ISI’s C Wing and wanted international terrorist Hafiz Sayeed’s Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) are two sides of the same coin as far as jihad is concerned. Journalist Sandeep Bamzai tracks down Lashkar networks in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh & Maldives
India’s deep state is well versed in the art of intelligence warfare. Its human intelligence-led inputs to the Sri Lankan establishment, though unutilised, showed that they were on top of their game. India has been tracking the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) for sometime now. New Delhi moved with great alacrity passing on direct actionable intelligence in the weeks and days leading up to the Easter Sunday bombings. And this happened from material accessed during interrogations of an ISIS suspect arrested in India.
The Sri Lankan government even had a warning that Catholic churches were among the possible targets. The suspect gave Indian investigators the name of a man – Zahran Hashmi – he had trained, who is associated with a Sri Lankan extremist group implicated in the bombings. The shadowy man, Zahran Hashim, was identified in a video of the purported attackers released by ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday macabre massacre.
This reporter met several top intelligence functionaries to piece together the emergence of Sri Lanka as the new terror central. While doing so, it unearthed a gargantuan and deep-seated Lashkar plot which goes back at least 14 years showing how LeT had invested for years in Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and even Malaysia as part of a larger encirclement strategy of India.
Indian intelligence has been alive to this and has used all its skill sets and ground-level inputs to mitigate the terror threat emanating from the island and other neighbouring countries. It needs to be established here that ISI C Wing and LeT are two sides of the same coin as far as jihad is concerned.
ISI has been using Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK) as a proxy to radicalise unemployed Muslim youth in Sri Lanka and coax them to join the NTJ. In parallel, India has bolstered its security apparatus in Tamil Nadu and Kerala due to the strong presence of NTJ members in these states.
The rise of IS and its vile and noxious thought process of establishing a Caliphate has found takers in Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives. At least 200-250 Maldivians have reportedly fought for the IS in trouble spots like Syria and these are mules who make the trek to Yemen where they are further indoctrinated and trained, then sent on wars sometimes to Mali and Chad for fighting or to the combat zone in Iraq and Syria to fight under the IS flag.
A Tokyo-based online magazine ‘The Diplomat’ validated this saying a December 2015 report by the Soufan Group, a private intelligence agency run by former FBI agent-turned contractor Ali Soufan, put out a count of foreign fighters who’d volunteered to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Four South Asian countries featured in that list – Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and the Maldives – sending an estimated 393 fighters among them. It was the island nation in the Indian Ocean that sent analysts and headlines into a tizzy with the rise of radical Islam with its bent towards Salafist tendencies. It had by far the highest per capita fighters in the sandbox.
The Indian deep state has been following Islamic militancy in Sri Lanka, a fertile breeding ground since 2004. The tipping point in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the emerald isle has Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)’s hand prints all over it. A special group headed by LeT’s Muzzamil Bhat from Sialkot and his lackeys made forays into Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka between 2005 and 2007, knowing fully well that these areas could be used to further their agenda and to encircle India.
Muzzamil Bhat is one of the planners of 26/11 and is reported to be the architect of the Chittisinghpora massacre. The entire construct of this plan to use these countries as a launchpad to train terrorists was part of his larger architecture.
The FBI in its 26/11 chargesheet named Bhat as D, a key LeT military commander, who was involved in the Chittisinghpora massacre in Jammu and Kashmir on the eve of President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000.
In its second chargesheet, filed in a Chicago court, the FBI named an ISI officer, Major Iqbal, and four LeT operatives – Sajid Majeed, Abu Qahafa, Abu Alqama and the unknown Lashkar member ‘D’. About ‘D’ the chargesheet states that after the arrest of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi in Pakistan in connection with the 26/11 attacks, he became the overall operational commander of LeT.
According to FBI, ‘D’, who is yet to be arrested by Pakistan, was a handler of David Coleman Headley. Headley told Indian investigators that Muzzamil was involved in the Chittisinghpora massacre. In turn, Headley also said Muzzamil was most trustworthy lieutenant of Lakhvi and apart from Chittisinghpora killings of Sikhs, he planned the Akshardham temple attack in September 2002.
According to Indian security establishment sources, Muzzamil is a Kashmiri born in 1976. He is married and his family lives in the Gujranwala town of Pakistani Punjab.
Bhat, on the other hand, is a planner and his understanding was that with Indian intelligence and security forces keeping a close vigil on southern India in those years, he reckoned that taking the training camps offshore would be a better idea. SIMI was already active in southern India, they had set up a southern chapter across the four states, while Bhatkal had become a new centrifuge.
Terror central was moving from Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra to the southern part of India. Hence Muzzamil arrived in Sri Lanka to test the waters and quickly realised that there was traction amongst Tamil Muslims after the Tsunami, ditto in Bangladesh among the Rohingyas between 2004-2008. But RAW which was extremely active in both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka did not allow Bhat or his henchmen to stabilise their operations.
In 2011, ably abetted and assisted by ISI officer Amir Zubair Siddiqui (Counselor in the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo), a new name popped up on the radar – Zakir Hussain – who began to actively consort with and recruit Tamil Muslims on the island. The plan was to recruit them and unleash hell on diplomatic missions in Chennai and Bangalore, but RAW once again found the scent and pursued them to cut off their feed stock of financing, explosives and weapons.
India engaged with Colombo and brought it up to speed on Siddiqui’s shenanigans who was then packed off from Sri Lanka. The diplomat Amir Zubair Siddiqui’s plot was to attack the US Consulate in Chennai, Israeli Consulate in Bengaluru, Eastern Naval Command HQ in Visakhapatnam and ports across the country.
Once RAW had blown his cover, NIA moved in to chargesheet Siddiqui who was then visa counselor at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo. Siddiqui was arrested for allegedly conspiring to attack vital establishments in India and was quietly withdrawn even before the NIA’s request under Mutual Assistance Legal Treaty (MLAT) reached Colombo.
The terror plot was uncovered after the NIA police personnel arrested an ISI agent Mohammed Zakir Hussain (37) through the ‘Q’ Branch of the Tamil Nadu police in 2013. The reason was that he was gathering details about vital installations in Tamil Nadu and sent photographs to Siddiqui. Hussain used his counterparts Sivabalan and Mohammad Salim to circulate fake currency in the state.
During questioning, Hussain also confessed that he had also used Rafeeque (29) to pump in fake Indian currency in the state.
A much larger network of Maldivians, Sri Lankan Muslims and Malaysian Tamils was discovered through this overarching probe. The hunters caught up with the quarry – Zakir Hussain – and another lynchpin was caught in Malaysia and the cartel was busted. Muzzamil Bhat was the spider who spun the web across the three countries and began the process of indoctrination in Sri Lanka. His tireless efforts paid dividends for he planted the seeds as far back as the mid 2000s. He was the first to connect the dots between Thowheed Jamaat which proselytises (mainly among the Tamil community), fights for “pure Islam” and actively promotes construction of mosques in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim areas.