Narendra Modi, one of India’s most protected politicians, tops the hit list of Islamist terror. PR Ramesh unravels the plot
PR Ramesh | 24 Apr, 2014
Narendra Modi, one of India’s most protected politicians, tops the hit list of Islamist terror. PR Ramesh unravels the plot
Yasin Bhatkal surprised his interrogators late last August when he named all the top 10 on his hit list: Narendra Modi, Narendra Modi, Narendra Modi…. There was no other name. The captured Indian Mujahideen (IM) co- founder appeared remorseless, defiant— and brutally blunt even for a man who’d plant bombs in a mosque because he hated foreign women in short skirts entering it. Bhatkal, who was on the run for eight years and was arrested in Nepal last year, is the key suspect in the case of Pune’s German Bakery attack in February 2010 that killed 17 people. Investigators had identified Bhatkal through CCTV footage from the bakery. “We would do anything to get Modi, at whatever cost,” he told a police officer in Bihar, a state that has emerged as a recruitment ground for jihadists. It was to Bihar that Bhatkal, mastermind of several bomb blasts across India, was first brought from Nepal—where he was living in disguise as an Ayurvedic practitioner, lying low while quietly making plans for his next strike.
Bhatkal’s disclosures should have put the Centre and Nitish Kumar’s government in Bihar on their toes, but they didn’t. Within months, the IM struck again, this time at a Modi rally in Patna, killing eight people and injuring scores of others. A young captured IM terrorist told his interrogators that it was his life’s calling to be a ‘martyr’—and that he and his team had done an extensive recce of various cities in the country where the BJP leader would address rallies, including Kanpur and Allahabad, to chalk out an audacious attempt on his life. If the IM had succeeded in this operation, communal harmony in India would have suffered a heavy blow.
The Central Government was finally shaken out of its slumber, and since the Patna blasts—which kicked up a melee of finger-pointing and counter-accusations— the State’s security cover for Modi, Gujarat’s Chief Minister and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has been tightened significantly. But the extent of the threat to his life is much more worrisome than is perceived, suggest intelligence inputs that Open has gained access to.
Central security agencies acknowledge that for Islamist forces, Modi is India’s No 1 target. ‘He faces a high degree of threat not just from IM but also from Pakistani groups that routinely collaborate with Indian operatives such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat ul Mujahideen, Harkat ul Jihad Islami, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Hizbul Mujahideen,’ says a government document.
The official assessment is backed by intelligence inputs that point to numerous plots to target Modi. These are some of the leads available with India’s agencies:
» Officials of Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the ISI, held a meeting with Indian Sikh radicals residing at House No G 541, DHA, Phase 5, Lahore, on 26 October 2013, where ISI operatives motivated Sikh extremists, including Lakhbir Singh Rode and Jagtar Singh Tara, to assist in transporting explosives to India to create disturbances at Modi rallies.
» At an indoor meeting of the banned SIMI in Nepal, held at the office of the Islamic Sangh, Birat Nagar, Nepal, speakers said the need of the hour was to find faithfuls who were ready to “neutralise” Modi.
» A D-Company operative, Munna Jhingra, who is currently incarcerated in Thailand on drug charges, has told an associate in Pakistan that he would eliminate Modi upon his release from jail.
» Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e- Mohammed told his acolytes that Modi would be killed if he becomes India’s Prime Minister.
» IM leaders operating from Karachi are likely to depute trained cadres that would enter India to carry out fidayeen attacks on Modi.
» Pakistan-based IM terrorists are planning a terror strike in a prominent Indian city that Modi is likely to visit—such as Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad or Surat.
» Zia ur Rehman alias Waqas, an IM operative picked up from Dhaka, has disclosed in his interrogation that Bhatkal and Asadullah Akhtar—both now in police custody—had discussed strikes on Modi.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Robert Spencer, founder of the blog Jihad Watch, tells Open that he has in his possession enough evidence to suggest that the jihadist threat to Indian nationalist leaders is “very big”. “They will do anything to kill them,” he says. Spencer has tracked jihadist movements across the world.
Bhatkal’s interrogation could have been used to extract more details of IM activities across the country. But it seems political apathy got in the way.
The IM leader’s arrest was supposed to be the biggest victory of the past couple of decades for Indian security agencies. Working with intelligence assets created in Nepal, by early August 2013, IB officials had traced Bhatkal’s exact location in Pokhara. However, to cross over, nab him and get him to Bihar, they needed around Rs 2 lakh. Time was crucial, and rather than going through the rigmarole of getting financial clearances from the IB headquarters, the sleuths informally arranged the money with the help of a police official posted at Raxaul.
