In the autumn of 2001, as the foliage of Chinar trees turned scarlet and chilly winds swept through the Kashmir Valley, Wajahat Hussain revved up a bomb-laden Tata Sumo and sped past the J&K high court complex in Srinagar before crashing his car into the gates of the former state’s legislative assembly. He sent a fireball billowing several feet across. This was followed by another attack where Hussain’s co-conspirators, dressed in uniforms, fired a volley of bullets at the entrance, killing as many people as possible.
A total of 38 people died in the terrorist attack, which was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The attack counts among the most dastardly episodes of the early 2000s terrorism surge in South Asia as the US-Pakistan-backed Afghan war of the 1990s drew down and the region saw the emergence of new fault-lines and conflicts.
Now, over 20 years later, investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have pieced together a more complex account of events that caused the attack. In their latest book, Spy Stories, the authors, boasting of unprecedented access to intelligence tsars in India, Pakistan and beyond, reconstruct the factors that led to the deadly event.
A substantial part of the book is based on events in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and how the involvement of al-Qaeda sent Pakistan, steered by military dictator Pervez Musharraf, into a dramatic “course correction” coinciding with and inextricably linking it with the US ‘War on Terror’.
Those objectives also led Musharraf to seek a peace deal with India over Kashmir where militant outfits of various hues had precipitated mayhem.
But “placating” India had to go hand in hand with protecting Pakistan’s interests, particularly from individuals in Kashmir who were trying to carve out their own niches, independently of the ISI. Among them was Bahawalpur-born Tahir Nadeem, known by his alias Ghazi Baba, who had commandeered the Jaish’s operations in Kashmir. Another one was the Hizbul Mujahideen’s Abdul Majeed Dar, who had decided to abjure violence in July 2000 and was believed to have inked a ‘wrong deal’ with the Indian state that would have undermined Pakistan’s interests.
Pakistan’s covert operations
To smoothen out these two bulging veins, ISI dispatched an operative, ‘Major Iftikhar’, whose exploits form a crucial part of the book, into Kashmir to pilot its high-value covert operations.
Iftikhar is said to have met Baba in Kashmir and directed him to stop operations because Jaish’s attacks were marked by Al Qaeda-like savagery and risked undermining global support for the ‘Kashmir cause’ at a time when Musharraf faced pressure from the Americans. He also warned Baba that his henchman, Tariq Ahmed, was a double agent.
Furthermore, worried by Majeed Dar’s ‘wrong deal’, Iftikhar also decided to get back at him by targeting his friends and family members. The book claims Iftikhar accomplished this by leveraging his “assets” within the J&K Police and its Special Task Force wing (STF). Iftikhar tipped off an officer about Abdul Hamid Tantray, Dar’s close deputy. Tantray was duly shot dead on July 23, leaving Dar devastated.
A statement put out by the police, according to the book, claimed that Tantray had attacked them and died during the shootout. Dar saw red and decided to blow the cover on all ISI assets in the Valley. Later, Iftikhar would kill Dar too.
Iftikhar’s handlers delivered another message. This time, it was about Ghazi Baba’s alleged “insubordination”. He was plotting more attacks, despite the ISI’s directions against such adventures and was doing so under the influence of a sidekick who the ISI believed was an “Intelligence Bureau asset”. He proposed “deep targets” within India. The plotting culminated in the 2001 legislative assembly assault which caught everyone by surprise. This was followed by a high-profile attack on the Indian parliament in December that year. In both these attacks, the imprints of Ghazi Baba and his allies in the Jaish loomed large.
Among the suspects that the Delhi Police rounded up and later charged with perpetrating the attacks was Afzal Guru. On December 21, 2001, magistrates in Delhi received a letter in a sealed envelope carrying signed statements by Guru and his alleged conspirator conceding that they committed the attack at the behest of Tariq Ahmed, the same person who Iftikhar believed was a turncoat.
