By Syed Nazakat in Pilkhuwa and Delhi
Life was never slow in Pilkhuwa, a textile hub in western Uttar Pradesh. From weaving and dyeing to washing and carrying sun-dried bed sheets back from the field, the town offered people plenty of jobs to keep poverty at bay. It was in the narrow lanes of Pilkhuwa that Abdul Kareem, one of India’s most wanted terrorists, took his first step towards infamy.
He was not particularly religious or violent; like other residents, he wanted to work and make money. Neighbours recall a cheeky, but hardly malevolent, man who never fought with anyone. Then, in the summer of 1984, a visit to Mumbai set Kareem on the terror path. He became a recruiter of terrorists and, for more than two decades, outsmarted Indian intelligence agencies, which pursued him from one country to the next.
The chase has now ended. In a well-crafted covert operation by the intelligence agencies, he was nabbed at the India-Nepal border and handed over to the Delhi Police on August 16. According to a Union home ministry official who is in the know, the tip-off about Kareem’s whereabouts came from Dubai. “Whether he was arrested by the R&AW, the Intelligence Bureau or the police is a pointless issue,” S.N. Shrivastava, special commissioner of police (special cell), told THE WEEK. “What is important is that he was finally arrested. His arrest is a breakthrough. His network is mind-blowing.”
The revelations of Abdul Kareem, 72, have given the Delhi Police a glimpse into the shadowy world of the Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba. According to the police, Kareem, who was directing operations in India, had a terror network of about 100 operatives. Some of the active members are Junaid Akram Malik, alias Umair of Jammu, Mohammed Ashar of Thalassery in Kerala and Mirza Shadaab Beg and Ariz Khan of Azamgarh in UP.
During interrogation, Kareem confirmed that Indian Mujahideen founder Amir Reza Khan, who hails from Gaya in Bihar, is hiding in Pakistan and has links to LeT leader Abdur Rehman Hashim, alias Pasha. Their mission is to recruit Indians and to provide logistics like hideouts. The interrogation report says LeT operatives are smuggled into India by Kareem’s father-in-law, Zakaria, through the porous Nepal-Bangladesh border. The overall command of the LeT’s India operations is now with Azam Cheema, a resident of Bahawalpur in Pakistan.
It has also been revealed that the LeT may be using the Sri Lankan route to infiltrate India. According a security alert recently issued by the Union home ministry, eight militants are undergoing training in Pakistan to sneak into India from Sri Lanka and carry out attacks. Their targets include Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Wagah border in Punjab and Delhi. The alert was issued after Indian intelligence agencies came to know about the arrest of three Pakistanis, who confessed to having visited India on Lankan passports, in Sri Lanka on February 2. It said the probability of 26/11-model terrorist attacks in Delhi was particularly strong.
The threat has made Kareem’s arrest all the more important. “With this arrest, we will get access to a bulk of intelligence,” said R.P.N. Singh, Union minister of state for home. “He was not only involved in the bomb blasts… he started the sleeper cells [too].”
In Pakistan, says the interrogation report, the LeT runs two major training camps: Mansera Subub Sarhad and Hind Baloch Subab Sarhad. The other training centres are in Peshawar, Muzaffarabad and Muridke. Groups of 30 to 70 people are given training in daura-e-aam (21-day physical and arms training) and daura-e-khas (three-month training for operational activities). Apparently, Kareem’s secret connections reach all the way up to the senior levels of the LeT and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s spy agency. According to the Delhi Police, he was in touch with the former ISI chief Hamid Gul.
An elusive figure, Kareem juggled allegiances with militant groups, manipulating and betraying wives, friends and allies. He was born in Pilkhuwa in 1943. Son of a metal worker, he dropped out of school after his father’s death. He grew up in Pilkhuwa and then in Daryaganj in old Delhi. Unlike his brothers, Kareem was an adventurous boy who wanted to make it big. His relatives describe him as a family man driven by wanderlust. But at the age of 45, he courted a girl, Mumtaz of Ahmedabad, and made her his second wife.
A visit to Mumbai in 1984 changed his life. Kareem was caught in the middle of the communal riots that erupted in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra. He witnessed Hindus and Muslims attacking each other, and burning and looting homes, shops and places of worship. The riots resulted in hundreds of deaths, mostly of Muslims.
“I saw a big change in his attitude after he visited Mumbai,” recalls his younger brother Abdul Malik, 67. “I remember having a conversation with him about it. He said he had seen women being raped, killed and their breast sliced with knives. That incident had a huge impact on him. Then Babri Masjid was demolished and riots erupted again. I think that was the turning point in his life.” (Interview on Page xx.)
In Mumbai, he roped in Jalees Ansari, a doctor who is now in prison, and Azam Ghouri, a radical from Hyderabad who was later killed in an encounter. They formed the Tanzeem Islah-ul-Muslimeen and started recruiting boys, purchasing small arms and making explosives. Kareem had learnt to make bombs with easily available material like urea, potassium chloride, nitrobenzene and sugar. It was in one of those bomb-making exercises that his left hand was severed, earning him the nickname Tunda (handicapped).
