Search for Mumbai gunman's roots only deepens mystery

Reply Tue 2 Dec, 2008 11:04 am
Posted on Tue, Dec. 02, 2008
Search for Mumbai gunman's roots only deepens mystery
Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers
December 01, 2008

FARIDKOT, Pakistan " For the past three days Pakistani intelligence agents and police have been combing this sleepy village in search of clues to the identity of the lone gunman captured in the Mumbai terror attacks, residents said on Monday.

Indian officials and news media officials identified him variously as Ajmal Amir Kamal, Azam Amir Kasav, or Azam Ameer Qasab, and Indian news media quoted police as saying that the alleged killer's home village was in Faridkot, near the city of Multan in the southern part of Pakistan's Punjab province.

Local residents, however, are bewildered and alarmed. They said there was no one of that surname in this village, and no missing resident who fit the pictures and description shown in the Indian news media.

"All the agencies have been here and the (police) special branch," said village elder Mehboob Khan Daha, referring to Pakistan's plainclothes counterterror police. "We have become very worried. What's this all about?" Agents from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also appeared to be present on Monday, questioning locals.

Shown a picture of the alleged militant, Daha said: "That's a smart-looking boy. We don't have that sort around here."

The peasant farmers who inhabit this dusty backwater own small parcels of land and have little education. Water buffalos and goats roam down the dirt tracks of the village. Men sit around gossiping on traditional woven rope beds, placed out in the open, wearing the usual baggy shalwar kameez pajama suits, some with turbans.

Roughly built small brick homes and little mud huts dot the village, which has a population of about 3,000. It's about 33 miles east of the nearest large city, Multan, and a few miles outside the town of Kanewal.

"There are no jihadis here," Ijaz Ahmed, a 41-year-old farmer, chimed in, sitting by Daha. "I can think of maybe 10 or 20 people here who have even been as far as Multan."

The Faridkot link is a key element in the evidence cited by Indian officials that the attackers of Mumbai came from Pakistan.

The captured terror suspect was said to come from Faridkot. He was said to be 21 and to speak fluent English. A photograph of him shows a modern-looking young man swaggering in Western clothing, with an AK-47 in hand.

In Faridkot, no one appeared to be able to speak much English, and most could converse only in a dialect of the provincial language, Punjabi. None of the villagers recognized the face in the photograph, nor could they think of anyone mysteriously missing from the village.

They said the intelligence agents wanted to know if there was any presence of the radical Deobandi or Alhe Hadith religious movements in the village, to which the answer was a flat "no."

The police also came with a list of five names to probe, villagers said, including Ajmal, Amir, Kamal and Azam, all common names in Pakistan. While there are five Ajmals in the village, all were present except one who's living in the provincial capital of Lahore, and none fit the description of the militant. The only Azam in the village is a 75-year-old retired railway worker.

One of the Ajmals, a man who thought he was about 30, looked scared. He's worked in a nearby tea factory for the past 12 years, he said. The police and intelligence agencies have been to his house demanding to know his whereabouts.

"All I ever do is go to work, which is about three kilometers (two miles) away. I have never been beyond Kanewal (the closest town)," said Mohammad Ajmal. "I'm uneducated. I never went to school for even one day."

Faridkot is in a part of Punjab that's known for extremist activity, but the village showed no signs of being a hotbed of militancy. A notice on a board at the entrance to the village mosque declares that members of the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat "are not permitted."

To add to the confusion, there are several other places called Faridkot in the Punjab, although this village seemed to be the most likely Faridkot, because it's near Multan. There's also a well-known Faridkot in India, just across the border in the Indian half of the Punjab province.

An exasperated local police chief, Kamran Khan, who sent his men twice to Faridkot (the one outside Kanewal), told McClatchy: "Whatever we're doing to investigate, we're doing off our own initiative. No definitive information has come to us from any official channel. We're still not clear this is the right Faridkot."

