Men intelligence service said were terrorists who infiltrated India turn out to be Lahore businessmen

The Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence service, is facing allegations of incompetence after three Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives who, it claimed, were about to conduct a suicide-squad operation in western India turned out to be living at their homes in Lahore — and to be businessmen, not terrorists.

The Mumbai police issued warnings earlier this week after receiving information on what they said was an imminent plot to target two of India's largest oil refineries: Reliance Industries' plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat and Mittal Energy's unit at Bhatinda, Punjab.

Five Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, the police alleged in briefings for the media on Wednesday, had infiltrated India to execute the operation.

Though periodic warnings have been issued on the threats to the plant — the last by the Intelligence Bureau in May — this warning was unusually specific, and accompanied by photographs of the Lashkar team.

Late on Wednesday evening though, a Pakistani television show host revealed that the men were living in Lahore: two running shops at the Hafeez shopping complex in Lahore's Gulberg district, and the third a guard employed on the premises.

The revelations led shopkeepers in Lahore to stage demonstrations in support of the two men, while the Jamaat-ud-Dawa said this showed that India falsified information on Pakistani involvement in terrorist strikes, including 26/11. Both men also moved the Lahore High Court on Thursday, seeking protection against any possible action by India, and have told The Hindu that they intended to petition the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to be formally exonerated.

No official explanation has been offered by New Delhi for the apparent debacle. A fresh alert was issued in Pune after local intelligence officials warned that the suicide squad could strike the city. The RAW officer with supervisory responsibility for issuing the alerts did not respond to a query from The Hindu.

Elusive answers

The testimony from the two men who spoke to The Hindu from Lahore threw up as many questions as it answered. Late on Wednesday, shopkeeper Mahtab Butt said he had on a whim used Google to search for the word ‘India.' The search led him to an India Today group site. There, he discovered a photo of himself, fellow storeowner Atif Butt and night guard Muhammad Babar, illustrating a story on the alleged Mumbai terror plot.

Mr. Butt said he immediately called Pakistani television show host Mubashir Lucman — a controversial figure known for his dogged support of the religious right — with the news.

Three separate Google searches conducted by The Hindu did not lead to results with India Today on the first page, raising questions about this account —though, in all fairness, results using the site often vary by region.

Later that evening though, both Mr. Butt and Mr. Atif Butt provided The Hindu with a quite different version of events. The two men said they had learned of the report from a common friend, whom they identified as Khubaab.

Neither man could explain where the photographs of them — clearly personal in nature, rather than the kinds typically used in passport or driving-licence applications — were taken. Nor did they have any explanation for what led them, or their friend, to search for information on India late in the evening.

Duped by ISI?

Highly placed intelligence sources in New Delhi said the photographs had been obtained from an individual they described as a “trans-border source — a euphemism for smugglers who often conduct espionage in return for some degree of impunity from law-enforcement agencies.

The sources noted that the first photographs of the suspects had been released on the Internet at 8.21 p.m., while Mr. Lucman revealed their true identities less than an hour later — fuelling suspicion that the photographs might have been planted by Pakistan's own intelligence services to discredit the RAW.

The New Delhi-based intelligence officials said the affair pointed to underlying problems in India's post-26/11 intelligence reforms — key among them, pressure to circulate information before it could be thoroughly corroborated. The intelligence was passed on to the Mumbai police through the Intelligence Bureau-run Multi-Agency Centre — the core of the proposed National Counter-Terrorism Centre — but its credibility does not appear to have been questioned by other agencies.

The intelligence debacle, the RAW's worst fiasco in years, is the latest in a series of embarrassing intelligence failures, among them the listing of individuals held in Indian prisons in a government dossier on the alleged fugitives in Pakistan.

Though there was no corroboration of the threat from other agencies or communications intelligence, the Mumbai Police decided to make the information public. “The consensus,” an officer present at the meetings told The Hindu, “was that it was best to get the information we had out there, in the hope of at least embarrassing the ISI into calling off the operation. No one wanted to be accused of withholding information, in case something happened.”

“I guess it was a bad call,” he said.

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