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Updated: February 15, 2010 01:34 IST

Pune bombing could herald renewed Lashkar offensive

Praveen Swami
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Policeme and rescue workers inspect the site of the explosion at German Bakery in Pune.
AP Policeme and rescue workers inspect the site of the explosion at German Bakery in Pune.

Likelihood of attacks has been mounting as pressure on Pakistan eased, say Indian intelligence analysts.

Late last August, India’s intelligence services listened in as two Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives discussed plans to attack targets in Pune.

No evidence has yet emerged to link the timer-controlled, directional improvised explosive device that went off in Pune on Saturday to Pakistan-backed jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. But India’s intelligence services believe that call — and a mass of other indications — suggest they were the most likely perpetrators of the bombing of the German Bakery.

Jihadist operations

Long before Lashkar Deputy Chief held out threats of attacks against Delhi, Pune and Kanpur in a February 5 speech, a mass of jihadist operations had been detected.

In mid-2009, Karachi-based jihadist Mohammad Khwaja — recently handed over by Sri Lankan authorities to India — is believed to have planned a bombing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s offices in Kolkata to coincide with the Lok Sabha elections.

Khalid Sardana, a Poonch-based Lashkar operative who played a key role in raising recruits for the organisation, was arrested late last year while attempting to rebuild western India networks he had constructed for the terrorist group while studying at a Gujarat seminary.

The Karachi Project

Lashkar commanders, evidence presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in support of the prosecution of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley suggests, were at an advanced stage of planning attacks in New Delhi and Pune. Headley also spoke of what he called the “Karachi Project”: a Lashkar unit dedicated to using Pakistan-based Indian operatives to stage a renewed series of attacks.

In Karachi, fugitive Indian Mujahideen leaders Riyaz Ismail Shahbandari, his brother Iqbal Shahbandari and Abdul Subhan Qureshi were believed to be preparing the ground for these attacks, possibly in alliance with long-standing Lashkar operatives from Maharashtra, like Zabiuddin Ansari and Rahil Sheikh.

The Pune cell

Investigators are focussing their attentions on the prospect that the attacks were carried out by a Pune jihad cell known to have existed since at least 2006. Much of the story of the cell emerged from the questioning of Mohammad Mansoor Asghar Peerbhoy, an Indian Mujahideen operative held in the course of a national counter-terrorism operation that targeted the Lashkar-linked group in 2008.

Having graduated from Pune University in 1998, Peerbhoy developed a successful career as a software engineer. He served for over a decade with the offshore operations of several United States-based companies, before he was hired as a web services engineer by Yahoo.

But like many upwardly mobile professionals, Peerbhoy found himself dislocated by the westernised social milieu he found themselves in and turned to religion. In June, 2004, he travelled with his father — a major contractor of fruit to the Indian Army’s western command — for the Haj pilgrimage. Later, he began studying Arabic and religion with the Quran Foundation, a prominent religious organisation that steered clear of politics.

In October, 2006, during a 10-day spiritual retreat at the Jama Masjid in Pune, Peerbhoy ran into an associate from his Quran Foundation classes who helped alter his world view. Local resident Asif Bashar Sheikh introduced Peerbhoy to Islamism. The young computer engineer began discussing the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as communal violence in India.

Later, in the spring of 2007, though, Peerbhoy was introduced to the Indian Mujahideen’s key operational commander, Riyaz Shahbandri, and his brother, ideologue Iqbal Shahbandri. Based out of a rented flat off Ashoka Mews in Pune’s Khondva area, the two men — sons of an affluent Mumbai-based tannery owner, who had migrated to the city from Bhatkal, near Mangalore — ran a secret jihadist group which called itself Isabah.

Early on, Peerbhoy was tasked with setting up a website for Isabah—Arabic for the companions of the Prophet Mohammad. The plan was dropped, but Peerbhoy was paid to attend a courses on internet security to help the organisation communicate safely. Later, on a business visit to the United States, he purchased equipment police say was intended to help the organisation evade espionage and locate unsecured wireless networks. The hacked wireless networks were used to send out manifestos claiming responsibility for bombings in Gujarat and New Delhi.

Late in August, 2008, the Bhatkal brothers returned to Mangalore — a decision which allowed them to evade the police who arrested Peerbhoy and other members of the Pune jihad cell later that year. However, several members of the Indian Mujahideen network in the city, notably Mohsin Chowdhury, also succeeded in escaping. Police believe the Bhatkal brothers may also have recruited other Pune residents who Peerbhoy and his associates were never introduced to.

Escalating threat

Indian intelligence analysis believe that these networks are being revived because the international pressure which compelled Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to clamp down on jihadist operations after the November, 2008 carnage in Mumbai has waned.

Even as the United States seeks a deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan-based Islamists, Pakistan’s ISI appears to have been testing India’s responses to violence from the jihadist groups it backs. In October, 2009, jihadists linked to the networks of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani — widely believed to be a close ally of Pakistan’s ISI — attempted to bomb India’s Embassy in Kabul, killing 19 people. Later in the winter, tensions escalated along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, and rockets were fired across the India-Punjab border.

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