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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Underworld & terrorism: A deadly handshake.

While in the decade of 1990s police faced the worst challenge from underworld, the new decade arriving with a new century marked its beginning with a fresh confrontation, the confrontation with terrorist organizations. Although, the underworld works purely for money and terrorist organizations to pursue their radical ideologies, the nexus between the two is multifaceted and has dangerous ramifications. There are many things common in both. Both underworld and terrorism thrive on killings and threatening. Both use violence as a means to convey messages to their targets. Both take advantage of the cracks in the security system. In several cases most of them have recruited members from the vulnerable sections of the society. Whether it an underworld gang or a terrorist organization, the masterminds always stay far away from the actual area of operations. In Indian context, it has been observed in several cases that both use each other to meet their ends. Sometimes they play each others role too.

Dawood Ibrahim and serial bombings of 1993 in Mumbai.
Till 1993 the fugitive gangster of India Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar was just seen as a dangerous criminal, the boss of an organized crime gang in Mumbai which extorted money from businessman, film stars, builders and also smuggled gold and silver. Dawood’s image was of a ruthless man who never spared his enemies & brutally killed those who confronted them. He was seen as a person with high political connections within the ruling party and paid heavy bribe to senior police and government officials to win their loyalty. Although, after escaping to Dubai in 1984, his gang continuously grew stronger in Mumbai and also to other cities of India. Although, Dawood was a Muslim, he had several Hindu gang members including Chota Rajan who later turned out to be his deadliest enemy. Religion had nothing to do with gang activities. Everybody worked for money to lead an extravagant life. However, this perception changed after serial bombings in the city of Mumbai on March 12 1993. From an “underworld Don”, Dawood acquired another designation- “Terrorist.”

The 12 March 1993 blasts of Mumbai were preceded by unprecedented riots between Hindus & Muslims after the demolition of Babri structure in Ayodhya. Hundreds of members from both the communities were killed. It was alleged that Mumbai Police played a biased role during the riots and targeted only a single community. The area around South Mumbai’s Pakmodia street where Dawood grew up also witnessed heavy violence. It is reported that Dawood whose majority of gang members belonged to Muslim community was moved by the pleas of the residents of his locality to take “revenge”. Secondly, Dawood himself was feeling uneasy and insecure in Dubai with the strengthening of diplomatic relations between the government of India and United Arab Emirates. Till then there was no extradition treaty between the two governments and Dawood took advantage of this. However, things were changing and Dawood feared that sooner or later he might be handed over to India. Hence, he wanted to shift his base to Pakistan. While Dawood needed somebody to shelter him Pakistan, Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) was also looking for Muslim radicals in India to conduct acts of terrorism. A meeting between Dawood & senior ISI officials was arranged by few Pakistani businessmen based in Dubai. The meeting resulted in quid pro quo. ISI promised to relocate Dawood Ibrahim, his family members, his key gangsters in Karachi and in turn Dawood will assist ISI in planning and executing anti India operations.

The first material outcome of this deadly coalition was seen in the form of terrorist attack in Mumbai. Dawood had developed an infrastructure of smuggling gold and silver on the coastline of Maharashtra around the city of Mumbai. He had recruited several people in his smuggling syndicate who worked as motor boat and trawler operators. The incharge of this racket was Dawod’s trusted man Tiger Memon who operated from a plush office in South Mumbai’s gold market Zaveri Bazar.

Dawood called Tiger to his Dubai residence alongwith Dawood Taklya who operated trawlers at Raigarh coast. They were informed about the conspiracy and asked to participate in it. Tiger was delighted to hear this as he himself sought revenge after his office in Mahim area was burnt down by rioters.

As per the plan RDX and other weapons were loaded on a Pakistani ship at the instance of ISI and moved towards. Tiger Memon alongwith the help of Dawood Taklya faced no problem while facilitating the consignment at Raigarh coast as they had already bribed senior custom officials and policeman deployed on duty.

