Kolkata Kidnapping: Jehad's Dirty Money
The Burman abduction case leads to criminals who channelled part of the ransom money into jehadi strikes like those on Parliament and the WTC
by Sumit Mitra and Sayantan Chakravarty with Labonita Ghosh
January 8, 2002, January 14, 2002 issue
It has turned out to be a humdinger of a case. Months after Partha Roy Burman, 35-year-old owner of Kolkata's Khadim Shoes, was abducted on July 25 while on way to his warehouse, kept hostage somewhere on the Indo-Bangladesh border and released after a ransom of Rs 4 crore was paid, investigators report that a part of the ransom money was used to finance the September 11 terrorists attack, and possibly the one on India's Parliament on December 13.
The investigation has been long and involves the IB and the police of at least six states. Currently, an elite team of the CBI led by Joint Director Neeraj Kumar is digging deeper to probe the international aspects of the case that have come to light. It is for the first time that the world of organised crime in India seems to have tied up with the jehadis. Says Kumar, who investigated the Mumbai blasts of 1993: "Earlier the ISI-terrorists network used the underworld. Now it is the reverse. The mafia is hooking up with terrorists in Pakistan." Even the FBI is looking at the case with interest since the money for the WTC attack was allegedly sent from Pakistan. Initial findings so far point to the linkages between criminals in India looking for quick money, a don in Dubai, a jehadi in Pakistan and Mohammad Atta, the 33-year-old Egyptian whose flight to insanity changed the world in September 2001. The Atta link was established by the interception of a series of e-mail between India and Dubai in which the kidnappers have spoken about how part of the ransom money was sent to Atta from Pakistan for "the Noble Cause" of 9/11. Other mails talk about the supply of assault weapons at specific locations.
The kidnappers in India were led by SIMI activist Asif Raza Khan, who grew up in the Muslim-dominated Beniapukur area of Kolkata. Killed on December 7 at Rajkot by policemen while trying to escape, Khan had told interrogators that he knew the ransom money had reached Atta and was used by the Al Qaida activists in New York. He also revealed that he had met Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operatives and had been informed they would carry out an attack on Parliament using ransom money collected in India. The man who remote-controlled the operations from Dubai is believed to be Aftab Ansari from Lalapur in Varanasi. He is facing eight criminal cases in Lucknow, Delhi and Kolkata.
Ansari holds degrees in journalism and law, and has been known to tout himself as a journalist in Dubai; he even keeps fake visiting cards showing him to be an employee of Time and Newsweek magazines. Detectives describe him as a frequent flier between Dubai and Karachi. The Pakistani jehadi who provided the arms and collected his share of the loot from Dubai (where the ransom money was paid by hawala) is Syed Omar Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who travelled with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh on the aircraft to Kandahar. Sheikh was one of the three terrorists released by India in exchange for the hostages of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC 814.
According to investigators who have been able to decode intercepted e-mails, Rawalpindi-based Sheikh, a member of the Al Qaida, wired a part of the money ($100,000 or Rs 47 lakh) he received from Ansari in Dubai to one of Atta's several accounts, possibly in the US. One e-mail message from Ansari to Khan said, "Bhai maine ek lakh dollar Sheikh Omar ko de diya hai (I've paid $100,000 to Sheikh) The FBI too is interested in the Atta transaction since it is probing the links of Al Qaida to IC 814, which had an American national on board.
The dramatis personae were perhaps predestined to meet. Khan, Ansari, and Sheikh had landed in the congested precincts of Delhi's Tihar Jail in the mid-1990s for different crimes. Khan had been arrested in Delhi in June 1994 for carrying explosives and charged under TADA. Ansari had also been arrested in Delhi in July 1995, and was being tried for attempted murder. Sheikh, a British passport holder who had kidnapped British tourists from Delhi's Connaught Place, was arrested in November 1994 under TADA and the Foreigners Act. In jail, the three became friends and found that ideologically they were not entirely on different wavelengths. Sheikh wanted to step up jehadi operations in India; Khan, an activist of the now-banned SIMI and a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen cadre in 1992 (he had even met the outfit's leader Syed Salahuddin who instructed him to blow up the Kolkata Stock Exchange in 1993), was looking for a cause. Ansari was looking for some easy money. When he came to Tihar, Ansari was already knee-deep in the underworld and wasn't averse to the idea of "tying up" with Sheikh and Khan. "The three didn't maintain contact on a daily basis in Tihar, but there were occasions to meet up, for instance when they travelled from prison to court in the same vehicle," says Inspector-General of Police (CID), Kolkata, Partha Bhattacharjee.
Ansari jumped bail on his release and escaped to Dubai. Khan chose to remain in India to act as Ansari's frontman. He helped recruit young men for the gang, luring them with the prospects of settling in Dubai. The recruits came from Delhi, Kolkata, Bhopal, Agra, Gurgaon, Alwar, Malegaon, Mumbai, Ambala, Ajmer, Jaipur, Ludhiana, Nasik, Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Varanasi. Safe houses were established. A quirk of fate landed Sheikh inside a VIP aircraft and on alighting at Kandahar, he imbibed the Al Qaida ideology. He's said to have visited Taliban supremo Mullah Omar several times. He then joined the JeM as an articulate lieutenant of its chief Maulana Azhar Masood. Investigators believe that Sheikh's background, his links with the Jaish-e-Mohammed and his handling of the Burman ransom money, indicate that some of the money might have been used to finance the December 13 attack on Parliament.
