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Worlds of Extremism and Crime Collide in Indian Jail

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A dingy, overcrowded cellblock in the bowels of New Delhi’s Tihar jail was the perfect spot for a merger between militant Islam and the Indian mafia.

Ahmad Omar Sayed Sheikh, a chess-playing Islamic radical, made common cause with Aftab Ansari, an ambitious Calcutta gangster, when they did time together behind Tihar’s high walls in the late 1990s, according to Indian police investigators.

Their partnership provided groups linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network with a new source of recruits and safe houses, along with money from kidnapping, drug trafficking, prostitution and other crime, the investigators say.

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Sheikh, a British citizen born to Pakistani parents, studied math and statistics at the prestigious London School of Economics and then turned to radical Islam. Ansari studied law and journalism in the Hindu holy city of Benares and then decided to pursue a career in organized crime.

They were young men from different worlds, but they shared a taste for kidnapping.

Sheikh, who confessed to kidnapping Californian tourist Bela Josef Nuss and three British backpackers in 1994, now has been named as the chief suspect in the abduction of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in neighboring Pakistan.

The loose alliance between Islamic warriors waging jihad and organized criminals looking for wealth, weapons and power received direct support from Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Indian police and intelligence sources charge. They cite seized caches of smuggled military weapons and phony Pakistani passports as some of the evidence.

With their expertise in money laundering, forgery, abduction and killing, the criminal gangs’ support for Islamic extremists complicates the war against terrorism, but it also offers weaknesses for skilled investigators to exploit.

“Those with criminal backgrounds very readily share information with us in custody,” said a senior police investigator in Calcutta, who has spent years trying to unravel the complex ties between gangsters and Islamic militants, known here as jihadis.

“But those with jihadi connections, it’s very, very difficult to get anything out of them. They’re very well trained to handle interrogation. They give just as much as necessary and buy time,” he said. “They play with us, and we play with them.”

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The senior investigator was one of five police and intelligence sources who agreed to discuss details of sealed court files and ongoing investigations on the condition they not be identified.

Tihar jail is the largest lockup in South Asia, with more than 11,000 prisoners in cells built to hold fewer than one-third that number. The cells are 10 feet by 8, and in some, four men have to share the bare concrete slab that is the only bed, jailers said.

There are six jails behind the institution’s creaking steel gates, which lead to a 400-acre complex holding alleged terrorists along with petty criminals, and, in a separate wing, female prisoners with their children.

One of Tihar’s most notorious inmates was Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the most vicious groups fighting Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region. Azhar was transferred to Tihar’s Jail No. 3 on terrorism charges in 1996.

Another prisoner who was in the same block from November 1994 until July 1999 was Asif Reza Khan. One investigator called Khan the “chief executive of Ansari’s India operations” until police shot Khan dead Dec. 7. They said he was trying to escape custody while being moved in Rajkot, in the western state of Gujarat.

A police interrogation report sealed under court order claims that Khan admitted receiving training in a camp run by the Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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Numerous Ways for Prisoners to Meet

Under interrogation, three other members of Ansari’s gang who are being held in Tihar jail said the merger between mafia and jihad was clinched when Sheikh took up residence in Jail No. 1 in November 1998, according to police.

Although Tihar’s primitive registry doesn’t place Ansari in any of the same cellblocks as Azhar or Sheikh, prisoners are routinely shifted from one building to another without record and have numerous other ways of meeting, jailers and police investigators said.

“During trials, these prisoners were taken in vans to court, and there is one police lockup there,” the senior investigator said. “And there are mealtimes and lots of other opportunities to communicate with each other.”

Although terrorists in Tihar are imprisoned in high-security areas, they can mingle with common criminals because cell doors are open for most of the day to relieve crowding, prison officials and police said.

“We can’t keep a single person totally blocked from other prisoners,” said a jailer who has worked at Tihar for 21 years. “Total isolation is not permissible.”

Jailers open most of the cells each day for at least 10 hours, from 6 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. High-security prisoners such as terrorists are released from their cells for at least four hours a day, leaving ample time to mingle.

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Mohammed Aslam, one of the kidnapping gang’s members still in Tihar, allegedly told police that he had trained at a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp in Khowst, Afghanistan, where U.S. Special Forces troops are still trying to root out Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

Indian police say Aslam is a Pakistani citizen who was arrested with Khan in New Delhi in October. They were charged with the abduction of Calcutta shoe tycoon Partha Roy Burman.

After eight days in captivity, Burman was released Aug. 2 for about $830,000 in ransom. Indian police suspect that $100,000 of the ransom may have been sent to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where Sheikh transferred it to Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Acknowledging that the suspicion is only “an inference” drawn from the timing and Sheikh’s known Al Qaeda links, a senior Indian police official said it was based on a series of intercepted e-mails in Hindi, which have grown “to almost a booklet now.”

