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On the trail of Masood Azhar

Neelesh Misra tells how while working on his first book, 173 Hours in Captivity: the Hijacking of IC-814, in February 2000 he had befriended Masood Azhar's father and brother over phone seeking his details. Pics: Masood Azhar

delhi Updated: Dec 09, 2008 17:04 IST
Neelesh Misra

You could say that the father and brother of one of India's most wanted men were my phone friends.

It was February 2000 and I was working on my first book, "173 Hours in Captivity: the Hijacking of IC-814". I was trying to get all information I could on Masood Azhar, the powerful militant leader, who had been freed in Kandahar in exchange for the passengers of the seized Indian Airlines flight.

So I decided: who would be better to tell me about him than his own father, former school teacher Allah Baksh Sabir?

Friends in the Indian security establishment had provided me Azhar's interrogation report, and friends in Pakistan had given me his landline telephone number at their poultry farm-cum-home in the Kaunsar Colony in Pakistan's Bahawalpur town.

I decided not to call him from my home; my phone records could have landed me in jail if someone decided to call me a terror conspirator. So I used to walk up to a PCO near my home in Noida every second day and talk in a hushed tone from a cubicle with the soft-spoken Sabir.

He referred to his own son – India's most wanted man -- as "Maulana saab".

Azhar is part of big family – he has five brothers and six sisters. But four of Sabir's sons had been away for a long time. Azhar was in a Jammu prison, Abdul Rauf Asghar was away in Karachi, young Jehangir Akbar was at a madrasa near Bahawalpur. Ibrahim Athar – the main hijacker – was away planning his mission though the father had told everyone he was on a pilgrimage. It is unclear if Sabir knew the truth.

That left another brother, Mohammed Tahir Anwar, in charge of the poultry and dairy farm, and the ninth-grade student Mohiuddin Alamgir, helping out at home.

The long telephone ring would often go unanswered for some time, and I used to imagine: would it be the old style phone with the dial? Would it be in a big house guarded by armed men? Would the maulana himself pick up the phone one day and would I encounter the voice of the obese, stern-eyed man we had been watching on television for weeks?

I must admit, I kept my name vague and did not reveal I was calling from India.

Azhar was never home. He was busy – he had just formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group.

Over the coming days, Sabir and I began making small talk.

"You know, Maulana saab just got married, a day after Eid … the child teaches in a religious school here."

"Maulana saab has just bought a house in Karachi".

"He has a mobile phone but I don't have the number."

One day I asked: "Are you OK? You don't sound so good." He said: "No, no, just a slight cold, son. How have you been?"

One day Sabir did not pick up the phone; it was a boyish voice instead. I did swift mathematics and intelligent guesswork – and realised it could be the youngest son mentioned on the interrogation report.

"Beta (son), is that Alamgir?"

"Ji!" said the boy, excited that an unknown caller knew his name as well in a famous man's house.

We soon became friends. Alamgir gave Azhar's mobile number, but muddled up one area code, and I could never speak to him.

The book was published, and weeks later I read a newspaper report about a man who featured in it, who had asked for and bought a copy at the famous Mr. Books store in Islamabad: the London School of Economic-educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the other two top militants released with Azhar.