Syed Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jindal and Abu Hamza, reportedly served as a handler and Hindi teacher for the 10 gunmen who carried out the assault in which 166 people were killed in India’s financial capital over a three-day period.
“The person who goes by the pseudonym of Abu Jindal has been apprehended,” said Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.
Media reports, citing official sources, said the alleged member of the Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba was arrested at Delhi’s international airport Thursday while returning to India from Saudi Arabia. It was not immediately clear why authorities delayed the announcement and what exactly was the nature of the Saudi-Indian cooperation. Ansari is said to be a native of western Maharashtra state where Mumbai is located.
Indian security officials have reportedly identified Ansari, 30, as the previously unknown voice on intercepted recordings who gave instructions to the gunmen in real time as the attack unfolded. On the tapes, the voice is heard using typical Hindi words and directing the allegedly Pakistani operatives to mask their identities by, among other things, pretending they are disgruntled Indian Muslims.
At one point, the voice is also heard telling attackers at the Nariman House Jewish center to inform the media that the “attack was a trailer and the entire movie was yet to come,” at which point one of the attackers who only speaks Urdu asks what a trailer is.
India had an outstanding Interpol wanted bulletin for Ansari in which he is accused of charges dealing with weapons, explosives and terrorism.
The 166 victims were killed in attacks on two luxury hotels, a Jewish center and a train station. Nine of the gunmen were killed and one, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, was captured. Kasab, convicted in May 2010 of murder and waging war on India, cited Ansari’s role as a Hindi teacher in a deposition. Kasab is awaiting execution.
B. Raman, a security analyst and former Pakistan desk head at the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, said the arrest is significant, assuming Ansari turns out to be guilty. The four-day delay in announcing Ansari’s arrest was most likely designed so security agencies could debrief him and arrest any others involved before word spread.
A formal extradition request to Saudi Arabia from India would have been time consuming and garnered more publicity, Raman said, so it’s likely the suspect was “informally” transferred. While not handcuffed, he was probably watched closely by armed Saudi security on the plane until it landed in Delhi and he was arrested on Indian soil.
The suspect could help fill in a number of gaps in India’s understanding of the Mumbai attack, Raman said. “It’s important to reconstruct what happened, what are their plans for the future, were there sleeper cells, who else was involved,” he added.
Ansari, missing since 2005, was educated at Indian Technical Institute in central Maharashtra, according to media reports, and became radicalized after India’s deadly anti-Muslim Gujarat riots in 2002. He later traveled to Pakistan, rising quickly through Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ranks, working in training camps in Karachi and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the lead up to the Mumbai attack.
Relations between India and Pakistan went into a deep chill after the attack but have improved recently. New Delhi still suspects that Islamabad has dragged its feet in bringing the attack’s perpetrators to justice, however, especially alleged mastermind Hafiz Saeed.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, arguing that India’s evidence is insufficient. In May, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton authorized a $10-million reward for information leading to Saeed’s capture.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: An Indian soldier takes cover as the Taj Mahal hotel burns during gun battle between Indian military and militants inside the hotel in Mumbai on Nov. 29, 2008. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press