What’s In The Briefcase...
- The investigating agencies have, till going to press, not zeroed in on any terror group
- HuJI, Indian Mujahideen separately claim responsibility. Investigators suspect this could be a smokescreen.
- PETN, ammonium nitrate, TNT used in briefcase bomb
- Preliminary investigations suggest one terrorist had queued up for an entry pass. The idea was to plant the bomb inside the court premises and not at the reception.
- Queue was too long so briefcase left near reception
On a normal day, the traffic on Shershah Road nudging past the Delhi High Court has an orderly madness to it. Traffic cops on duty blow an ear-piercing whistle to bring errant drivers to heel, lawyers in black robes dodge past cars moving at a pace that could easily be bested by the proverbial snail. That’s on a normal working day of the court. On a balmy September Wednesday, the entrance to the high court witnessed another species of madness, one that brought the traffic to a shattering halt.
A deadly cocktail of chemical explosives in a briefcase—its core formed by one going by the acronym PETN (pentaerythritol trinitrate)—was set off by timer at 10.14 am. Left at the reception counter near gate no. 5, on the day of the week when the court hears public interest litigations (PILs) and people queue up for entry passes, the bomb sent a shattering message of how vulnerable our security and lives are. At the time of writing, the toll was: 13 lives, 76 injured, some maimed for life.
Terror Has Company
|February 13 2010: Pune: German Bakery blast near Osho ashram; 17 dead.||April 17, 2010: Bangalore: Blast outside Chinnaswamy stadium; 8 injured.|
|September 19, 2010: Delhi: Blast near Jama Masjid but no casualties reported.||December 7, 2010: Varanasi: Blast in temple kills little girl; IM says we did it.|
|July 13, 2011: Mumbai: Strike at Opera House, Zaveri Bazaar, Dadar kill 21.||May 25, 2011: Delhi: IED outside high court destroys car but no casualties.|
But the casualties could have been higher. According to investigators, preliminary findings show that those who planted the bomb may have had a larger, more impactful plot in mind. Security agencies, including the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the dedicated anti-terror agency formed in 2008, believe the bombers had a definite plan to actually enter the premises of the Delhi High Court. An NSG official, part of the investigation team, told Outlook, “One of the suspects was trying to get a pass to enter the court premises. We suspect the plan was to leave the briefcase inside. That would have had a much bigger impact.” According to him, the queue for the entry pass was too long and was taking too long, which is why the terrorists left the bomb in the reception area and hurried off. The explosives used and elements found at the blast site were analysed by the NSG to get a fix on the bomb’s signature. “PETN, an Al Qaeda trademark, was mixed with ammonium nitrate and tnt in the bomb,” says the NSG official.
Then, other signatures popped up. First, an e-mail signed ‘Harkat-ul Jehadi’—thought to be none other than HuJI, though some had doubts—claimed responsibility for the attack. Later, separately, the Indian Mujahideen did the same (see box). The Harkat mail has been traced to a cyber cafe in Kishtwar, J&K; a few people have been taken for questioning.
Despite the nomenclature problem, security experts say a HuJI hand is a distinct possibility. Former BSF DG Ajay Raj Sharma says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the handiwork of HuJI. Inputs from intelligence agencies in the past have indicated that HuJI is active...and they are backed by Al Qaeda, which also uses PETN.”
The blast occurs at a time when the capital was on high alert, with intel that Delhi was high on the terror radar. The cops were supposed to be on a vigil in high security zones. But as Wednesday, September 7, showed, the capital is still vulnerable. It’s a familiar litany of lapses: red-tapism, lack of a seamless integration of intelligence and policing. After the abortive attack on May 25—a minor blast barely metres from the site of the present one—CCTV cameras were to be installed. They are still to go up, a costly flaw at a known target. But forget post-facto evidence collection. If the home ministry is to be believed, an intelligence tipoff was passed on to Delhi police but it had no bearing on the turn of events. As for the bombers, they seem to have learnt their lessons from the ‘dry run’ of May. The explosive mix used on Wednesday was not only waterproof, it was oriented for maximum impact. A cellphone was used to detonate the bomb with an in-built timer in a box. The use of a cellphone meant that in the event of an explosion it would melt, leaving virtually no trail.
All that would be left is broken pieces of human lives, uncomprehending of the pain of loss. Leaning into a hollow in the wall at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, a woman in a burkha cried inconsolably. “Bas karo,” she said to the prodding mikes and TV cameras. Mumtaz, a resident of Kale Mahal in Old Delhi, had not yet steeled her nerves enough to view the body of her 85-year-old father, Nizamuddin. Her mother was more dazed than anguished. A phone call at 10.30 am had changed the course of their lives forever. Nizamuddin had been a munshi in the Meerut court. He had come to Delhi the day before for a family litigation. He was standing in the queue to get entry passes to the court when the bomb exploded.
S.P. Yadav, an advocate at the Tis Hazari courts, said little. He had lost a diligent assistant, 21-year-old Amanpreet Singh Jolly. “He was studying law and used to assist me in court sometimes. We used to live close by and he was like family,” he says. Yadav’s calm soon gives way to anger. “What security does the public have? Hazar log wahan pass banwane ke liye khade hote hai, lekin unke liye do guard bhi nahi (A thousand people queue up to get their passes and there are not even two cops to guard them). He was just waiting for a pass, and now here’s his dead body.” Yadav had got a phone call from a fellow lawyer when Amanpreet could not be contacted on his mobile after the blast. He rushed to the hospital, but it was too late.
It all comes back to our post-blast investigations. After the 26/11 Mumbai attack in 2008, seven more have followed. The NIA has taken over investigations in all the cases but none have been conclusively solved although several arrests have been made. With investigations leading nowhere, the anger and frustration of the victims’ families is apparent. At the R.M.L. Hospital where the seriously wounded were taken, a stream of high-profile vip visitors filed in. Rahul Gandhi, Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, PM Manmohan Singh, they were all heckled by a frustrated, unforgiving public.
In the aftermath of the attack, several questions have surfaced not only about the timing but also about the location. Why was the high court chosen? Targeting the Ramlila grounds at the height of the anti-corruption agitation, when thousands were milling around, would have been easy. But it would have generated a huge backlash. There are reasons to believe that future terror strikes will be at urban spaces—and high-profile ones at that. Small attacks at periodic intervals which give maximum mileage while also keeping the government on tenterhooks appears to be the strategy of the terror players for now.
By Anuradha Raman, Chandrani Banerjee and Arpita Basu