What happens when an Indian undercover agency, the Indian Intelligence Bureau – which fields only 400 counter-terror agents in a population of 1.1 billion – is out of sync with External Indian Intelligence RAW (India's equivalent of the America CIA) and another twelve or so services operating in India and abroad?
Not surprisingly, the result is a mess, such as the one that surfaced on Dec. 5, when Mukhtar Ahmed Sheikh, 35, originally from Indian-controlled Kashmir, was detained in Delhi.
Another man, Tausif Rehman, 26, was picked up in his home town of Kolkata (Calcutta), capital of West Bengal, earlier that day. Both were on the run.
Ahmed was accused of procuring mobile phone cards for Lashkar e-Taiba, the Islamist group accused of staging the bloody 60-hour Mumbai siege which left 171 dead.
His arrest might have been celebrated by the undercover agency as a big coup, except for a fly in the ointment: Ahmed turned out to be an undercover agent who had penetrated the Laskhar e-Taiba for the Jammu and Kashmir police. He had been handing out phone cards to terror operatives, so enabling Indian security forces to tap their conversations.
Ahmed did his best to explain this to the New Delhi police. They refused to check with their Jammu and Kashmir colleagues. Instead, they broke his arrest to the media as a success story. The agent's cover was blown as a result, his family jeopardized and Indian intelligence lost a valuable asset.
Phone cards planted on terrorists
The next police discovery was that suspects arrested in Kolkata had bought at least 22 of the planted phone cards under forged identifies and sent them to Pakistan.
So far, investigators of the Mumbai attack have traced five of the SIM cards said to have been used by the gunmen who perpetrated it.
Jawed Shamim, Kolkata's police commissioner said: “Our unconfirmed reports from sister agencies tell us that one of the SIM cards has been found in Mumbai. The cards enabled the gunmen to communicate with each other and their controllers in Pakistan, without giving away their identities or whereabouts.”
The two suspects, according to Indian police, were confederates. Rehmen was Ahmed's Kolkata contact and logistical supplier of Lashkar e-Taiba. As such, he sold his Kashmir friend the SIM cards which Ahmed later handed round to its members for the police to monitor.
When Rehman realized the West Bengal police were on to him, he fled, alerting Ahmed on the way. After he was caught, he agreed to help the police trap Ahmed who had meanwhile reached Delhi. Following police instructions, Rehman called Ahmed, said his wife was desperately ill and he needed the money still owed him for the 22 SIM cards. He said he was sending two friends to pick it up and asked for Ahmed's address.
The friends who knocked on the Kashmiri's door were police officers.
But then came more questions.
Mukhtar Ahmed Sheikh was found by the arresting officers in the Jammu and Kashmir government's guest house in Delhi. With him was a J and K police sub-inspector. It was then confirmed that the arrested man was a counter-insurgency undercover agent whose contacts with terrorist organizations, particularly the Laskhar e-Taiba, had been useful for planting the SIM cards on its members.
As the police investigation unfolded, the identities of the two suspects began to emerge.
One double agent, one shady entrepreneur
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counter-terror sources were told that, notwithstanding vigorous Indian denials, Ahmed did indeed turn out to be a double agent who infiltrated Lashkar e-Taiba to help the Kashmir police's counter-terror effort, whereas Tausif Rehman was on the face of it an entrepreneur who turned a profit by flogging SIM cards to terrorists, intelligence agents, police, mobsters – or anyone with the right price.
The intelligence value of his phone cards depended on their place of origin. If they prove to have come from outside India, Rehman may not have been a small fry just making a buck after all, as the Indian police claim, but a more sinister cog in the terror machine.
The Times of India of Dec. 10 hinted as much in an article captioned: “City SIMs offer greater cover, say investigators. Why do terrorists across the country favor SIM cards from Bengal?
“This question has security agencies baffled,” an Indian police officer confided to the newspaper: 'It helps to evade detection. Millions of local calls are made every hour and it is nearly impossible to keep tabs on them unless there is specific information about numbers that need to be monitored. In comparison, STD or ISD calls are fewer and may be under the scanner when there is an alert.
'Add to this the ease with which information can be passed if local SIMs are used. Anyone can walk into a PCO and make calls, Even if tapped, it would be impossible to nab the caller. He would be miles away before police reached the PCO,' said the officer.”
The article ends with this telling paragraph:
“It has also come to light that authorities are on the lookout for details of a particular SIM that was obtained by Tausif Rehman who has been arrested for procuring a large number of SIMs in Kolkata in December 2006 in the name of his dead uncle Ashraf Numani. The SIM was procured from an outlet in Phears Lane and activated by a distributor on Sarat Bose Road on December 22, 2006. While other SIMs in Numani's name have been accounted for, this one has not been traced…”
Voice-over device keeps phone calls “under the scanner”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources add: This and other leads have caused the Indian police and intelligence to look into the possibility of Rehman having been in contact with the terrorist group as early as two years ago, possibly through Ahmed. His cooperation with them may have extended beyond the sale of phone cards and given him access to Lashkar's plans, including the Mumbai attack.
According to some Indian sources, New Delhi's intelligence services monitored members' phone calls through the SIM cards and would therefore have been forewarned of the prospective siege of Mumbai.
Not necessarily, because of another twist to the mobile phone saga.
Nine of the cell phones found in the terrorists' possession after the attack were shown to have been rigged with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) devices. This gadget uses complicated digital codes to make calls harder to trace and tap by traditional listening technology.
It is too sophisticated for the rank-and-file jihadi to fit on his mobile. It was installed either by a professional undercover service such as Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for the purpose of jamming Indian monitoring technology, or by professional technicians at Indian cell phone companies, who were sympathetic to Lashkar e-Taiba and willing to help the terrorists keep their communications “under the scanner.”
One such company could be located in Bengal. It would answer the question posed by the Times of India: “Why do terrorists across the country favor SIM cards from Bengal?”
The Indian Mumbai investigation is meandering rather than pushing forward in a straight line because the intelligence and counter-terror bodies involved are often as much at pains to slide over their lapses as to expose the truth.
Aware of this, Indian home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, speaking in parliament Dec. 11 was moved to promise that measures would be pursued to fix the intelligence lapses and “logistical weakness” which were exposed by the Islamist terrorist siege of Mumbai.