Even as Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram offered his congratulations to police and the intelligence services for locating the “prime suspect” in February's bombing of a café in Pune, investigators have told The Hindu they remain unclear how — and even if — the Mangalore resident held by police on Monday was involved in the terrorist attack.
Maharashtra's élite anti-terrorism police, the ATS, arrested 22-year-old Abdul Samad Siddi Bawa at Mangalore's Bajpe airport soon after he arrived on an Air India Express flight from Dubai.
“I compliment ATS Maharashtra, the Pune Police and Central agencies on apprehending the prime suspect within hundred days of the incident,” Mr. Chidambaram said in a statement on Tuesday.
But Samad was produced before a Mumbai magistrate on charges unrelated to the February 13 bombing of the Germany Bakery in Pune, which killed 17 people. The ATS instead said it wanted to question him in connection with the recovery of small arms from Mumbai's Byculla area last year — weapons police suspect were intended to attack lawyers linked to the defence of suspects linked to a bombing campaign by the Hindutva terror group Abhinav Bharat.
Police in Mumbai did not offer any comment on Samad's possible links to the Pune café bombing. However, ATS sources told The Hindu he had strenuously denied any role in the bombing during several hours of questioning.
“We found no evidence so far that he was involved,” one officer admitted.
Tainted by kinship?
Based on closed-circuit television images recorded by a camera placed over the cash counter at the Pune café, investigators identified one bomber as Samad's younger brother Mohammad Zarar Siddibapa — also known as ‘Yasin Bhatkal.' Fugitive from police ever since 2008, Zarar is wanted on charges of having supplied explosives and bomb components for attacks carried out nationwide by a jihadist network known as the Indian Mujahideen.
Zarar is believed to be a key lieutenant of top Indian Mujahideen commanders Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri and his brother Iqbal Shahbandri, both of whom — like him — hail from the small Mangalore-area town of Bhatkal.
Karnataka Police investigators questioned Samad in 2008 after two Indian Mujahideen bomb-making units were discovered in Vitthalamakki and Hakkalamane. Police sources in Mangalore said Samad was extensively questioned about his knowledge of the networks run by his brother. He was suspected, among other things, of having participated in a series of meetings held in Bhatkal from the summer of 2004 where Indian Mujahideen cadre from across India first drew up operational plans. Eventually, however, he was cleared of suspicion.
Samad's name, as reported in this newspaper on Monday, did not figure in charges filed by prosecutors in several States against alleged Indian Mujahideen members; nor, indeed, was he alleged to have participated in any other form of crime.
But on 19 March, Pune Police sources say, an informant said the individual in the closed-circuit television images was in fact Samad, not his younger brother. Based on the informant's testimony, Pune investigators sought to question Samad, only to discover he had left for Dubai. The police issued a nationwide look-out notice to airports on March 25. India's Research and Analysis Wing later worked with Dubai authorities to locate Samad and secure his return.
Family photographs obtained by The Hindu show that the brothers, who are separated by just two years, do bear a close resemblance. There is little else, though, to suggest that Samad's behaviour was suspicious.
Educated, like his brother, at Bhatkal schools, Samad studied at a Bangalore college in 2008-09 before returning home last summer. His family said he left for Dubai on February 26, hoping his father Mohammad Zarar Siddibapa would be able to find him a job. Notably, Samad purchased a return ticket on Air India and travelled using legitimate documents, behaviour which does not suggest he intended to escape the country.
Members of the Siddibapa family have said Samad was at home for a wedding on the day of the bombing. Police discount the alibi, saying the wedding took place on February 15, two days after the attacks.
Police sources in Mumbai say Samad is likely to be questioned for at least the next two days. “We're curious about his relationship with his brother,” one officer familiar with the investigation said, “and also about any contact he may have had with other Indian Mujahideen members in the United Arab Emirates.”