By Syed Nazakat and Anupam Dasgupta
Some people called him Mohammed Zarar, some others Imran. For his acquaintances in the terror world he was Asif; for his handlers Shah Rukh. Whatever be the name Yasin Bhatkal was known by, he was as deadly in each of them. The Indian Mujahideen operative allegedly plotted at least 10 terrorist attacks in various parts of India that killed around 250 people.
Yasin was arrested in Kolkata in 2009. A master of deception, he fooled the police with a fake identity and got released on bail. But four years later, on August 28, he ran out of tricks and was nabbed on the India-Nepal border. His arrest tells a larger story of India’s successful rendition programme, under which many suspected terrorists were arrested in Nepal and some other countries and brought to India. Last week, THE WEEK reported how master bomb maker Abdul Kareem Tunda was arrested in Nepal and brought to Delhi.
The rendition programme, about which nobody in the home ministry wants to talk about because of its sensitive nature, involves a massive covert operation by the intelligence agencies to flush out terrorists planning strikes in India from their foreign hideouts. THE WEEK’s cover story of the December 13, 2009 issue had detailed how the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing and other security agencies had been successfully carrying out the operation.
Apparently, Yasin was nabbed in Nepal and brought to India under the same programme. A senior officer at the Union home ministry told THE WEEK that Yasin was first traced in Dubai and then in Nepal and was chased for more than six months before he was arrested along with an accomplice, Asadullah Akhtar. “After Safdar Nagori [founder of the Indian Mujahideen, who was arrested in Indore on March 26, 2008], Yasin was the biggest catch,” said the officer.
Nepal emerged as a terror transit point during the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s, when the Khalistan militants established several hideouts in Kathmandu. The turning point came on December 24, 1999, when five Pakistani terrorists hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar in Afghanistan. The Delhi-bound flight from Kathmandu carried mostly Indian holidayers returning home. Post this incident, Indian intelligence agencies launched a major anti-terror operation in Nepal in a complex arrangement with Nepali intelligence agencies.
Yasin’s capture was the latest fruit of that arrangement. A top Nepali counter terrorism official had earlier told THE WEEK that the IM had been regrouping in Nepal and it was conveyed to the Indian authorities. Yasin is believed to have played a major role in IM’s presence in Nepal. It has also been reported that he was aided by the ISI in getting the IM a foothold in Bangladesh.
A cousin of the IM’s founder-member Riyaz Bhatkal, Yasin created the outfit’s sleeper cells across India. These units would become active only after an attack order was issued by him. In addition to the structured IM units, he relied also on a looser matrix of people who were not members of the outfit. Rakesh Maria, head of Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorist Squad and additional director-general of police, told THE WEEK that Yasin “ensured the success of an operation” by overseeing plots after the selection of the target. “He personally shepherded affairs marshalling programmed operational sub-functions leading to an attack,” said Maria.
Yasin has a knack of spotting ‘talent’. Terrorists like Abdul Subhan Quereshi, Sadiq Ishrar Sheikh and Shibly Abdul were spotted by him. His aide Fasih Mehmood, now in jail in Saudi Arabia, was behind the bomb blast in the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore and the shooting of Taiwanese tourists near the Jama Masjid in Delhi in 2010. Yasin is said to be the brain behind the attacks.
A year after he escaped from Kolkata, Yasin came on the police radar in Pune. He was caught in the camera of a closed-circuit television, carrying a backpack into the German Bakery, where a bomb exploded after a while. Seventeen people died in the attack. In July 2011, he is said to have returned to his rented accommodation in Nagpada in south Mumbai after the bomb explosions in Dadar, Zaveri Bazaar and Opera House in the city. In the past two years, his name popped up in almost all major anti-terrorism investigations. “He has been the most active terrorist in the IM group,” said former home secretary R.K. Singh. “His arrest will surely dent the capabilities of the IM.”
Yasin, 30, was born Ahmed Siddibapa in the coastal town of Bhatkal in Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka. His family still lives there. His father, Zarar Siddibapa, said he was relieved that Yasin had been arrested and not killed in an encounter. Yasin’s brother Sammad, who was mistaken as Yasin and picked up by security agencies at the Mangalore airport a few years ago, keeps a low profile.
Yasin’s family has contested the government’s version of the story. His father, in a letter released to the media after Yasin’s arrest, said Yasin went to Dubai in November 2005. “He never set foot on Pune to our knowledge until he disappeared from Dubai in 2007,” said the letter. “Despite the best efforts of the family and the Dubai intelligence Ahmed Siddibapa could not be traced.”
According to the National Investigation Agency, Yasin joined the IM after the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. He was in touch with Amir Raza Khan, who, according to the NIA, is the main operative of the Pakistani terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba in India. After the Pune blasts, the NIA had announced a bounty of Rs 10 lakh for any information on Yasin and Riyaz.
According to the charge sheet filed by the NIA, after the IM’s formation, radicalised Muslim youth segregated from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) to join the new outfit. Originally an organisation for Muslim college students, SIMI was banned after the 9/11 attacks in the US, as the security agencies found that some of its members were hooked up by the Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. A few of them had travelled to Pakistan through Nepal for arms training and built an extensive network in India and some neighbouring countries.
Nagori joined the SIMI in 1991. In 2001, when several SIMI leaders urged the organisation to renounce terror and return to academic and religious activities, he became the leader of the faction that preferred an armed struggle. The IM, thus formed, was driven by communal hatred and anger against the government. Investigators say it is not a typical terror group with a hierarchical structure but a loose network of militants tied together by a common cause and ideological affiliation.
Soon after the IM’s formation, the security agencies started a countrywide crackdown against its operatives. According to officials, the agencies had teams of undercover officers in minority neighbourhoods as part of a human mapping programme. Informers were deployed to keep an eye on mosques, restaurants and bookshops. That is how the men from Bhatkal came on the radar. In early 2004, according to the investigators, the core members of the IM met at Yasin’s house in Bhatkal to map their plans. They recruited aggressively and held arms training in Karnataka. In a training session, the group even practised with air guns. “Yasin is capable of switching between many different avatars. He is a trained bomb maker, a recruiter, a prime motivator and principal plotter for the IM. His arrest is a huge success for the national security establishment,” said Maria.
The trouble for Yasin, like many other terrorists, started when Abu Jundal, the Karachi-based handler of the terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008, was arrested in Saudi Arabia and deported to India last year. This led to some big birds falling into the net. “Yasin’s arrest could reveal the nature of the Indian Mujahideen’s support structure in Pakistan. Also we need to know who the IM’s subsidiary units are,” said an intelligence officer.
For the NIA, Yasin is a prize catch. And coming hot on the heels of Tunda’s arrest, it is a double whammy.
with Abhinav Singh
THE WEEK, September 8, 2013