Their operations were so surreptitious that even their family had no clue about what they were up to. Weeks after Hindu activists demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, Kareem and his partners allegedly carried out bomb blasts in Mumbai and Hyderabad, besides seven separate blasts on trains in 1993. As investigations started, the police came across a shocking detail: young boys who had gone missing after the riots had crossed over to Pakistan. According to the home ministry, between 1992 and 2004, hundreds of boys crossed the border to undergo arms training in Pakistan. Most of them were recruited and mentored by Kareem. “He wanted to avenge the Babri Masjid demolition,” said M.M. Oberoi, joint commissioner of police (special cell).
While India was trying to come to terms with the riots and bombings after the Babri Masjid demolition, terror groups in Pakistan were plotting to force the release of Afghan militant Nasrullah Mansoor Langrial from an Indian prison. Omar Sheikh, a British graduate of the London School of Economics, came to India on July 26, 1994, and kidnapped three Britons and an American, Bela Nuss. The Britons were taken to Saharanpur in UP and Nuss was kept in Kareem’s neighbourhood in Ghaziabad. The hostages were freed after a police raid in which two cops and a militant were killed and Sheikh was arrested. In December 1999, he was released from prison in exchange for hostages on the Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked to Kandahar. Today, intelligence agencies believe that Kareem may have plotted the kidnappings.
The police learnt about Kareem’s activities after the 1993 blasts. But before they could nab him, he escaped from Pilkhuwa to Kolkata, and then crossed over to Bangladesh. From there he went to Pakistan, where he lived at Markaz-al-Dawa wal-Irshad in Muridke. A year after he left Pilkhuwa, he sent two men to bring his two wives and six children to Bangladesh. They, too, used the West Bengal-Bangladesh border to cross over. Mohammad Alam, a relative who was in touch with Kareem, hired a taxi from UP to Kolkata for the family. Alam was later arrested and convicted. Kareem’s wives and children now live in Lahore, where they run a perfume business.
In Pakistan, he came into contact with Hafiz Saeed. After the Afghan war, the LeT had become a launch-pad for anti-India operations and Saeed was running the show. In Pakistan, Kareem taught militants how to make improvised explosive devices and became the LeT’s point man. He was seen as a key strategist, recruiter and bomb maker.
One of the boys he recruited from his hometown, Mohammad Shakeel, was arrested after the Delhi bomb blasts in 1998. He was allegedly involved in the 1997 Delhi-Amritsar Frontier Mail blasts that killed 12 persons and injured 20. On June 19, 2009, Shakeel was found hanging from the ceiling of his high-security barrack in Dasna Jail.
Kareem misled his younger brother Abdul Haq, too. “One day he came and kept some bags in my home,” said the 65-year-old Haq at his Malvia Nagar residence. “He said he would take them after some days. I didn’t know what was in the bags. Later, when the police raided, they found some explosives in them.”
Haq was jailed for six years and was released only after court found that he had no terror links and was cheated by Kareem. “He was my elder brother. He should never have cheated me. My life was destroyed because of him,” said Haq.
Bangladeshi and Pakistani militants are alleged to have played a key role in Kareem’s operations, carrying out 24 explosions in Delhi alone in the past two decades. Two of his Bangladeshi recruits, Mati-ur-Rehman and Akbar, were arrested from Sadar Bazar railway station in Delhi in February 1998. That led to the arrest of 24 other operatives, including Kareem’s confidant Abdul Sattar, a resident of Pakistan’s Faislabad district.
His other key operative was Sarfaraz Nawaz, a 32-year-old computer expert from Kerala who was arrested in Oman in 2009 and is now in custody. During interrogation, Nawaz revealed that there were 26 LeT teams working in India and that he had recruited Fahim Ansari, who was later arrested on charges of providing surveillance footage to the LeT for the 26/11 attacks. Ansari, however, was later acquitted because of lack of evidence.
The hunt for Kareem had died down in 2000, when intelligence agencies got information that he had been killed in a shootout in Bangladesh. He was back on the radar in August 2005, after Abdul Razzak, an alleged LeT coordinator in Dubai, was arrested in Iran. During interrogation, Razzak revealed that he had met Kareem in Lahore in December 2003. Razzak committed suicide on October 10, 2012, allegedly because of police harassment.
It is still not clear whether Kareem was part of the 26/11 attacks, after which he went into hiding, shuttling between safe houses in Dhaka, Kathmandu and Lahore. Investigators say Kareem was frustrated because he could not scale the LeT’s hierarchy. Apparently, over the past couple of years, he was not having a good relationship with Hafiz Saeed.
But that did not stop Kareem plotting against India. His strength was his network, which was was so widespread that even Babbar Khalsa International, the Khalistani terror group, approached him in 2009 to plant bombs in Amritsar. The Punjab Police, however, recovered the explosive and arrested his three men. Kareem’s last plot, said the police, was to attack the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. But that, too, was foiled.