Even the nearest hardline madrassa, or Islamic school, to Faridkot " the Darul Uloom at Kabirwala, a half-hour drive away " didn't appear to be a den of violent extremism that might've influenced a aspiring militant from Faridkot. This institution schooled Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, an extremist who founded one of Pakistan's most violent militant groups, Sipah-e-Sahaba. On an unannounced visit Monday, however, classrooms full of students learning the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Mohammad were all that was to be seen.

"We are praying that peace prevails between India and Pakistan," said Irshad Ahmed, the head of Darul Uloom. "It is wrong to kill innocent people. Islam doesn't allow it."

He added, however: "American bombardment also kills innocents."
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Reply Sun 7 Dec, 2008 08:54 am
Posted on Saturday, December 6, 2008
Villagers confirm surviving Mumbai By Saeed Shah
McClatchy Newspapers

FARIDKOT, near Depalpur, Pakistan " The lone gunman captured alive by Indian police during last week's terrorist attack on Mumbai comes from a dirt-poor village in Pakistan's southern Punjab region where a banned Islamist group has been actively recruiting young men for "jihad," according to residents of the village and official records seen by McClatchy Newspapers.

Ajmal Ameer Kasab, the dark haired 21-year-old man arrested by Indian authorities in the first hours of the assault -- in which over 170 people died -- left the village four years ago, several residents said. He would return once a year to see small family home and one villager recalled him talking about freeing the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir from India.

His origins are a key to the investigation of the attack and could have a profound impact on relations between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, already at the brink of confrontation. Until now, the Pakistan government has repeatedly said that there was no solid evidence to back Indian accusations that the gunmen came from Pakistan.

A McClatchy reporter visited the village three times in four days and obtained official electoral records, which showed that Ajmal's parents, as named by the Indian authorities, indeed reside in the village.

At the time of the first visit on Wednesday, there was no sign of Pakistan plainclothes police. But village mayor, Ghulam Mustafa Wattoo, confirmed that a man named Ameer lives in Faridkot, with a son named Ajmal. But he said Ameer claimed his son was not the man captured by Indian authorities.

But everything in the village fit the details leaked from the Indian police interrogation of Ajmal. Indian police identified the father as Mohammad Ameer, who earns a meager living selling home-made snacks from a mobile cart, and his wife as Noor. At the tiny family house, located on a narrow street deep inside Faridkot, the McClatlchy reporter on a second visit Friday noted a mobile food cart lying in the courtyard.

Ameer, 44 and his wife, Noor, 47, were nowhere to be found. According to several villagers, who asked not to be named for their own security, "a bearded mullah" took them away during the night, likely, they thought, to be a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic extremist group accusing of being behind the Mumbai attack.

Wattoo led the visiting reporter to Ameer's house, where an elderly man named Sultan and a mid-aged woman named Miraj, who identified themselves as relatives, said the occupants had gone away "for a wedding."

But they gave inconsistent and changing stories, sometimes confirming that Ameer lives there, at other times denying it. The mayor, too, had attempted to delay the visit of a McClatchy reporter to the house Friday and changed his story at times. As a result of the delay, plainclothes Pakistani security officials got to the house before the reporter, and they appeared to have coached the occupants to throw visitors off the trail.

A villager, who asked not to be named for his own safety, told McClatchy: "These people are telling you lies. We know that boy (caught in Mumbai) is from Faridkot. We knew from the first night (of the attack)."

Shown a picture of Ajmal, he confirmed it was the young man from the village.

"They brainwash our youth about jihad, there are people who do it in this village. They tell them they'll get a ticket to heaven. It is so wrong," the villager added.

Another resident said separately that he recognized the face in the photograph, though he later changed his mind when other villagers crowded around.

"He (Ameer) has lived here for a few years," said villager Mohammad Taj, an agriculturalist, who thought his age was around 50. "He has three sons and three daughters."

