Riyaz Bhatkal, the alleged co-founder of terror outfit Indian Mujahideen, had come under the Mumbai police scanner during investigation into the blasts that rocked the city between December 2002 and August 2003.
This was almost six years before his name resurfaced after the arrest of the Indian Mujahideen module in September-October 2008.
The Crime Branch had gone on his trail in 2003, but by that time Bhatkal had fled the country.
Also, the police had arrested the real culprits — members of the lesser known Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force — who were sentenced by a designated Prevention of Terrorism Act court on Monday.
Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Rakesh Maria said on Tuesday that Riyaz’s name had cropped up during blast investigations, especially after a blast took place in a BEST bus outside Ghatkopar station on July 28, 2003.
“After the blasts, we had launched a massive hunt for the possible suspects,” Maria said. Even as investigation was in progress, three more blasts rocked the city in a span of seven months.
“By then we had gathered intelligence about the involvement of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba being responsible for the blasts,” said Maria.
After the BEST bus bomb blast at Ghatkopar, the Crime Branch was tipped off about the possible involvement of Riyaz Bhatkal.
Till then, Bhatkal was known to the Crime Branch as a renegade foot soldier of underworld kingpin Fazal-ur-Rehman.
Rehman had formed his own outfit — RN gang (Riyaz and Nasir) — and operated from the Kurla Pipeline area where he lived and the neighbouring Cheetah Camp locality in Trombay.
He was involved in petty extortion cases. Though the arrest of the members of the Lashkar-sponsored terror group, Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force, in September 2003 put an end to bomb blasts in the city, Riyaz, had by then, joined his mentors in Dubai.
Members of the group, comprising all Indians, had been arrested in September-October 2008. It was during the questioning of some of the group’s key members that Riyaz’s name had cropped up.
Between 2003 and 2008, Riyaz had come to India. During this time, he had visited Mumbai several times, but had not been arrested or even been suspected.