August 13, 2009

Terror Tales: Lessons in Counter-Terrorism

by Divtya Kumar Soti



This story seems to have come straight out of some Hollywood flick. Thrill is latent at every stage, drama jumps from one city to another with a mesmerizing like that in Jason Bourne movies. As the plot moves, characters evolve from goons to terrorists and in the background a larger pattern- a nexus between organized crime and terrorism.


Recently, an Indian Court sentenced accused in Partha Burman Kidnapping Case to life imprisonment. Mr.Partha Barman, who was owner of a shoe-making company, was abducted in 2001. Later he was released by the kidnappers after they extorted a hefty ransom of 3.75 Cr. It would have been just one of the cases of its kind but the way ransom was utilized made all the difference. One the key gangster involved was Aftab Ansari. Those days he was not much renowned figure of Indian underworld. After 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai, Indian underworld got divided on communal lines. As a result of this, various new gangs surfaced in different parts of India. One such gang was Raza Gang which was run by two brothers, Asif Raza Khan and Amir Raza Khan. Gang mainly operated in West Bengal and eastern Bihar. Its leaders were mysterious figures and Aftab Ansari was their key point’s man in Bengal. It is believed in intelligence circles that Amir Raza operated from Bangladesh during those days. As a result of this, gang soon began to be a factor in tactical calculations of ISI and terror groups like HUJI-B. Raza gang soon began to provide courier services to terror groups operating from Bangladesh. By the later half of 90’s, gang was the key logistic provider to such groups in the region and was into the practice of sharing and lending its network and conduits with these groups. As a result of this Amir Raza’s profile gained much mass and he began to feature pretty high in ISI good books. He was soon going to do big things for his contacts. But before going into details of all that let’s shift the scene to small towns of West U.P. Year was 1994 and in police custody was lodged a young sophisticated hardcore terror operative. He had some great communication skills and is remembered for his ability to pool together terrorist resources from diverse geographical and ethnic backgrounds. He was good at cultivating contacts and interrogators found him impressive. Later he became a cult figure in terror world and many legends of him being a double or triple agent came into being. His name was Omar Sheikh Saeed. He was alma mater of a famous Western College but soon developed a feeling of detestation towards West, Israel and India. In his subsequent career as a terror operative, he played leading roles in some of the most hideous and heinous terrorist dramas in history. He was instrumental in 1994 abduction of Western nationals in India which ultimately landed him in Jail.

He at once employed his skills and probably nurtured contacts with local underworld operatives in jail. Those days West U.P. towns of Muzaffarnagar and Merrut were home to various notorious gangs and most of them were divided on communal lines. Many of these gangs acted as vassals of Dawood syndicate and had connections with gangs in Eastern U.P., Bihar, West Bengal as well as coal mafia that operate in Central India. Sheikh already had some local support in the area and had kept the abducted tourists at two locations in Gaziabad and Saharanpur. So, Sheikh utilized his stay in jail to become familiar with Who’s Who of organized crime in India. He used to tell jail officials that “no jail can hold him for long”. Off course many weird conclusions may be drawn from this. Later he was released in Kandhar by India authorities in exchange of IC-814 passengers. He crossed over to Pakistan and knitted together many jehadi networks; a job, details of which may be voluminous. He played key role in arranging logistics for various terrorist operations. It is the point where the story comes back in full circle. It is believed that Sheikh came in contact with Raza brothers. It was Sheikh’s underworld connections that led to him to Raza brothers in an attempt to arrange dubious finances for jehadi organizations operating from Af-Pak region. Raza gang arranged this from ransoms obtained from operations in India particularly from Partha Burman’s abduction and a part was sent to Omar who transferred it to organizations like Al-Qaeda and JeM. It is believed that a part of the money was used to finance 9/11 strikes. According to Indian security agencies HUJI-B operatives also played some role in these activities. This angle was revealed after the arrest of key HUJI-B recruiter Jalaluddin alias Babu and his deputy Naushad by Uttar Pradesh ATS in 2008. Their interrogation revealed that they were also in touch with some small time criminals in the region and had carried on some recruitment drives in various small towns of U.P. Most of the people who were recruited are still untraceable.

