Praveen Swami

Having survived the attack in Rampur, the two fidayeen were tasked to execute a similar strike in Mumbai

Both fidayeen had carried out assault on CRPF training camp in Rampur

All three BSE assault-team volunteers held Pakistani passports

NEW DELHI: A group of Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, arrested in Uttar Pradesh last month, were just days away from executing an attack on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), police sources have told The Hindu.

Investigators say Fahim Ahmed Ansari, who was arrested last month along with seven other suspects, planned to travel from Rampur to Mumbai in mid-February with two specially trained Pakistanis who were to carry out the strike.

Both fidayeen, Imran Shehzad from Bhimber in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Mohammad Farooq Bhatti from Gujranwala in Punjab, had carried out the New Year-eve assault on a Central Reserve Police Force training camp in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. Having survived the high-risk attack, the two men were tasked to execute a similar strike on the BSE.

Officials believe Shehzad and Bhatti could have claimed dozens of lives as guards at the BSE are neither trained nor equipped to prevent a fidayeen-type strike. Typically, fidayeen storm the gates of premises using grenades, following it up with the indiscriminate firing from assault rifles — a tactic used with effect at Rampur and in dozens of similar operations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Lashkar cells have made repeated plans to hit the BSE in the past. In 2004, for example, Javed Sheikh and Manzoor Ahmed Chilloo are believed to have planned a fidayeen strike. However, the Lashkar succeeded in attacking the exchange during the 1993 serial bombing of Mumbai that claimed over 250 lives.

The owner of a small-scale paper-envelope manufacturing business, Ansari is believed to have been recruited by the Lashkar during a visit to Dubai in 2003. A one-time activist of the proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India, he received advanced weapons and spycraft training at Lashkar camps in Pakistan over the next four years.

Uttar Pradesh police officials say Ansari returned to India through Kathmandu in late 2007. He stayed at the Sunlight Guest House from November 28 to December 10 before renting a room off Falkland Road. Ansari then secured a driving licence under the alias Samir Sheikh and enrolled himself as a student at a computer institute near the BSE.

All three BSE assault-team volunteers held Pakistani passports, which they hoped would enable them to escape through Nepal. Shehzad carried passport number EK5149331, issued on March 14, 2007, while Bhatti used passport number AW3177021, issued a day earlier.

Ansari’s Pakistani passport, BM 6809341, issued on November 1, 2007, bears the pseudonym Hammad Hassan.

Bangalore connection

Uttar Pradesh authorities say the three men operated under the direct command of Bihar-born Mohammad Sabahuddin, one of the Lashkar’s seniormost Indian operatives. Sabahuddin in turn reported to a Pakistan-based commander code-named Muzammil, the man believed to have overall charge of the organisation’s offensive operations in India outside of Jammu and Kashmir.

Like Ansari, who was a one-time SIMI activist, Sabahuddin also trained at Lashkar camps from 2003 under the tutelage of Muzammil. In mid-2005, investigators say, he returned to India via Dhaka and Kathmandu, travelling on a Pakistani passport. Posing as a medical student, he proceeded to rent a house in Bangalore and study potential targets in the city.

IISc convention

Sabahuddin was eventually drawn by the publicity surrounding the Indian Institute of Science’s 2005 convention. Observing that the institute had almost no security cover, he decided a single terrorist would be able to shoot at delegates. Lashkar leaders then despatched a Pakistani fidayeen code-named Hamza, whom Sabahuddin had earlier seen working in Muzammil’s office, to execute the strike.

Identical tactics were used to stage the Rampur attacks. Investigators have found that Sabahuddin’s group at first planned to target a military convoy near the headquarters of the Central Army Command at Lucknow. However, these plans were dropped after the group determined the attackers would have a low chance of success.