While the recent arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Al Qaeda’s number-three man, is a significant victory in the war on terror, another largely overlooked arrest gives even more reason to rejoice. Ijju Sheikh, a fugitive suspect in one of India’s worst terrorist attacks, was arrested in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on April 29. His capture shows that the noose is tightening on a sinister transnational mafia that both supports al Qaeda’s existence, and imperils India’s.
On March 12, 1993, a series of explosions ripped through the streets of Mumbai, killing 257 Indians and injuring 713. The serial attack, presaging Al Qaeda’s coordinated-bombing modus operandi, involved nearly simultaneous detonation of car-bombs across the city in crowded bazaars and near major hotels and Mumbai’s stock exchange. While India is no stranger to political violence, the attack has been retroactively dubbed “India’s 9-11” for its shock and devastation.
Ijju Sheikh stands accused of smuggling the RDX explosives used in the bombing. Once a hotelier and sarpanch (city council chief) with political connections, Sheikh fled to Dubai after the bombing and only recently snuck back into India. He is also accused of smuggling gold and weapons, as well as being a top henchman to international gangster and terrorist Dawood Ibrahim.
Ibrahim, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 bomb plot, is possibly the closest thing to a real-life Keyser Soze, the legendary mastermind of The Usual Suspects. Counterfeiting, assassination attempts on rivals in Bangkok, extorting Bollywood film studios, gunrunning to Africa, large-scale heroin smuggling to Europe — Ibrahim and his violent “D-Company” gang do it all, all across the world. Despite fleeing India after the bombing, he is still alleged to control much of the subcontinent’s underworld from exile.
But Dawood Ibrahim is more than just a sinister criminal and narcoterrorist; he is also a supporter of Al Qaeda. On October 17, 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department declared him a terrorist and froze his assets. According to Treasury, Osama bin Laden and his organization use Ibrahim’s smuggling routes for a fee. (Treasury does not reveal exactly what Osama smuggles along those routes.) Furthermore, Ibrahim is a financial backer of the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which continues horrific attacks inside India, including the December 2001 assault on India’s parliament. When al Qaeda bigshot Abu Zubaydah was arrested in Faisalabad, he was hiding in a Lashkar-e-Taiba safehouse.
In case you’re not worried yet, this journalist reports that Dawood Ibrahim may be “operating an airline from a Central Asian republic.” The republic may be Nepal, where D-Company has invested in the local branch of an airline. Granted, Nepal’s passenger carriers are not exactly in the market for the new jumbo Airbus. But a drug-running Islamic terrorist with his own airline? That ought to focus the mind.
Ijju Sheikh’s arrest may shed light on the relationship to the 1993 bombing of another group reputed to have close ties to terrorists — Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Evidence introduced at the trial of some other suspects in the 1993 bombing suggests that Ibrahim undertook the bombing at the ISI’s behest, and with their logistical support, in retaliation for India’s demolition of a mosque. Whether or not further evidence emerges on that front, the ISI also stands accused of sheltering Ibrahim in Karachi Karachi. Pakistan vehemently denies these accusations; however, the U.S. declaration of Ibrahim’s terrorist status listed his location as Pakistan, and noted that he held a Pakistani passport.
The same ISI, however, also captured Al-Qaeda’s Al-Libbi, Zubaydah, and suspected 9-11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. They are receptive to U.S. pressure and still eager to prove themselves allies in our terror war. It is difficult to fathom the Byzantine internal politics that allow the ISI to protect one terrorist even as it captures these others. That they protect Ibrahim instead of giving him up suggests that he knows something incriminating, and that India’s suspicions are true.
Regardless of their reasons for giving Dawood Ibrahim sanctuary, the ISI is not stupid. It must realize that with the capture of Ijju Sheikh, the evidence of Ibrahim’s whereabouts is mounting and it becomes ever harder to deny the obvious. The ISI can dawdle as Dawood Ibrahim becomes a huge albatross around its neck, or it can take the initiative and surrender him to face Indian justice. American diplomacy and media pressure may help tip the balance.
Or perhaps Ibrahim will realize he has overstayed his welcome, and he will leave Pakistan before the ISI decides to bury its mistakes.