They were the first seeds of terror sown by an Al-Qaeda operative in the summer of 2001. Grainy camcorder footages of the World Trade Centre — the tip of one of the biggest and the deadliest global terror plots to target finance hubs, luxury hotels, train stations and kill hundreds on both sides of the Atlantic.
That was five months before September 11, 2001. And the operative was India-born Dhiren Barot, a Gujarat native, tasked with a meticulous plan to trigger a chain of strikes. The 34-year-old British convert to Islam pleaded guilty to conspiracy and the British court sentenced him to life — a minimum of 40 years with little chances of parole.
It is one of the harshest terror sentences handed by the British government in recent times. And India can hang its head in shame. For Barot, a Gujarati, was born in Vadodara in 1971. He is one of the two children of Manubhai and Bharatiben — a middle class educated couple, who lived in the old Baranpura area. “The Barots were decent folks. Or so it seemed. But that was many years ago. And I am surprised that Dhiren is wanted in the US as well as UK for terror plots,” said Chandrakant Thakkar, a councillor from Baranpura.
Manubhai’s bungalow Kunj Plaza, locked since ages, stands on Raj Mahal Road near Polo Club in the city. It wears a forlorn look. “I remember seeing Dhiren six years ago, when the family came to Vadodara for some time. He was an introvert, but simple and cheerful. He was more of a scholar than a hardcore criminal. I am shocked he is an Al-Qaeda operative,” recalled neighbour Vikram Singh Gaekwad.
The Barots, like many others of their time, migrated to East Africa a few months after Dhiren’s birth. When he was one, the family moved to England in 1973 to escape “violence and discrimination” in Kenya. Manubhai, a banker in Nairobi, supported his family by working in a factory in England. For a long time, he visited Vadodara every two years.
|DIARY OF FEAR: A combination portrait from Britain's Metropolitan Police shows books, notes, maps and the room used by the India-born British Al-Qaeda activist Dhiren Barot (inset). AFP photo|
The family still has its roots in Vadodara. Dhiren’s maternal grandmother Manuben Ghadiyali and her three daughters — Bhanuben, Sudhaben and Hansaben — still live in Vadodara. Her palatial bungalow at Kareli Baugh is often used for film shoots.
Aunts Sudhaben was principal of the IPCL School in Vadodara and Hansaben, a pediatrician.But they refuse to say anything about Barot or his family. “We have nothing to do with them. We have snapped all ties,” was all they came up with when asked.
Dhiren grew up in northeast London— as a Hindu child before he embraced Islam in 1992. He schooled at Kingsbury and after graduating in 1988, obtained a City and Guilds in tourism. He wanted to study Hotel Management, but fate had chalked a different course.
He worked as an airline ticket clerk in Piccadilly, central London, from 1991 to 1995, and sought a transfer to Heathrow. But his papers were rejected. Post-rejection, he survived on odd jobs — as a night porter in luxury apartment blocks in London and in a company, Phone City.
He was fly-by-night with no fixed address in England and switched homes at random— perhaps in a bid to dodge surveillance. Barot had a history of “losing” passports and his documents were reported “missing” several times.
In September 1995, he told his employers he was going on a “long overseas trip”. The jaunt turned out to be a stint at a terrorist camp in Pakistan. He visited tribal areas near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the disputed Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, where he campaigned against Indian forces during the Kargil war.
In 1999, he authored a tome, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, under the name Abu Esa Al Hindi — narrating his experiences and describing ways to kill Indian soldiers. Abu Musa Al Hindi became one of his several aliases. In the late 1990s and early 2000, he served as an Al-Qaeda agent and in 2000, he visited the United States on a student visa. He was sent to the United States several times between 2000 and 2001 by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the 9/11 masterminds, to scope out targets. He is learnt to have stayed for two months with his cousin Meeta (Sudhaben’s daughter) and her husband in New Jersey— who had no clue to his activities. Sources said when Meeta’s father visited her after post 9/11, the US police grilled him as Barot’s cover had blown by then.