How the Lashkar planned Mumbai massacre

Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI, Feb 28 : Sahil Pavaskar used to leave home early and return late, and appeared to have no friends or family — in other words, leading a colourless life exactly like those of hundreds of thousands of young migrants to Mumbai.

Pavaskar’s neighbours found that the young man, who had rented a one-room tenement at 98-B Batatawala Chawl on Patthe Bapurao Marg, did not encourage casual conversation. Staff at Soft Pro computers in Mumbai’s Fort area, where he attended computer classes, thought he had moved from New Delhi in search of work.

But police in several States, who had reason to get to know Pavaskar better, found he was in fact Fahim Arshad Ansari — a print worker who went on to become one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s key covert operatives in India.

Prosecutors have now charged Ansari and Uttar Pradesh resident Sabahuddin Ahmad with preparing the maps and videotapes that guided the Lashkar’s fidayeen to their targets in Mumbai — the first official assertion that Indians participated in the conspiracy.

Born in 1973, Ansari grew up in Mumbai’s Malad area. His parents, Mohammad Yusuf Ansari and Saleha Ansari, had migrated to the city from Uttar Pradesh. The youngest of nine siblings, Ansari passed out of the Malad Municipal Secondary School in 1989, and began to work in the family’s paper-making business at Goregaon — a business that is still run by his eldest brother, Abu Bakr Ansari.

Later, he married Yasmin Ansari, a resident of the Mominpura area — the neighbourhood where, by a quirk of fate, the founders of the Lashkar’s Indian operations first met way back in 1985.

From his teen years, Ansari had shown a deep fascination for jihadists. Osama bin Laden, he told co-workers at the Dubai printing press where he worked in 2005, was his role model. Early next year, he made contact with the Lashkar — the organisation whose theological beliefs mirrored his own faith in the neo-conservative Ahl-e-Hadis sect — and volunteered for service.

Ansari, investigators say, arrived at the Bait ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar’s headquarters in Muzaffarabad, in February 2007. During the 10 months he was to spend at Lashkar camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Ansari allegedly completed several military and intelligence training courses.

Before returning to India, the Mumbai police say, Ansari was called for a meeting with a Lashkar commander still known only by the code-name Abu Kahafa — the same man who, arrested terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir claims, briefed the fidayeen unit on its attack plans. Ansari was shown Google Earth maps of Mumbai, and asked to mark key locations, including several later attacked by the Lashkar’s fidayeen unit — among them, Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, the Taj Mahal Hotel, and the Colaba area in south Mumbai, where Nariman House in located.

In November 2007, Ansari flew to Kathmandu on a legitimate Pakistani passport identifying him as Hammad Hussain, and then travelled on to Mumbai. Back home, Ansari busied himself videotaping landmarks in south Mumbai.

Sabahuddin’s role The prosecutors say Ansari passed on this material to Sabahuddin Ahmad, alleged to be a ranking Lashkar commander. Ahmad, in turn, passed it on to top Lashkar leader Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, through a Pakistan-based commander known only by the code-names ‘Yusuf’ and ‘Muzammil.’ Both men were reported to have been arrested by Pakistani authorities, but have yet to be charged.

Sabahuddin’s links to the Lashkar, police sources allege, date back to 2001, when he was recruited by the Uttar Pradesh-based Islamist cleric, Mohammad Zubair — an enigmatic figure who was killed by the Jammu and Kashmir police in 2006. He dropped out of Aligarh Muslim University the following year, and is alleged to have trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan until mid-2005. Travelling, like Ansari, through Kathmandu on a Pakistani passport, Sabahuddin set up home in Bangalore.

In December 2005, Sabahuddin and a still unidentified Lashkar fidayeen code-named ‘Hamza’ are alleged to have staged an attack on an Indian Institute of Science convention. Later, on January 1, 2008, he allegedly drew on the experience to stage a murderous assault on a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

No material evidence exists to show that the tapes and photographs made by Ansari — who is separately being tried for his alleged attempt to attack the BSE — were the same used to brief the fidayeen unit. Pakistani investigators, who can settle the issue, have not been forthcoming. Interestingly, Pakistan has not sought information on Ansari and Sabahuddin — even though it has made references to the involvement of Indian nationals in the attack.

The Maharashtra prosecutors intended, instead, to rely on less conclusive evidence — among it, Amir’s testimony. Questioned on the reliability of the maps by the fidayeen unit, the police claim that Amir told them that Abu Kafaha said they had been prepared by Ansari. Lakhvi, the charge sheet states, later made the same claim.

The prosecutors may also introduce expert testimony to demonstrate that a map found on the body of a killed terrorist known by the code-name Abu Ismail was drawn in Ansari’s hand.