On the afternoon of 12 March 1993, bombs exploded at 13 different locations of Mumbai city killing 257 people and injuring around 750. The targets included mostly crowded areas like Zaveri Bazar, Century Bazaar, Sea Rock Hotel, Centaur Hotel, Air India building, Plaza cinema hall, airport and Bombay Stock Exchange. This was the first major terrorist attack in India outside Jammu-Kashmir & Punjab states where terrorism was at its peek that time.

Investigations and arrests after the blasts exposed the role of Dawood Ibrahim and his gang. The blasts were the first example where the underworld was used to execute a terrorist attack. Statements by several accused produced in the special TADA court where trial was conducted are treated as an evidence and Dawood Ibrahim has been proclaimed as accused number 1 in this case. A red corner notice has been issued by Interpol against Dawood & his brother Anees Inrahim. Dawood has been almost in all the agendas of diplomatic talks between India and Pakistan. However, just like Osama bin Laden, Pakistan is denying that Dawood is on its soil. Infact, after the operation by Navy SEALS in Abbotabad  which killed Al Qaeda chief Osama, there was an urge by several groups that India should also conduct a similar operation in Karachi and eliminate Dawood Ibrahim.

Post 1993 blasts Dawood apparently became stronger & more fearsome. He eliminated several of his rival gang members in Mumbai and also made an unsuccessful attempt on Chota Rajan in Bangkok who left his gang after the bomb blasts. It is reported that his family has established matrimonial relations with top ISI & army officials of Pakistan and it is very unlikely for Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment to allow any harm to his interests.

Riyaz Bhatkal & Indian Mujahideen.

“So are you going to pay up or not?”
“I have told that this much amount is not possible for me. Please dont be so cruel. I beg please consider my problem. I am not as rich as you think.”
“Ok...ok..then get ready to go back to the crematorium. I know you have just returned from there after cremating your body guard.. Now you will again go back there and this time you will not go there on your own legs. Your relatives will carry your body on their shoulders.I have lost my cool now. No money for me means no life for you...ok?”
These are the excerpts of an audio conversation which a source delivered to me in 2003. The person being threatened in this conversation is a small time businessman of ready to eat snacks from Mumbai’s suburb Kurla and has just returned from the funeral of his personal security guard who was shot dead a day earlier. The person one the other line was Riyaz Bhatkal whose shooters had killed the businessman’s body guard. Bhatkal was very clear to him- pay up or get killed. Such calls had become a menace for numerous small time traders of Kurla, Sion and Ghatkopar area in 2002 and 2003. The newly emerged RN gang had become a headache for the cops. R stood for Riyaz Bhatkal and N stood for his accomplice Nassir. Whenever anyone from the duo called up somebody for extortion he will introduce himself as RN. Like any other criminal gang they adopted the policy of kill one and scare hundred to extort money. Cops were treating complaints against them just like complaints against other gangsters indulged in extortion. However, case of RN was different. Very soon the Riyaz was to emerge as the dreaded terrorist who aspired to organize bloodshed throughout India.

Riyaz Bhatkal’s original name is Riyaz Shahbandri. He met Nassir  while working for Fazlu Rehman gang who operated in suburban Mumbai and Delhi. In late 2002 they decided to leave Fazlu’s gang and operate on their own. Picking up the initials of their names, they named their gang as RN.

Riyaz came from a small town of Bhatkal in the state of Karnataka. It is a communally sensitive town and has seen number of clashes between Hindu and Muslim communities during the past decade. Riyaz was infamous as a criminal in Bhatkal committing petty crimes. He moved to Mumbai at the behest of Fazlu. As the cops started pursuing him, he abandoned the operations of his newly formed gang and moved to Pune where he met Islamic extremists. After moving to Pune, Riyaz’s focus of life changed from making money to working for “the cause”. Although, Riyaz was not much educated, but he displayed good oratory and leadership skills.
Hence, he was assigned the task of setting up a terrorist organization and recruiting members for it.
Riyaz Bhatkal’s name as a terrorist first appeared in a press conference of Mumbai Police’s crime branch in 2008. Police informed that Riyaz was one of the masterminds behind the series of blasts which rocked several major cities of India that year.

