From a Beed village to 26/11 control room

Smoke and fire rise from the Taj Hotel, in Mumbai on November 27, 2008. File photo: Vivek Bendre   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

“The government must know that this is our trailer,” said the man with the thick, Mumbai-accented voice from Karachi, “must know that this is just a trailer. The real movie is still to come.” The man he was speaking to was, just then, holding six people hostage at gunpoint at a Jewish prayer house off the Colaba causeway. “Trailer,” he asked, perplexed? “Example,” the man said in Hindi, “an illustration.” “Are you writing all this down?”

Even as the 26/11 attacks raged, one of the 10 men engaged in executing 226 women and men received a briefing on dealing with the media, from controllers speaking to them on a voice-over-internet line from Karachi

Investigators are now alleging that the voice on the line was that of Maharashtra resident Syed Zabiuddin Syed Zakiuddin Ansari, deported from Saudi Arabia to India on Monday. Ansari, police say, told the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s assault team to introduce themselves as residents of Hyderabad’s Toli Chowki area. He instructed them to demand that the Muslims held in jail be released, “Muslim states” be made independent, and the Army withdrawn from Kashmir.

Ansari’s alleged role in 26/11, if established, will offer investigators invaluable insights into the attack. His improbable journey from the dusty village of Ghevrai, in Maharashtra’s Beed district to the Lashkar’s control room in Karachi, though, holds out hard questions for India.

Born on November 13, 1981, to insurance agent, Zakiuddin Ansari, Ansari was an only son, brother to five sisters. He studied at Ghevrai’s zilla parishad-run high school up to standard X, and then acquired an electrician’s qualification at the Indian Technical Institute in Beed. He was studying for a master’s at the Navgan Shikshan Sanstha college.

No one knows for certain just what led Ansari to make the decision to drop out of college — and, if police are right, to join the Lashkar. It is possible, though, that this choice had something to do with the communal violence which was part of the cultural fabric of his early life. Following a wave of communal riots across Maharashtra in the summer of 1984, the Shiv Sena took control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and pushed forward communal mobilisations in rural areas. Umapur, not far from Ghevrai, saw murderous anti-Muslim violence in 1986. Later, tensions surged after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

In 2001, Gujarat police investigators say, Ansari met Khalid Sardana, a Jammu and Kashmir resident studying at a seminary in the State, to discuss the prospect of sending SIMI cadre there for weapons training. Later that year, Sardana took several of Aurangabad men to train with Lashkar units in the mountains of Surankote, near Poonch. At least one, Fahad Sheikh, is now known to have been killed in fighting with Indian troops in the Hil Kaka area of Poonch. It remains unclear if Ansari also trained there, or in Pakistan.

Nationwide cases

Prosecutors in several States, however, have sought Ansari in connection with terror attacks across the country. In documents filed before a Pune court, Maharashtra prosecutors have alleged that Ansari and Zulfikar Fayyaz Ahmad ‘Kagazi’ played a key role in organising the bombing of an upmarket café in Pune in February 2010. The bombing claimed 17 lives, and left 57 people injured.

In legal filings, Maharashtra assistant commissioner of police Vinod Satav said that alleged Pune bomber Himayat Baig met with Ansari and Ahmad at a Colombo hotel in March 2008, to discuss the plot. He also alleged that the two men trained Baig in assembling explosives, and made funds available for “the purchase of explosive devices and also for funding the travel of indoctrinated Muslim youth who are desirous of undergoing training in Pakistan.”

Lawyers for Baig say he was innocent, noting among other things that no evidence has been produced to show that he visited Sri Lanka’s capital.

Police in Gujarat have separately said Ansari and Ahmad placed an improvised explosive device on a Mumbai-Ahmedabad train in February 2006. The device, packed inside a suitcase, went off on the railway platform, after it was fortuitously removed from the train by a thief.

Though media have reported that Ansari, using the code-name Abu Hamza, may also have been involved in a 2006 attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, sources familiar with the investigation said they had so far gathered no evidence for this claim.

Ansari’s trial is likely, given this large swathe of cases he faces, to be protracted. The stories that emerge from it, though, will cast insight not just into the events of 26/11, but the birth and growth of India’s jihadist movement.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 4:05:14 AM |

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