The book says it was deputy superintendent of police Davinder Singh who had set up a meeting between Guru, Tariq and Mohammad, another terrorist who the book, quoting ISI officers, claims was an “asset” in the STF. No agency probed Davinder’s role even as his loyalty was already under suspicion by the Indian agencies, the book claims. Among other many wrongdoings, Davinder is alleged to have cosied up to Tariq Ahmed. DSP Davinder is currently in jail on charges of ferrying a militant he was arrested with in 2020.
The court’s judgment in the parliament attack case, the book says, eventually relied on the words of Rajbir Singh, an ‘encounter specialist’ cop in Delhi police who briefly served in Kashmir and was already accused of framing defendants in false cases. Guru was hanged in 2013, four years after Singh was shot dead in 2008 when he was visiting the house of a property developer in Gurgaon.
Masterminds behind Indian parliament attack
At the same time, the book says, Western analysts were befuddled by India’s claims and were aware of the rickety nature of the case against Guru. But they did pinpoint one name figuring in connection with the parliament attack – Mohammed Yasin Fateh, a terrorist from Pakistani Punjab who had signed up for the Kashmir ‘jihad’ in 1995 and was popularly called Hamza. He was made to join a Lashkar cell that was allegedly plotting attacks on industrial hubs across India. However, the book says that the cell was betrayed by an informer.
The IB tipped off the Thane police, who raided a locality in Mumbra on November 23, 2000 and arrested Hamza and recovered a weapons haul. Hamza was identified as a former Lashkar commander who knew about similar cells in Kashmir and thus was handed over to the police in Kashmir on December 8, 2000. However, an IB log from the same week, accessed by the authors, gives a referral number for the case which is also a tracking reference. In a subsequent IB file, 24-year-old Hamza is noted as “working for the security agencies”. The files record him as a special officer – a designation “used for assets and informers or agent provocateurs”.
The Indian intelligence community denies that the Hamza killed during the parliament attack is the same person who had been handed over to the J&K Police in December 2000. Some newspaper reports claim that Hamza was killed while trying to escape police custody. But the Thane court which enquired about their status was never informed.
Indeed, there’s no telling what became of the Hamza who the book says is identified as a ‘special officer’ in the IB’s files, adding yet another layer of suspicion on the whole saga of the 2001 parliament attack. S.M. Shangari, the then Thane police commissioner, had requested the photo of Hamza killed in the December 2001 attack from the IB and also sent the photos of the Hamza he had arrested from Mumbra to the police in Delhi and Srinagar to check for any comparison (or lack thereof). But there was no follow-up.
RAW, ISI and CIA
Another lesser known story highlighted in the book is RAW’s plots designed to outwit the Pakistanis and trap them in quagmires of their own making.
In one story, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, was coming to Pakistan when the CIA alerted Islamabad to a likely assassination plot. But instead of asking them to investigate, the CIA told the ISI to arrest the mastermind, Ilyas Kashmiri, one of the most wanted terrorists who formed the 313 Battalion, an al Qaeda affiliated outfit, after falling out with Jaish’s Masood Azhar.
The ISI detained Kashmiri just as the CIA directed it to do. The next morning, Powell landed in Pakistan without any incident, and Pakistani generals received a call that India had started shelling at border posts. Just when Islamabad hoped to use this as evidence of India’s unprovoked aggression, it ended up being shocked as Pakistan learned that it was India that had tipped off Powell about the plot. Kashmiri’s arrest would have had damaging consequences for Pakistan.
The book also claims that the US had delivered a prior briefing to India about the 26/11 attacks, but India allegedly ignored the intelligence. One of the reasons, as spelled out by a RAW officer referred to in the book as ‘Monisha’, was because many in the agency didn’t believe the Lashkar could pull it off. And if they did, “Pakistan would be shown to be the originator and a failed terror state”. Indeed, the 26/11 attacks would go on to wreck US-Pakistan relations.
