New Evidence of Pakistan’s Role in the Mumbai Attacks?
Firefighters attend to a fire as it burns at Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel following an armed siege on November 29, 2008 in Mumbai, India. Indian officials have declared the siege at the Taj hotel over as the remaining militants were killed when commandos stormed the building. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Details are emerging about Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, the suspected Laskhar-i-Taiba operative who was arrested by Indian authorities last week for his alleged role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, a slaughter that left 166 dead, including six Americans.
According to Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, Ansari has admitted that during the first 24 hours of the siege, he was in a control room in Karachi, Pakistan from which Lashkar operatives gave orders to the gunmen in Mumbai.
And a number of Indian media outlets are reporting an explosive claim that Ansari told Indian interrogators that Pakistani intelligence officers were also in the control room with him.
Without specifically naming Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, Chidambaram told reporters at a press conference that Ansari’s confession “proves that there was state support or state actors’ support for 26/11 massacre.”
India has long accused Pakistan of involvement in the attacks — an accusation Pakistan has repeatedly denied. A joint investigation by FRONTLINE and ProPublica last year revealed that David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani American who scouted targets for the attacks, was also a spy for Pakistani intelligence. In trial testimony last year, Headley gave an unprecedented account of how Lashkar carried out the attacks with the support of ISI officials.
Former Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik denied Chidambaram’s charges yesterday, telling reporters that India’s “speculative allegations against Pakistan have been proven incorrect on several occasions” and emphasizing that the suspect in custody was born in India. “Why are you blaming Pakistan?” he asked. “He is your citizen. You fail to control your citizen.”
According to Indian authorities, Ansari was born in Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located, and before joining Lashkar, he was a member of the Indian Mujahideen — a terrorist group that has taken responsibility for attacks on civilians in the past.
They also believe that during the Mumbai attacks, Ansari was on the phone with the gunmen who took over Chabad House, a Jewish community center where Americans Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivka, as well as four others were killed.
“The government must know that this is just a trailer. The real movie is still left to come,” a handler speaking with a Mumbai accent told the gunmen at the Chabad House in taped telephone intercepts. The Hindu has identified the speaker as Ansari. (Listen to the excerpt and read a translated transcript here.)
Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the the sole surviving Mumbai attacker, told interrogators that a man named Abu Jundal — which is an alias used by Ansari — taught the Urdu-speaking gunmen Hindi words to use in order to make it appear as though the attackers were Indian.
For the last two years, Ansari lived in Saudi Arabia, where he had been “talent spotting” for another “massive attack,” an official with New Delhi’s antiterrorist police unit told Reuters, though he did not specify whether India was the target.
Pakistani journalist and Lashkar expert Arif Jamal, who has been investigating Ansari’s activities in Saudi Arabia, told FRONTLINE that Ansari was in the country trying to persuade members of the assorted terrorists outfits he had belonged to — including the Indian Mujajideen and the Students Islamic Movement of India or SIMI — to merge with Lashkar.
Indian media reported that Ansari was deported from Saudi Arabia at the request of Indian authorities, but there are conflicting reports about the intelligence that led to his arrest at New Delhi International Airport. According to The Hindu, the U.S. pushed the case forward with Saudi Arabia, and the arrest “came after months of patient work” by Saudi and Indian intelligence, which identified Ansari through intercepted phone conversations. Indian television station NDTV reported that Indian intelligence tracked Ansari and convinced Saudi Arabia to turn him over, reportedly by matching his family members’ DNA samples.
Jamal, who has studied Indian terrorists’ operations in Saudi Arabia, says that Ansari would be the first known high-profile suspect that the Saudis have turned over to India.
Saudi assistance in turning over Ansari would be unusual because Saudi Arabia and India are not natural partners, according to ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel. “I’m puzzled by why the Saudis would do this, but it would make sense if they were being pushed by the U.S. and other countries who want Lashkar put out of business,” he told FRONTLINE.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed the arrest, telling reporters, “We have a strong interest, as we’ve said since the day of the attack, in the arrest, prosecution and conviction of all those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack because our own citizens were among the victims.”
Indian media accounts have cited Ansari’s involvement in other attacks, but those claims are difficult to parse because of his numerous aliases. One of his reported monikers — Abu Hamza — comes up repeatedly in an Indian report of its interrogation of Headley, but it’s unclear whether Headley is referring to Ansari or another Lashkar operative.
Praveen Swami, the New Delhi bureau chief of the The Hindu, noted that India continues to question Ansari. “Frankly, all we’ve got from our sources is patched conversations,” he said, adding there will be a much clearer picture after July 5, when Delhi police will have to produce him in court.
“If this is the individual the Indians think it is, they have a very big fish who is likely to be able to provide them of further evidence of ISI complicity in the operation,” said Riedel. “This is a potential real breakthrough.”
Coincidentally, Ansari’s court appearance will take place at the same time that India and Pakistan are scheduled to hold ongoing peace talks in New Delhi. Despite its latest allegations of Pakistani complicity in the Mumbai attacks, India has said the talks will still take place.
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