After 9/11, Omar Sheikh somehow became over anxious and got a bit hassled due to changes in Pak policy under US pressure. He was unable to digest even partial switching of sides by Islamabad. By now he has matured to be a freelancer jehadi who was of use to everybody in jehad complex whether it be Al-Qaeda, ISI or Punjabi groups. He was an officious intermeddler in conspiracies and was ISI liaison with many cells, structures of which had become highly complicated due to archaic sponsoring of sabotage activities in India and Afghanistan. These cells were at many times randomly structured to instantly pool together required resources. Such cells were difficult to manage and nobody in ISI bothered to keep them in strict control. Omar Sheikh successfully managed to run some such cells due to his good relations with Arabs, Punjabi and Mirpuri groups as well as with various terror operatives who operated from Karachi and Middle East. So, when Islamabad changed policy of overtly supporting Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11, Sheikh got infuriated. He was not used to be in control of his ISI handlers. During palmy days of his career, he had pursued what may be termed as ‘reverse handling’ as a hobby. So, he decided to take on Americans on his own. This renegade operative fully knew his importance and thus thought that he was immune. All this resulted in abduction and brutal killing of Daniel Pearl. This finally sealed Sheikh’s fate and he was sentenced to death for this offence. However, sentence is still to be carried out.

But Amir Raza was still pretty much in business. He too took the same course which Sheikh had taken after 9/11. He joined hands with HUJI-B and transformed his gang into a terror group known as Asif Raza Commando Force (ASAF), named after his elder brother who got killed in an encounter with Gujarat Police in 2001. This group consists of underworld operatives and HUJI people. The gunmen belonging to this group attacked American Centre in Kolkata in 2002. But for mysterious reasons group refrained from hitting Western targets after Kolakta attack and for some years Group remained a bit dormant. But slowly it became clear that Amir Raza gang was being used as a replacement of Dawood Gang as far sabotage activities in India are concerned. The reason for this was tight watch maintained by Indian and Western security agencies on Dawood’s network and listing of his name as an international terrorist by US administration. Moreover, ISI wanted to portray to international community that terrorism in India is an indigenous affair. Amir Raza was ready to behave accordingly.So, a vast HUJI-B network was clubbed with Amir Raza network and a cobbled surrogate was invented in name of Indian Mujahideen. This group took responsibility for series of blasts that rocked 12 Indian cities over the last three years. Many of the group’s members were caught in a crackdown by India Police. Recently, one of the Group’s key operative in Bangladesh, Mufti Obedullah was nabbed by Bangladesh Police from Shibchar. He used to talk to Amir Raza, whose location has been traced back in Pakistan, over phone on daily basis. Obedullah was in constant touch with LeT and HUJI-B operatives as well as operatives from Dawood Gang. Interestingly, he was caught on basis of information provided by a gangster, Dawood Merchant belonging to Dawood Ibrahim Gang.


Conclusion


This nexus of underworld and terror groups sponsored by intelligence organizations remains an live threat to South Asia and World, as from abovementioned facts it is very much evident, how small time gangsters operating from sleepy places form major links in terrorist conspiracies. It also leads to conclusion that terror groups have gained the ability to recover remnants of cells hit by C-T activity unless whole of cell is not neutralized as is evident from crackdown on ASAF after American Centre attack in Kolkata and subsequent strikes by the group. A new creed of butterfly operatives has come up who continue to cross from underworld to terrorism and vice versa. Such operatives maintain what may be termed as loose ties with various terror groups and may be engaged for a particular operation and so on as the need arises. So, study of such individuals holds key to future Counter-Terrorism.


(The writer is an intelligence and strategic affairs analyst and may be reached at writing2divya@gmail.com)

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