E-Mails Shared With Interpol

In an Aug. 8 e-mail, Ansari asked Khan “whether he agrees to part with $100,000 for a ‘noble cause’ as requested by [Sheikh],” the investigator said. The next day, Khan responded by e-mail “that he is agreeable and has no objections,” according to the police official.

“On Aug. 11, Aftab Ansari communicated with Asif Reza Khan, and in that e-mail he said, with reference to their previous correspondence, the amount mentioned has been sent to [Sheikh],” the investigator added.

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Eight days later, Sheikh sent Ansari an e-mail that said: “The money that was sent has been passed on,” the police official said.

The e-mails have been shared with Interpol, where foreign law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have access to them. In New Delhi, senior officers in the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s equivalent of the FBI, say the links between organized crime and Islamic extremists were also mentioned when FBI Director Robert Mueller visited the Indian capital last month.

The biggest inspiration for the gangsters, who are Muslims, to take up jihad, or holy war, came from Azhar in Tihar jail, Indian police claim.

“While in prison, they became virtual disciples of Masood Azhar,” according to the senior police official.

Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, banned Azhar’s organization last month. Two weeks later, President Bush named it as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist forces during his State of the Union address.

India’s government wants Pakistan to hand over Azhar for trial, along with 19 other terrorist and gangster suspects. India says Musharraf’s refusal to do so belies his commitment to the war against terrorism.

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Although Indian police and FBI agents are now cooperating, Western investigators may have missed a prime opportunity to probe the connections between Al Qaeda and the Indian mafia by interrogating Sheikh in jail. India has long complained that its warnings of a growing terrorist network in South Asia were ignored--until the wake-up call of Sept. 11.

No Questions About Terror, Jailer Says

The large ledger where the names of Tihar jail visitors are registered lists nine meetings between Sheikh, his lawyer and a British diplomat identified as “Mr. Greenhall,” the jail official said.

They were all visits to check on Sheikh’s “living conditions and general welfare,” not to question him for leads on terrorist groups or their plots, said the jailer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears retribution.

FBI agents came to Tihar jail in 1996 to meet Azhar, but they were escorting the wives and other relatives of tourists, including an American, who were abducted in Kashmir. The agents wanted to make a direct appeal to Azhar for the captives’ release, the jailer said.

On July 4, 1995, militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir kidnapped Donald Hutchings, a neuropsychologist from Spokane, Wash., along with two Britons, a German and another American, John Childs, who managed to escape.

Days later, a Norwegian was kidnapped and his severed head was left on a mountain path to warn that the kidnappers were serious. The body of one of the Britons was found two years ago. The other hostages were never found. Indian authorities blamed a group called Al Faran, a breakaway faction of the radical Kashmir separatist group Harkat Ansar. Its leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, co-signed Bin Laden’s February 1998 fatwa calling for attacks on Americans and Western interests.

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Azhar was a leader of Harkat Ansar until he formed his own terrorist army, Jaish-e-Mohammed, after India released him from jail to free passengers on an Indian Airlines flight hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 1999.

Sheikh also belonged to Harkat Ansar and demanded the release of Azhar and several other alleged terrorists when he helped kidnap Nuss, the American tourist, in 1994. Indian investigators believe that Sheikh is now Azhar’s deputy.

Both men were freed in the hijacking swap. Indian intelligence sources say the men crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan, where they were sheltered by the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Sheikh’s second base is in Dubai, where his Tihar jail contact Ansari is believed to be living--and running his organized-crime racket in India by remote control.

This easy cross-pollination of terrorist groups with strong popular support in Pakistan is another reason Indian leaders remain skeptical about Musharraf’s promise to stop terrorists from using Pakistan, and the area it controls in Kashmir, to launch attacks.

Seized Weapons Cited as Evidence

Just as they have for years, Pakistan-based terrorist groups are again changing their names and continue to infiltrate from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, the Indian government charges.

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The Central Bureau of Investigation says it seized two caches of military weapons being smuggled to Ansari’s Calcutta gang and calls them evidence of support from Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

On Dec. 12, Indian police uncovered a weapons dump buried in a village near India’s western border with Pakistan. They say the arms included more than 11 pounds of RDX plastic explosives, electronic timers and detonators, two antipersonnel land mines and various types of grenades.

The Central Bureau of Investigation says there was “a printed letter pad” of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the cache, and the hand grenades and detonator caps were wrapped in Urdu-language Pakistani newspapers.

Although Ansari is an Indian citizen, he has passports from several countries, including Pakistan, to go along with various aliases, Indian investigators say. He changes his name so easily that the Tihar jail didn’t know his real name was Aftab Ansari until long after he was released on bail May 23, 1999, and fled the country, the senior police official said.

“To me, he looks like a part-time jihadi and a part-time criminal,” the senior officer said. “If his criminal activities are backed by jihadi connections, it all becomes easier for him.

“As a jihadi, he gets access to certain people and places. As an ordinary criminal, he wouldn’t find his way.”

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Watson is a Times staff writer and Barua is a special correspondent.

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