Vol. 15 :: No. 05 :: Mar. 7 - 20, 1998
A web of terror
Union Home Ministry officials believe that the Coimbatore bombings were part of a series of attempts by terrorist groups, backed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, to sabotage the elections.
* February 11, 1998, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Six gun-runners killed and 74 arrested, when the Indian Navy, in an operation code-named Operation Leech, intercepts mechanised trawlers armed with anti-aircraft guns carrying over 145 automatic weapons and 40,000 rounds of ammunition.
* February 10, 1998, Jalandhar, Punjab: Two members of an International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) hit team sent to Punjab to assassinate top political leaders, including Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Sonia Gandhi, arrested. Some 12 kg of RDX, besides hand grenades and bomb-making equipment, recovered.
* January 25, 1998, Ganderbal, Jammu and Kashmir: 26 Kashmiri Pandits in Wandhama village killed by terrorists, in an evident effort to escalate communal tension in the Jammu region.
THE fortnight before the Coimbatore serial bombings on February 14 witnessed a succession of enterprises intended to sabotage the Lok Sabha elections. One was revealed during Operation Leech, when a huge consignment of weapons bound for insurgent groups in the northeastern region were intercepted. A day earlier, members of the fundamentalist ISYF cell who had been sent to assassinate top political leaders in Punjab, had been arrested. The massacre of 26 Pandits at Wandhama in the Kashmir Valley late in January was designed to sharpen the communal fracture lines in the Jammu region. In this enterprise, the terrorists who carried out the massacre succeeded. Officials at the Union Home Ministry in New Delhi believe that the Coimbatore bombings must be understood in this context of heightened violence by terrorist groups, often backed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) personnel involved in supervising the interrogation of eight suspects who were arrested in Coimbatore and Chennai on February 15 suggest that the ISI was directly involved in the Coimbatore bombings. The suspects are believed to be members of the banned Al-Umma fundamentalist group. The explosives used in the bombings and those recovered in subsequent police raids, I.B. sources say, are suspected to have been brought in through Nepal with the assistance of ISI cells active in that country. Al-Umma's alleged links with the ISI are far from clear, and there is little evidence of such links, but officials say that those who fabricated the complex electronic timing devices used in Coimbatore are thought to have been trained by the Pakistani intelligence agency in Nepal. The objective of the exercise, they say, was to open a southern front in an overall enterprise to deepen communal divisions and provoke violence during the elections.
How plausible is the theory of direct ISI involvement with Al-Umma and the Coimbatore bombings? Nepal has indeed been used by the ISI for terrorist activity in the past. Highly placed sources told Frontline that Farooq Khar, the 'district commander' of the Tehreek ul-Mujaheddin whose arrest was made public recently, was in fact picked up by the I.B. with the help of the Nepalese police in November 1997. Intelligence officials had traced him and another associate, both of whom were wanted for a series of bombings and murders, to a hotel room in Kathmandu. Khar's arrest was made public by the Badgam district unit of the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in January. In 1996, top Jammu and Kashmir bomb-maker Hilal Baig, who executed a series of murderous explosions in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar area, was traced through intelligence channels to a Kathmandu safehouse. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Cabinet Secretariat tapped some international phone calls and learnt of Baig's bomb-making cell, which was then destroyed.
There is other inferential evidence of relevance to the proposition that the ISI has been directly involved in recent terrorist violence. On February 15, members of the 3 Kumaon and 9 Dogra Battalions surrounded one of the three groups believed to have been involved in the Wandhama massacre. Seven terrorists of the Qasrani faction of the Harkat ul-Ansar were holed up in snow-bound caves located at altitudes of over 4,000 metres. Soldiers commanded by the 70 Infantry Brigade's R.K. Shivrain surrounded the caves, and a fierce battle followed. Only three of the terrorists managed to escape. Army officials claim that among those killed was the group's leader, Yameen Qasrani (a Pakistani national), and a Pakistani Army regular, operating under the alias Ali Shair. The presence of Pakistan Army personnel, as well as ISI military officials, has been reported in Jammu and Kashmir several times in the past. In this specific case, if the Army's claims are correct, it would affirm the proposition that the ISI directly controlled operations such as the Wandhama massacre.
I.B. sources point towards structural similarities between the serial blasts in Mumbai in March 1993, where strong suggestions of direct ISI supervisory involvement emerged, and those in Coimbatore. In Mumbai, one official argued, existing mafia groups who were previously uninvolved in serious terrorist activity were used by the ISI after Muslims were butchered in the communal riots in December 1992-January 1993. In Coimbatore, the official continued, the police-backed pogrom against Muslims in November-December 1997 in the wake of the stabbing of a traffic constable by Al-Umma activists provided the background for the serial bombings. The theory that the blasts were a retaliatory action for the riots in November-December 1997, in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu fundamentalist groups in Coimbatore were alleged to have played a key role, is plausible but not backed by evidence. The use of gelatine sticks in Coimbatore is particularly mystifying since the unstable and relatively primitive explosive material is widely available on the black market in India. ISI-backed groups have in the past preferred RDX (Research Department Explosive, of British origin), which is safer for the bomb-maker, easier to transport and considerably more lethal.
