The parking lot at the Gateway of India might be cleared of bloodstains and the gold and diamond shops near Zaveri Bazaar might be back in business, but as India's most resilient city recoups from the horror of Black Monday, the prognosis is chilling. The twin bombings, which killed 52 people and left 178 wounded in the most destructive attack since the serial bomb blasts of a decade ago, are unlikely to be the last.
As an expert in terror surveillance, IB's former deputy director A.V. Karnik voices what the city's cops privately admit. "This is certainly not the last blast. They are set to continue," he says, adding, "Mumbai is becoming a target for a network of terrorist groups since they have tasted success here."
The police have been uncharacteristically restrained about naming the groups responsible for the attack. Logic and evidence point to the same terrorist outfits that orchestrated the commuter bombings in the city over the past few months: the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba acting through local operatives of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). But the police say the latest strike could have been planned by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. And among the key local suspects this time is Taherali Nissar Ahmad alias Janab closely associated with Dr Jalees Ahmad Ansari who had orchestrated a series of train blasts in the city after the demolition of Babri Masjid. In recent years, Janab, police say, had been involved in training SIMI members.
"This may not be the work of a single group. They have clearly been coordinating and stepping up the attacks. This means we can expect something bigger. The blasts earlier this year were like test runs," says M.P. Choudhary, an expert in improvised explosives devices and former commando trainer. According to him, the rdx content in the bombs, the same explosive used in the 1993 serial blasts, is proof of the involvement of groups outside India since the explosive is not freely available here.
The Monday bombings were the sixth in a series of explosions in the city in less than nine months. Since December 2, 2002, 16 people have been killed and 192 injured by explosives strategically placed in crowded buses and trains in suburbs dominated by the Gujarati community. But the latest and most horrific chapter in the terror script brought fear to Mumbai's very heart.
For all their famed investigative skills, the Mumbai police were caught totally off-guard. Ironically, most of the senior cops were discussing security arrangements for the upcoming Ganapati festival a short distance from the Gateway when the bombs went off. Its image already tarnished by a slew of corruption charges, the city police now faces its worst credibility crisis.
As charges of massive intelligence failure make the rounds, the cops admit their systems are hopelessly inadequate to deal with the "new face of terrorism". Most of the police network leans heavily on the IB for tip-offs. It's own surveillance branches are considered "punishment postings where you can't make money".
And even today the city police are geared to keep tabs on the mafia rather than terrorist groups.
Just how lax the systems are came out in a stunning interrogation of those arrested for the previous blasts. This January, after the grisly cycle of explosions had already begun, the mastermind of the attacks actually managed to enter the state secretariat and walk undetected through its corridors. The Lashkar leader for south India, Abu Sultan, surveyed the building's layout and left unnoticed, one of the accused told interrogators. He also revealed that a detailed plan to bomb the Gateway had been put in place for December 31, 2002, but the plan did not go through.
It's also incredible how the terror network behind the bus and train blasts managed to coordinate and operate without being noticed. Investigations have now revealed that Abu Sultan was apparently holed up in different locations in Kalyan, near Mumbai, for several months before the first explosion. The Lashkar leader, in tandem with isi operatives Abu Hamza and Imran Vasai as well as key SIMI leader Saquib Nachen, planned the whole operation. SIMI modules reported to Nachen but worked virtually independently of each other. And several training camps were held in the SIMI stronghold of Padgha near Mumbai last year, unnoticed by the police.
What makes surveillance all the more crucial at this time is the heightened interest of Pakistan-based terrorist groups in Mumbai. Although they have always maintained some contact with the metro's lucrative hawala network, the past few years have seen a keener infiltration in areas around the city. In November 2000, four Lashkar operatives, armed with AK-56 rifles and hand grenades, were arrested in Thane. Six months later, a group of Hizbul Mujahideen operatives were also picked up from Thane with a cache of weapons. And in March this year, three Lashkar members, including Abu Sultan, were shot dead in a police encounter in a Mumbai suburb.
