came from and also helped the ISI-recruited jihadis from India. The kingpins dipped into a reservoir of disaffected Muslim youth for their foot soldiers.
Some of them were highly educated and members of the radical Students' Islamic Movement of India and others like Qayamuddin Kapadia, a graphics designer now being tried for the Gujarat bombings, set up the IM.
The IM was another front for the project and claimed credit for a string of attacks in Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad in 2008, a further attempt by the ISI to distance itself from culpability. The Lashkar cat's paw which carried out a series of attacks was set up precisely for this purpose around 2007. The IM was born out of a meeting between Amir of Kolkata and Riyaz Bhatkal, an engineering graduate from Mumbai's Saboo Siddique college.
Indian investigators say the Karachi Project debuted on July 28, 2005, at around 5.15 p.m. in decidedly unspectacular settings--an IED was placed near the toilet of the Shramjeevi Express hurtling from Patna to Delhi. The results were deadly. Ten passengers were killed and 79 injured when an IED blasted through the coach.
After this, there was a bombing roughly every six months, clinically targeting places of worship, public transport and shopping centres. It seemed that the terrorists had only perfected their deadly art with every attack.
The twin attacks on Delhi in 2005 and 2008 and the dastardly attack on six local trains in Mumbai killed 209 people.The Bhatkals fled the police dragnet soon after the IM's spate of bombings in 2008 and managed to escape into Pakistan where they are now lodged in safe houses in Karachi.
The Indian intelligence agencies, meanwhile, were like the proverbial blind men feeling the sides of an elephant and the nation, seemingly impotent, unable to stop the bombings. Then the successes started coming in, if only in identifying the perpetrators. Between 2005 and 2007, the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh special task forces arrested several Lashkar and HUJI affiliated between 2005 and 2007, who revealed who was behind the plot.
In June 2007, Babu Bhai, a HUJI operative, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police while ferrying 8 kg of RDX. He confirmed the involvement of Amir in the network. From then on, investigators began tracing the dots linking Amir to the series of blasts. In fact, the only strikes not attributed to this unholy alliance of the jihadis, Pakistan army and underworld were the Ajmer, Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid and Bangalore bombings.
After the tactical hiatus of 2009 which India experienced as a result of various pressures on Pakistan, the latter calibrated its visible terrorist engagement downwards. These pressures have now been significantly diluted--particularly after the London conference, where the US indicated a pullout and suggested a willingness to 'franchise' the management of the Afghan conflict to Pakistan once again.
From a militant trained in one of the camps in Balochistan
"The four of us were driven out of Karachi for nine hours in a covered truck. We reached a camp in a desolate part of Pakistan, ringed by barren hills. There were a few tents, four instructors and a few sentries. For one month, they trained us in the use of chemicals and using locally available materials to build IEDs. We were never told the location of the camp, but when we faced the rising sun, the sea was to our right. One day, one of the trainers pointed out a Pakistani border outpost on the Iran border."
"All this has enormously increased the degree of impunity with which Pakistan engages in terrorism, and this would have been crucial in the decision to initiate a new phase of attacks against India," says Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.
"Instead of another 26/11 attack, which could lead to war between India and Pakistan, expect frequent smallscale blasts in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games to show India as unsafe," says former R&AW official Colonel (retd) RSN Singh.
Such attacks will need the assistance of youths like college dropout Mohammed Abdul Shahid aka Shahid Bilal, who was one of the first batch of 12 Muslim youth from Hyderabad whom Rasool smuggled into Pakistan in 2002.
Bilal was responsible for the twin Hyderabad bombings of 2007 and later headed the Bangladesh unit of HUJI before being killed by unidentified gunmen there in 2008. "The names may change, but this is a long-term project. It goes on uninterrupted," says a senior intelligence official.
"There are only two ways to shut down this project," says an intelligence official, "Either we neutralise them ourselves (using covert options) or Pakistan hands over the accused like the Bhatkal brothers and Rasool and stop terrorism."
With neither option visible on the horizon, the Home Ministry is going back to asking for Headley in the hope of preventing further strikes.
The project uses Indian jihadis, enabling Pakistan to deny any role in terror attacks.
Following the Pune blast, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said India had once again sought access to Headley. Though details of his interrogation were shared with India, Home Ministry sources said that access to him may have prevented Pune.
Even in this worrisome tale of hunting for the enemies among us, however, there is a slight ray of hope. Indians have so far been used by the ISI only for the kind of "insidious attacks" as Chidambaram called it, leaving behind an explosive-laden bag in public places.
- Conceived in 2003 as a joint strategy between the ISI, Pakistan Army, Lashkar and HUJI to use fugitives given sanctuary in Karachi to Indian youth and bring them to Pakistan for arms and explosives training via Bangladesh and Nepal, where they are indoctrinated by videos of Babri Masjid and Gujarat riots.
- Underworld dons and fugitives like Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal are used as spotters to ensure a steady supply of recruits from India for the project. By using Indians, it gives Pakistan the fig leaf of denying involvement.
- The project was conceived as a crucial element in Pakistan's strategic arsenal to counter India's military and economic advantages.
- Original strategy was to send the trained recruits back to India to plant bags with bombs at strategic locations. Pune shows it is now aimed at foreigners in India. Detailed information about Karachi Project has come from Abdul Khwaja, Bilal's No. 2, who was clandestinely arrested by Indian intelligence operatives in Bangladesh late last year. The other major source of information on the project has been David Headley, who has given the FBI additional details about the project and his role in it as well as the interrogation of Amjad Khwaja, a leading IM operative, arrested recently.
- The recruits are being trained by the ISI in a remote region of Balochistan, not far from the Iranian border. They were taught to construct IEDs from locally available explosives. They are allowed to play games and watch satellite television, unlike militants in the camps in PoK.
- After completion of the training, the agents are infiltrated into India as sleeper cells, waiting for the command to strike.
- First strike on the Shramjeevi Express in 2005, and the most recent one suspected to be in Pune. The project can only be stopped if Pakistan hands over fugitives or India neutralises the operatives.
- Resumption of strikes linked to pressure being taken off Pakistan by the international community.
No Indian has so far been used to carry out fidayeen attacks like the one in Mumbai, which calls for a level of indoctrination and brutality that has so far been seen only in Pakistani jihadi recruits. "But who knows what the future holds?" asks a senior intelligence official.
--with Bhavna Vij-Aurora and Amarnath K. Menon