Much before alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) co-founder Yasin Bhatkal set up bases across the country to carry out terror strikes, he established the first nerve centre in the Koppa region of Chikamagalur in Karnataka.
The training-cum-residential facility built inside a three-acre farm was allegedly also used to manufacture and fabricate IEDs, which were later used in terror attacks in Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Jaipur between 2006 and 2008, in which 200 people died.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) chargesheet against Yasin and other alleged IM operatives has details of the operations at the farm, which was allegedly leased and run with money raised in Dubai. The farm, nestled in the hills of Vittalmakki, a village of no more than 20 houses, was locked up by police five years ago.
According to the chargesheet, it was here that Ahmed Zarar Siddibapa was given the name Yasin or, as locals called him, ‘Engineer’. Yasin stayed in the farmhouse frequently, accompanied by several sets of visitors. Villagers told investigators that residents of the farmhouse would be often seen around Vittalmakki, but access to the farm was severely restricted.
When not training or preparing IEDs, Yasin was engaged in farming, the chargesheet says. The farm had 1,200 banana plants and paddy fields, apart from cows, goats and dogs. There were two caretakers: Akbar Ali and Mariyam.
According to the NIA, Yasin also had a second-hand Ford Ikon at the farm, which had been purchased for Rs 1 lakh — but only Rs 5,000 of which had been given by Yasin.
Police reached the farm one evening in October 2008, a month after the serial blasts in Delhi. But they could not get their hands on Yasin, who had escaped barely hours earlier, taking with him others in the group, which reportedly included the Bhatkal brothers, Riyaz and Iqbal.
Akbar and Mariyam were arrested. Yasin, Riyaz and Iqbal had apparently been tipped off about a raid by the Mumbai Police in Mangalore on Ahmed Bava, one of the men who had helped Yasin lease the farm. They left quickly, handing over the foodgrains in the house to a neighbour, and asking him to take care of the cattle.
According to the chargesheet, Yasin was in Mangalore buying clothes for Akbar, Mariyam, Bava and Kayamuddin Kapadia (an accused in the Ahmedabad and Surat blasts, later arrested) for Eid when he got news of the Batla House encounter in September 2008. He allegedly went ahead with Eid celebrations at the Vittalmakki farm, which were attended by Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal as well.
Among the attacks allegedly planned at the farmhouse was the August 25, 2007, Hyderabad serial blasts. Two men arrested for the attack, Anique Shaikh and Akbar Ismail, had allegedly received training at the farm. The three IEDs were allegedly fabicated there.
Investigators believe Yasin perfected the C- or boat-shaped bombs that the IM used between 2006 and 2008 at the farm. A half-constructed building on the premises is suspected to have been used to manufacture and store the weapons. The foundation of the building was unusually deep, say villagers.
The plantains at the farm still stand, even as villagers try to come to terms with the revelations about the man who planted them. “We tend to stay in our homes when police bring suspects to the farm. We do not want any trouble,” said a woman who did not want to be identified.
The owner of the farm, Fakir Bhai, who was picked up by investigating agencies, visits twice a week from Mangalore.
Shivanand, a farm worker who helped to plant the banana, said, “Five women from my village and I worked at the farm. They paid me Rs 200 and the women Rs 140 per day, which was higher than the wages at that time.”
Shivanand, who now has a fish business, said he had been questioned more than 10 times by police.
Shivanand remembers Yasin staying for 15 or 20 days at a stretch at the farm. He would be accompanied by Bava, whom villagers referred to as “savkara” (rich man). “They would disappear for a few months and return. They set up a small tent to park vehicles,” he said.
Shivanand also remembers their “kindness”. Yasin and Bava, he said, had helped repair the home of an old woman called Sesakka, and would lent her a hand whenever they saw her struggling on the streets of the village.
“We thought they were good men because they helped Sesakka and allowed us to collect water from the farm,” said another villager.
At the time of his arrest, Yasin was building at the farm. “Local contractor Mohammed had been hired. They told us they would open a locker factory and provide employment. We were happy. Some 48 people were on the job. After the police raids, we were told that they might have been building an arms or bomb factory,” a villager said.
During the construction, the workers were allowed access everywhere “but the main house”, said another villager.