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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Police Foiled Earlier Plot Against Mumbai

The New York Times

December 6, 2008

Police Foiled Earlier Plot Against Mumbai

MUMBAI, India — The Indian police foiled an attempt to destroy landmarks and wreak havoc in Mumbai early this year, breaking up a cell of Pakistani and Indian men who were directed by the same two Pakistan-based militant leaders they have accused of organizing last week's devastating attacks here, the police said.

The foiled plot also involved Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani group accused of last week's attacks, the police said. That suggests that the militant group conceived its plan long in advance and that it has made deeper contacts with radical Indian Muslims than investigators have been willing to concede.

It also pointed up another significant security lapse by Indian intelligence and police forces, who months ago had glimpses of a blueprint for the Mumbai attacks and even a strong indication of the intended targets.

Investigators have said they were looking into the possibility that the men who carried out last week's assault — all believed to be Pakistani — had local, Indian accomplices.

They have not found any so far but say they are looking at one of the men in the foiled plot, Faheem Ahmed Ansari, an Indian from Mumbai, as a possible suspect. Officials said that he and five men suspected as co-plotters were initially arrested in connection with an attack on a police camp in northern India.

After his arrest, Mr. Ansari told investigators he had also carried out reconnaissance of targets in Mumbai.

It is not clear whether that research played a role in the planning of last week's attacks, which authorities now say killed 163 people.

The six men who were arrested are still being held by the authorities. Mr. Ansari was detained in February.

Mr. Ansari was caught with hand-drawn sketches of 8 to 10 Mumbai landmarks, apparently based on his reconnaissance trips, said Amitabh Yash, the superintendent of the special police task force in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the men were arrested.

He and the other accused men had AK-47 rifles, pistols, grenades and ammunition, Mr. Yash added, the same kinds of weapons carried by the 10 known attackers who terrorized Mumbai last week.

Other similarities in the plots are striking. The six men suspected in the February plot were accused of plotting an assault on Mumbai's main train station — one of the first targets struck last week — along with the city's stock exchange, major hotels and other sites.

Like the men in last week's attack, members of the earlier group did not expect to return alive, they told investigators.

They also told the police they had been directed by two Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders: Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, and a man known alternately as Yusuf or Muzammil, documents show.

Those two men planned and coordinated last week's attacks, and continued to guide at least 10 men who carried out the assault by phone as it unfolded, investigators in India say.

After his arrest, one of the six men told investigators he had received four months of training from Pakistan's main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the police said.

Indian police officials said they had not been able to verify the claim.

The ISI helped found Lashkar-e-Taiba two decades ago, though its current links to the group, which has been officially banned, were not clear. The belief that the spy agency is colluding with Pakistan-based terrorists is nearly universal in India.

India has not accused the Pakistani government of a hand in the Mumbai attacks, but it has furnished evidence of Lashkar's involvement, and it has pressed Pakistan to act decisively against the group.

With public anger at Pakistan swelling here in India, tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals have risen to a level not seen in years.

Lashkar has denied any role in the attacks. But it has been trying in recent years to recruit more Indian Muslims to its cause, Indian officials said. It has been aided by local communal grievances against the Hindu majority, as well as the global growth of hard-line Islamism.

During the assault last week, one of the attackers is said to have mentioned a 2002 Hindu massacre of Muslims before killing one of the hostages, in an apparent attempt to identify his cause with that of Indian Muslims.

A senior American counterterrorism official said it was highly likely that local accomplices were involved. "They couldn't have gotten to the places they did without local help," the official said, speaking on the condition on anonymity because of the continuing inquiry. "They just moved too quickly. They had to have had more assistance on the ground."

The American official said the investigation's review on the site of where the attackers came ashore and any evidence recovered from the bodies of the dead gunmen may reveal additional clues regarding any local support.

After his arrest in February, Mr. Ansari told investigators he grew up in Mumbai, and in 2006 moved to Saudi Arabia for work, like many young Indians. An imam at the local mosque inspired him with talk of jihad.

Later, Lashkar recruiters approached him, and before long he was traveling by sea to Pakistan, where he underwent physical, military and intelligence training in Lashkar camps, Mr. Yash, the police task force leader, said. He was given a Pakistani passport and other documents to ease his movements.

Mr. Yash added that interrogations of Mr. Ansari and his fellow suspects "told us a lot about the interactions of Lashkar and the ISI," he said "They were absolutely intertwined."

Under the direction of Mr. Lakhvi, the Lashkar commander, Mr. Ansari traveled to Mumbai in the autumn of 2007 to begin doing reconnaissance for an attack, officials said. Later, they said, he took part in a Dec. 31 attack on a police headquarters in Rampur, 100 miles northwest of Delhi, in which seven policemen were killed.

By that time, he was part of a team of Lashkar militants: three from the Indian city of Lucknow; one from Bihar, in northern India; and the two Pakistanis, officials said.

The leader was an Indian Muslim named Saba'uddin Ahmed, a well-educated young man from an affluent family in Bihar. He was the one who had been given four months of training by an ISI operative, in addition to an earlier round of training in Lashkar camps, according to police documents.

Mr. Ahmed had also been involved in at least one prior mission, documents say: an attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 2005 in which a scientist was killed.

After the attack on the police headquarters in Rampur, "we were told to go to Mumbai to do the suicide operation," Mr. Ansari told the police, according to a charge sheet drawn up after his arrest.

Speaking in Mumbai on Friday, India's new home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, admitted that there had been "lapses" in the way India handled the crisis and said his government was trying to "improve the effectiveness of the security systems."

Anger over last week's attacks has been directed not only at neighboring Pakistan but also squarely at India's own government for not having done more to prevent the attacks. In the most public outrage so far, tens of thousands have marched in Mumbai and other cities across the country.

"The people of India feel a sense of hurt and anger as never before," the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said in New Delhi.

Somini Sengupta contributed reporting from Mumbai, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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