What has surprised investigators is that Kareem acquired a Pakistani passport (no. AC4413161) in January this year on a new name, Abdul Quddus. They are still trying to figure out what his game-plan was. For the moment, he is in the custody of the Delhi Police and will be taken to different places for investigation.
In Pilkhuwa, people still cannot believe that Kareem was such a deadly figure. “I would like to go and meet him one day,” said his brother Malik. “I would like to ask him why he did all this; what he has achieved by doing all this.”
Interview of Abdul Malik, Abdul Kareem Tunda’s younger brother
He always had a plan to do something nasty
How did Kareem become a terrorist?
We were very young when our father died. As Kareem was the eldest in the family, he was sent to Delhi to work. I think that was the first bad thing happened to him. He dropped out of school when he was in class five. When he was about 15, we started a furniture business. He was extremely good at his job.
Somehow, he was not satisfied with what he was doing. He was restless and had no patience. In 1981, I got a job in Gwalior and after that, my interaction with him was limited. Everything looked fine till 1993 when the police raided his house in Pilkhuwa in Uttar Pradesh. We soon realised that something horrible had happened. Everyone in the village said he had become a terrorist and carried out bomb blasts in Hyderabad and Lucknow. As soon as Kareem came to know about the raid, he fled to Bangladesh and, after that, he never visited the village.
Where is his family?
In 1995, his children and two wives, Jalina and Mumtaz, also fled to Bangladesh. We later heard that he had sent some people from Bangladesh to take them. I heard that they were all in Pakistan now. I have never spoken to them after 1995.
How did he come in touch with the LeT?
After the demolition of Babri Masjid, Kareem became bitter and revengeful. He talked about Partition, Pakistan and the hopelessness of Indian Muslims. He wanted revenge. I remember having a heated argument with him. I told him that he was not capable of changing anything even in Pilkhuwa, leave aside the whole country. I knew he was not nice to his wife and children and my words pricked him. After that, we never discussed the topic.
Has he ever met you after he left his village?
No, I never met him. But he called me once, I think in 2000. He got my number from somewhere. I told him that we had nothing to do with him and asked him not to call again. After that, I changed my number.
Did he repent his activities?
No, I don’t think he had any repentance.
How did he manage to build such a deadly network in so many countries?
He had a sharp mind and always had a plan to do something nasty. He also had a way with words and could easily fool people.
When did you come to know about his arrest?
I heard about it on TV. But strangely, on August 6, around 3 p.m., some cops in civil dress came and asked about Kareem. I do not know whether he was already in their custody. I was feeling so ashamed after seeing him. At this age, he should have been spending time with his grandchildren and praying and seeking Allah’s mercy. And there he was, surrounded by cops and accused of worst possible crimes. I do not know what he has achieved by doing such horrible things. We feel ashamed that one of us has indulged in anti-national activities. People shun us. Nobody gives us work. Our furniture business has collapsed.
Kareem was one of the 20 most-wanted terrorists in India. His name figures in the list of accused in 21 cases, including the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case and a failed attempt to disrupt the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Investigators say that he is responsible for more deaths than any other Indian terrorist and that at the time of his arrest he had 100-odd operatives in India.
His arrest is a big blow to the LeT, as he was the outfit’s longest serving Indian commander and the main person to recruit Indian boys. For over two decades, he was associated with the LeT and had in-depth knowledge of the terror network in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
His connections reach all the way up to the senior levels of the LeT and the ISI. He has, reportedly, told his interrogators that he had worked with Hafiz Saeed, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Wadhawa Singh and that he had met former ISI chief Hamid Gul.
He has, reportedly, told interrogators that Dawood Ibrahim was in Karachi a year ago.
In recent years, the Indian security agencies have traced and nabbed a number of terrorists from abroad. It is an extraordinary story of how terrorists are being chased and hunted by spies and picked from Nepal, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Iran and brought to India.
Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Jundal, one of the handlers of the 10 LeT terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and brought to India.
Fasih Mohammed, accused in terror cases in Bangalore and Delhi, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2011 and brought to India.
Abdul Sathar aka Manzoor of Kerala was arrested in Dubai and subsequently brought to India on August 2, 2013. NIA believes that he had to gone Pakistan for arms training along with a number of others from Kerala.
Aftab Ansari, suspected in the Kolkata American Center attack case, was arrested in Dubai in 2002 and brought to India.
A number of suspected terrorists have been picked from Nepal. Abdul Kareem Tunda is believed to have been arrested from Nepal on information generated from Dubai.
Mohammed Omar Madni, Lashkar’s main man in Nepal, was arrested in Kathmandu and brought to India in 2009.
ULFA leader Arabinda Rajkhowa, along with others, was arrested in Dhaka and deported to India in 2009.
Abdul Razzak Masood, an alleged LeT chief coordinator in Dubai, was arrested in Iran in 2005 and then brought to India. Razzak provided information about Tunda’s presence in Pakistan. Out on bail, he committed suicide in 2012.
THE WEEK, August, 2013