From cases of recent terror bombing suspects, evidence emerges of a pattern of poor probe
Earlier this week, under relentless Opposition attack for a mounting list of unsolved terrorism attacks, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram held out some reassuring words to journalists.
Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad, the Minister said, had solved the first major urban terrorist strike that took place on his watch — the bombing of a Pune café in February 2010. There was progress in other cases too. “We are building our capacity to neutralise terror brick by brick,” he said, “and every intelligence input has been followed to its logical end.”
Needed: cautious probe
Even as the National Investigation Agency detectives have claimed to have made significant progress in identifying the men who bombed the Delhi High Court last week, a close study of the Pune case, in fact, demonstrates the need for more cautious investigation.
Maharashtra's anti-terrorism police have indeed filed charges against the alleged perpetrators of bombing of the German Bakery, which claimed the lives of 17 people, including five foreign nationals.
Only one of the eight suspects has actually been apprehended — and each of the seven fugitives has eluded police forces in cases dating back to 2005 and earlier.
The suspect who has been held is not alleged to have sourced explosives, manufactured the bomb, or planted it. Even worse, the evidence of his role in the plot appears less than compelling.
Himayat Baig case
Himayat Baig, the Pune charge sheet says, met with two childhood friends at a Colombo hotel in March 2008. The men, it alleges, were two of India's most wanted terrorists: Zabiuddin Ansari, who is alleged to have arranged a massive shipment of assault rifles and explosives for a 2005 assault on Gujarat, and Fayyaz Zulfikar Ahmad, the alleged author of an attempt to bomb a train in 2006.
Later, the charge sheet states, Mr. Baig — the son of desperately poor parents, who make their living selling fried snacks — used funds provided to him by his handlers to set up an internet café in Udgir. Mr. Baig, it alleges, communicated with his handlers in Pakistan using multiple e-mail aliases; he also acquired fake identification, including a card entitling him to physical handicap benefits.
The bomb, the charge sheet asserts, was assembled at Mr. Baig's internet café. Then, he travelled with it by bus to Pune — where two ranking Indian Mujahideen operatives, Karnataka resident Muhammad Zarar Siddibapa and Mohsin Chaudhury, carried the device to its target.
Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the account was plausible: the men are believed to be part of one of the three jihadist cells. However, there is little evidence to back the claims.
Mr. Baig's passport, for example, shows he travelled to Sri Lanka — but the Mumbai Police did not despatch investigators to Colombo or seek the help of its police services. There is, therefore, no corroborative evidence that the meeting with the jihad commanders ever took place.
Nor did investigators conduct forensic tests at Mr. Baig's internet café for explosives residues, or establish that he purchased the components used to manufacture the bomb. His cellphone records, moreover, appear to show that he was in Aurangabad when the bombing took place.
“I've been a criminal defence lawyer all my adult life,” says Mr. Baig's lawyer, A. Rehman, “but I have never seen such a shoddy charge sheet.”
Mumbai Police officials said they could not discuss the case because it is being heard in court, but disputed Mr. Rehman's assessment. They claim to have a witness who says he was asked to store Mr. Baig's cellphone in Mumbai and Aurangabad — thus accounting for the cellphone records — as well as evidence he travelled to Pune on the day of the attack.
The bad practice of investigation standards in Mr. Baig's case, sadly, appear to be becoming a template. Police have been privately claiming, for example, to have found critical evidence from Haroon Naik, a Beed resident who ran a cloth business in Kolkata and was arrested on terrorism-related charges in July.
Interrogations conducted by both the West Bengal and Gujarat Police, threw up no evidence that he was connected to this summer's bombings in Mumbai. The Mumbai police secured his custody on fake currency charges, more than 10 weeks after his arrest, and is now questioning him about the attack — even though no suggestion of his involvement emerged in prior investigation.
Senior government sources told The Hindu there is reason to believe Mr. Naik was in touch alleged Indian Mujahideen operative Danish Riyaz until 2005, before he left to work in Dubai — but there was nothing to link him to the jihadist group's subsequent operations.
Last summer, Mr. Chidambaram showered praise on investigators for arresting Abdul Samad Siddibapa, the older brother of Muhammad Zarar Siddibapa.
“I compliment ATS Maharashtra, the Pune Police and Central agencies on apprehending the prime suspect within 100 days of the incident,” Mr. Chidambaram had said.
Mr. Siddibapa was later cleared of all charges — evidence, if any was needed, that haste doesn't pay.