Praveen Swami

Oman millionaire, Kerala computer engineer, Pakistani jihadists facilitated attacks from Muscat to Mumbai and Bangalore

Nawaz’s jihadist engagement began when he was just 18

Landmarks in Oman were on the terror radar

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: Back in 2006, the lives of a millionaire Omani businessman and a struggling computer technician from Kerala intersected with the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s battle-hardened jihadists. Even now, six months after the arrest of Ernakulam-born Sarfaraz Nawaz and Muscat entrepreneur Ali Abdul Aziz al-Hooti, investigators in India and Oman are struggling to understand the complex networks that emerged: networks that they are discovering bound together Indian Mujahideen attacks in southern India with the Lashkar’s assault on Mumbai and a series of planned bombings in West Asia.

Nawaz’s jihadist engagement began when he was just 18 years old. He joined the Students Islamic Movement of India in 1995, and was elected to its central committee five years later. His contemporaries included many who later played key roles in building the Indian jihadist movement among them, Safdar Nagori, Peedical Abdul Shibly and Yahya Kamakutty.

Like the overwhelming majority of SIMI members, though, Nawaz chose a life of middle-class respectability. He obtained a computer networking qualification from an institute in Kochi, married and, with the help of relatives, found a job in Oman.

During a visit home in 2006, however, Nawaz heard a sermon that dragged him back into the world he had escaped from. Tadiyantavide Nasir known to his followers as Haji Umar delivered a speech casting jihad as a central imperative of Islam.

Inspired by the speech, Oman authorities have since discovered, Nawaz set about making contacts with jihadists in Muscat. Friends at a local mosque put him in touch with al-Hooti, a successful automobile components dealer, who also owned a string of Internet cafés.

Born to an Indian mother, al-Hooti’s radicalisation had been driven by stories of atrocities against Muslims he heard on visits home to Maharashtra. Before he turned 30, al-Hooti had had twice trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan and emerged as the organisation’s key point-man in Oman.

Working with Lashkar intelligence operative Mohammad Jassem, also known by the alias Tehsin, al-Hooti used his businesses as camouflage for an elaborate operation that funnelled funds to jihadists in India and volunteers into Pakistan for training.

Ali Asshama, a Maldivian national who along with Bangladesh-based Lashkar commander Faisal Haroun helped set up the Lashkar’s Indian Ocean networks, was among al-Hooti’s wards. Haroun and Assham are thought to have crafted the 2006 landing of assault rifles intended to have been used in a terror attack in Gujarat, as well as an abortive 2007 effort to land eight Lashkar fidayeen off Mumbai.

Early in 2007, al-Hooti and Jassem also arranged to ship Mumbai resident Fahim Arshad Ansari from Dubai to a Lashkar camp in Pakistan through Oman and Iran. Ansari is now being tried on charges of having generated the videotape of Mumbai’s streets which was used to train the Lashkar assault team that carried out the November massacre.

Multiple targets

By 2007, Oman authorities say, the pro-western Emirate itself had begun to figure on al-Hooti’s list of targets.

In June that year, al-Hooti held discussions with Lashkar sympathisers in Oman on the prospect of targeting prominent landmarks in Muscat, among them a British Broadcasting Corporation office, the Golden Tulip Hotel, and a spa in the upmarket Nizwa area. No final operational plans were made, but Oman authorities found enough evidence to sentence al-Hooti to life last month.

Meanwhile, Nasir made contact with Nawaz, asking for money to fund a series of bombings in southern India. Nasir also needed cash to send volunteers from Kerala to train with the Lashkar.

Nawaz turned to the Lashkar for logistical help. Between March and May, 2008, the Karnataka police believe, al-Hooti transferred an estimated $2,500 for Nasir’s use to a Kannur-based hawala dealer. Lashkar commander Rehan, one of al-Hooti’s associates, arranged for Nasir’s recruits to train with a jihadist unit operating near the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district.

From July, though, the plan began to slowly unravel. First, the bombs planted in Bangalore failed to work properly. Then, in October, five of Nasir’s volunteers were caught in an Indian Army ambush. Four were killed; the fifth man, Purathur resident Abdul Jabbar, was arrested. Even as the Andhra Pradesh police closed in on Nasir, al-Hooti and Rehan helped arrange his escape with the help of the Lashkar’s top resident agent in Bangladesh, Mubashir Shahid.

Lashkar International

West Asia-based jihadists have long played a role in financing the Lashkar’s operations against India, while the Pakistan-based group, in turn, has been seeking a role in the region.

Saudi Arabia-based Mahmoud Mohammad Ahmad Bahaziq, for example, has been indicted by the United Nations Security Council as a key financier of the Lashkar’s infrastructure in Pakistan. Bahaziq, who like al-Hooti, was born to an Indian mother is believed to have been arrested by Saudi Arabia in 2006. There has been no public word, however, on the status of his trial.

Back in 2004, British troops in Iraq detained top Lashkar commander Danish Ahmad who, using the name Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil, had for many years trained cadre for covert operations against India. Since Danish’s arrest, which was first reported in The Hindu, Lashkar operatives have been involved in operations in Australia, the United States of America and even the Maldives.

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