A senior Indian police officer and anti-corruption investigator last month accused the Indian government of orchestrating the Mumbai terror attacks which occurred nearly seven years ago, according to an Indian government official.
R. V. S. Mani, a former undersecretary in India’s home ministry now in the urban development ministry, testified in July that a senior police officer who investigated the 2004 ‘encounter killings’ of four Indian Muslims in Gujarat by the Ahmedabad Police Crime Branch, had told him that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were “set up” by the Indian government.
The police officer, Satish Verma — currently Principal at the Police Training College in Junagadh — is well-known for his secondment to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s elite anti-corruption law enforcement agency, to lead the probe into the 2004 ‘encounter killings.’
The 2004 victims were Ishrat Jahan Raza, a 19-year-old girl from Mumbra, Maharashtra, and three men — Pranesh Pillai (alias Javed Gulam Sheikh), Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar. Gujarat police authorities with the support of Indian government officials claimed that the killings were justified due to credible intelligence linking the four to Islamist terrorists.
Anti-corruption investigator blames government for terror
According to Mani, who has signed affidavits submitted to court on the encounter killings, Satish Verma privately accused successive Indian governments of “orchestrating” not only the Mumbai terror attacks, but also the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi.
Verma made the allegations while questioning Mani on Indian government claims that intelligence proved Ishrat Jahan’s links to Islamist terrorists. According to the Times of India, the former home ministry official revealed in his affidavits that Verma had said the terror attacks were set up by the government “with the objective of strengthening the counter-terror legislation.”
Verma allegedly claimed that:
“… the 13.12. 2001 (attack on Parliament) was followed by Pota (Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act) and 26/11 2008 (terrorists’ siege of Mumbai) was followed by amendment to the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act).”
According to the Times, Verma refused to confirm or deny Mani’s account of his allegations. “I cannot speak to the media on such matters. Ask the CBI,” he said.
Neither Verma or Mani could be reached for comment.
The allegations have been used by the Indian government to cast doubt on Verma’s role in the CBI investigation
This is not the first time that the Indian government has attempted to use Verma’s work against him. In April last year, Verma complained before India’s Central Administrative Tribune that he was a target of government harassment due to its “intense dislike” of his work investigating the Israt Jahan fake encounter case, and the Gujarat government’s role in it.
Staged counter-terror operation
All three incidents — the 2001 attack on Parliament, 2004 ‘encounter killings’ and the 2011 Mumbai attacks — have been linked to terrorists from the al-Qaeda affiliated Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which also has close ties to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
The CBI’s investigation into the controversial 2004 ‘encounter killings’ found that they had been “staged” by Gujarat police forces, concluding there was no evidence justifying claims that Ishrat Jahan and her fellow victims were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The verdict, outlined in the CBI’s 2013 chargesheet, stated that the police attacks were carried out in cold blood, and “staged” by Gujarat police and the government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB):
“The abovesaid fake encounter was a result of Joint operation of Gujarat Police and SIB [State Intelligence Bureau], Ahmedabad. In this operation the overt acts committed by the accused Gujarat Police officers have been established by the evidence on record.”
The CBI chargesheet corroborated the conclusions of an earlier investigation by an Ahmedabad Metropolitan court, which in 2009 had determined the killings were staged Gujarat intelligence and police officials.
Gujarat authorities claim that IB intelligence showed that Ishrat and the other men were planning to assassinate Modi on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But according to the CBI probe, “the four people were illegally confined at three different farmhouses for days before the encounter on June 15, 2004.” India’s NDTV reported that the CBI probe had confirmed that weapons found near their bodies, including an AK-56, “were supplied by the Intelligence Bureau.”
India’s Intelligence Bureau: creating terror to fight terror
The Indian state of Gujarat, where incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi was chief minister during this period, is home to a sizeable Muslim minority.
Reviewing the CBI chargesheet and related evidence, Indian journalists Hartosh Singh Bal and Mihir Srivastava noted that the CBI probe had confirmed the role of senior Indian IB officials, “including at least in one case the then IB head in Gujarat, Rajinder Kumar,” who is close to Narenda Modi.
Bal and Srivastava interviewed several senior IB officials who confirmed that “the Ishrat Jahan case was a successful IB operation,” but denied that the encounter victims were disassociated from terrorism.
“The encounter was fake no doubt, according to them, but the information that Ishrat and the other three were part of a larger terror network was true. They went on to say that this was a successful intelligence operation, as the IB was able to infiltrate their sleeper cell and plant informers.”
Bal and Srivastava’s account of one of these interviews provides further alarming evidence of the extent to which counter-terrorism intelligence operations can facilitate terrorism. One high-level Intelligence Bureau executive told the pair:
“… there are hundreds of operations underway at any point of time where an informer has been planted in a sleeper network. This involves being in the company of drug and arms dealers, fake currency smugglers, explosive experts and contract killers. Some operations involve working with the mafia and dealing in and supplying arms. There are safe houses in which certain terrorists are kept, briefed and debriefed, then pushed back into the terror network to extricate information.”
