New Delhi: In a major breakthrough, a key Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative Ajaz Sheikh, who used to send anonymous mails to media houses claiming responsibility after Jama Masjid and Varanasi blasts in 2010 has been arrested by Delhi Police.
Sheikh (27), who also used to provide logistical support during IM strikes, was arrested last night from outside Saharanpur Railway Station in western Uttar Pradesh by a team of Delhi Police's Special Cell following a specific tip off.
"A resident of Pune in Maharashtra, Sheikh was 'silent' India-based techie, logistics man and hawala router of the banned terrorist organisation.
"He had close links with IM founders Riyaz Bhatkal and Mohsin Chowdhary, who had fled to Pakistan after Batla House encounter. He is the brother-in-law of Chowdhary and directly took commands from these two from across the border," said S N Shrivastava, Special Commissioner (Special Cell) of Delhi Police.
In spite of busting of several IM modules and the recent arrests of Yasin Bhatkal, Tehsin Akhtar, Assadullah Akhtar alias Haddi, Waqas and others, a mystery that remained unsolved for security agencies was to find the identity of the person who had sent e-mails under the signatures of 'Al Arabi' claiming responsibility of Varanasi serial blasts and the Jama Masjid terror attacks.
All investigations into this aspect had consistently hit a dead end with the growing realisation among various security agencies that the perpetrator was "technically super-smart" and had practically left no trace of his identity while espousing the nefarious claims of IM.
"The arrest of Ajaz Sheikh has finally unravelled the mystery behind the claim made on behalf of IM after the infamous Jama Masjid terror strikes of 2010," Shrivastava said.
According to DCP (Special Cell) Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, even Yasin Bhatkal, who was heading the Indian operations of the outfit during those days, was not aware about the sender's identity. Sheikh used to get the drafts of these emails from Riyaz Bhatkal and Mohsin Chowdhary from Pakistan which he used to send to Indian media houses.
Besides sending e-mails, Sheikh used to provide logistics to the IM operatives in India and prepared fake identities required by them for procuring mobile SIM cards, collecting foreign money transfers, obtaining rooms on rent and even in getting enrolled in professional educational institutions as a cover, police said.
According to police, he was never present on the crime
scene during any of the attacks and always worked behind the scene and there were only three top IM operatives -- Yasin Bhatkal, Tehsin Akhtar alias Monu and Assadullah Akhtar alias Haddi -- had ever met him.
"This is the reason why his name never cropped up during interrogation of any IM operatives in the past and this is why his arrest is so important because he always remained underground and undisclosed," said another police official.
"The first task entrusted to Sheikh by his Pakistan-based handlers was to assist Yasin Bhatkal in the execution of the German Bakery blasts of February 2010," said Shrivastava.
In this strike, he facilitated in arranging a mobile handset, SIM card and the rented accommodation near Bharti Vidyapeeth, Pune, which were used by Yasin Bhatkal in fabricating the improvised explosive devices (IED) and executing the blasts.
Sheikh, working as backroom boy, also recceed the probable blast sites along with Yasin and was instrumental in the finalisation of German Bakery as it was considered to be of maximum impact potential in line with the objectives of IM.
"After the German Bakery blasts, Sheikh played the role of devils' messenger in Jama Masjid strikes of September 19, 2010. Using expert technological cover, he sent e-mails to various Indian media houses shortly after the strikes claiming the act to be of IM and as a revenge for Batla House encounter," said Shrivastava.
The draft of e-mail, which had been prepared by Riyaz Bhatkal and his associates in Pakistan, was received by Sheikh in advance of the strikes and, as directed by the seniors in IM, was mailed to Indian media houses after the strikes.
Extensive use of technical camouflaging was resorted to while sending the mail and therefore, even the best efforts of Indian security agencies had so far proved futile in tracking down this terror operative.
The successful experiment of Jama Masjid strikes was repeated in the attack at Sheetla Ghat in Varanasi of December 7, 2010. On this occasion again, it was Sheikh who had sent the e-mail espousing the claim of IM to media houses.
On this occasion too, the draft e-mail had been received by him ahead of the actual strike and higher technical finesse was shown in sending the e-mail by using an open Wi-Fi network in Mumbai for the same which left no trace of the identity of the network user.
Sheikh had now become a favourite with the IM and his
reputation in the hierarchy as the next Mansoor Ali Peerbhoy - another tech savvy operative - currently in jail) increased manifold.
"The status of Ajaz in the IM hierarchy can be gauged from the fact that all the above named top terrorists had only one colleague-contact whom they used to physically meet on occasions for their various needs and who was otherwise leading a perfectly normal city-going life of a BPO employee, married and family oriented," said Shrivastava.
The Special Cell had arrested 10 terrorists, including Qateel Siddiqui for their involvement in Jama Masjid strike cases in the last several years.
Years of painstaking collation of data led the team to some suspected identities, who, though working directly under the command of its Pakistan-based Bhatkal brothers, were otherwise apparently 'unknown' to the so far arrested Indian as well as Pakistani operatives, police said.
The efforts bore fruit yesterday when a tip off was received that one suspected IM operative, who is closely linked to absconding Riyaz Bhatkal and Mohsin Chowdhary, would be arriving in Saharanpur in UP, following which a trap was laid and he was nabbed last night from Saharanpur Railway Station when he deboarded a train coming from Moradabad.
Police is investigating the reason for his visit to Saharanpur. During his search, electronic devices, such as, pen drives, SIM cards, mobile phones, data cards etc have been recovered.
"During his preliminary interrogation, Sheikh has disclosed that it was his close association with absconding terrorist Mohsin Chowdhary, who happens to be a cousin as well as real brother-in-law of the accused, had led to his joining the IM," said Shrivastava.
After the Batla House encounter of 2008, when IM
operatives were being arrested in various states, Mohsin Chowdhary disappeared along with Riyaz and Iqbal, the Bhatkal brothers and some IM members of the Azamgarh module.
They eventually reached Pakistan where they were provided with safe haven and since then, activities of IM are being orchestrated from this foreign land under the patronage of ISI, police said.
Sheikh, then a young member of IM, stayed back in India on directions of Chowdhary and Riyaz, who wanted to have undercover and unexposed contacts back at home who could be utilised to further the objectives of their terrorist organisation.
He was told to master the use of computers and get tech-savvy while pursuing an apparently normal life.
"Although he had already undergone a diploma course in hardware, networking and Linux operation, soon got himself thoroughly acquainted with the latest in Information and Communications Technology and simultaneously started working in a BPO firm at Pune to maintain his cover of a normal lifestyle," said Shrivastava.
It was decided by the IM top leaders that Sheikh should be used exclusively as the logistics provider for IM operatives in India and his skills at Adobe Photoshop/Corel Draw/Microsoft Paint applications was to be used in preparing fake identities, he said.
The arrest of Yasin Bhatkal last year had unsettled Sheikh and when Maharashtra Police had taken Yasin to Mumbai and Pune for the investigations of the cases registered there, he had got restless as he feared that Yasin could spill the beans and disclose his identity.
Fearing arrest he left Pune and sought refuge in Nepal. He used to frequently change his hideout.
Shrivastava said accused Sheikh has been arrested in case FIR No. 54/11 of police station Special Cell and his police custody remand is being requested from the court to further proceed with the investigation.