Evidence put 7/11 Mumbai blasts accused on death row; now NIA, intelligence and police files are questioning that proof

Early one summer morning in 2006, five men gathered inside a dingy apartment in the Deccan Cooperative Society in Sewri, on the eastern fringes of South Mumbai. The men busied themselves moulding a black, plasticky goo, its texture not dissimilar to the Play-Doh thousands of kindergarten children would have been amusing themselves with at around the same time. Their work was done before lunchtime: 35 kg of ammonium-nitrate explosive gel had been packed inside pressure cookers, along with detonators linked to little plastic alarm clocks, each set to 6.30 pm.

“I would go first with one bag to Churchgate, and keep the bag in the First Class compartment,” one of the men later told the National Investigation Agency, in a classified interrogation [1]. “I would get down at Marine Lines station, and then go back to Churchgate.  Next, Atif would leave with two bags, and also come back to Churchgate. Abu Rashid and Sajid will take one bag each and keep the bags in the selected trains. Finally, Shahnawaz would come to Churchgate with two bags, and we would put both of them in the trains”.

“Everything went as planned”: 209 people were killed, and over 700 injured, far more than on 26/11.

In a few weeks, the world will be able to see The Mauritanian — director Kevin McDonald’s wrenching telling of the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, tortured and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years for crimes he did not commit. The story of the 7/11 Five illustrates, as nothing else could, that this hell is closer to home than we imagine.

***

Five years ago, a court sentenced Kamal Sheikh, Faisal Ansari, Ehtesham Siddiqui, Naveed Khan and Asif Khan to death for their role in the bombing of Mumbai’s suburban train system on 11 July 2006 — among the most savage acts of mass-casualty terrorism in the world. Seven other conspirators were handed down life sentences; just one alleged perpetrator, Wahid Sheikh, was acquitted. For the hundreds of families torn apart by one of the world’s most lethal terrorist attacks, the law seemed to have finally brought closure.

Except, there are these disquieting facts: In judicial proceedings, and in classified internal documents, some being made public by Firstpost today, the National Investigations Agency, Andhra Pradesh’s élite counter-terrorism police unit OCTOPUS, and even the Maharashtra Government, have said the attack was carried out by entirely different perpetrators.

In perhaps the most bizarre story to ever emerge from India’s criminal justice system, five innocent men may be on death row — while those who carried out the attack, some of them in prison, have never been prosecuted for their crime.

The trial of the 7/11 Five was built around evidence gathered by the Mumbai Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad in the weeks after the bombings. In essence, the ATS said the bombings were carried out by a team made up of the 7/11 Five, along with Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists brought by Ansari through Nepal. The bombs were assembled in a home in Govandi, the ATS said; one of the Pakistanis involved, Faisalabad resident Muhammad Ali, was killed by police in a shootout on Antop Hill.

Although the ATS case aroused some scepticism even in 2006, most saw no reason to challenge the police account. Then, in November 2007, an e-mail arrived in newsrooms across India, claiming responsibility for a string of bombings on behalf of an until-then unknown organisation called the Indian Mujahideen: at Varanasi in March 2006; Hyderabad in August 2007; 7/11. The e-mails cast the bombings as reprisals for anti-Muslim communal violence in India, in the mould of the 1993 attacks in Mumbai.

The Indian Mujahideen e-mails continued to arrive after the new attack, sometimes inside minutes of an explosion. In one, issued after the bombings at Ahmedabad on 26 July 2008, the organisation claimed to be “raising the illustrious banner of jihad against the Hindus and all those who fight and resist us, and here we begin our revenge with the help and permission of Allah — a terrifying revenge of our blood, our lives and our honour that will, Insha-Allah [God-willing], terminate your survival on this land”.

Like many in the law-enforcement community, the ATS had at first ignored the Indian Mujahideen’s 7/11 claim, writing it off as a hoax. Then, in 2008, Delhi Police investigators stumbled into a firefight with Indian Mujahideen operatives hidden out at New Delhi’s Batla House — and the real insights into the inner workings of the jihadist began to emerge.

From a one-time air-conditioning technician called Sadiq Israr Sheikh, held soon after the Batla House shootout, police forces across the country would come to learn that almost everything they thought about the bombings, and about 7/11, was wrong.

***

In the summer of 2012, the NIA began what would become India’s most thoroughgoing investigation of the Indian Mujahideen, an almost archaeological examination of the group’s genesis and metastasis [2]. Led by Superintendents of Police Vikas Vaibhav and Swayam Prakash Pani, the investigation focussed on the Indian Mujahideen’s top leadership, among them jihadists Riyaz Shahbandri and Muhammad Ahmed Siddibapa. Although it centred on events after 2008, the investigation also sought to provide a full account of the terrorist group’s operations across time.

Even though the NIA’s case didn’t examine the Mumbai train attacks — since the case was already being prosecuted — its investigators came across compelling evidence that the 7/11 Five had nothing to do with bombings.

