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Yasin Bhatkal: The ghost who bombs

The counter-terrorism cops of 12 states are after him, but the man behind the Indian Mujahideen continues to evade capture. Presley Thomas reports.

mumbai Updated: Aug 30, 2013 01:27 IST
Presley Thomas

He limits his mobile phone usage to a few seconds at a time and does not use email to communicate. He prefers to move addresses every few weeks, usually from one dark dingy room to another, away from urban areas likely to be under surveillance. He talks to only a chosen few. He is not known to take time off from his preferred pursuits: looking for new recruits to his terror network or finalising its next target.

With so few leads to pursue, it is hardly surprising that, for five long years now, counter-terrorism units across the country have drawn a blank in their hunt for Syed Ahmed Zarar Siddibappa, the 30-year-old engineering graduate from Bhatkal in Karnataka, more notorious as Yasin Bhatkal, the man behind the Indian Mujahideen.

Bhatkal was arrested once but jumped bail. He came close to being nabbed on a couple of occasions, most recently in November 2011 when a team of officers from the Intelligence Bureau, the Delhi police and the Chennai police raided the house of 19-year-old Abdul Rehman at Selaiyur in Chennai. Bhatkal had switched his cell phone off and disappeared from the house just hours earlier. Had he been warned of the impending raid or did he just get lucky? No one is saying. He was last seen at a bus stop not far from there.

Why have the counter-terrorism units of 12 states - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal - failed to capture the man some now call 'the ghost who bombs'?

Security experts point to a number of reasons, foremost being the lack of a national database on criminals or terror suspects. Lack of coordination between central and state agencies, ignorance or disinterest of the local police, lack of human resources on the Intelligence Bureau's counter-terrorism desk are other factors that help people like Bhatkal stay free.

"He is a very smart operator. He constantly monitors the possible changes in policing, and adapts to it. Since he knows how the system functions, he devises methods to hoodwink it," said a senior IPS officer from Andhra Pradesh.

It doesn't help that the police are often not proactive. Days before the February twin blasts in Hyderabad, Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) had released photographs of four key Indian Mujahideen men including Bhatkal. Officials at police stations in Mumbai did not bother to put up these pamphlets in public places under their jurisdiction. It took the intervention of a senior IPS officer and meetings with zonal deputy commissioners of police for the local police to act. And, the pamphlets were not even circulated in other states, said sources.

Ajit Doval, former IB chief and a respected professional, blamed the inability to net Bhatkal on the lack of human intelligence and on over reliance on technical intelligence. "When you depend on technical intelligence, it is all about chance. You have to be content with what you get. But with human intelligence, one can strike a conversation and try to use the asset cultivated to the maximum," he said . For example, Doval said, if an asset spots Bhatkal boarding a train and informs his handler, the latter can ask him to follow Bhatkal. which is not possible with technical intelligence.

A highly-placed source in the IB said that despite P Chidambaram as home minister sanctioning an increase in the number of personnel in the Intelligence Bureau in 2009, the induction of new field officers has been slow and quality has been sacrificed for exigency.

Says Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi: "Only if you have a national database, can state and central agencies think about coordination. It is primarily the lack of a national database that allowed Yasin Bhatkal to jump bail after being arrested in West Bengal."

Bhatkal has gained cult status in the terror network largely because of the failure of India's security establishment to work collectively to nab him.