The plans to kidnap Burman and several others in the country were hatched in early 2001. Khan had then crossed over to Bangladesh, paid Rs 15,000 to the Dhaka-based students organisation, IIFSCO, and taken a flight to Karachi on a fake passport as Mohammed Khaliq. There ISI agents had taken him to Sheikh's house, according to interrogation reports. He also met Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) leader Azam Cheema in the Pakistani city.
The Dubai mafia focusing on Kolkata's wealthy is a recent phenomenon. Until the Burman episode, the eastern metro's kidnappings were carried out by local gangs, mostly operating from neighbouring areas in Bihar and Orissa. Before Burman became the victim, the Ansari gang had picked up a Mumbai businessman and kept him hostage in Kathmandu for 55 days and released him on payment of Rs 22 crore, say investigators. Abductions became a hobby in 2001; the rich in Patna, Varanasi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Jamshedpur, Rajkot did not go unnoticed by spotters; some of them were secreted away, their families forced to pay hefty ransom amounts. In all, estimates Bhattacharjee, the Ansari gang may have collected up to Rs 55 crore in ransom money in 2001 alone. Moreover, minutes before entering the Parliament House premises, the attackers had called Dubai, say investigators. They have reason to believe that the call was made to Ansari and that it was forwarded to Sheikh.
In the Burman episode, there is a compelling cast of characters, apart from the three main conspirators. Take, for instance, R.N. Das, a spotter, who hoodwinked Burman by acting as his yoga instructor. Over time Das became well acquainted with the businessman's daily movements. When Burman enrolled for the yoga classes at his Meditation University, little did he know that Das had a rash of rape cases pending against his name in Uttar Pradesh. There was cabaret dancer Swati Paul from Mumbai too. A friend of Das, she is now a prime witness for the prosecution. Paul was arrested in Mumbai after police found that she had been in touch with Ansari during the ransom negotiations. She has also been performing at the Dubai Grand. Not only has Paul deposed about the links between Ansari and Khan to the police, she also recognised Ansari's voice when a recorded conversation was played before her. Also arrested in Mumbai was Shahid Azmi, a dotcom journalist who opened accounts in bogus names for Ansari. Azmi and Ansari were "friends" in Tihar.
The kidnapping team had hardcore terrorists in their midst, not just members of the underworld dreaming big bucks. One such person arrested by a CBI team led by dig B.K. Sharma from a hideout in Bhopal in early November was Aquib Ali Khan. Besides being an expert in handling assault weapons, Aquib Khan had also facilitated the purchase of a car to be used in the kidnapping. Aquib, say policemen, disclosed that he was a let cadre and had once attended a training camp in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Also arrested was Aslam Mohammad, another let member, who had shot Burman in the leg when the shoe baron resisted his abductors. Apart from owing allegiance to the terrorist organisation and having trained in camps at Khosht in Afghanistan, Aslam remains an active member of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islam.
The recovery of weapons and explosives was significant and established that without the backing of terrorist organisations, criminal gangs could not be so well armed. It includes three AK-56 rifles with six magazines, two magazine pouches and 524 cartridges, 296 pistol cartridges, two handsets, four IED remote detonators, two pistols, 10 electronic detonators, cordex wire, 10 non-electric detonators, six remote timers, 14 kg of RDX brought from across the Wagah border and another 4 kg of locally made explosives. Khan and Bhopal's Aquib Ali Khan were in constant touch through e-mail (they had IDs like firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com), often exchanging information on delivery of weapons in coded terms. Another weapons handler arrested by Delhi Police's Special Cell in September was Harpreet Singh. Like Khan, he too had met Ansari inside Tihar. Had a number of kidnapping cases pending against him.
There were arrests in November of people who played smaller, yet significant roles, in the kidnapping. They include Karimuddin, a cricket bookie who handled the hawala money from his Charminar residence in Hyderabad, and three others from Patan (Gujarat), Gurgaon and Alwar who helped in the movement of weapons.
Investigators say the Burman case is an eye-opener. Never before has the world of criminals had such close links with jehadis. After this case, it will be hard to draw a line between the soldier of fortune and the jehadi on a mission.
THE KHADIM TRAIL
ABDUCTED: Khadim Shoes owner Burman is abducted in Kolkata on July 25, while on his way to work.
RANSOM: After negotiating for 15 days, Burman is released. Rs 4 crore is paid through hawala in Dubai.
MONEY REACHES PAKISTAN: Part of the money reaches Omar Sheikh, an Al Qaida man, in Rawalpindi.
ON TO ATTA: In August Sheikh wires the money to WTC attacker Atta.
JEM GETS PAID: Sheikh gives some of the money to JeM chief Azhar Masood for the attack on Parliament.
CASE BROKEN: Arrests all over the country in October-November help unravel the Atta connection.
THE FUND ANGLE
AFTAB ANSARI: Runs the ransom empire from Dubai and Karachi
MOHAMMED ATTA: He took the Burman payoff to plan the strikes in New York.
SYED OMAR SHEIKH: Passed on the money to Atta from Rawalpindi.
Copyright 2002 Living Media India Ltd.
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