What is certain, however, is that the ISI has been stepping up the pressure on the terrorist groupings to act against key political leaders in India. On February 10, Dhian Singh and Baljinder Singh Neeta were picked up by the Jalandhar police after a sustained RAW technical operation, built around monitoring hundreds of coded international phone calls between members of the ISYF in India and their handlers abroad. RAW had informed the Jalandhar police that five members of the group, including Dhian Singh and Baljinder Singh, had gathered at a city gurdwara, and that up to 13 others were to join them to plan the operational details of assaults on top politicians, including Prime Minister Gujral and Sonia Gandhi, during campaigning in Punjab. Despite the warning, three members of the group escaped from the gurdwara. Shortly afterwards, RAW electronic intelligence in New Delhi intercepted a phone call informing the London-based ISYF leadership that a mishap had affected part of an ongoing task, but that most of the goods were still intact. The reference was to explosives and personnel who had survived the raid.
The undoing of RAW's operation by the Punjab Police could have serious long-term consequences, but the raid clearly disrupted what could have been a crippling series of bombings. The interrogation of Dhian Singh has established that the leadership, made up of right-wing Sikh ISYF leaders based in the Midlands region in the United Kingdom, had carried out the operation with the support of top Khalistan leader Paramjit Singh Panjwar's faction of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF). Recent intelligence reports indicate that Panjwar was operating from Lahore, shuttling frequently to offices of right-wing emigre groups in Germany. German contact numbers, which are in the possession of Frontline, were given to his associates to maintain contact with the KCF leader. Panjwar's last foray into India was in 1995, when he only narrowly escaped a police operation launched after intelligence officials decoded telephone intercepts. Interestingly, a few days after the Jalandhar arrests, Special Protection Group personnel vetoed Congress(I) plans for Sonia Gandhi to travel by road from the Ludhiana airstrip to a rally ground in Ludhiana.
Operation Leech also underlined the heightened level of preparations for violent activity in the weeks before elections in the northeastern region. Seven naval ships, 200 marine commandos, a crack unit of an infantry battalion and helicopter gunships were used to track and apprehend a massive shipment of weapons that were being carried to uninhabited islands in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for onward shipment to the northeastern region. The arms were being ferried on two trawlers and two smaller boats operated by an east Asian crew. Remote islands in the Andaman and Nicobar belt have been favoured haunts for wildlife poachers from Myanmar and Thailand in the past. The 74 crew members are now being interrogated by experts in New Delhi on their leadership and funding. It is likely that the weapons recovered during Operation Leech were just one part of a much larger set of shipments to terrorist groups in Assam and other parts of the northeastern region. The leadership of the United Liberation Front of Assam, in particular, has had sustained contact with the ISI through Bangladesh, and could have used the intelligence agency's offices to secure the arms supply channel.
It has been little noticed that the Andamans operation may not have been the only effort to ship arms into India on election-eve. On February 17, the Janata Dal candidate in the Mumbai North-West Lok Sabha constituency, Aftab Ahmad Khan, claimed that the Chhota Shakeel and Abu Salem gangs, which operate on the orders of Dubai-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, had landed explosives near Bandra. This might be dismissed as political hype, but Khan, a former Inspector-General of Police, claimed that the information had been given to him by reliable sources. Responses to this and other revelations have been fairly limited. In Assam, where nine major encounters were recorded in the two weeks before polling, the Army has increased its numbers of Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs), small groups of personnel using half-tonne trucks and jeeps, in strengths suitable to engaging small bands of insurgents. Security forces in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir have also stepped up policing levels. Sadly, as Coimbatore has illustrated, other States are not acting to improve their field intelligence apparatus in anticipation of trouble.
This series of incidents, which suggest ISI complicity, is what led Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to point to international involvement in the Coimbatore blasts. Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member R. Umanath was equally straightforward after his visit to Coimbatore, demanding a detailed probe into the international and domestic conspiracy to push explosives into the city. The objective of attacks like that in Coimbatore is not, whatever L.K. Advani might claim, to target his party's leadership, but to generate an atmosphere of violent ethnic and communal conflict. In this enterprise, the Hindu fundamentalists who responded to the serial bombings by targeting innocent Muslims who were uninvolved in the Al-Umma's activities, are wholly complicit.
The ISI, one intelligence official told Frontline, is not some sort of uniquely evil beast. It does what every professional intelligence outfit is capable of doing - which is to take advantage of the enemy's internal fissures and divisions. If Al-Umma had indeed acted on the ISI's instructions, its masters will be delighted at the results their serial bombing produced.
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