Aftab Ansari: Terrorist who wanted to become Dawood Ibrahim.
Aftab Ansari @ Farhan Mallik is another example of a man who had a dual profile of a gangster and a terrorist. Ansari who once aspired to become as big as underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, is now languishing in jail after awaiting his death penalty to be executed which he got for masterminding Kolkata’s  American Centre attack on 22 January 2002. In that attack 6 policemen were killed and around 20 people were injured. It was a terrorist attack intended to threaten the US and to warn India against getting closer to the US.

Aftab Ansari graduated in underworld with crimes like extortion, kidnappings and attempt to murder. His areas of operations were mostly cities Delhi, Kolkata and adjacent areas. Once when Aftab Ansari was arrested for some offence and sent to Tihar jail, he met Sayyed Omar Shaikh who was the leader of Jaish-E-Mohammed. Omar Shaikh was released from jail in exchange of hostages from the hijacked plane of Indian Airlines, but before Omar moved out the prison he made a deal with Aftab Ansari. The deal was that Jaish E Mohammed will allow Ansari to use its network of Hawala and weapons supply for his gang activities and in return Ansari will help Jaish E Mohammed in recruitment of youths for conducting its terrorist activities. It is reported that a part of money obtained as ransom from the abduction of Kolkata based businessman Parth Roy Burman was sent to Jaish –E-Mohammed by Aftab Ansari. The same money was provided to 9/11 plotter Mohammed Atta.

On the instructions of Jaish-E-Mohammed, Aftab Ansari planned an attack on American Centre in Kolkata. He ordered his shooters to target the policemen guarding the centre in the morning at a time when the shifts were being changed. This daily routine was carefully observed and studied by the shooters. Riding on two motorbikes they raided the centre and started indiscriminate firing from their AK-47 rifles which were arranged by Jaish-E-Mohammed. After the bloodbath assailants fled from the spot.

The investigations not only challenged Indian security agencies but also raised concerns from the US. This was the second major terrorist attack on India just a month after Parliament was attacked on December 13, 2001. After detentions of around 50 suspects and enormous efforts by intelligence agencies it was revealed that Aftab Ansari plotted this attack in connivance with Jaish-E-Mohammed. It was found that Ansari was living in Dubai on a fake Pakistani passport. A CBI team was sent to Dubai and after diplomatic efforts, Aftab Ansari was sent back to India by U.A.E authorities. 3 weeks after the attack, the mastermind was behind the bars.

Why police starts hunting for automobile thieves after every blasts?

Automobile thieves and underworld gangs have a long time “business relations.” Whenever underworld has to kidnap, kill or injure somebody, they use motor cycles or cars which have been stolen. Every gang has a dedicated team of automobile thieves attached to them. They steal the vehicle as per the demand by the gang and deliver it to the gang member who has been assigned to conduct a shootout or kidnapping. The vehicle is abandoned as soon as the operation is executed. The reason behind gangsters using stolen vehicles is that it becomes difficult for cops to trace the perpetrators of the crime.

During last few years it has been revealed in the investigations that just like underworld, terrorist organizations are also using automobile thieves for their acts. In fact, underworld has introduced this modus operandi to the terrorist organizations. The extensive role of automobile thieves to support terrorist acts came out during the investigations of Ahmedabad blasts in 2008.

21 bomb explosions rocked the west Indian city of Ahmedabad on 26 July 2008. In a span of around 70 minutes 56 people were killed and over 200 were injured. Among the targets was also a civil hospital where explosive laden car was parked. The very next day explosives were found in four wheelers in another city of Surat, not very far from Ahmedabad. Terrorist had planned a similar serial bombings in Surat also, but fortunately none of the bombs in Surat exploded due to technical errors while manufacturing them. During the investigations it was found that vehicles used in Ahmedabad and Surat were stolen from New Mumbai.

