He limits his mobile phone usage to a few seconds at a time and does not use email to communicate. He prefers to move addresses every few weeks, usually from one dark dingy room to another, away from urban areas likely to be under surveillance.
He talks to only a chosen few. He is not known to take time off from his preferred pursuits: looking for new recruits to his terror network or finalising its next target.
With so few leads to pursue, it is hardly surprising that, for five long years now, counter-terrorism units across the country had drawn a blank in their hunt for Syed Ahmed Zarar Siddibappa, the 30-year-old engineering graduate from Bhatkal in Karnataka, more notorious as Yasin Bhatkal, the man behind the Indian Mujahideen.
Bhatkal was arrested earlier, but jumped bail. He came close to being nabbed on a couple of occasions, most recently in November 2011 when a team of officers from the Intelligence Bureau, the Delhi Police and the Chennai police raided the house of 19-year-old Abdul Rehman at Selaiyur in Chennai.
Bhatkal had switched his mobile phone off and disappeared from the house just hours earlier. Had he been warned of the impending raid or did he just get lucky? No one is saying. He was last seen at a bus stop not far from there.
For long, counter-terrorism units of 12 states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal — failed to capture the man who was named by some as “the ghost who bombs”.
According to security experts, Bhatkal’s free run so far was foremost the lack of a national database on criminals or terror suspects.
Lack of coordination between central and state agencies, ignorance or disinterest of the local police, lack of human resources on the Intelligence Bureau’s counter-terrorism desk are other factors that help people like Bhatkal stay free.
“He is a very smart operator. He constantly monitors the possible changes in policing, and adapts to it. Since he knows how the system functions, he devises methods to hoodwink it,” a senior IPS officer from Andhra Pradesh had told HT.
It doesn’t help that the police are often not proactive. Days before the February twin blasts in Hyderabad, Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) had released photographs of four key Indian Mujahideen men including Bhatkal.
Officials at police stations in Mumbai did not bother to put up these pamphlets in public places under their jurisdiction. It took the intervention of a senior IPS officer and meetings with zonal deputy commissioners of police for the local police to act. And, the pamphlets were not even circulated in other states, said sources.
Ajit Doval, former IB chief and a respected professional, had blamed the inability to net Bhatkal on the lack of human intelligence and on over-reliance on technical intelligence.
“When you depend on technical intelligence, it is all about chance. You have to be content with what you get. But with human intelligence, one can strike a conversation and try to use the asset cultivated to the maximum.”
Bhatkal has been nabbed, but not before gaining cult status in the terror network.
(The story was originally published on 11th March 2013)