Four days after the terror assault on Mumbai ended, an unmarked C-130 Hercules landed at Santa Cruz airport. Its cargo: a combined FBI and CIA team of a dozen forensic experts from the United States.
Now, five years after the brazen attacks, sources from India and the US have pieced together how the two countries pieced together how the two countries joined hands to carry out the ultimate crime scene investigation.
The US experts had been dispatched by their president George W Bush after a request for technical assistance by India on the second day of the attack. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoided asking for direct US intervention, but Indian experts were aware they lacked the ability to secure a trail of evidence which they knew would go back to Pakistan.
Also, using a US forensic team would automatically make the case to Washington of Islamabad’s complicity.
Not everyone on the Indian side was pleased. The then Mumbai police chief, Hassan Gafoor, complained about turning to the US for assistance. Gafoor, criticised by the Pradhan committee for his passivity during the 26/11 attack, was slapped down by New Delhi.
The US team moved into the Four Seasons Hotel, taking up an entire floor. As they set up a secure satellite communications link back to the US, an Intelligence Bureau counterterrorism official flew down from Delhi to coordinate with them.
AN Roy, director general of Mumbai police at the time, met them the first day. “They had a long list of requests: sites to go to, information on US nationals who had been victims, and so on.” A Mumbai police officer was deputed to help them.
The US team collected information from all the places attacked by the five Lashkar-e-Taiba teams. They collected the serial numbers from the AK-47s and grenades used by the assailants as well as the DNA samples of all the terrorists and the US victims. “They also took samples from Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving Lashkar attacker," says Deven Bharti, then additional commissioner of the Mumbai crime branch.
The US team stayed over 10 days before returning home. They used their communications link to confer with their bomb data centre in Virginia. An Indian official remembers that the CIA personnel had come from the San Francisco office.
The FBI began to produce results quickly. They determined that the terrorists had used Arges grenades, a defunct Austrian brand – whose only remaining factory was in Pakistan.
The US tracked down the VoIP that the terrorists had used to talk to their handlers in Pakistan to a service provider based in New Jersey. The US also tracked the payments, sent via MoneyGram and Western Union, to Peshawar and Italy. The Italian payment, as the chargesheet later noted, was made to a Pakistani passport holder. The Americans also tracked the email trail of the VoIP account holder.
In February, an Indian team went to the US with more forensic material. They carried three of the five Maglem GPS handsets used by the Lashkar teams. The secrets of the other two had been unravelled by the Indian police. But these three, says Bharti, were damaged by fire. An FBI laboratory in Virginia reconstructed the handsets. “They used software to get out the tracking information. This clearly showed the Lashkar men’s path from Karachi, across the waters, to Mumbai. It even had a bit where they drove through Karachi at the start to test the device,” says Bharti.
One of the handsets had the various targets including the Leopold Café and the hotels, as laid out by the Lashkar scout David Headley, carefully marked.
This was so beyond Indian forensic ability at the time that it was cited in the official chargesheet: “These GPS handsets were sent to the FBI laboratory and the details of the data recovered…”
The serial numbers of the Yamaha outboard motor used to power the dinghy that the Lashkar teams used for the last four to five miles before landing in Mumbai were also tracked by the FBI to a firm in Pakistan.
In some cases, say Indian officials, the FBI was used to corroborate evidence that the Indian police had determined themselves, such as the provenance of the terrorists’ Nokia phones.
Bharti and other Indian officials say that a part of the reason for using the US agencies are lacunae in Indian criminal law. Namely, that the Indian police are barred from carrying out investigations overseas and the testimony of an Indian police official, without backup from witnesses, is not accepted by Indian judges. Even to ask for overseas assistance, the Indian police must get a letter rogatory issued by an Indian court. “It doesn’t matter that we are receiving help from a friendly country,” says Bharti. “But for the Indian police to be able to go overseas and do what the FBI did here would be on my wish list.”
Not everyone believes the US was completely forthcoming. A former RAW official who had been involved in the case says Washington declined to follow the trail of “Javed Iqbal”, holder of Pakistani passport number KC092481, who had paid for the VoIP service used by the terrorists through a Western Union office in Brescia, Italy. He says Iqbal’s identity remains a mystery “because of American intransigence".
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