In Coimbatore, a bomb on wheels

Two decades after serial explosions claimed 58 lives, Coimbatore turned tense the day before Deepavali when a car blast on a busy street left one man — the main accused — dead. Wilson Thomas and S. Vijay Kumar piece together the details of the investigation of a suspected terror plot

Updated - October 31, 2022 01:27 am IST

Published - October 29, 2022 12:15 am IST

Fire brigade personnel at the spot where an explosion took place in a car in front of the Sangameswarar temple in Coimbatore early on October 23, 2022. Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Fire brigade personnel at the spot where an explosion took place in a car in front of the Sangameswarar temple in Coimbatore early on October 23, 2022. Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

K. Valliammal, 73, of Kottai Eswaran Kovil Street in Coimbatore, went to bed late on the night of October 22. The next morning, she woke up with a jolt, not to the usual chants from the Sangameswarar temple in the neighbourhood, but to a deafening explosion.

“I heard a blast and rushed out of the house. Flames and smoke billowed from the road near the temple. I thought the transformer close to the temple had exploded. Then I realised that the flames were coming from a car in front of the temple,” recalled Valliammal, who runs a home food eatery on the populated street. She said the blast was followed by another.

Coimbatore turned tense with the news of the blasts. It was the morning before Deepavali. Those who had made last-minute shopping plans were afraid to step out. The police began to identify and isolate deserted vehicles, which had been parked for a long time, across the city.

Senthil Kannan, a milk agent who lives at the temple junction, heard the explosion a few minutes after waking up at 4 a.m. and seeing the temple’s gopuram, a routine he had been following for several years. He ran to the street and found a burning car in front of the temple. 

Sub-inspector R. Selvarajan of Ukkadam station, head constable Deva Kumar, and constable Pandiya Raja were the first to go close to the burning car. They were manning a temporary checkpoint in the area.

“I also thought the transformer had exploded, as the power had gone off. On my way to the fire ball, I alerted the control room over my walkie-talkie. As I got closer, I found that a car was in flames. I told the control room to alert fire services,” said Selvarajan.

The Coimbatore south fire station received the alert. A fire tender reached the spot within minutes and put out the flames.

“My colleagues and I sprayed water on the car using a hose near the temple. We stepped back when the fire brigade reached. When the flames were extinguished, we saw a charred body on the road near the driver’s seat.

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One LPG cylinder was in the boot of the car and another was on a seat. There were nails and marbles strewn around the car,” Selvarajan recalled. The cylinder in the boot had exploded, with a crack measuring about four inches, while the second one was intact.

More police personnel rushed to the spot, and the site was cordoned off before 5 a.m. Seeing the LPG cylinders, nails and marbles, the police became suspicious as this did not look like an accident. Roads leading to the temple, including both sides of Kottai Eswaran Kovil Street, were barricaded.

The investigation

City Police Commissioner V. Balakrishnan roped in some of the best hands in the force for the case. At this point, the charred body and the number plate of the car were the only clues that the police had for their investigation.

With the blast happening in front of a temple in communally volatile Coimbatore, social media was soon filled with posts ranging from theories of sabotage to suicide bombing.

Additional Director-General of Police (Law and Order) P. Thamaraikannan reached the city around 10.45 a.m. and Director General of Police (DGP) C. Sylendra Babu reached by noon

The investigation kicked off with the police trying to trace the owner of the car. But this was not easy as the old Maruti 800 hatchback had been owned by least 10 people in the past. The last registered owner told the police that he had sold the old car to a resident of Ukkadam in Coimbatore for scrap value.

By evening, the search for the owner of the car and the effort to establish the identity of the charred body led to the same name — Jameesha Mubin, a 29-year-old man who lived with his wife and two children some 350 metres from Sangameswarar temple.

The police conduct vehicle checks across Coimbatore city following the car blast.

The police conduct vehicle checks across Coimbatore city following the car blast. | Photo Credit: M. Periasamy

Mubin emerged as the prime suspect of the terror plot. Coimbatore had last heard such explosions in 1998, when serial blasts claimed 58 lives.