Crime branch of Mumbai Police, who was conducting a parallel investigation in the case played a major role in detecting Ahmedabad blast case. Cops got a lead in their investigations while assessing the call records and movements of a notorious dealer in stolen automobiles Raju Soni. Soni used to buy stolen cars and motor cycles from car thieves of Mumbai, Thane and New Mumbai and sell them after forging documents and registration plates in neighboring states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Soni was arrested several times earlier for abetting automobile theft cases. “We got to know of the automobile thieves who supplied vehicles to terrorist by keeping an eye on the people who interacted with Soni”told Inspector Nandkumar Gopale.from the crime branch.  The trail led to an Indian Mujahideen operative Afzal Usmani, who had ordered the thieves to steal the cars and deliver it to him. Afzal Usmani was a close associate of Indian Mujahideen’s founding member Riyaz Bhatkal and worked with him since the days when both were affiliated to Fazlu gang. Duo defected from Fazlu gang in 2003 and started their own gang named RN to extort money from small and middle class traders.

When Afzal Usmani was arrested  in an organized crime case in 2005, he was put behind the bars in Arthur Road Jail of Mumbai. During his jail stint, Usmani met an auto mobile thief Mohammed Mobin Khan @ Irfan. In early 2008 after being released on bail, Usmani on the instructions of Riyaz Bhatkal asked Irfan to steal four cars for terrorist attacks in Ahmedabad and Surat. Accordingly, Irfan accompanied by his cousin Ayub Shaikh stole 4 cars from July 7, 2008 to July 14, 2008. A Wagon R car which belonged to Narsappa Nageshwar, a resident of Panvel in New Mumbai was parked by Afzal Usmani himself with explosives at Ahmedabad Civil Hospital on the day of blasts. Second car was a Maruti-800 which belonged to Rajkumar Oberoi of Nerul area was used to explode the bomb at L.G.Hospital in Ahmedabad, third car belonging to Pradeep Vaylar of Panvel was found aboandoned with explosives in Surat. The fourth car which was owned by Neeta Madhav residing in Vashi area of New Mumbai was also found abandoned with explosives in Surat city.

Although, Afzal Usmani was arrested in 2008 itself, it is a coincident that Maharashtra Anti Terrorist Squad announced the arrest of car thieves Irfan and Ayub just a day before triple bombings in Mumbai on 13-07-2011. Interestingly, in this case also investigating agencies have concluded that a stolen 2 wheeler was used for the blast in Zaveri Bazar area.

Encounter Specialists: Men who dealt with terrorists, the underworld style.
“Encounter Specialists”, there is no such official position, rank or designation in the various police forces of India. However, most of the police organizations in several cities of the country have a set of selected police officers who are known within and outside the force as encounter specialists. They are not the officers who have received any special commando training, but they specialize in cases where there is direct confrontation with the criminals. They are the killing machines for a police force. They apprehend the criminal, they conduct their own trial and they proclaim and execute the punishment that is death. Such encounter specialists have been used by various police forces in India as an instrument of counter terror. The most famous and infamous encounter specialist officers in India have been from Mumbai. Mumbai’s case study depicts how effective they were once in combating underworld and terrorism and how they turned out to be a double edged swords.

Decade of 90s brought some of the most challenging years for Mumbai Police in the past century. Shootouts were rampant, gangster called to extort money & killed those who didn’t pay up. It seemed that mafia was ruling the city & law & order machinery went haywire. The scenario was somewhat similar to what it is today in Mexico. To control the underworld, government came up with a stringent law Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). Under this law it is not easy to acquire bail for an accused & he or she has to languish behind the bars for a longer period of time. MCOCA also armed the cops with extra ordinary powers. Hundreds of accused under this law have been booked in a single decade. However, this law alone didn’t seem enough to terrify & deter the mobsters from the daily bloodbath. Hence, the police then decided to go the extra judicial way. Based on the thought- “Poison neutralizes the effect of poison.” Mumbai Police came up with the unofficial policy of “encounters.” Hundreds of suspected gang members were picked up & killed. Every time such a killing of suspect took place, the cops claimed that they were attacked first & the suspect died when cops fired in retaliation. Almost in every “encounter” this story was used to justify the killings.