“Investigation has established,” a chargesheet filed in 2013 records [3a, 3b], “that the accused Asadullah Akhtar was aware about the participation of the members of his group in the Indian Mujahideen in the blasts at Sarojini Nagar, Delhi, in 2005, Mumbai train blasts in 2006, Gorakhpur blasts in 2007 and UP court blasts in 2007”.

“The Mumbai train blasts (2006),” the chargesheet goes on, “were carried out by by Indian Mujahideen operatives including but not limited to Sadiq Sheikh, Bada Sajid [‘Big’ Sajid, a nickname for Mohammad Sajid], Atif Ameen and Abu Rashid”.

Asadullah Akhtar’s testimony supported long-standing suspicions some state police forces, under intense political pressure to show results, had simply framed suspects. The Delhi Police, for example, had charged Kashmir resident Tariq Dar, along with Mohammad Rafiq Shah and Mohammad Fazli, for executing the Sarojini Nagar bombing — charges of which they were eventually acquitted in 2017.

The Uttar Pradesh Police, similarly, had arrested Mohammad Waliullah, a cleric at a mosque in Phulpur, on charges of having carried out the 2006 Varanasi bombing. He was convicted for the possession of illegal weapons, but his role in the bombing was — in retrospect, unsurprisingly — never proved.

Evidence suggesting the innocence of the 7/11 Five had, in fact, begun to mount long before the NIA began its investigation. In 2008, a classified dossier prepared by Andhra Pradesh’s élite OCTOPUS — at the time, the best-resourced counter-terrorism police for in India — underlined startling similarities between the bombs used in the 7/11 attacks and those set off by the Indian Mujahideen in prior and subsequent bombings [4]. In all these cases, the bomb-makers used a Samay-brand mechanical clock, fitted with an additional 9-volt battery as the timer, linking it to two detonators.

Like authors, bomb-makers have distinctive stylistic signatures: techniques that they know, through experience, to be reliable. The Indian Mujahideen, OCTOPUS recorded, “developed delayed clock timers fully relying on commonly-used cheap clocks. The timer expert of the Indian Mujahideen experimented with Ajanta clocks, digital clocks and China watches. All failed [but the] Samay watch experiment turned out to be successful”. “As a practice,” the document states, “they used red/yellow/brown wires for the positive wires and white/black wire for the negative terminal”.

First used in the Indian Mujahideen’s attack on Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar on 29 October 2005, the Samay circuit triggered 3 kg of the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate, fitted inside two pressure cookers and a metal lunch box. For their next strike, at Varanasi on 7 March 2006, the device was identical, though hard-to-obtain PETN was substituted with commercially-available ammonium nitrate, a chemical widely used in mining and construction, as well as in agriculture.

The Indian Mujahideen only once experimented with an alternative timer, using electrically-erasable programmable read-only memory, for 27 improvised explosive devices planted in Surat on 26 July 2008. The bombs fizzled — leading the organisation to revert to Samay clocks for subsequent attacks.

PTI/File Photo of the 2006 Mumbai train bombings

For the most part, though, police investigators didn’t need forensic evidence to be persuaded of the truth of what had happened on 7/11. Atif Ameen had died in the Batla House shootout, while Mohammad Sajid, Abu Rashid Ahmad and Shahnawaz Alam fled to Pakistan and then to the Islamic State, where they would be killed in fighting.

In prison, though, there was one man who could tell the truth.

***

The strangely intimate conversation Sadiq Israr Sheikh had with a Gujarat Police officer one afternoon in 2008 — a conversation that, though videotaped, cannot by law be used as evidence in his criminal prosecution — gives us insight not just into what happened on 7/11, but why. His story wasn’t unusual: Born in 1975, the Indian Mujahideen grew up in Cheeta Camp, a project set up to accommodate slum residents displaced by the construction of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. His father had sold his five bighas of land in Azamgarh and moved to Mumbai, where he ran a small store.

In 1992, Sheikh claimed, his world changed. “Before the Babri Masjid was demolished,” he said, “my inclination was towards Communism; I was Communist-minded. Before that I was nationalist-minded, because the locality in Bombay where I lived was a defence services area”.

Then, “after the Babri Masjid demolition and riots, my mentality changed and I turned towards my religion. And because I was upset, in 1996, I joined SIMI”. There, he recalled, “the pain that had taken root in my heart after the Babri Masjid episode got nurtured”.

Large numbers of young Mumbai Muslims had turned to the Students Islamic Movement of India around this time — and not just for the obvious reasons. For Sheikh, SIMI offered an escape from the grim realities of life in Cheeta Camp. “I used to pick fights, both at home and outside, which bothered my parents. So I thought I should get into the company of good people.” “I could have also joined the Jama’at,” he ruminated, referring to the pietist Tablighi Jama’at order, “but those people become complete mullahs — they are not concerned about the world”.

Even though Sheikh never earned a high-school degree, dropping out of the Saboo Siddiqui College in Byculla, he did succeed in building some foundations for life. In 2000, having obtained an air-conditioning qualification from a technical institute in Dongri, he apprenticed with Godrej, doing well enough to be offered full-time job. Less than a year later, though, the Godrej plant moved to Mohali, in Punjab, and Sheikh found himself at a loose end.