A few officers, part of the six special teams formed to crack the case, rushed to Mubin’s residence, a rented house on the second floor of a building on H.M.P.R. Street.

In the house, a unique smell heightened their fears — the smell of explosive chemicals. The officers unearthed over 75 kg of potassium nitrate, aluminium powder, sulphur and charcoal. “The two-room house, even the restroom, was filled with all kinds of materials,” said an officer.

The DGP addressed the media late on October 23 after Mubin’s identity was confirmed. He said the blast could have occurred when Mubin tried to get away with the explosives-laden car after seeing the police ahead. “Going by the material seized from his house, this (material in the car) could have been meant for a possible plan (of an attack) in the future,” Mr. Babu said.

Jameesha Mubin and his accomplices

An engineering graduate, Mubin worked in a bookshop in the city before venturing into the small-scale garments business. A few residents from Kottai Eswaran Kovil Street said that they remembered Mubin as a calm person. 

As per police records, Mubin was questioned in 2019 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) when it was examining the activities of a group of men who were suspected to be Islamic State sympathisers.

During the search at Mubin’s residence, the police came across a list of places, suspected to be part of a ‘hit list’, code-named ‘tourism places to be visited’. The list included the Coimbatore Collectorate, the office of the City Police Commissioner, the Coimbatore railway station, Victoria Town Hall, and Race Course.

A visual from a surveillance camera facing the ground floor of the building showed Mubin and a few others taking out heavy objects in a white sack on October 22.

The accomplices, identified as Muhammad Thalha (25), Muhammad Azharudheen (23), Muhammad Riyas (27), Firoz Ismail (27), and Muhammad Nawaz Ismail (27), hailing from G.M. Nagar near Ukkadam, were arrested late on October 24.

Provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were invoked against them the next day, as police read the blast as an act of terror. According to Balakrishnan, Thalha and Azharudheen arranged the car for Mubin, while the others helped shift the LPG cylinders and other materials into the car.

A sixth member of the group, Afsar Khan, 28, was arrested on October 28, a day after his house was searched. Khan is accused of procuring raw materials used for the explosion through e-commerce websites. He also assisted Mubin in mixing the raw materials which were filled in three small cans and kept in the car along with the nails and marbles, the police said.

Though the police were granted custody of all the accused except Khan for three days, they are yet to find out what triggered the blast and whether Mubin was a suicide bomber.

A section of investigators has ruled out the suicide bomb theory pointing at the botched attack, which did not cause any damage to people or property, and the quantity of explosive raw materials Mubin left at his residence.

Those who back the suicide bomb theory have pointed out a poster that Mubin kept as his WhatsApp display picture, which read: “If the news of my death reaches you, forgive my mistakes, hide my shortcomings, take part in my funeral rites and pray for me.”

A few other investigators suspect that Mubin was killed while executing an attack. They believe that he had planned to escape. The police claimed that he stopped the car on seeing the police at the checkpoint and tried to escape.

Police conduct checks at the Sri Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, Chennai, after the Coimbatore car blast.

Police conduct checks at the Sri Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, Chennai, after the Coimbatore car blast. | Photo Credit: K.V. Srinivasan

The Coimbatore District United Jamaat condemned the incident and urged the authorities to trace and punish those involved in the crime. “We strongly condemn any acts of terror. Jamaats will not tolerate such attacks,” said C.T.C. Jabbar, general secretary of the Coimbatore District United Jamaat.

The car explosion came days after the Ministry of Home Affairs reportedly warned of possible attacks on prominent leaders in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka by cadres/sympathisers of the banned Popular Front of India. The alert coincided with the intensified security arrangements made at communally sensitive locations across Tamil Nadu as part of the Deepavali bandobust.

The police believe that Mubin and his associates had their plan and materials in place as they probably knew security would be intensified with vehicle checks and restricted night movements. The suspects only had to shift the explosive substances from Mubin’s house to the car.

Investigators believe that most of the potassium nitrate and sulphur seized were purchased online over a period of two years while some explosive materials were also procured from Kerala.

