Early in January, a swarthy young man handed over a spanking new Pakistani passport identifying him as Karachi resident Mohammad Farhan to an immigration officer at Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike airport.

Just a few taps on the keyboard later, though, the immigration officer knew the man Sri Lankan authorities had been watching out for had arrived. Hours later, Sheikh Abdul Khwaja was put on a special aircraft to Hyderabad.

Khwaja has long been identified in media accounts as among India’s most wanted: a key figure in the jihadist cells, which have carried out a succession of urban bombings since 2005, and possibly linked to the Mumbai carnage of November 2008.

But investigators from India’s police and intelligence services have now begun to see a somewhat different picture of the convent-school educated Khwaja. He has emerged, highly placed sources in the investigation told The Hindu, as a jihadist whose record of botched operations led his funds to dry up — and forced him to begin a new career as a fake currency racketeer.

Into the Lashkar

Khwaja’s life as a jihadist began in early 2005, Andhra Pradesh police investigators say, when he fled India on a Haj visa to evade prosecution on charges of rioting and attempted murder.

In Saudi Arabia, Khwaja allegedly made contact with a childhood friend, the key Lashkar-e-Taiba linked jihadist Mohammad Abdul Shahid. Shahid left Hyderabad soon after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, as part of a wave of jihad volunteers, and emerged as the key Indian jihadist leader in Pakistan.

Shahid’s mentor, the Gujarat-origin Karachi-based ganglord Rasool Khan ‘Party’ — who draws his nickname from the local argot for businessmen — allegedly arranged for a ticket and a visa to get Khwaja to Karachi.

From Karachi, Khwaja was despatched to train with the Lashkar at camps in Lahore and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. His instructors included Muzammil Bhat, the still-fugitive military commander with charge of the operational execution of the Mumbai attack.

Khwaja was despatched to Bangladesh, police say, soon after his training ended. Another Hyderabad resident, Ghulam Yazdani, was using Dhaka as a base for a plot to bomb the headquarters of the counter-terrorist Special Task Force in Hyderabad. Bangladeshi Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami operative Sharif-ul-Haq had been tasked with raising a volunteer for the attack. Moutasim Billa, code-named Dalim, blew himself up at the STF’s office in October that year.

Back in Karachi, though, the jihad cell began suffering reverses. New cadre, in particular, were hard to come by. Early in 2006, Shahid’s Saudi Arabia-based brother, Mohammad Abdul Samad, sent two new volunteers from the Indian diaspora. One, Sheikh Najibullah Ali, had to be sent home after just eight days as his irate — and well connected — grandparents protested.

In July 2007, Khwaja is claimed to have told police, Shahid was asked to lie low by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate — perhaps in response to Indian and international pressure. Heated arguments followed. Samad arrived in Karachi at the end of August to discuss the issue. Both men were killed on their way back from fugitive Gujarat jihadist cleric Mufti Sufiyan Patangia’s Karachi home — an assassination widely attributed to India’s Research and Analysis Wing.

Meanwhile, in March 2006, Yazdani was shot dead by the Delhi police, disrupting the group’s Bangladesh operations. Raziuddin Nasir, one of the few new recruits raised by the cell, was arrested in Bangalore in January 2008. And, later that year, Bangladesh authorities detained Sharif-ul-Haq.

Khwaja was expected to step into Shahid’s shoes — but he failed spectacularly.

Last year, Khwaja attempted to stage a series of ambitious new operations, among them, a plan to bomb the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Kolkata offices during the Lok Sabha elections. Explosions were arranged, but Sharif-ul-Haq’s arrest made it impossible to execute the operation. A joint operation with the Jaish-e-Mohammad to target petrochemical facilities in Gujarat got no further than desultory searches on Google.

Khwaja’s failures led his financiers — among them, Saudi Arabia-based Indian Islamists Asad Khan, Farhatullah Ghauri and Siddiq bin-Osman — to cut him off. For its part, the Lashkar ended month subsidies to the cell.

Early in July last year, Khwaja left for Saudi Arabia, hoping to find a job. Yet again, his project failed. He returned to Karachi, and tied up with the ISI-linked Mafioso, Amanullah Paracha, for an operation to peddle forged Indian currency. The new enterprise brought him to Colombo — and on to a Hyderabad prison cell.

Continuing threat

Khwaja’s story, police say, makes clear that international pressure on jihadist groups, particularly in Bangladesh, has begun to tell on their operational capabilities. It also makes clear, though, that new plans are under way.

Iqbal Ismail Shahbandari and his brother Riyaz, the fugitive leaders of the Lashkar-linked Indian Mujahideen network, met Khwaja in Karachi early last year. The two men hoped to procure pistols for newly-raised cadre through Bangaldesh. The project, like so many of Khwaja’s operations, failed.

Lashkar-linked Zabiuddin Ansari and Fayyaz Ahmad Kagazi — wanted for a series of operations targeting Gujarat and Maharashtra in 2006 — also met Khwaja in Pakistan, to discuss pooling resources.

More In: National | News