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Terror's southern gateway

A new terror network has taken root in India, one that has its origins in the east and stretches across south India.

Gulf News

1. October 12, 2005, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh: A suicide bomber blows himself up at police Special Task Force (STF) headquarters, killing one guard, injuring another.

2. December 28, 2005, Bangalore, Karnataka: A lone gunman shoots at a university professor, kills him and injures four others at the Indian Institute of Science. He throws several grenades and escapes.

3. January 6, 2006, Mumbai, Maharashtra: The imam at Haj House is detained, named by terror operatives detained with bomb-making equipment as their chief financier.

To the world, these clutch of events seem unrelated. They are not. At each of these sites, sleuths homed in on clinching evidence that points to the rise of a new terror network that stretches inexorably across India's southern peninsula.

For once, its origins are not wholly rooted in Kashmir, where India has fought a shadowy war since 1998. Instead, while Kashmir remains the genesis of discontent, the route into the country is no longer through the treacherous snowbound Himalayan passes where militants have come up against an electrified fence and half-a-million troops armed with better night vision equipment.

The attacks on two key South Indian cities are a demonstration of the outflanking manoeuvre, that has resulted in a stepped up ingress from a new frontier the east, from neighbouring Bangladesh, where Al Qaida-linked terror outfits are eyeing a hitherto untouched southern India.

The operation, funded by the ubiquitous cash and carry hawala brigade, uses Mumbai as its first port of call to hand over money from Indian expatriates in the Gulf.

Change of strategy

Hyderabad was the first indicator of that change of strategy. On October 12, Hyderabad Police's Special Task Force had fanned out in the southern infotech city to prevent clashes during the Dussehra festival.

Their offices, normally crawling with policemen, were empty except for a handful of guards. This is when a slight man carrying a backpack walked in and blew himself up.

John Doe became South India's first suicide bomber (after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger human bomb in May 1991).

When the smoke cleared, the mangled human remains yielded no answers about the man's origin. Official investigators discount the theory his face was intact. In fact, the appearance of the mystery suicide bomber raised troubling questions on whether it signalled the rise of a previously unknown home-grown terror structure.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Godhra riots in Gujarat as well as the perceived demonisation of Muslims after 9/11 created unease among the Muslim communities in the Andhra capital, and the former Nizam's territories in Karimnagar and Nalgonda.

"The indoctrination of Muslim youth is not difficult given the lack of education and the high levels of unemployment, and recent examples of victimisation, such as Godhra and Babri Masjid," says Bangalore-based businessman Ashfaq Peeran.

But apart from the attack on a senior Hyderabad police official in 1992, the handiwork of Hizbul Mujahideen Kashmiri separatists, it's the violent Naxalite-Maoist movement that dominates the terror discourse in this southern state. Neighbouring Karnataka has no history of such malcontent.

Investigators baffled

In the early days of the investigation, the city's sleuths were baffled. The Naxal footprint was missing. Could an Islamist movement have taken root in the south? Unlikely, say the experts. Unlike the ghettoised north, Muslims in the south live cheek by jowl with other communities and faiths, speak the same language and face little alienation.

Andhra's Muslims, in particular, look outward. They have centuries-old links with the Gulf countries where their common Islamic heritage made it easy to find employment and forge familial links.

"Our connections with the Arab world are historical," says Congress lawmaker and Andhra minister Mohammad Ali Shabbir, who authored the so-called Qazi Act, which seeks to curb the blatant exploitation of Hyderabad's under-age Muslim girls but encourages legitimate alliances.

"For generations, since Arab troops first came to serve under the Nizam, young men of mixed Arab-Indian parentage have chosen to marry girls from Hyderabad. It only makes the links stronger."

Terror makeover

The first startling clue that the societal script was being given a terror makeover came when investigators, sifting through the Hyderabad suicide bomber's charred remnants, found the heel of a rubber slipper with the price tag intact. "The tag read 'Taka 100'. It was a shock to find it was from Bangladesh," said an investigator. It was a vital breakthrough.

Days later, police detained a man acting suspiciously on a train from Patna. The man said his name was Kalim. He was a Bangladeshi. A self-confessed member of the Jamayatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, he had come in through the porous India-Bangladesh border where he was met by a man who put him on a train to Patna.

All he had to do was get off the train in the Bihar capital, where he was met by the same man who took him to a house next to the station. His contact had travelled separately. A sleuth who interrogated Kalim, and was going public with the details of that encounter for the first time, told Gulf News, "For security reasons each man operates on a 'need to know' basis".

The significance of this dummy run could be twofold, he says. One, right outside Patna railway station is a tailormade venue for discord a mosque that adjoins a temple. Secondly, Kalim's dummy run to Patna was probably to activate the local supporter, the one who gave him shelter.

