| The battle against terrorism continues to throw up grim reminders of just how serious the threat really is and the ever-changing geography of the networks. That was rudely brought home in Maharashtra last week. A succession of intercepts on the national highways that pass through the state revealed that enough explosives, arms and ammunition were being transported to bring back horrifying reminders of the 1993 serial Mumbai bomb blasts. The intercepts by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the Mumbai Police were extremely crucial considering that some 25,000 vehicles use each of the three national highways of central Maharashtra every day. The recovery of a huge amount of RDX, apart from AK-47s and ammunition, established that Maharashtra has become a preferred route for terror. The seizure of explosives worth over Rs 1.5 crore within a week raised serious concerns over security in the state with initial interrogation of the three people arrested for transporting the material providing hints that the targets were top political leaders in neighbouring Gujarat, the scene of recent communal rioting. |
The first warning came on May 9, when the ATS intercepted a Tata Sumo on the Aurangabad highway. After a one-and-a-half-hour chase, the ATS caught up with the vehicle and captured one of the three occupants. Another was apprehended shortly after with the help of locals. The third, the driver, surrendered a few hours later. The consignment, neatly packed in computer CPUs and mango cartons, was, according to the ATS, being despatched to Gujarat and Hyderabad via the Aurangabad-Malegaon state highway. The discovery of more consignments revealed the extent of the network. On May 12, an Indica was found abandoned in Malegaon. The driver of the car, Abdul Azim, was arrested from the spot and another cache of RDX and arms was recovered from the car. The next day, ATS sleuths unearthed more explosives from inside a culvert at Manmad. Shortly after, yet another arms cache was found in an electrical shop in Malegaon. The owner of the shop, Abdul Ghani Osman, was arrested.
The total consignment comprised 43 kg of RDX, 16 AK-47s, 3,200 loose cartridges, 100 hand grenades and 100 magazines for the rifles. The amount of RDX was a major cause for concern. "About 37 kg RDX was used in the 1993 blasts, which had left 257 people dead and over 400 others injured. The 43 kg that we have seized could have caused immeasurable devastation," says P.S. Pasricha, director-general of police, Maharashtra. However, a share of the credit should go to the Delhi Police. On May 8, they had tracked and gunned down dreaded Lashkar-e-Toiba (let) terrorist Abu Hamza and arrested two others. Their interrogation had supplied leads about arms consignments on the highway headed for Maharashtra. The information was passed on to the state police.
|TERROR TRAIL: ARRESTS AND RECOVERIES |
|JANUARY 6, 2006: A Kashmir module of terrorists arrested. They were transporting switches to be fixed in bombs. |
JANUARY 30: Two people arrested with explosives and weapons. They were trained in Pakistan and brought back to India.
MAY 8: LeT terrorist Abu Hamza killed and two others arrested by the Delhi ATS. Clues provided to the Maharashtra Police.
MAY 9: Three suspected LeT operatives arrested on the Aurangabad highway carrying explosives in a Tata Sumo.
MAY 12: An Indica carrying explosives found abandoned in Malegaon. The driver of the car, Abdul Azim, has been arrested.
|MAY 13: Explosives recovered in Manmad. Five arrested in connection with the explosives recovered earlier. |
Although interrogations of the three let members-Amir Shakeel, Mohammed Muzafar Tanvir and Zuber Anwar-arrested while travelling in the Tata Sumo have not revealed the entire conspiracy, ATS officials confirm that this particular consignment was not meant for use in the state. They claim that the three arrested terrorists revealed that it was being transported to north Gujarat and would have been used to eliminate political leaders. On top of the hitlist were Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and VHP International General Secretary Praveen Togadia. The captured terrorists are ex-members of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) who are currently training with the let, with the links, according to ats officials, extending across the border. Says ATS Joint-Commissioner K.P. Raghuvanshi: "Now that we are sure that the entire arms consignment has been recovered, we will investigate the links of those arrested." Pasricha is more blunt. "The let trains militants inside Pakistan in the use of arms and ammunition. They are then brought to different parts of India in modules. They stock the arms and carry out small activities. When active let militants need explosives, the sleeper cells provide the base," he claims.
In fact, part of the consignment, according to ATS sources, was also headed for Hyderabad, a prime ISI target for setting up a base. The let is known to have set up a base in Hyderabad to recruit members and to coordinate terrorist activities in southern India. The ATS says the ISI is directly funding the let's activities in the country. Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil also hinted at the involvement of a "foreign hand" in the consignment.
The let has found it easy to recruit active members of SIMI because they do not have to go through the religious orientation process. "There are a large number of SIMI members in Maharashtra, which is why the let uses them. They are already full of religious fervour, so they can be used to create friction among communities," says an ATS official.
However, the Maharashtra connection is more worrying. The let is said to have set up sleeper cells in the state. ATS officials have been keeping watch on the Marathwada region of Maharashtra ever since the 2003 blasts there. "Maharashtra, being the central and most urbanised state, has become a hub for people from all over the country seeking jobs. Since there are many religious sects spread across the state, it is easy for terrorists to mingle and live in anonymity. That is why the state has become vulnerable to their activities," says Pasricha. The ATS is tracking the involvement of these terrorist groups in providing arms to Naxalites in the Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts of eastern Maharashtra. Many Naxalites have been found using AK-47 rifles.
The main challenge is checking the vehicles that traverse the state. "The transportation of arms happens at regular intervals on these routes," says an ATS official. Adds Superintendent of Police (Nashik Rural) Rajvardhan, "There are three national highways and thousands of cars pass through each of them every day. It is impossible to check each and every one. We are not equipped to do so." The May 9 consignment showed how difficult it is. The Tata Sumo seemed to be carrying normal cargo but it turned out that 50 hand grenades were packed between thermocol sheets in each mango carton. There were 15 large CPUs, each containing one AK-47, 200 rounds, four AK-47 magazines and three kg RDX.
The focus of the current investigation is on tracking down the main suspect behind the consignment: Syed Zabiuddin Ansari. He is still absconding and the ATS has so far managed to detain Shakeel, Ansari's key aide. Ansari, who is the main let operative in Maharashtra, is believed to be heading a module consisting of 20 men. With the 1993 serial blasts still alive in public memory, the latest arms haul conveys a grim warning.