Senior police officials who visited the scene of the blast said the design of the car bomb appeared to be crude and believe that the suspects might have built it following YouTube videos.

Establishing terror links

The State Police have linked Mubin to Mohammed Azharuddin, a terror suspect arrested by the NIA under the UAPA and lodged in Viyyur central prison, Thrissur, Kerala. Azharuddin and his associates were allegedly staunch followers of Zahran Hashim, the brain behind the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

Police sources said Mubin was also Zahran’s Facebook friend. The investigators also found that Thalha is the son of Nawab Khan who is serving a prison term in connection with the 1998 bombings in Coimbatore. Khan’s brother, Al-Ummah founder S.A. Basha, is also serving a prison term for the blasts.

The car blast of October 23 triggered a political storm across Tamil Nadu as Opposition parties, mainly the AIADMK and the BJP, alleged intelligence failures as the reason for the incident. They also accused the government of handling the investigation without due seriousness.

Sources hinted at a possible failure of the Special Intelligence Cell, which is meant to monitor elements disturbing communal harmony and indulging in anti-national and terrorism-related activities. They added that the Cell could not keep radicalised youth like Mubin, whom the NIA had already questioned, under its watch.

The suspect was among those brought under the watch list of many agencies, including the Intelligence section of the Coimbatore City Police, the Special Division attached to the State Intelligence and the Special Investigation Division of the Crime Branch CID, which deal with cases relating to extremists.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin convened a high-level meeting of senior bureaucrats to review the progress in the case. Hours later, the police launched a crackdown on suspected Islamic State operatives and sympathisers across the State.

A dossier of suspects, who have come to the notice of law-enforcement agencies in the recent past for owing allegiance to banned fundamentalist organisations, was sent to all cities/districts.

Senior police officers were told to nominate one officer not below the rank of a Sub-Inspector of Police to closely monitor the activities of each of the suspects in their respective jurisdictions.

The police conducted searches at suspicious locations and looked for incriminating digital trails. The social media intelligence cell was tasked with conducting cyber patrolling on social media platforms with a focus on blocking communally provocative or sensitive content that could promote hatred and cause unrest.

“We are keeping a close watch on those delivering provocative speeches. Earlier, there would be gatherings at select places and it was easy for us to locate people who were indoctrinating the youth with jihadi ideology based on source information. Now organisers form groups and share videos, photos and literature via digital platforms,” a police officer said.

The State police have also written to jail authorities in Kerala and Karnataka requesting details of visitors who met NIA suspects lodged in central prisons there. They are also waiting for responses from e-commerce portals Amazon and Flipkart on the mode of payment used and the user account details of those who purchased explosive substances in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

People arrested in connection with the Coimbatore car blast case are brought to the Coimbatore Government Hospital for a medical examination on October 25, 2022.

People arrested in connection with the Coimbatore car blast case are brought to the Coimbatore Government Hospital for a medical examination on October 25, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

While intensifying their search for vehicles reported stolen in recent times, the police have brought scrap dealers and traders of segregated engines/spare parts under the scanner. The Tamil Nadu DGP said the car used in the recent explosion was sold by an agent dealing with condemned cars.

Storming operations are being conducted on remote or abandoned buildings on the outskirts of cities and towns. Police teams are verifying the sale of explosives from licenced stockists and checking their bank accounts to check suspicious entries.

Special teams of Tamil Nadu’s cyber wing are busy analysing the mobile phone records of Mubin and his associates. Since the target of the bomb attack is not clear, they are visiting the places the suspects visited in recent months.

Cyber forensic experts are examining whether any content was deleted from the storage devices seized in the case. They are also trying to retrieve the digital footprints of the suspects on different online platforms.

Heightened security arrangements with strict access control measures are in place at airports, seaports, vital installations, major railway stations, important places of worship, and districts such as Dindigul, Madurai, Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram, which have a history of communal violence.

On October 27, the NIA took over the investigation in the Coimbatore car blast case, a day after the State recommended the same.

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