Originally Published 2004-03-15 11:52:47 Published on Mar 15, 2004
They help investigation by facilitating interception of conversations and by providing a record of calls made if recovered intact after the commission of an offence.
Madrid Probe Moves Forward
(To be read in continuation of my earlier article of March 11 on the Madrid blasts at www.saag.org )

Mobile phones help and hinder criminal investigation.

They help investigation by facilitating interception of conversations and by providing a record of calls made if recovered intact after the commission of an offence.

They hinder investigation by causing difficulties in interception through evasive techniques such as using borrowed or stolen mobiles or by using mobiles hired or bought  in the name of unconscious third parties, with or without their collaboration or communicating only from moving vehicles and not from fixed locations.

Between 1993 and 1996, Karachi in Pakistan witnessed an orgy of terrorist violence committed by the two factions of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). The police faced considerable difficulty in preventing and investigating the acts of terrorism due to the extensive use of these evasive techniques by the terrorists. Mrs.Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, banned in 1995 the use of mobile phones in Karachi  and  ordered the closure of all mobile phone companies. Following this, the terrroists were forced to use land-line telephones from fixed locations leading to many arrests. The terrorism withered away within a few months.

The reported recovery of a mobile phone instrument by the Madrid Police is, therefore, the most important break-through so far  made by them since the simultaneous blasts in different trains on March 11,2004, led to the deaths of 200 innocent civilians. This was found intact inside a bag containing one of the improvised explosive devices (IED), which had failed to explode.

During the investigation of the simultaneous Mumbai blasts of March 1993 too, in which 250 innocent civilians were killed, the initial forensic break-through came from an IED, which had failed to explode. In Mumbai, the recovery was made in the first two or three hours of the investigation immediately after the blasts. It is very likely that the Madrid Police too  made the recovery immediately after the tragedy, but chose not to disclose it to the public in order not to alert the terrorists about its recovery.

The recovered mobile would have given the Police the details of its ownership and of the calls made by the terrorists from it. Apparently, on the basis of this, the Police have arrested or detained for questioning three persons of Moroccan origin and two of Indian origin, whose names have been given as Suresh Kumar and Vinay Kohli.

The Madrid correspondent of the "Hindu", the prestigious daily of Chennai, has reported as follows on March 15: "Two other men of Spanish nationality, but of Indian origin were detained for questioning, but not arrested. Sources say that they are from Barcelona and are possibly illegal aliens who were implicated because they had long-distance telephone SIM cards. But they are not directly involved in the attacks."

That is, a total of four persons of Indian origin were questioned, of whom two have been detained and two others not detained since they were not directly involved. Does it mean that the other two were directly involved? If so, how? This is not yet clear.

An intriguing aspect of the recovery is that the phone had apparently been kept packed along with the IED. That is, it was not left there by oversight. The terrorists had deliberately kept it there. Why? Only one answer is possible. They wanted the phone to be destroyed by the explosion  as, otherwise, it might have led the investigators to someone who knew their identity even though that someone might not have been aware of their intention to use the mobile in connection with the commission of an act of terrorism.

The three Moroccans and the two persons of Indian origin were picked up by the Madrid Police, apparently as a follow-up to the recovery of the phone. The Police seem to  suspect either their unconscious indirect involvement or conscious direct involvement. The indirect involvement could have been by either lending the terrorists  their mobile or by helping them get a mobile and SIM cards in somebody else's name or in a fictitious name. The fact that the terrorists wanted to destroy the telephone gives rise to the suspicion  that if the phone had been obtained from one or all of the detained persons, they knew the terrorists beforehand and were aware of their correct identity.

From the names, the two persons of Indian origin detained  seem to be Hindus. One can understand unsuspecting Hindus getting unconsciously and indirectly involved. But will a Hindu get consciously involved in an act of jihadi terrorism? Even if he is prepared to, will the jihadi terrorists trust a Hindu strongly enough to seek his direct involvement?

Al Qaeda and the various components of its International Islamic Front (IIF) are very security-conscious and avoid associating non-Muslims with their operations. In fact, bin Laden keeps non-Arabs out of his Al Qaeda. The other components of the IIF have in their ranks an ethnic mix------Arabs as well as non-Arabs, but all devout Muslims.

If the two persons of Indian origin detained by the Madrid Police were consciously and directly involved, that could give rise to the suspicion that they are apparently Muslims of Indian sub-continental origin using Hindu aliases. Instances of jihadi terrorists operating in India using Hindu aliases are not unknown. Many of the cadres of Al Ummah of Tamil Nadu were  doing it. One way of determining whether they were Hindus or Muslims masquerading as Hindus is by subjecting them to a medical examination.

The investigation is increasingly pointing towards a jihadi hand in the blasts. Whether the hand is indigenous or external, it is premature to say. If it finally turns out to be a jihadi operation, there was definitely a local Muslim involvement. The details of the terrorist attack available so far indicate considerable knowledge of the topography and the railway network. Only locals or foreign-origin Muslims living in Spain for some months or years could have provided these inputs.

The available details indicate considerable orchestration by a common command and control (Al Qaeda?)  and sophisticated planning and timing. Apart from Al Qaeda, only the following groups have in the past shown a capability  for such sophisticated and well-timed series of explosions:  

  • The sub-continental mafia gang led by Dawood Ibrahim, who now lives in Pakistan and whose members had in the past operated in Portugal. The 1993 Mumbai blasts engineered by this gang indicated similar sophistication.
  • Al Ummah of Tamil Nadu, which had  carried out a series of well-timed explosions at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in February,1998. It is a purely indigenous organisation with no established external linkages.
  • The Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which had carried out explosions in different Indian Railway trains in December 1993, to mark the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But those explosions were crude. It has linkages with Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).
  • The Pakistani LET, which has carried out the maximum number of timed explosions in India. It is a member of bin Laden's IIF and has been co-ordinating its activities for nearly a year now due to bin Laden's incapacity. It had a secret cell in the USA, which was detected by the US authorities last year and is known to have secret sleeper cells in the UK. No secret cell of the LET in continental Europe has so far come to notice.

The ish authorities are reported to have recovered from a dustbin a video cassette containing a statement  claiming responsibility for the Madrid blasts.The speaker, whose accent is stated to be Moroccan, has identified himself as the military spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al-Afghani. The authenticity of the recording is still to be established.Generally, bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda identify themselves by name and not by any designation. This individual's action in describing himself as Al Qaeda's military spokesman in Europe is out of keeping with the practice hitherto followed by Al Qaeda.(15-3-04)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: [email protected] )
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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