But the police defend themselves against charges of intelligence failure. "We're dealing with an endless pool of jehadi terrorists and they are getting more sophisticated," says joint police commissioner (crime) Satyapal Singh. "How do you keep tabs on young, educated people with no previous criminal record?", asks additional commissioner of police Rakesh Maria, an officer who probed the serial blasts of 1993 as well as the recent spate of explosions. He says that SIMI modules communicated secretly, mainly through e-mail. Although the group went underground after it was banned two years ago, the network is active and has strong bases in Maharashtra. The police did arrest the main SIMI operatives since the blasts began last year but new modules and faces have kept the terror network going.
It's becoming clear that terrorism in Mumbai is now a cottage industry, with several small groups of young men and women, fearfully motivated riot victims and highly educated sympathisers waging a brutal war to avenge recent wrongs against their community. Most SIMI sympathisers belong to this strata: doctors, engineers, even mbas. Unlike those who orchestrated the '93 serial blasts, the new cadre are not drawn from the underworld.
Historically, the deepening communal divide in Mumbai has fuelled such fundamentalism. The man behind one of the city's longest spate of bombings, Jalees Ahmad Ansari, turned to terror in response to what he saw as growing intolerance towards Muslims in the city.The Bhiwandi riots in 1985 and then the Babri Masjid demolition pushed him further towards the Islamic Right. After the Mumbai riots, the former doctor, who had graduated from Sion Medical College in Mumbai, engineered a series of 43 explosions in city's local trains.
Zaveri Bazaar, soon after the blast: picking up the pieces
Against this backdrop, the idea that Mumbai is being targeted as a reprisal to the Gujarat riots might not be too far-fetched. "Everybody is criticising the police and me but it's time people begin to understand that till the Centre solves the basic communal problems facing the country, such blasts will keep happening," says the state's controversial home minister, Chhagan Bhujbal. And though Muslims too succumbed to the spate of violence in recent months, the bombs were placed strategically in Gujarati Hindu-dominated localities: Ghatkopar, Vile Parle, Zaveri Bazaar.
"Reprisal attacks in Mumbai make headlines worldwide, so terrorist groups get instant mileage by destabilising the city," says Maharashtra's former director-general of police Arvind Inamdar. Besides, the cloak of anonymity that Mumbai offers also makes it an easier target. "Criminals can just enter the city and melt into the local populace. It becomes difficult to trace them," says Satyapal Singh.
But as the city passes through its most insecure phase in recent times, the image of the Mumbai police takes its worst-ever beating. Under Bhujbal, the home department has been rocked by cash-for-transfer scandals. Matters have come to such a head that the state ips officers' association passed a resolution a few months ago against the rampant "dalalgiri" in the force. Dark rumours abound about the police commissioner's post being auctioned to the highest bidder. "If the police are obsessed with making money and holding on to their chair, then how much time can they dedicate to policing?" fulminates former city police commissioner Julio Ribeiro.
In such a situation, intelligence gathering by police stations suffers the most. "Constables at police stations are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the police. They are supposed to mingle with people and have their ear to the ground. If they stop doing that, we lose a valuable resource," says Ribeiro.
The police force is also paying for the sad neglect of detection work. Many a criminal escapes conviction because of poor evidence. In a recent judgement in the plot-to-assassinate-L.K.Advani case, a sessions court judge while acquitting the accused, noted, among other severe statements, that the investigation was "shabby" and, "the contradiction and inconsistency about information in the fir and information in the remand application made on the very same day is evident on the face of record".
Politically, the reign of terror in the city is bound to impact the Democratic Front government. Its leadership already riddled with scams, corruption charges and allegations for financial mismanagement, the terrorist strikes are a blot it cannot ignore. After the last cycle of terror a decade ago, the Congress suffered its most humiliating defeat in Maharashtra. That's something the resurgent saffron alliance is going to bank on in the run-up to next year's polls.
As for the police, to regain its credibility, it has to nab those responsible for the blasts. Also, it has to beef up its intelligence gathering and policing to ensure that the city is not once again subjected to the nightmare of August 25.
By Priyanka Kakodkar, Manu Joseph and Saumya Roy