The book also reveals how a special director in the IB had warned police chiefs in 2011 that “at least 16 bombing conspiracies had been linked to suspected Hindu militants, and that new intelligence detachments would have to be created to probe the far right-wing threat in India”.
But the passion to pursue this matter would all but vanish after Doval came to power in 2014, the book claims.
It also gives a detailed account of how the ISI’s Major Iftikhar turned rogue after leaving Kashmir and joined the ranks of militant malcontents angry over Pakistan’s ‘war on terror’. Before his 2003 defection, however, Iftikhar tipped his sources in the STF about Ghazi Baba’s location at downtown Srinagar’s Dana Mazar and got him eliminated.
There has been some debate over whether it was STF or the Border Security Force (BSF) that killed Baba. Levy, however, told The Wire that, “BSF killed GB in a raid which was underwritten by STF intel – and STF was present.”
The book reveals how Pakistan tipped the CIA off about the whereabouts of Ilyas Kashmiri who was eventually killed in a drone strike.
The killing of 36 Sikhs
Perhaps the most explosive of the authors’ claims lies in their discussion on the March 20, 2000 Chittisinghpura massacre. Pakistan had always blamed the Indian government for the killing of 36 Sikh civilians in south Kashmir that day, the timing chosen to coincide with Bill Clinton’s visit to India. Levy and Scott-Clark remind us of that but their book also cites purported classified Indian reports to suggest the massacre was “sanctioned” in some way by the Indian side:
“The classified I.S.I. post-mortem suggested that surrendered militants were deployed to mount the attack as ‘deniable Indian assets.’ It named a commander in the Muslim Brotherhood, the pro-India renegade outfit run by Kuka Parray who already faced multiple allegations of mass killings, rape, and torture.
“However, while Pakistan could be expected to wriggle, similar conclusions were drawn in classified reports authored in India, including by a military investigation team inquiring into the atrocity, that submitted its findings to the home ministry.
“A draft conclusion stated: ‘Although considerable confusion surrounds these events, it is clear to us that renegades – Ikhwan – likely aided or triggered it and had forewarned and/or been instructed by 7RR [Rashtriya Rifles] officers, reaching up to a sufficiently senior level for this to be regarded as a sanctioned attack. Were its consequences fully understood? We cannot say with certainty, as liaison with agencies while preparing this report has been poor’.”
The book provides no further details, nor do the authors run this sensational claim by the senior Indian intelligence officers they had access to for the writing of the book, including NSA Ajit Doval. It is also not clear why a military investigation team would submit its findings to the home ministry, especially since L.K. Advani, home minister at the time, had not yet been made deputy prime minister.
Former army officer Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain, who served in the south Kashmir command area of the Indian Army’s ‘Victor Force’, is dismissive of this claim. “I was the Col GS [general staff] of Victor Force Avantipura on 19 Mar 2000 when the massacre took place. It was in Victor Force area of responsibility…. I was with GOC [general officer commanding] VF every waking moment,” he told The Wire. “Perhaps Adrian Levy does not know which regiment the 7 RR is affiliated with… It is Punjab Regiment, with sardars galore. You expect them to have done it?”, he asked.
There’s one segment on Burhan Wani in the book where the authors discuss how the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) commander was tracked by Indian agencies from the beginning and how his inner circle was infiltrated. The “grid” in Kashmir waited for all and sundry to get drawn into his group, enabling Indian forces to kill them one by one before finally taking out Wani in 2016. The authors reveal how a Thuraya satellite phone gifted to him by HM made Burhan a walking GPS coordinate for the intelligence agencies, thanks to highly classified programs like VoiceSail with the “tech and knowhow shared by Israel, Britain and the US”.
Spy Stories is poignantly written, infused with drama and surprise at every level. These qualities make the book a gripping read. It’s an engaging work that is likely to challenge our perceptions about terrorism in South Asia.