Intelligence Bureau interrogators have — in a classified document that is inadmissible for criminal proceedings — recorded the story of what happened next [1]. The Sheikh family received a visit from a Hyderabad-based relative, Mujahid Salim Azmi — the son of a prominent cleric, later killed in a controversial encounter by the Gujarat Police. The two men found common ground in their anger against anti-Muslim communalism in India, and their shared belief that jihadism was the community’s salvation.

Following those conversations, Salim introduced Sheikh to Asif Raza Khan, a ganglord-turned-jihadist who was then in the process of setting up what would grow into the Indian Mujahideen. Asif Reza Khan, in turn, arranged for Sheikh to fly to Karachi in February 2001, armed with fake travel documents. He said he received training at the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Umm-ul-Qura camp, near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and then took an advanced course at a camp in Bahawalpur.

In 2002, according to Sheikh’s testimony, he participated in his first terrorist action — an attack on the US consulate in Kolkata, carried out to avenge the killing of Asif Raza Khan in a shootout with police.

Later that year, Amir Raza Khan, the brother of Asif Raza Khan, offered him a job in Dubai. His co-workers included Riyaz Shahbandri, a friend from the SIMI meetings he attended in 1996, who would go on to become the Indian Mujahideen’s boss.

From September 2004, the group began its war: The most successful urban terrorism campaign ever conducted by a terrorist group in India. For the next four years, Indian police forces and intelligence groups chased the shadows of the perpetrators — each time finding themselves at dead-ends.

***

Evidence on Sadiq Sheikh’s role in 7/11 began to regularly appear in courts across the country by late 2008, as state police forces’ investigations into the Indian Mujahideen moved forward to prosecution. In a statement to the Delhi Police’s Special Cell on 20 November 2008, for example, Sheikh said he and Atif Ameen had “prepared the bombs which were kept in three local trains in Mumbai in 2006” [5]. “I had kept bombs at Rly [Railway] station, Churchgate, Mumbai, on luggage carrier [sic., throughout]. Atif went to Mangalore and brought the explosives from Riyaz Bhatkal.”

Law-enforcement officers across the country began to ask questions about key elements of the ATS’ 7/11 investigation — even questioning whether the Govandi chawl it had identified as a bomb-factory in fact had enough space to assemble the seven explosive devices.

Former Director-General of Police Rakesh Maria, then leading the investigation into the Indian Mujahideen attacks by Mumbai’s Crime Branch, recorded a confessional statement from Sheikh, detailing his role in the 7/11 bombings [6]. A second, supporting confessional statement was obtained from his associate, Arif Badruddin Sheikh [7].

The Crime Branch soon discovered its work wasn’t welcome. The charge-sheet it filed indicting Sheikh, before 7/11 special judge YD Shinde, remains unopened more than a decade on. The reasons for this inaction are nowhere recorded in writing, but aren’t hard to guess: Neither then-chief ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh nor Ashok Chavan would have welcomed politically-damaging charges the police may have framed innocent men. Home Minister P Chidambaram did not even respond to letters from the accused pointing to the inconsistencies and seeking a fresh investigation.

For its part, ATS responded by claiming Sheikh had “fabricated his testimony” to exonerate the 7/11 Five — a mystifying proposition, since it would involve implicating himself and others in custody for the sake of men he had never met.

Even as the 7/11 trial went on, Maharashtra prosecutors began filing paperwork in other terrorism-related cases involving the Indian Mujahideen for its serial bombing campaign. In 2009, Additional Chief Secretary Chitkala Zutshi — then holding charge of the Home Department — granted permission to prosecute 2011 bombing accused Afzal Usmani under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, pointing to the Indian Mujahideen role in multiple attacks targeting Mumbai and other cities [8]. Former city police chief Hasan Ghafoor, similarly, granted sanction for Usmani’s prosecution [9].

These sanctions named Sadiq Israr Sheikh as a member of the Indian Mujahideen’s terror campaign, urging the courts, as it were, to believe all he had said about the group was true — with the one, single exception of 7/11.

The Bombay High Court is scheduled to hear the appeals of the two members of the 7/11 Five who have filed appeals against their conviction. Three others have yet to file appeals. The testimony of the many NIA and police officials who concluded that the 7/11 convicts had nothing to do with the bombings could, clearly, have a critical bearing on the case — but it will take political will to open the gates for the whole truth to be told.

In April 2013, Sheikh appeared before the 7/11 court, summoned by the defence to tell his story. He denied knowing the perpetrators, and claimed he had been tortured by the Crime Branch into confessing his role in the bombings. “The story that you say was given by the Crime Branch,” a defence lawyer suggested to him, “was not in fact a story but the factual position about the 7/11 railway blasts”.

He did not lie: “I do not want to answer this question” [10].

Five years after the 7/11 convictions, it’s time someone does.



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