By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
This story was co-published with Foreign Policy.
Last year, Indian and U.S. investigators came upon a rare promising lead in an internationally sensitive case: the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people and implicated Pakistan’s spy agency in terrorism.
Despite Interpol warrants and diplomatic pressure, Pakistan had refused to hand over accused plotters, including an officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and chiefs of the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group. But investigators learned that a wanted suspect had traveled from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia.
The suspect, Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian militant, was a potential investigative gold mine. During the Mumbai attacks, intercepts recorded him talking to the gunmen from the Pakistani command post where Lashkar chiefs directed the slaughter by phone, Indian and U.S. counterterror officials say.
Ansari made the mistake of using an email address in Saudi Arabia that was known to those hunting him, officials say. Investigators tracked him and alerted Saudi police, who arrested him in May 2011. Diplomatic wrangling ensued. Finally, DNA evidence from India and pressure from Washington resulted in Ansari’s deportation to New Delhi in June, officials say.
Now, after weeks of interrogation, Ansari’s statements to Indian police have reinforced evidence of the ISI’s role in a terror plot that targeted Americans at the same time Pakistan was receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid, officials have told ProPublica. Previous disclosures in U.S. and Indian courts about the spy agency’s links to the Mumbai attacks, which killed six Americans, contributed to a dramatic decline in U.S.-Pakistani relations over the past two and a half years.
On Nov. 26, 2008, attackers opened fire at locations across the city, many frequented by foreigners. The targets were the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels, the popular Leopold Cafe, a train station and a Jewish center. Some gunmen took hostages and held off Indian forces for nearly three days.
Ansari has admitted to being in the Pakistani command post and assisting the telephone handlers who oversaw the rampage in India, according to Indian and U.S. counterterror officials. His statements give investigators the first account of an insider at the Karachi command post.
“It’s important that he was in the room,” said Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University and author of “Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.” “He can speak to who else was in the room. And from India’s perspective, the most important issue is the involvement of ISI officers in the plot and whether Ansari can confirm that.”
Ansari’s emergence has generated intrigue and confusion that are typical of the labyrinthine Mumbai case. His arrival from Riyadh on June 21 caused a flurry of media coverage in India. Headlines described him as a “key handler” and “mastermind” of the plot. A prosecutor referred to Ansari as a “prime key conspirator” during a court hearing last month, according to media reports.
Nonetheless, Indian and U.S. counterterror officials with knowledge of the case have told ProPublica that Ansari is not a senior figure. The reality is less spectacular and more complex. His significance rests largely on knowledge gained as a trusted Indian member of Lashkar, which has worked closely with the ISI in a self-described holy war against India, according to officials and experts.
“He was one of the more important Indians in the organization,” Tankel said. “They have taken an important figure off the battlefield, but by no means an irreplaceable one.”
Hours before the Mumbai attack began, Ansari saw Major Samir Ali of the ISI meet with the terrorist plotters at the Lashkar safe house where the command post was located, according to his statement as described by officials. Ansari also said that an ISI officer known as Colonel Hamza helped him travel to Saudi Arabia to recruit fellow Indian Muslims and move funds for Lashkar, officials say.
Major Ali and Colonel Hamza had been previously identified by a star witness: David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty to doing reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks and for a plot in Denmark. Headley testified that the officers helped train him and direct his activity as an ISI agent along with his handler, known only as Major Iqbal.
During a federal trial in Chicago last year, Headley spent five days on the stand giving a detailed look into the notorious Pakistani spy agency. Headley testified that he worked simultaneously for Lashkar and the ISI, which he said helped plan, fund and execute the Mumbai attacks with the explicit goal of killing Americans, Jews and other Westerners as well as Indians.
Prosecutors backed his testimony with emails, videos, phone intercepts, credit card charges and witness accounts. Nonetheless, Pakistani officials dismiss Headley, a former DEA informant, as an unreliable witness who entered into a plea bargain to escape the death penalty.
Based largely on Headley’s testimony, U.S. prosecutors charged Major Iqbal with the murders of the Americans in Mumbai — an unprecedented indictment of a serving ISI officer. Pakistan has not arrested him or even acknowledged his existence.
The U.S. Justice Department also charged the three Lashkar chiefs who were allegedly the telephone handlers in the command post. Pakistani authorities arrested one, Abu al-Qama, but the other two, Sajid Mir and Abu Qahafa, still operate openly in Pakistan, according to Western and Indian investigators.
