Faisal Sheikh, Jihadi
1) He was 31, clean-shaven, handsome young man who spoke English as though it was his mother tongue.
2) He wore denims and travelled around town on a flashy Pulsar bike.
3) He spent the odd evening in a beer bar, and a certain bar dancer was known to keep him company. A favour she extended on occasion even during the day at his one-room terrace pad in Bandra (West).
Two of Faisal Sheikh’s brothers were computer engineers: the older, Rahil, was based in London, the younger, Muzammil, worked with software giant Oracle in Bangalore.
Faisal had himself studied engineering for a couple of years, and continued to inhabit the boundaryless domain of cyberspace for many hours every day.
No one who knew Faisal Sheikh could believe it when the police charged him with bombing Mumbai on 11/7 and called him a jihadi commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in western India.
To eyes and minds accustomed to associating Islamist terror with bearded, skull-capped students of seminaries, slaves to the diktats of fanatical mullahs, Faisal seemed the very antithesis of the jihadi.
The company Faisal kept in the last six years was like him - young people from middle class Muslim families, many with boarding school backgrounds, and all armed with impressive educational qualifications in medicine, computers, engineering.
Yet, Faisal was different. He had the choice of completing his industrial engineering course from Pune’s Eklavya Polytechnic, but did not. He claimed he ran a small export-import business, but that was, well, just a claim.
Pretty early in his life, when he was in his early twenties, Faisal seemed to have decided that unlike his friends, he would not slog. He had decided that he was, as one of his interrogators in the Anti-Terrorist Squad and Mumbai Crime Branch put it, “destined to chase, and achieve, far higher goals”.
So for six years before his biggest strike, he devoted himself to the cause of jihad. Utmost secrecy was part of the deal; no one outside his closest circle knew who he actually was.
One of his tribe, Faisal isn’t an exception. In fact, as jihadi profiles go, he is the prototype. All the men picked up for the 11/7 bombings were similar. Ehtesham Siddique, general secretary of the banned SIMI in Maharashtra, accused of planting the Mira Road bomb, is an engineer. Dr Tanvir Ansari, who provided logistic support, spent six years studying Unani medicine in a Nagpur medical college. Naved Khan, alleged planter of the Khar bomb, worked in a call centre in Hyderabad. And Rizwan Dawre, accused of helping to organise the travel of the jihadis who came from Pakistan, earns an impressive monthly salary as a senior software professional with an MNC in Dubai.
But the Indian jihadi wasn’t always like the Faisals and the Rizwans. Three years ago, he had a different profile.
The earlier version
The main accused in the twin blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar - 53 killed, 150 injured - on August 25, 2003, were Lashkar operatives SayedMohammed Hanif, his wife Fahmida and associates Arshat Ansari Zahid Patni, Mohammed Hussain Batterywala, and Mohammed Rizwan Ladoowala. In their educational and motivational profile, each one was different from the 11/7 accused.
Hanif and Arshat came from lower middle-class socio-economic backgrounds, had had only a basic education, and were mechanics or electricians roped in by Nasser, the mastermind while in Dubai. Hanif and Fahmida stayed in a ten by eight one-room hovel at Chimatpada, Andheri East. Nasser - an SSC pass who did odd jobs in Dubai - lived in Muslim Naya Nagar in Mira Road. The contrast with Faisal’s Bandra address is stark.
There is another difference. Faisal was trained extensively by Lashkar at their bases in Bahawalpur and Muzaffarabad and was a rising star in the outfit’s hierarchy. He took orders directly from Azam Cheema, planned the operation and planted one of the bombs. All his alleged co-conspirators also received training in Pakistan. One of them, 36-year-old Pune faith healer Sohail Sheikh, received an extra month’s training from the ISI in collecting intelligence, investigators say.
Nasser by contrast, was a low-level Lashkar terrorist. And Hanif and Ashraf never trained in Pakistan. Even the tactics and levels of motivation seem different: Hanif never waited to see his operation to its conclusion; he left the explosives-laden taxi, and its driver Shivnarayan Pande, at the Gateway and fled with Fahmida. Pande had a providential escape, and went straight to Colaba police station, sealing Hanif and Fahmida’s fate.
Sources in central intelligence agencies say Pakistan-based jihadi organisations mentored by the ISI, changed their strategy for terror attacks in India mid-way through the nineties. The underworld that carried out the serial bombings of March 1993, ceased to be part of the new plan.
According to IG Rakesh Maria, whose team cracked the 1993 serial blasts and the 2003 Gateway-Zaveri Bazaar blasts cases, the jihadis dumped the mafia because they saw them as being insufficiently motivated and as mere mercenaries. “Instead, they started relying on local subversive outfits like SIMI, that could supply them with motivated, educated, operatives, plus all the logistical support,” Maria says.
According to blasts investigators, some of the ground rules followed by the Lashkar-ISI for an Indian operation are as follows:
Operatives must necessarily be from a motivated, jihadi outfit like SIMI. All 24 suspects arrested by the Anti-Terrorism Squad in the Aurangabad arms and explosives seizures case are hard-core SIMI activists.
They should also be direct recruits of the Lashkar specially trained to be able to handle arms and explosives in the Pakistani bases.
The core of the 11/7 blasts accused comprises either SIMI or Lashkar recruits. The top brass of the Lashkar, led by Cheema and his ‘supreme commander’ Zaqi-ur Rehman Lakhvi, appear to be learning continuously from failures.
After the Aurangabad operation was botched, they made sure they used specially trained jihadis for 11/7, and sent in 11 Pakistani bombers to act as ‘minders’ as the bombs were planted in the trains, said JK Hargude, chief of Crime Branch Unit Two, and the man who arrested Faisal.