Noor Ahmed, 45, a local farmer said: "He (Ameer) had a stall he pushed around, sometimes here, sometimes elsewhere. He was a meek man, he hasn't particularly religious. He just made ends meet and didn't quarrel with anyone."

Residents said that Faridkot and the surrounding area, including a nearby village called Tara Singh, are a hotbed for recruitment for Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The nazim or mayor of Tara Singh, Rao Zaeem Haider, said: "There is a religious trend here. Some go for jihad but not too many."

Ajmal, who had little or no schooling, has been gone from Faridkot for about four years but would return to see his family once a year, said several locals. One said he would talk about freeing the Kashmir region from Indian rule when he returned, - the main aim of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Ajmal was the only one of 10 men involved in the operation to be captured, and he’s the main source for all the disclosures about the operation that have been leaked by the Indian police. He was captured within hours of the launch of the operation.

The 10 men are alleged to have seized a fishing trawler and killed the crew, then in the vicinity of Mumbai harbor, killed the captain and transferred to a small rubber dinghy to reach the shore in mid- evening Nov. 26. They fanned out in at least three groups and attacked the main rail station, the Café Leopold, a budget restaurant, and then entered the Jewish center, where they took hostages.

Gunmen then attacked the Taj Mahal hotel and the Oberoi Hotel and Towers. It took 2-1/2 days before special military commandos and other security forces killed the nine gunmen and regained control of the city of 13 million.

There are several Faridkots in Pakistan and one in India, and McClatchy's weeklong search for the home village of the captured suspect was complicated by incorrect details of the location published in the Indian news media.

The Faridkot from which Ajmal came is near the town of Depalpur, in the Okara district in southern Punjab

Many residents and local plainclothes police now appear to be trying to cover up Ajmal's connection with the village. By Saturday, the atmosphere turned hostile, and several reporters who went to Fardikot were roughed up, witnesses said by phone.

Faridkot mayor Wattoo at first denied the village was home to Ajmal Ameer Kasab. "There is a man here called Ameer, he pushed a snack cart around. He came to see me because he was very worried about reports on the news about an Ajmal from Faridkot being caught. But he told me that the boy they caught is not his Ajmal," Wattoo said.

Wattoo had also said there had been no local police investigation of whether Ajmal came from this Faridkot. At another village called Faridkot, near a town called Khanewal, also visited by McClatchy, there had been marked police and intelligence presence.

McClatchy obtained the official electoral records for Faridkot, which falls under union council number 5, tehsil (area) Depalpur, district Okara. The list of 478 registered voters shows a Mohammad Ameer, married to Noor Elahi, living in Faridkot. McClatchy has the national identity card numbers for both husband and wife.

Residents said that the family belonged to a clan of butchers, for which the local word is Kasab or Kasai. There is no tradition of surnames in rural Pakistan, and individuals take the names of their profession or tribe. Ajmal told Indian police his surname is Kasab, according to news reports.

Faridkot is dirt-poor with a remote feel, despite being close to a town. Most people have little education and live in poverty. On the side of a building, just outside Faridkot, graffiti in large lettering says, in Urdu, "Go for jihad. Go for jihad. Markaz Dawat ul-Irshad". MDI is the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In nearby Depalpur, there is a banner on the side of the main street that asks people to devote goat skins to Jamaat ud Dawa, another MDI offshoot.

Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, had visited the nearby town of Depalpur to give speeches, where there were "hundreds" of supporters, locals said. There was a Lashkar-e-Taiba office in Depalpur but that was hurriedly closed in the last few days, they said. The Lashkar-e-Taiba newspaper is distributed in Depalpur and Faridkot. The area lies in the south of Punjab province, an economically backward area long known for producing jihadists.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
Reply Mon 8 Dec, 2008 09:51 am
Pakistan arrests suspected Mumbai plotter
Mon Dec 8, 2008

Security forces overran a militant camp on the outskirts of Pakistani Kashmir's main city and seized an alleged mastermind of the attacks that shook India's financial capital last month, two officials said Monday.