A spokeswoman for the FBI, a major player in the global investigation, declined comment for this article because of pending court cases in India and Pakistan. U.S. and Indian counterterror officials spoke on condition of anonymity. Pakistani and Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
‘An Office Boy’
Although Ansari was in the command post, his voice appears in only four of the 1,600 telephone conversations with the gunmen, officials say. In three of those calls intercepted by Indian intelligence, officials said, Ansari does little more than answer the phone. Officials say he told Indian interrogators that the main telephone handlers were the three chiefs whose voices dominate the calls: Mir, Qahafa and al-Qama.
Before the Mumbai attacks, Ansari worked as an aide to a Lashkar militant who set up websites, officials said.
“He’s described himself as an office boy, and that’s pretty much what he was,” said a counterterror official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Others say Ansari was better-connected and better-placed than that. An Indian counterterror official described him as “an important assistant.”
Ansari, 30, grew up in a modest home in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is, studied to be an electrician and became radicalized as a result of anti-Muslim violence in India in 2002, according to a profile by Praveen Swami in The Hindu newspaper.
In 2005, Ansari and other extremists were in a two-vehicle convoy carrying a cache of assault rifles and explosives when Indian police intercepted them in Aurangabad, U.S. and Indian officials say. Ansari narrowly escaped the encounter. He fled to Pakistan, joined Lashkar and underwent training, according to the article and officials.
In the summer of 2008, as preparations for the strike on Mumbai gathered momentum, Lashkar trainers enlisted Ansari to give Hindi lessons to 10 fighters training in a paramilitary camp.
To conceal Pakistani involvement, the plan called for the attack squad to pose as Indians, complete with fraudulent identity cards and a statement claiming allegiance to an Indian extremist group. But Ansari soon told his chiefs that he did not think the rural, uneducated youths could learn more than a smattering of the Hindi language, officials said.
As a result, Ansari spent about an hour a day for five days teaching phrases to several trainees who were designated to speak to the Indian media during the Mumbai siege. In the fall, he moved with the trainees and the Lashkar chiefs to Karachi, where he taught his pupils phrases for taking taxis in Mumbai and did other support tasks, officials said.
Ansari did not know the specifics of the operation ahead of time but picked up details as the target date approached. He has told interrogators that he learned shortly beforehand that he would assist the handlers in the command post, officials said.
Ansari has pinpointed the location of the safe house in Karachi. He described a no-frills command center equipped with a satellite phone, hand-held phones, laptops, broadband Internet and at least one television. He said Major Ali of the ISI met with the Lashkar plotters at the command post during the day on Nov. 26, officials said. The attack squad landed that evening in Mumbai.
‘Just the Trailer’
The investigation had already indicated that Major Ali worked closely with Major Iqbal, Headley’s ISI handler and a central planner of the attacks, according to U.S. court testimony and counterterror officials.
Ansari’s revelations caused Indian leaders to repeat their charges that, in the words last month of then-Home Minister P.D. Chidambaram, Pakistani “state actors” were behind the most spectacular terrorist strike since the 9/11 attacks.
“It is no longer possible to deny that though the incident happened in Mumbai, there was a control room in Pakistan before and during the incident,” Chidambaram told reporters in India, according to news reports. “Without state support, the control room could not have been established.”
Ansari’s starring moment came late on the first night of the mayhem, which was televised worldwide. Telephone intercepts reveal that he spoke to an attacker holed up in the Oberoi Trident Hotel, reading him a statement with Hindi phrases to be relayed to the Indian media.
“Tell them this is just the trailer,” Ansari instructed the gunman, according to a transcript of the conversation. “The real movie is yet to come.”
In addition to the three telephone handlers, Ansari confirmed the presence in the command post of suspects including a top figure known as Muzzammil, the chief of a Lashkar subgroup that does anti-India operations. Ansari told police that Hafiz Saeed, Lashkar’s spiritual leader, was not in the command post, but did give his blessing to the attack squad before they departed by sea, officials said.
In April, the U.S. State Department sent a message to Pakistan by announcing a $10 million reward for the capture of Saeed and Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, a longtime chief of Lashkar’s international wing.
Pakistan has not moved against Saeed, who still holds public rallies. But in early 2009, Pakistani authorities reacted to international outrage by arresting seven suspects, notably Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the military chief of Lashkar, and al-Qama, the accused telephone handler.