"A lot of times, terror modules and sleeper cells remain dormant for years until they are activated. Without a foreign operative, a lot of sleepers who have grown close to the local community by marrying into it, more so, if they are a local boy, find it difficult to act against the community unless they are goaded into it by the foreigner," said the sleuth who oversees the various anti-terror task forces in the country. "They lose their nerve at the last minute."

As must have happened in Bangalore, say city police. The attack on the Indian Institute of Science on December 28 was clearly by an amateur as the attacker fired from within metres of the perimeter, but threw away his AK-56 rifle and grenades when the guards finally summoned up the courage and fired back. He escaped on foot, melting into the darkness. There was no getaway car.

Southern network

In fact, it was Kalim's interrogation that not only led the investigators to the Hyderabad's mystery bomber's local support network but to South India's key Lashkar-e-Toiba chief, Abdul Rahman, who had returned to Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh, from the Gulf in the latter half of 2005. Rahman reports to Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Salahuddin.

It also led to Afzal Pasha, who heads the Bangalore terror module. He had spent time in the Gulf as well as Bangladesh where he is believed to have come under the influence of jihadis or subversives. Abdul Rahman freely admitted to the police that he had set up the southern network that includes Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.

Officials in Bangalore say an earlier recce of the Infosys and Wipro campuses and other infotech centres in Bangalore by terrorists had convinced the LeT that these were too well guarded for any serious attack to be mounted. Hence, the choice of the 100-year-old Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore set in acres of wooded forest, with nine gates, low walls and no security to speak of as a target.

There were others in the cross-hairs the Kaiga atomic energy centre, Almatti dam, Vasco port in Goa, the Indian Oil Corporation dump at Madgaon, and an as yet unidentified target in Bhopal.

A month after the attack and Professor Balakrishnan, Deputy Director of Indian Institute of Science, told Gulf News he was emphatic that the research facility would not change its character. "We value our freedom, no terrorist is going to change the way we operate."

Floating population

But the use of Bangladeshis by the LeT has forced sleuths to re-examine the floating population in India's overcrowded cities. Hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking migrants have slipped under the radar of the border forces, flocking to an India they see as a ticket to a livelihood.

Most mesh into the country's amorphous, multi-cultural society with relative ease. In Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, and more so in Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country, they have become a sizeable labour force.

With their illegal acquisition of food coupons, the so-called ration cards, they have also acquired legitimacy as Indian citizens and voters. "It's the perfect cover," said Mumbai's Anti-Terror Squad chief K.P. Raghuvanshi.

The detention of the imam of the two mosques at Haj House in Mumbai's teeming Mohammad Ali Road in January was the last piece of the emerging terror jigsaw; a pointer that the commercial capital has turned from key target to the heart of a massive money-changing operation for the new network.

Ghulam Mohammad Yahya Illahi Baksh, 42, who comes from West Bengal, was named as the LeT chief by three Kashmiris belonging to the group, caught by Mumbai's Anti-Terror Squad with detonators, timers, pistols and live cartridges.

"Haj House has been cleverly chosen for the transactions because hundreds of people are constantly in transit, either for Umrah or Haj. No records are kept of people who use the facilities," said Raghuvanshi, shrugging off criticism that it was an attack on a Muslim institution. "It just so happens that Yahya is the imam there."

Yahya, arrested from his home in Dongri on January 6, and his extensive hawala network are under the scanner. Investigators say more than 80 per cent of the hawala transactions emanate from one city in the Gulf, and could have come from another country altogether. One single transaction in January is reported to be an alarming Rs 10 million.

Timing of attacks

Raghuvanshi gave no details but the key question is the timing of the attacks. Are these terror modules preparing the ground for an attack that could coincide with the March visit of US President George W. Bush to India, and possibly, Hyderabad? Some 36 Sikhs were butchered in the Kashmiri village of Chattisinghpora when Bill Clinton visited Delhi in March 2000.

Heads of infotech companies see the twin attacks as an attempt by the subversives to destabilise the intellectual capitals of the south.

"The aim remains the same to destabilise India. Except, this is fingerprintless terrorism," said Raghuvanshi.

"It gives the masterminds who are sitting abroad I don't have to name them complete deniability, because the operatives who provide infrastructure, support and shelter are local, the material used is local. It's not RDX which would automatically label it as foreign, but homemade bombs that anybody with a modicum of training can create. Dual-use material like ammonium nitrate and wires can be found in any hardware store. They use the criminal underworld for their own ends."

"It's a continuation of the proxy war by another name, only this time it's not in the north, it's not in Mumbai but in the south," said a senior investigator. "Every blast goes towards proving their self-fulfilling prophecy of India fighting 80 insurgencies." The southern gateway, by all accounts, has been breached.

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