Former Union Home Secretary G K Pillai’s admission that the June 2004 killing of Ishrat Jahan and three other alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Gujarat, under the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was the result of an intelligence entrapment operation could lead to the questioning of key figures in the UPA’s security establishment, an authoritative intelligence source familiar with the case has told The Indian Express.
“If Pillai is correct in saying that the alleged terrorists were lured to India by the Intelligence Bureau,” the official said, “then it stands to reason that those involved in this operation would have more than passing knowledge of the circumstances of their death.”
Then Intelligence Bureau chief K P Singh and former Deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu, then joint director in charge of counter-terrorism operations, both had a direct role in the operation, the source said. Former West Bengal governor M K Narayanan, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advisor on internal security, was also briefed on the course of the operation.
The three men did not respond to messages from The Indian Express seeking comment. Pillai too was not available for comment.
But in an interview to Times Now Friday, Pillai said: “It was a very successful intelligence operation… we managed to entice the LeT to send their shooters to India and were able to monitor their activities in India and to, in one sense, catch them… It was a very planned operation… something intelligence agencies around the world do.”
“Yes, it was a trap and it was a very successful operation… you are using the sources of LeT, people who think they are LeT, to be able to pass on information… It is always better to know when you enemy is coming in rather than wait for collateral intelligence where someone plans something without your knowledge.”
Asked about the role of Ishrat, Pillai said: “I would say that she knew something was wrong… an unmarried Muslim girl would not go with a married person to different places etc, spend nights outside so far and so forth… perhaps she knew something was happening… she could have been a cover.”
New Delhi has long distanced itself from the killing of the four, admitting it passed on intelligence on the plot, but had no knowledge of subsequent actions by the Gujarat Police. In 2009, Home Minister P Chidambaram said “no one suggested that based on an intelligence input you should kill someone”.
Pillai’s claims, though, suggest the Union Government was intimately familiar with the operation, plotting its course from beginning to end.
Mumbra resident Ishrat was killed along with Javed Sheikh, also known as Pranesh Pillai, as well as alleged Pakistani nationals Amjad Ali and Jishan Johar, in Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004. The CBI has alleged the four were killed in cold blood, after being kidnapped by police.
Earlier this month, though, 26/11 perpetrator David Headley sparked off renewed debate on the case, alleging in his testimony to a Mumbai court that Ishrat was a member of the Lashkar.
The Union Government first said in an affidavit to the Gujarat High Court that Ishrat was a Lashkar member. Later, however, the affidavit was changed to exclude information on her background.
In February 2004, intelligence sources say, the Intelligence Bureau was able to locate two Gujarat-based jihadists, trained in Pakistan, on the basis of information recovered from the body of a Poonch-based Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operative, Ehsan Illahi. The two Gujarat-based men are referred to in CBI documentation simply as C1 and C2.
C1 and C2 were persuaded to begin working for the IB. They informed their Lashkar handler, Muzammil Bhat — the key military commander of the 26/11 plot — that they were ready to stage an attack against top political leaders in Gujarat, including Narendra Modi.
The IB was thus waiting for Gujranwala-based Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zeeshan Zohar, despatched to Gujarat in April on Bhat’s instructions. They also trapped Sargodha-born colleague Amjad Ali Rana — who was earlier injured in fighting in Jammu and Kashmir — who showed up the following month.
Immigration records show that on March 29, 2004, Javed Sheikh flew to Oman, on passport E6624023, identifying him as Praneshkumar M Gopinath Pillai — a travel document obtained illegally, in addition to an earlier one in his Muslim name. He flew back to Mumbai on April 11.
It’s still unknown what Ishrat was doing with Sheikh; nothing, bar Headley’s claim she was a suicide bomber, is on record. Her family insists she was just an innocent teenager, hired by Sheikh for a perfume business.