Their trial has slogged on for three years, longer than a typical Pakistani trial. There have been repeated procedural delays and five changes of judges. Critics say it has become a farce. The Chicago trial resulted in the conviction last year of Tahawwur Rana, an accomplice of Headley, on charges of material support of terrorism. An Indian court convicted the lone surviving Mumbai gunman in 2010.
Pakistan has shown little interest in pursuing the case. Last year, a senior U.S. official asked the chief of Pakistani armed forces to confiscate a cellphone that Lakhvi, the Lashkar military leader, was using to issue orders from custody, according to counterterror officials and a U.S. government memo viewed by ProPublica. The armed forces chief rejected the request, according to the memo.
Investigators say the accused fugitive plotters have high-level protection in Pakistan. Headley testified that, soon after his arrest in Chicago, he worked with FBI agents in an attempt to lure Mir, whom Western and Indian investigators see as the chief architect of the Mumbai attacks, to a third country where an arrest might be possible.
Lashkar militants feel safe in Saudi Arabia because of a history of financial and ideological support from powerful Saudi extremists. The Mumbai investigation — and a ProPublica interview with a former recruit from New Zealand — showed that Makki and other Lashkar figures have operated comfortably in Saudi Arabia for years.
“Historically, if you were an [Indian] Lashkar militant in Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport and you were picked up for extremist activities, you were not sent to India,” Tankel said.
“Is it imaginable that people from the (Lashkar) high echelons might have gone to Saudi after the Mumbai attacks? Yes. Will they still go now? Possibly. Saudi Arabia is not suddenly a no-go area, but it’s not as hospitable an environment either.”
U.S. Role in Capture
Ansari’s motives for going to Saudi Arabia were a mix of operational and practical, officials said. Like many South Asian migrants, he went to find a job because he was not making enough money in Pakistan, officials said. He also had plans to recruit Indian Muslims, officials said. Lashkar relies more on Indian operatives because law enforcement scrutiny and international political pressure after Mumbai have made direct attacks using Pakistanis more difficult, Tankel said.
Ansari traveled on a genuine Pakistani passport with a false identity that, according to his testimony, he received along with funding and instructions from Colonel Hamza of the ISI, the officer identified by Headley, officials said. Ansari first went to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to visit a sister living there, then returned early last year. He sent small amounts of money to militants in India, officials said.
But Ansari did not know that investigators had already identified an email address he had been using, according to the Indian counterterror official. U.S. and Indian investigators detected his email traffic in Saudi Arabia and tracked him down, officials said.
“He was caught with the help of the Americans,” the Indian counterterror official said. “He was recruiting and fundraising among Indian workers in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi police arrested Ansari in May of last year. But Ansari insisted he was Pakistani, and Pakistani diplomats backed his story, officials said. The arrest remained a secret as bickering continued.
“The Pakistanis at a high level tried to bring out evidence that he was in reality Pakistani,” the Indian official said. “They created a family history and everything. But we had a DNA sample and other evidence.”
The Indian official and others said Washington weighed in as well. Tankel suggested that U.S. officials made the case to Saudi counterparts that Lashkar was growing closer to al Qaeda, which Riyadh sees as an urgent security threat. But Tankel added that the state of relations between Lashkar and al Qaeda remains a hotly debated issue because the groups have been alternately allies and competitors.
After 14 months of discussions, the U.S. pressure was instrumental in the rare decision by the Saudis to turn over a Lashkar militant to India, officials said.
“This is a significant event,” Tankel said.
Nonetheless, it is not clear if Saudi authorities would pursue Pakistani members of Lashkar. And while the arrest of Ansari has bolstered the case against the accused masterminds, counterterror officials say, the fugitives remain out of reach in Pakistan.
Update: Pakistan’s embassy in Washington issued the following statement Thursday in response to questions about Ansari’s arrest in Saudi Arabia and his subsequent deportation more than a year later:
“No discussions ever took place between the U.S. and Pakistan on the issue. Mr. Ansari was obviously traveling on a fake Pakistani passport as he is an Indian national. Pakistan has requested India to share information on him and has also offered to hold a joint investigation.”
The statement does not address the allegations that Pakistan backed Ansari’s assertion that he was Pakistani, the reasons for14 months of diplomatic discussions, or why Indian authorities had to submit a DNA sample proving Ansari was Indian before he could be deported. Nadeem Hotiana, the embassy press attache, said he did not have further information on the case.