“If you see anyone acting funny,” the Lahore-accented voice barked in Punjabi, “shoot them.”
Minutes after 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba commandos attacked targets across south Mumbai in November 2008, Indian intelligence personnel began listening in to conversations between the assault teams and their control station in Pakistan — conversations conducted using voice-over-Internet protocol connections, satellite phones and mobiles, often seized from hostages.
For the most part, the instructions were operational: controllers, able to watch the response of India’s police and élite National Security Guard on television, warned the terrorists of potential threats and directed their responses.
But for thirteen and a half minutes, incredulous Indian intelligence personnel listened in as Lashkar controllers coached Imran Babar — the terrorist, who, along with a still-unidentified terrorist using the alias ‘Abu Umar’, attacked a Jewish prayer house — on dealing with the media.
Much of the coaching, tapes obtained by The Hindu show, was conducted by a native Hindi speaker, his usage of the language inflected with Mumbai argot — a startling revelation that could lead to a reappraisal of just how the Lashkar went about preparing for its murderous assault on Mumbai.
Improbably enough, Babar’s media education began with a poetry lesson. The principal voice in the intercepted tapes -- identified by the surviving terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab as a Lashkar military instructor code-named ‘Abu Kahafa’-- congratulated Babar on his first interaction with a Hindi-language television station.
“The elders,” Kahafa said, “are giving you congratulations again. They say you have done a fabulous job. Allah opened your heart. You have really spoken well.”
“It is true that the darkness is enveloping all,” Kahafa dictated in Urdu, “but we will not let the lamps be extinguished by the winds of oppression. It is true that the storms of subjugation are very strong, but we are those lamps that light the way in the midst of storms.”
Now, the Hindi-speaking controller took charge, dictating a manifesto to Babar. The controller asked Babar to complain about the “government’s two-faced policy.” “The government,” he said, “pats us on the back, but the administration hits us on the head.” Notably, the controller used the Hindi word for administration — prashasan -- rather than the Urdu intezamiya.
“The government makes nice announcements,” Babar was asked to say, “but the administration acts on them by arresting young Muslims.”
Babar was provided with a set of demands by his controller: Muslims held in jails were to be released; the Indian Army was to be pulled out of Jammu and Kashmir; the land on which the Babri Masjid stood was to be returned to Muslims, and a new mosque constructed; India was to break off its alliance — for which the instructor used the Hindi word gatbandhan -- with Israel; “Muslim States were to be handed back to the Muslims.”
Finally, the Israeli government was to be warned to end violence against Muslims. “If Israel does not do this,” the controller began saying, but ended: “no, just say this much, it’s good.”
Unko yeh ultimatum dey-dey, the controller urged Babar, ki yeh to hamara trailer hai, asli film aagey hai. Yeh ek chhota sa udharan hai, ek example hai [Tell them that this is just a trailer, the film is still to come. This is just an example].
Like he had been in the face of the controller’s extensive use of Hindi, Babar was befuddled by the words ‘trailer’ and udharan. The controller then used the more familiar Urdu word, namoona, to explain himself.
Indian investigators have known of the media tape for months — but found little evidence to establish who the Hindi-speaking voice might be. Early suspicion focussed on Mohammad Amjad, a Lashkar commander thought to be based in Karachi. The suspicion rested on the fact that Babar was asked to identify himself as a resident of Hyderabad’s Toli Chowki neighbourhood -- an area Amjad and other members of his network hail from.
However, the voice on the tape, Hyderabad police sources said, did not appear to match that on the intercepted calls known to have originated from Amjad.
More than a dozen Mumbai residents are also known to be involved in the Lashkar’s networks — and several of them, including Rahil Sheikh and Zabiuddin Ansari, are now believed to be in Pakistan. There is, however, no evidence any of these men having been involved in the attacks.
Pakistan’s July 11, 2009 dossier on its investigation into the attacks — the last substantial document handed to India -- makes no mention of who was in the control room. Nor have investigators in Pakistan succeeded in matching the voices of suspects held there to those on the intercepted calls. Despite a magistrate’s order, the dossier states, the “arrested accused refused to provide voice samples.”