- guardian.co.uk, Thursday November 27 2008 19.40 GMT
Some six hours after the attack on Mumbai began on Wednesday night, Indian media organisations received an e-mail from an unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen claiming responsibility for the deadly, well-planned operation. "We want to warn the Indian government that they must stop the injustice against the Muslim community," the email warned.
Security experts however remained sceptical about the existence of the Deccan Mujahideen. Such emails have been issued in the past by other jihadi outfits that have attacked Indian cities. What was unusual this time was the fact that the message was written in Hindi, and not, as on all previous occasions, in English.
An Indian TV news channel also reported that the internet connection used to send the email had been traced to Russia. "There are no 'indicators of authenticity' in this email," intelligence expert B Raman told NewsX channel. By adopting the name Deccan Mujahideen, analysts felt, the organisation behind the attack appeared to be trying to make it seem like the gunmen were from the Deccan plateau region in southern India, one of whose premier cities, Hyderabad, has a politically vocal Muslim population.
Major General RK Hooda, in charge of army operations at Hotel Trident in Mumbai, also told NDTV channel that a terrorist security forces had caught "tried to pretend that he was from Hyderabad." But Hooda added that intercepts had shown that the terrorists spoke to each other in Punjabi, a language spoken on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.
The emails sent out by the Indian Mujhideen (IM) group after recent bomb attacks on cities such as Ahmedabad and Delhi, on the other hand, were considered authentic by the authorities. Not only that, but after evading the law for years, several activists of IM were caught by police in at least five Indian provinces.
The most significant breakthroughs came from the Maharashtra police – both the anti-terror squad at the state level and the crime branch of the Mumbai police.
Among those arrested was Mansur Peerbhoy, a 31-year-old Yahoo India software engineer earning £25,000 a year, a princely salary in India. Peerbhoy is alleged to have been IM's head of internet operations. Though Peerbhoy was by far the most well-off among all the IM suspects arrested by the police, a majority of the others hailed from a similar background – young, educated and middle-class.
Some others, especially those hailing from Azamgarh district in the eastern Uttar Pradesh state, were from humbler rural backgrounds and had been schooled in Islamic seminaries. But all seemed subsumed by the same passion – to take revenge against the Indian state and even the Hindu majority for the atrocities committed against Indian Muslims, from the demolition of the Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh in December 1992 to the more recent communal carnage in Gujarat state.
But all previous terror strikes associated with the IM have involved the planting of bombs in public places in crowded urban areas, such as Delhi's Connaught Place. Security analysts believe that the IM would not have the resources to conduct an operation like the latest Mumbai outrage on its own. In any case, the organisation is on the run following the recent police crackdown. However, stray members of the IM could have played a secondary, supportive role in the Mumbai attacks.
IM activists are said to have been motivated and trained by an allegedly shady businessman with underworld connections, Riyaz Bhatkal, alias Roshan Khan, wanted by the police and identified as IM's co-founder. As his name suggests, the gangster/businessman hails from Bhatkal town in the southern Karnataka state. But Bhatkal is still a relatively minor figure compared to the crime lords of Mumbai, a financial hub with a large and resourceful underworld.
None among Mumbai's crime bosses is more notorious than Dawood Ibrahim, accused by Indian authorities of having been the mastermind of the March 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai. The blasts had been executed in retaliation for attacks on Muslims by Hindu extremists following the demolition of the Babri mosque. At that time Ibrahim, wanted in Mumbai on murder, extortion and other charges, was living in Dubai.
But he subsequently moved to Karachi, and Indian intelligence alleges that he is holed up in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan ever since Washington also put him on its terror list for his links with the Al Qaida. Ibrahim though is a ruthless, multi-millionaire crime boss with operations in several countries, especially in South Asia. His syndicate is known to have an extensive network in India, particularly in Mumbai, where some of his siblings still reside.
But if Ibrahim is involved, his gang members are suspected of having played a local, supportive role in the terror strike. "The latest attack on Mumbai has the stamp of Dawood Ibrahim," said a Delhi-based security expert who did not want to be identified. "Definitely the people who hit Mumbai were a mixture of local guys who know the city very well, and trained, hardcore fighters who came by sea."
Pakistani terror groups
In a television address to the nation on Thursday, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh identified the gunmen who attacked Mumbai as coming from "outside the country". It was clear to everyone which country he was referring to – India's neighbour Pakistan, which had also been implicated by authorities in many other terror strikes in the past, such as the 1993 Mumbai blasts and the more recent attack on the Parliament building in Delhi.
Major General RK Hooda, GOC, Maharashtra, was more explicit. He told NDTV news channel that the attackers had come by boat from Pakistan. Other TV channels named a gunmen held by authorities as Abu Ismail, said to be a Punjabi-speaking youth from Pakistan. A satellite phone recovered from two dead terrorists reportedly showed calls made to Karachi before and after the attacks commenced.
Intelligence analysts suggested the prime suspect in the al-Qaeda-type operation would be the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the banned military wing of the Islamic organisation Markaz-ud-Dawa-al-Irshad headquarted in Muridke near the Punjab capital Lahore.
The Al-Qaeda linked LeT was founded in 1989 in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, and its fighters have been active in fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir since 1993. But security analyst Uday Bhaskar said "though it would be tempting to blame a Pakistan-based group, especially the LeT, we need to wait for some more evidence to establish the link".
In the past, the LeT was alleged to have close links with Pakistan's ISI agency. But on the basis of what is known so far, none of the Indian security analysts believe that the Pakistan security establishment would have played a role in the organising the Mumbai operation. "But former ISI or even retired Pakistan Navy officials could have been involved with the LeT," said an analyst.