The raid was the first known response to demands by India and the United States that Pakistan targets the alleged perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, which have sharply raised tensions between South Asia's two nuclear-armed powers.

Backed by a helicopter, the troops grabbed Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi among at least 12 people taken Sunday in the raid on the riverbank camp run by the banned group Laskhar-e-Taiba in Pakistani Kashmir, the officials said. There was a brief gunfight in the camp near Muzaffarabad before the militants were subdued, the officials said.

The officials " one from the intelligence agencies and one from a government agency " spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Indian officials say the sole Mumbai attacker captured alive has told them that Lakhvi recruited him for the mission and that Lakhvi and another militant, Yusuf Muzammil, planned the operation. The three-day seige of India's commercial capital left 171 people dead.

Analysts say Lashkar-e-Taiba was created with the help of Pakistan's intelligence agencies in the 1980s to act as a proxy fighting force in Indian Kashmir.

The United States says the group has links to al-Qaida. In May, U.S. Department of the Treasury alleged that Lakhvi directed Laskhar-e-Taiba operations in Chechnya, Bosnia and Southeast Asia, In 2004, he allegedly sent operatives and funds to attack U.S. forces in Iraq, it said.

It was not immediately clear what Pakistan intended to do with Lakhvi.

Pakistan and India do not have an extradition treaty. Last week, President Asif Ali Zardari indicated anyone arrested in Pakistan in connection with the attacks would be tried in Pakistan.

Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002, but there have been few if any convictions of its members since then. Many suspect elements within the intelligence agencies keep some links with Lashkar and other militants in the country, either to use against India or in neighboring Afghanistan.

An Islamist charity called Jemaat-ud-Dawa sprang up after the ban, which U.S. officials say is a front for the group. It denies the accusation and has condemned the Mumbai attacks.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars over the last 60 years, two over Kashmir. In 2001, an attack by suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the parliament building in New Delhi brought the countries close to conflict.

The government convened a rare Cabinet-level meeting of the country's defense and intelligence chiefs, but made no official comment on the raid or Lakhvi's arrest.

That is not uncommon here, especially when the subject is sensitive.

"The committee reiterated Pakistan's resolve not to allow its soil to be used for any kind of terrorist activity anywhere in the region or the world," it said in a statement after the meeting ended.

The New York Times, citing unidentified American intelligence and counterterrorism officials, reported in a story published Monday that Lashkar has gained strength in recent years with the help of Pakistan's spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence.

The officials cited by the Times say the ISI has shared intelligence with and provided protection for the outlawed group, though there is no evidence to link the spy service to the Mumbai attacks.

Islamabad's young civilian government has denied any of its state agencies were involved in the Mumbai attacks, but said it was possible that the militants were Pakistanis. It has pledged to cooperate with India, noting it too is a victim of terrorism.

Pakistan has experienced a surge in militant violence since it sided with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. As part of the alliance, it allows NATO and America to truck supplies to their forces in Afghanistan through the country.

Early Monday, militants in the northwestern city of Peshawar attacked a terminal for the supply trucks, torching scores of military vehicles waiting shipment, a witness and an Associated Press reporter said.

The attack was the second in as many days on the supply line in the city, showing its vulnerability to militants that control large swaths Pakistan's lawless regions close to Afghanistan.

Terminal laborer Altaf Hussain says several militants stormed the Bilal terminal, firing grenades. They then set fire to up to 50 military vehicles awaiting shipment, he said.

It and other terminals in the city employ lightly armed security guards, aimed more at preventing theft than organized militant assaults.

Up to 75 percent of the fuel, food and other logistical goods for Western forces battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan currently pass through Pakistan.

NATO officials say the attacks on the supply line do not affect their operations in Afghanistan, but acknowledge they are looking for other supply routes to the country.
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