How the NIA thwarted a 26/11-like attack by ISI agents

terroristA 26/11-like attack was in the making, but this time, from the east coast. That is how National Investigation Agency (NIA) Director-General Sharad Kumar sums up the agency’s exhaustive nearly two-year investigation into what it says was a massive terror plot against India by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

This time, the NIA says, it was coordinated from the Sri Lankan soil. Similarities are glaring between the events that investigations revealed preceded the November 2008 Mumbai attack and those in the latest case, says the top terror probe agency.

Major Iqbal and Major Sameer Ali of the ISI, according to an NIA investigation into the 26/11 case, plotted the strikes on Mumbai by sending in a US citizen to India for reconnaissance of targets in Mumbai and later sent in a group of terrorists by sea to India’s financial hub on the west coast. India could not catch David Coleman Headley, the American who was later arrested by the US and is currently in a jail there. The two Pakistani officers remain just names with India not having any further clue of their identity or photographs.

The NIA says it has much more evidence to pin down the conspirators in the latest plot. The agency has even a photo of the alleged mastermind, Amir Zubair Siddique, who was a counsellor (visa) at Pakistan’s High Commission in Colombo.

He directed a network of spies of Sri Lankan and Indian origin to recce nearly 20 sensitive installations in South India, including the American Consulate in Chennai and Israeli Consulate in Bengaluru, it says.

India arrested three people – Sri Lankan businessmen Muhammed Sakir Hussaien and Arun Selvarajan and an Indian named Thameem Ansari, who the NIA says were deployed by Siddique to survey the locations. “Our agencies caught them at the right time and neutralised the plot.

A major attack was averted,” the NIA chief told ET, sitting at his 7th floor office in central Delhi.

ARGO-STYLE COVER
Combined reading of two charge-sheets filed by the NIA, in last October and this March, paint a horrifying plot. Siddique, says the agency, was planning to send explosives from Mannar in Sri Lanka to between Rameswaram and Tuticorin in India by a rowing boat.

This was to be followed up by two Pakistanis being sent from Colombo to Bengaluru via Maldives on Sri Lankan passports to carry out terror attacks, specifically on the American Consulate. Hussaien was told by his Pakistani handlers that the plot of planting bombs in American Consulate, Chennai, was codenamed ‘Wedding Project’ and ‘Wedding Hall’ was the US Consulate (target).

The terrorists will be “cooks” and the “bomb devices” they are carrying, “spice contents”, the NIA charge-sheet says. There was a meeting between two Pakistani terrorists and one of the spies, Hussaien, in Bangkok in 2013, the NIA claims.  The spies had specific tasks. Thameem Ansari was asked to use an Argo-style cover of posing as a film-maker working on a documentary titled ‘Power of India’ on the Indian armed forces and befriend army and navy officers, to get details on India’s nuclear-submarine base ‘Project Varsha’.

Selvarajan joined an event management company which works for the armed forces to get entry to sensitive installations like the Chennai Port.

On July 6, 2012, Selvarajan managed to film the Vessel Traffic Management System Tower at the Chennai Port, the NIA said.”It was a very clever strategy,” the NIA chief says. Pakistan’s High Commission in Colombo didn’t respond to an email from ET seeking comment.

LURING THE BAIT

To get the three to work against India, Siddique used the old ploy of espionage: target their financial condition and promise a fortune. Tamil Nadu businessman Ansari was lured into the plot after his onion export business to Sri Lanka flopped – the NIA says Siddique’s Sri Lankan associates ensured this – and he sunk into heavy debt.

“Siddique assured of bailing him out from his financial crisis if he listened to his terms. Siddique highlighted to him about the plight of Muslims in India and asked him to do a favour as he was also a Muslim,” the NIA charge-sheet says. Selvarajan also took similar bait during a financial crunch, says the agency. Selvarajan, unknowingly, did Indian agencies a favour, too.

He recorded all conversations with his Pakistani handlers, and especially Siddique’s No. 2 at the High Commission, Vineeth alias Rana. The NIA has recovered these micro cassettes from Selvarajan.

This evidence could be used by India to seek voice samples from Pakistan of its two officers in question,home ministry officials say.

“The Sri Lankan spy, Muhammed Sakir Hussaien, admitted all his guilt before a Judge on November 28 last year and has been convicted,” NIA chief Kumar said. “For the first time, we now have a judicial pronouncement on the plot.”

PROBE STUCK

Despite the relative successes, the NIA probe against Siddiqui is now stuck. The Sri Lanka Attorney General has been sitting on India’s request for months to allow an NIA team to visit Sri Lanka for collecting evidence against the Pakistani official, who has since returned to Pakistan. “The previous Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka was dead against our request … we expect the new government to move on it soon.

Sri Lanka has to realise that rising Jihadi intrusion in northern Sri Lanka and influence of Pakistan in those areas could adversely impact Sri Lanka too,” a senior home ministry official told ET. It is unclear what help Colombo could extend to India to probe Siddique’s activities since he probably had diplomatic immunity in Sri Lanka.

The NIA is even more desperate to go to Sri Lanka in order to get to Mohamed Sulaiman, a Sri Lankan who was arrested in Malaysia a few months ago and deported to Sri Lanka. Sulaiman, who operated out of Bangkok, was to join two Pakistani terrorists in attacks on the American and Israeli Consulates, says the NIA. India has been seeking his custody, so far in vein.

“It is up to Sri Lanka to walk the talk in this entire matter,” a top home ministry official said. It is a long battle against Pakistan-sponsored terror plots, says the NIA chief. “They (Pakistan) will keep on doing this … they will try and infiltrate and we have to stop them … it is a long battle.” (Economic Times)

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