“Tell them this is just the trailer,” the Mumbai-accented Lashkar-e-Taiba controller ordered two terrorists to tell the media during the November 2008 assault on Mumbai. “The real movie is still to come.”
Based on interviews with arrested jihadists, and data provided by India’s intelligence services, Mumbai police investigators now believe the unidentified voice intercepted in the course of the assault is that of Maharashtra-origin jihadist Syed Zabiuddin Syed Zakiuddin Ansari.
Indian intelligence services say that Ansari, operating out of terror camps in Karachi and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, is a key figure in the jihadist group’s plan to realise the threat he ordered the assault team to deliver.
Ansari’s story helps to understand the Pakistan-based networks which remain the key security threat to India — and also to comprehend the role of Hindu chauvinism in watering the political soil, which gave birth to its jihadist movement.
Born on November 13, 1981, Ansari grew up in the town of Gevrai, in the midst of Beed district’s rich cotton and sugarcane fields. His father, Zakiuddin Ansari, worked as a small-time insurance agent, struggling to bring up five daughters — and his only son. Ansari studied at Gavarai’s Zilla Parishad-run High School up to standard X, and then acquired an electrician’s qualifications at the Indian Technical Institute in Beed. He was studying for a master’s at the Navgan Shikshan Sanstha College when he became a fugitive.
Little is known of the processes that led Ansari to the Lashkar, but it is likely that part of the answer lies in the communal violence which formed an organic part of the cultural fabric of his early life.
Following a wave a communal riots across Maharashtra in the summer of 1984, the Shiv Sena took control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and pushed forward communal mobilisations in rural areas. Umapur, not far from Gevrai, saw murderous anti-Muslim violence in 1986. Later, tensions surged after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 2001, a statue of the warrior-king Shivaji Raje Bhonsale was chipped by Shiv Sena activists in a near-successful effort to provoke communal riots.
Many young Muslims believed that the community’s traditional leadership had failed to defend it from assault. Some — including Ansari — turned to the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), for solutions.
Journey into Lashkar
“Islam is our nation, not India,” thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad at the SIMI’s 1999 convention in Aurangabad — a convention that saw the Maharashtra jihadists make their first known contacts with the Lashkar leadership.
No one is certain just when Ansari was drawn to the SIMI, but he is known to have been close to key Aurangabad-based members of the Islamist organisation — among them Ahmad — by the time the convention took place.
In 2001, Gujarat police investigators say, Ansari met with Khalid Sardana, a Jammu and Kashmir resident studying at a seminary in the State, to discuss the prospect of sending SIMI cadre there for weapons training. Later that year, Sardana took several of Aurangabad men to train with Lashkar units in the mountains of Surankote, near Poonch. At least one, Fahd Sheikh, is now known to have been killed in fighting with Indian troops in Hil Kaka.
The Gujarat police investigators believe that Ansari and Zulfikar Fayyaz Ahmad ‘Kagazi,’ who went to place a bomb on a Mumbai-Ahmedabad express train in February 2006, were also present at the meeting.
Last summer, when the Delhi police finally arrested Sardana after an intelligence-led pursuit through Pakistan and Bangladesh, he said several Maharashtra jihadists — including Ansari — continued to flit in and out of Lashkar-run camps near Muzaffarabad and Dulai, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Following the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat, these training operations intensified. Mumbai-based SIMI operative Rahil Sheikh, the investigators say, was tasked with securing passports and tickets for SIMI volunteers who travelled to Lashkar-run camps through the porous Iran-Pakistan border. Among the first to go, police say, was Ansari.
Most of Sheikh’s operatives were raised in the wake of the 2002 communal pogrom. Feroze Ghaswala, a Mumbai-based automobile mechanic, volunteered for the jihad after witnessing the burial of dozens of people killed in the violence.
Ghaswala travelled to Srinagar, hoping to meet jihadists at a religious gathering addressed by neoconservative preacher Zakir Naik in 2003. Instead, he ran into Sheikh — starting a journey which ended with his arrest in New Delhi.
Despite the collapse of the Ghaswala plot, Sheikh continued to work on operations to avenge the Gujarat pogrom. In 2005, he shipped Kalashnikov assault rifles and military-grade explosives into Aurangabad, using organised crime networks to transport the material across the Indian Ocean from Karachi.
Police say Ansari was to lead a group of Lashkar-trained Indian jihadists who would have used the equipment to assassinate Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi — an operation that would have closely resembled the November 2008 attack on Mumbai in its tactics and execution.
Eleven SIMI-linked men were arrested after the intelligence services penetrated the plot — but Ansari evaded police in a high-speed chase, and escaped to Pakistan.
Besides the victims of his attacks, Ansari’s family paid a high price for his actions. Naved-ur-Rehman Khan, who had married Ansari’s sister Rafia Parveen, divorced her as news of the Aurangabad plot broke. “We had been together just three weeks,” he says, “but I didn’t want anything to do with this trouble.”