Five days later, the IB team and Motihari’s Superintendent of Police drove back with Bhatkal, hoping to get as much information as possible out of him over the next 24 hours on IM operations and targets. The initial questioning soon after his arrest would have given his interrogators a tactical advantage, as a terror accused is psychologically most vulnerable in this period. Lack of judicial scrutiny tends to spook the most hardened of criminals, and they usually yield leads at the slightest exertion of psychological pressure. But this is where things went horribly wrong. As the Bihar police— under the instructions of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar—refused to arrest Bhatkal, the IB sleuths were forced to bring in the National Investigation Agency (the IB has no power to arrest anyone). Unfortunately, a senior NIA officer, unable to keep the catch secret, tipped off the media. Though the officer was shifted out of the NIA later, enough damage had already been done: Bhatkal had to be produced rightaway before a magistrate after the news of his arrest appeared on TV. Once his questioning began under court scrutiny, Bhatkal became more confident and less cooperative. The interrogators were now met with carefully crafted responses like, “I am not feeling up to it” or “I have to offer namaaz” every time they began asking him questions.
But the Patna blasts at Modi’s rally on 27 October 2013 prompted the Centre to do a rethink. A panicky UPA Government issued an order to throw a ring of security around Modi on par with that of someone shielded by the Special Protection Group, which covers prime ministers and other top leaders.
All of Modi’s recent public meetings have seen a strict observance of ASL— short for ‘Advance Security liaison’—protocols (see graphic), a drill that is undertaken during visits of India’s President, Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The order demanded that Modi be treated as an ASL protectee all over the country.
The significance of the IM threat came to light after the interrogation of David Coleman Headley, the man who scouted for targets of a jihadist attack on Mumbai that took place on 26 November 2008. He was the first to reveal to his US interrogators details of the so-called Karachi Project—a plot scripted by the ISI, involving retired and serving officers of the Pakistan army, to launch terror attacks on India through the use of Lashkar collaborators. Among the aims of this sinister plan, Indian cities were to be subjected to a series of terror attacks designed and directed by ISI-appointed handlers in Karachi but executed by IM operatives and passed off as cases of ‘homegrown terror’.
The probe of the Patna blasts has revealed how influential the IM is in Bihar. Tehsin Akhtar alias Monu, a leading member of the group’s Darbhanga module who is thought to have masterminded those blasts, had set up a network that stretched from Darbhanga, Madhubani, Sitamarhi and Samastipur in the state’s north to Aurangabad and Gaya in central Bihar. Monu, according to intelligence sources, was also behind the serial bomb blasts on the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya in July, an act of terror scripted in retaliation to the alleged killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
During their interrogation, members of the Patna attack module told the police that Tehsin Akhtar had instigated the group to carry out serial blasts. Said one, named Imtiaz: “Hamaara uddeshya thha ki aatank phaile aur bhaag daud mein kaafi sankhya mein mahilayein aur bachche marein” (Our objective was to spread terror so that women and children get killed in heavy numbers in the resultant stampede). According to Imtiaz, the stampede plan was Akhtar’s, who was present at Gandhi Maidan to supervise the bombers as they ringed the rally ground with explosives. “Muzaffarnagar mein bahut Muslim maare gaye hain, aur tum sirf namaaz hi padhte raho (Many Muslims got killed in Muzaffarnagar and all you do is to pray),” Tehsin exhorted his associates, according to one of those who planted the explosives.
TRAGEDY OF ERRORS
Ignoring intelligence inputs has been a curse in India right from the time of Mahatma Gandhi to that of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. A retired police officer, who has served eight prime ministers as an SPG hand, tells Open of an incident that speaks of the callous approach to security that enabled the killing of Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE assassins.
Three days before the former PM’s assassination, the officer was on his way to Balia, hometown of the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. When he reached platform No 2 of Patna Railway Station, he saw a slogan-shouting crowd surge ahead and about on Platform No 1, shunting aside everything in its way. Youthful Congress supporters and others were milling around, with arms and legs flailing and bodies bobbing to the crackle of slogans. There was palpable excitement in the air, as if it were a defining moment in India’s political history.
And then he saw Rajiv Gandhi being bumped from shoulder to excited shoulder. By force of habit, the former SPG officer’s instant thought—indeed worry— was of Gandhi’s security. Any one of the hundreds of hands in that mob reaching out to touch, shake his hand, or garland him could blow him to bits, he realised with a disconcerting sense of apprehension.
