Three fugitives linked to the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), who were on the run ever since they escaped Khandwa jail in Madhya Pradesh on October 1, 2013, were arrested from Rourkela, Odisha, in the early hours of Wednesday .
The three fugitives — Sheikh Mahboob, 26, Amjad Khan, 26, and Zakir Hussein, 33 — bought over 50 mobile phones and hundreds of SIM cards using fake identities in an effort to stay under the radar as police in over a dozen states hunted for them.
They were finally arrested through the joint efforts of police from Telangana and Odisha, and the Intelligence Bureau.
The nabbing of the trio, along with an associate Mohammed Salek — also an alleged SIMI operative — and Mahboob’s mother Najma Bi, 60, is expected to provide answers to a series of bombings and bank robberies around the country in 2014-15. Each fugitive carried a reward of Rs 10 lakh on his head, announced by NIA.
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The operation to nab them started at midnight at Nala Road and ended at 3.30 am, said Arun Sarangi, special DG (intelligence) of the Odisha police.
“As the area is congested, our biggest worry was collateral damage. We were prepared for an IED attack… We also deployed snipers all around,” Sarangi said.
Police breached the door and arrested the woman and three men. The fourth fired at them, but gave up in a few minutes.
The three had escaped from prison with three associates, Mohammed Aijajuddin, Mohammed Aslam and Abu Faisal. In April 2015, Aijajuddin and Aslam were killed in a police encounter at a checkpost in Telangana’s Nalgonda district. Faisal, the leader of the group, was nabbed by the police in December 2013 in Madhya Pradesh.
The gang, which split into two groups, roamed across 14 states, often spending days and nights in buses and trains and staying only occasionally at homes taken on rent in small towns like Dharwad, Yadgir and Hospet in Karnataka and Bijnor in UP.
It was a series of coincidences — beginning with an accidental explosion at a house used by the gang in Bijnor on September 12, 2014 — that helped police get on their trail, and figure out their involvement in a series of crimes.
In the blast, which happened when some of them were experimenting with explosives, Mahboob suffered burn injuries. The gang rushed him to a local clinic for treatment and offered Rs 1 lakh to the staff to treat him without informing the police.
But the gang members were caught on a CCTV camera at the clinic. They also left behind a mobile phone while fleeing the Bijnor hideout. It was the analysis of SIM cards used in this abandoned mobile phone that opened the Pandora’s box into the activities of the fugitives.
It revealed that they had been moving around Karimnagar district of Telangana and Dharwad, Yadgir and Hospet regions of Karnataka shortly after their prison break.
News that the gang had been in Karimnagar sparked the interest of the local police, who were investigating a February 1, 2014 robbery at a State Bank of India branch, where Rs 46 lakh was looted by men who did not bother to cover their faces while carrying out the robbery.
A CCTV at the bank had captured images of the gang, which mistakenly took away a hard disk containing bank data instead of the CCTV’s recording system.
When news that men involved in the Bijnor blast were present in Karimnagar in February 2014 reached Telangana police, a team was dispatched to compare CCTV images. There was a match between the footage.
The analysis of data from the mobile phone found at Bijnor also led police to a house owner, Shivaji Rao Kulkarni, in Dharwad. Police found that three of the fugitives had rented a house belonging to Kulkarni between April and July 2014, claiming to be cloth salesmen from UP. Aijazuddin, Aslam and Mahboob stayed at Kulkarni’s house using fake names and used an identity document belonging to him to obtain a pre-paid SIM card.
Following the April 2015 encounter in Telangana, where two of the fugitives were killed, police found a SIM card in the possession of one of the men. The trail led police to the owner of the SIM, who had reported that his phone and some money was robbed on a train in Balangir region of Odisha a few days earlier.
Investigations of the fugitives on the basis of call data records obtained at the safehouse in Bijnor has shown that the gang travelled across 12 states. It also linked the group to a May 1, 2014 bomb blast on the Kaziranga Express at Chennai and the July 10, 2014 blast near Pune’s Dagdusheth Ganesh Temple.
Following the Bijnor explosion, the gang’s activities reduced dramatically. With Mahboob severely injured, his mother moved in with the fugitives to look after her son. This is suspected to have reduced Mahboob’s movement. Sources said it was a trail left by Mahboob’s mother that helped police track them down to Rourkela a few weeks ago, leading to the arrests.
Police said they had run out of money and were planning to commit another bank heist in Champa, Chhattisgarh. “They had done the initial planning and recce of the bank and would have robbed it in the next few days,” Odisha DGP K B Singh said.