During the tenure of D.Sivanandhan (the then Chief of Crime branch of Mumbai Police) alone 238 suspected gangsters from various gangs were eliminated. Later on the cops reduced the intensity of its operation & came up with “one shootout, one encounter policy.” This policy meant that whenever a gang killed some citizen, the cops will pick up & kill any member from that gang which was suspected behind the shootout. Human rights activist might not concur with me, but the bitter reality is that this unofficial policy of “encounters” worked for the cops & was successful in controlling the terror of underworld to a great extent. At least in the first decade of 21st century the activities of underworld gangs were relatively very low.

Before the Anti Terrorist Squads were established by various states, mostly terror related cases were handled by the crime branch of the city or state police. In case of Mumbai police such cases were dealt by the same elite team of encounter specialists who were originally entrusted with the responsibility of eliminating the gangsters. Following are some of the encounters, which are attributed to these officers:

+ On March 29, 2003 a crime branch team gunned down 3 alleged members of Lashkar-E-Taiyyba in broad daylight at Jogeshwari, a suburb of western Mumbai. The team reported that all 3 terrorist died when police team retaliated to their firing from Ak-56 rifles and a pistol. The police recovered an AK-56 assault rifle, 2 star pistols, several compact discs and diaries.

+ On 22-08-2006 a Pakistani named Abu Osama was killed by police in an encounter. Police team had arrested his accomplice Riyaz Nawabuddin a day earlier and on his information went to search for Osama. The cops claimed that Osama was hiding in a central government employee’s residential colony and fired on police team when he was asked to surrender. Osama died when police fired in retaliation.

+ In September 2003 crime branch team killed one Nassir who was suspected to be one of the masterminds of 25 August 2003 twin blasts in Mumbai which killed around 60 people at Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar of Mumbai. The encounter took place outside Ruparel College of Matunga area in central Mumbai. Crime branch team recovered arms & a car from the spot.

In all the above 3 cases, same officers participated in the encounters who had earlier killed dozens of gangsters in the past.

Now, let us look at the dark side of this policy. The policy of “encounters” led to the rise of a special breed of police officers known as “encounter specialist.” These were the officers with strong network of informants in the underworld & had the tacit authority to conduct extra judicial killings of the suspected gangsters. They enjoyed extra ordinary powers & shared good rapport with senior officials. Infact, most of the superior officials relied on these encounter specialists to update themselves on the latest equations in the underworld. By killing suspected gangsters they became public heroes & received wide media attention including the international media. Every encounter specialist officer proudly boasted the number of gangsters he had killed. Films were made on the life stories of several encounter specialist officers. However, their days of glory lasted only for few years. It is alleged that most of such officers took undue advantage of their position in the police force & rapport with their bosses. They became corrupt, got affiliated with one gang or the other, started killing people for money, extorted money from builders & businessmen etc. This led to tremendous negative publicity & judicial intervention. Public heroes were now seen as villains. Almost all the encounter specialists were arrested & send behind the bars on charges of corruption, murder, extortion, custodial deaths & so on. Today there are no encounter specialist officers. Such officers were over confident that their superiors would come to their rescue & they could get away, but now they claim that they were “used & thrown.”

As described earlier, the “policy of encounters” has yielded results only in the context of underworld and it has failed to deter terrorist groups. Underworld is not as fierce now as it was in the decade of 90s, but fears of bomb blasts and shootouts by terrorists still haunt the city. Fear of death couldn’t deter a terrorist from his mission who has decided to become a “Fidayeen” (like in the case of 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks where all the terrorists were told to die while fighting.) However, in any case such policy has proven itself to be a double edged sword. Moreover, considering the fate of earlier encounter specialist officers, not many police officers now would prefer to be labeled as an encounter specialist. After Mumbai blasts on July 13, 2011 when I asked a police officer attached with the crime branch of Mumbai Police whether he would volunteer to become one, he said- “No way… I have wife & children at home. My parents are old & sick. I have to earn daily bread for them & I don’t want to go to the jail.”

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