Three days later, after hours of hectic official engagements with the then Prime Minister, the former SPG official had barely retired to rest in Balia, at the PM’s house, when constables came banging on the door. There was shocking news. “Sir, the Congress president has been assassinated at Sriperambudur.” The apprehension had turned to reality.
“It was his extreme proximity to the public that made his security threat perception the most sensitive among many PMs,” says the former SPG official. Interestingly enough, speaking to a New York Times reporter on his way to his rally venue at Sriperambudur, Rajiv Gandhi had expanded on this, asserting that it was imperative for him to personally ask voters across India to return the Congress to power, even if it meant approaching people and interacting with them as if it were a local election. “I used to campaign like this before I became PM, now that I am no longer one, I’m going back to that,” the reporter later recalled him as saying. ‘They decked him in flowers. Minutes later, he was dead,’ wrote Barbara Crosette of The New York Times in her eyewitness account of Rajiv Gandhi’s murder at that rally on 21 May 1991, after the first phase of polling in that year’s General Election was over.
When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister before his party lost power in the General Election of 1989, the SPG official was part of a special crack team of security personnel especially trained for the PM’s security. Then a junior officer, he had had several opportunities to interact directly with the PM.
As PM, Gandhi had participated actively in shaping this new expert security crew. Among his directives, he wanted their attire kept sober and uniform from its director down to every constable; this would signal an operational structure free of any rigid hierarchy that might hamper the flow of information from the ground to senior officers and vice-versa. Gandhi was also keen that the special agents in his security detail appear ordinary so as not to deter ordinary folk from getting close. In consonance with that, he also decided that the SPG would be armed only discreetly—unlike the Black Cat Commandos who would be seen wielding firearms in public to keep people at bay.
It was VP Singh—after assuming power in 1989 at the head of the National Front Government—who made 7 Race Course Road the PM’s official residence, where the SPG pitched an elaborate security camp. Singh, the SPG official recalls, had particularly strained relations with his protectors, even ascribing conspiratorial political motives to their heavy presence on the premises. It was also he who ordered that Gandhi be stripped of his SPG cover just two months after he stepped down as PM.
Keeping VIPs safe is a matter of utmost importance in any democracy. In a letter against the official probe of security lapses surrounding Rajiv Gandhi’s assasination, B Raman, a former additional director in the Cabinet Secretariat, had observed: ‘General Charles de Gaulle used to disregard the advice of his security officers. John F Kennedy went to Dallas in Texas despite intelligence reports of likely disruption of his visit by conservative and racist elements. French President Giscard d’Estaing was in the habit of driving at breakneck speed and was once involved in a serious collision with a milk van when he went out at night without informing the security. Indira Gandhi was disinclined to wear a bullet-proof vest. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was killed in 1987, and his wife were in the habit of going for after-dinner walks without informing their security. When mishaps occur, the security bureaucracy cannot absolve itself of responsibility by claiming that the VIP invited trouble by not observing precautions. The bureaucracy is expected to protect him despite the VIP’s propensity for non-observance of precautions.’
THE VULNERABILITY OF MODI
Many international experts on terror believe it is only a matter of time that Modi becomes a target of trans-national Islamists operating in the Middle East, especially since they thrive on the spectacle such an attack would be. Says renowned author and military historian Edward Luttwak: “In the case of India, jihadists are both an organic expression of the Islamic legal doctrine that no Darr-ul Islam territory can ever be alienated to non-Muslim rule (regardless of the proportion of its non-Muslim population)—a doctrine promulgated by the Uttar Pradesh-based, tax-exempt Darul Uloom Deoband—and jihad is also an instrument of the Pakistani state; the former provides numbers, the latter specialised training.”He adds, “Both together mean that for India, jihadists are a strategic threat.” This means, he argues, that Modi is not only vulnerable to assassination but also to a temporary conquest of his political space by 26/11-style attackers.
Those tasked with safeguarding Modi agree that it is a challenge, but say they are leaving nothing to chance. According to a senior security official posted in Gandhinagar, the point is to make sure nothing is let slip even for a fraction of a moment. “Remember the statement issued by the Irish Republican Army on the attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984 at the Brighton Hotel?” he says, “The statement ended like this, ‘…You have to be lucky all the time. We have to be lucky only once’.”
That, he says, is the brutal truth.