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How car thieves led Mumbai cop to Indian Mujahideen

TWO DAYS ago, a court in Gujarat sentenced 38 convicts to death for planning and perpetrating the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts. The explosions were allegedly carried out by Indian Mujahideen (IM), which was mostly a shadowy entity at the time — so much so that even central agencies such as Intelligence Bureau (IB), and (Research and Analysis Wing R&AW), had no clue about what it really was.

Until the case was cracked by a Mumbai Police officer, a Crime Branch veteran known for nabbing car thieves.

Now retired, Inspector Arun Chavan was put on the case by the then Crime Branch chief Rakesh Maria days after the blasts on July 26, 2008, after it came to light that the cars suspected to have been used in the attack had been stolen from Navi Bombay.

According to sources in Mumbai Police, Chavan apprehended two men who had stolen the vehicles within a month. The two told Chavan they stole the cars on instructions from a man identified as Afzal Usmani, sources said. Chavan nabbed Usmani from UP’s Mau district on August 24 that year.

“Until then, for all practical purposes, we were groping the dark… If it was not for that Inspector from Mumbai Crime Branch, we would not have known what IM was really,” said a former IB official, who held a senior position at the time and later tracked the new outfit before retiring from service.

In Ahmedabad, 22 blasts took place within 70 minutes at various locations, with explosives placed in buses, on parked bicycles and in cars, killing 56 people. It was the third city to be targeted in this manner that year, after Bengaluru just a day earlier and Jaipur in May.

“In fact, in the four years before the Ahmedabad blasts, when a series of blasts were taking place in different parts of the country, we were chasing Pakistan-backed operative Shahid Bilal. Until then, we believed that IM was just another name for LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba), and that Bilal had perpetrated the blasts. This was the information that even R&AW had at that time. But we learned later that Bilal had already died in Pakistan by then,” the retired official said.

When contacted by The Indian Express, Chavan said: “I am very happy that the effort we put in has eventually resulted in the case reaching the logical conclusion. Most big cases are actually solved through small breakthroughs.”

Sources said Chavan’s catch, Usmani, revealed during interrogation the names of other IM operatives, such as Riyaz Bhatkal, Sadiq Sheikh and Arif Badr. Once taken into custody by IB, sources said, he also gave information on a group of IM terrorists holed up in Delhi. “This led to the Batla House encounter in which IM operative Atif Amin and Delhi Police officer Mohan Chand Sharma were killed,” sources said.

“At first, Mumbai Police did not give Usmani to us. But when they were warned that there could be consequences as it was a matter of national security, they relented. When Usmani was being brought to Delhi, he gave us a number that was traced to Batla House,” the former IB official said.

After the first breakthrough, central agencies found that IM had been executing terror attacks since the early 2000s, and that their first major attack was the 2005 Sarojini Nagar blasts in Delhi. After the 2007 Varanasi blasts, the group started sending emails identifying themselves as IM. This was followed by the blasts in Jaipur and Ahmedabad.

“The intelligence set-up was so obsessed with Bilal and LeT at the time that even the Sarojini Nagar blasts were thought to be the handiwork of his network. Later, following the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, a set of LeT suspects was rounded up…Only after the IM operative was caught by Mumbai Police that it was revealed even those blasts were executed by them,” another IB official said.

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