In one particularly alarming passage, the journalists recount that IB officials confirm about 5,000 telephone numbers are being monitored in Delhi. On “special occasions” Indian intelligence services make bespoke IB simcards “available to terror networks and sleeper cells to monitor their activities…
“There have been a few cases where attacks were carried out by terrorists using IB simcards. ‘If these cases were to be investigated, the CBI would say the IB carried out terror attacks. We have a job at hand,’ says the IB official.”
In this context, the revelation that CBI Israt Jahan probe member Satish Verma reportedly accuses the Indian government of facilitating other terrorist attacks linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba raises fundamental questions about the extent to which the lack of democratic oversight over intelligence methods is compromising national security.
The triple cross behind the Mumbai atrocity
Those questions are also relevant in light of the fact that alleged Mumbai attack terror mastermind, David Coleman Headley, was a longtime CIA asset and triple agent.
A previous Times of India investigation in late 2013 found that Headley, who had worked for the CIA for eleven years, had penetrated Lashkar-e-Taiba on behalf of the US intelligence agency and collaborated closely with senior Pakistani ISI officials in planning the Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people and wounded 304.
Senior intelligence officials from a US Joint Terrorism Task Force described Headley as a “prized counter-terrorism asset,” whose “proximity” to the attack plans allowed the CIA to repeatedly tip off their Indian counterparts. But, the report revealed, despite his instrumental role in creating and executing those plans, Headley “was allowed to remain in place even as the attack was realized.”
A US intelligence official with expertise on Afghanistan and Pakistan denied that Headley was ever connected to the CIA on condition of anonymity.
Yet Headley’s intimate ties to the US intelligence community emerged in the 2011 Chicago terror trial of Headley’s alleged co-conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Tahawwur Rana, during which Rana’s attorney Charlie Swift described Headley as a “master manipulator” who worked simultaneously for the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA), the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI.
Those allegations raised in court were vindicated when Swift obtained a ‘not guilty’ verdict for Rana for the Mumbai attacks, although Rana was instead convicted of providing support to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
According to the Times of India investigation by British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, the Americans wanted to keep Headley running due to how he had gained the trust of a senior al-Qaeda operative, who was close to Osama bin Laden and among the al-Qaeda chief’s potential successors:
“Indian intelligence agents accused their US counterparts of protecting Headley and leaving him in the field, despite the imminent threat to Mumbai. Irate Indian officials claimed that Headley’s Mumbai plot was allowed to run on by his US controllers, as to spool it in would have jeopardized his involvement in another critical US operation.”
The CIA, on the other hand, pointed the finger straight back at India. One senior CIA official accused Indian intelligence of “incompetence” for failing to act on the US agency’s multiple detailed warnings of an impending Islamist assault on Mumbai.
Although many of the US bulletins even reached police authorities patrolling Mumbai, the intelligence warnings were “ignored or downplayed” by Indian officials according to the Times.
Ironically, both the CIA and Indian accusations and counter-accusations all appear to bear significant merit. US officials have maintained a studious silence on David Headley and his CIA patronage to this day, refusing to throw light on the conflict of interest that enabled the Mumbai terror mastermind to “run amok in the field,” in the words of the Times.
Simultaneously, the lack of an in-depth Indian government postmortem into the Mumbai attacks has permitted Indian intelligence agencies to evade awkward questions about their failure to pursue the CIA’s leads on the unfolding plot.
It is not just the Pakistani ISI, then, that has scrambled to cover-up its complicity in the Mumbai attacks. American and Indian intelligence agencies are also busy playing the blame game while maneuvering to conceal their own dubious roles in running ill-conceived intelligence operations enabling the terror attacks.
When under interrogation by Indian police, Headley was under the supervision of FBI officials at all times. Under his plea bargain with US authorities, he agreed to say no more than what he first confessed to the FBI, and in return will avoid the death penalty in the US, as well as extradition to India or Pakistan.
Confidential Indian intelligence records show that Headley had three local contacts on the ground in Mumbai who assisted him with his surveillance and reconnaissance activities in preparation for the terror plot. Yet for reasons unknown, Indian authorities chose not to investigate Headley’s local connections as identified in these files.
Even Headley’s alleged Pakistani handler, ISI officer Sajid Mir (also known as Sajeed Majeed) who played a major role in the Mumbai attacks, continues to operate with impunity.
This has not stopped US and Indian intelligence agencies from giving each other a helping hand where it counts, while still pointing fingers.
Under US supervision and constrained by the terms of his plea bargain, Headley told Indian intelligence officers who had flown to Chicago in July 2010 that Israt Jahan was a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s suicide bomb squad.
Yet Headley’s reconnaissance missions for Lashkar began two years after Jahan and three other men were killed in the ‘fake encounter’, staged by Indian authorities according to a CBI investigation.
Headley’s claim was leapt on by Gujarat authorities to justify their story of the 2004 encounter killings.
Both US and Indian authorities, it seems, are keen to discredit the shocking conclusions of the CBI’s anti-corruption investigators.