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26/11: 7 years on, India waits for West intelligence on ‘ISI links’

Intelligence ops had gathered electronic records of key LeT commanders communicating with each other and ISI as strikes were planned.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Published: February 19, 2016 1:24:20 am
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MORE THAN seven years after 26/11, India is still waiting for western intelligence services to share evidence gathered by them while monitoring conversations of Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders in the months before the attacks, highly placed intelligence sources told The Indian Express.

Intelligence operations targeting the group gathered electronic records of key commanders communicating with each other and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the strikes were planned, said sources.

Following 26/11 perpetrator David Headley’s testimony in a Mumbai court earlier this month, New Delhi has been preparing for a renewed diplomatic push to compel Pakistan to act against Lashkar commanders who organised the strikes.

Key among the figures targeted in the western operations, led by the UK’s super-secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), were Lashkar communications head Abdul Wajid, international operations head Sajid Mir, and overall military chief Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi.

Also known by the pseudonym Zarrar Shah, Wajid was arrested along with Lakhvi soon after 26/11, but has since received bail. The two have refused to provide voice samples to Pakistani prosecutors, which has meant phone conversations linking them to perpetrators cannot be validated through forensic tests.

Mir was named by Headley as having close links with serving ISI personnel, but was never arrested.

“There are good reasons to believe that western intelligence services have shared much less than they know. In our view, they’ve withheld material that could damage their relationship with the ISI,” said a senior intelligence official.

“No intelligence agency is ever happy to share sensitive material. But in this case, it’s the only course of action that might lead to justice,” said the official.

From September 24, 2008, the CIA began sharing a series of precise warnings of an imminent attack on Mumbai with India, identifying targets including the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Gateway of India, and other locations in South Mumbai.

The last warning was shared on November 18 — just eight days before the terrorist attack, in which 166 people were killed. The source of the warnings, however, was not passed on to India, a customary practice in intelligence sharing.

Last year, though, evidence on the GCHQ’s communications intelligence operation emerged from the trove of documents leaked by US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. In one leaked document, western intelligence operatives were informed of a “cross-community effort” which “confirmed that Zarrar Shah and his associates conducted reconnaissance and research using Google Earth and Wikimapia”.

The electronic systems were able to monitor Shah in real time, as he studied the “Gateway of India, other tourist sites of interest, dams, power plants, and possible locations for boat landings”.

These Internet searches allowed the Lashkar to test Headley’s on-ground surveillance reports and video. In mid-September, 2008, the Lashkar set up a room, where executed terrorist Muhammad Ajmal Kasab and the other nine members of the assault team received a detailed briefing on the routes to be taken to their targets, the Mumbai Police said in his trial.

Part of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence network — made up of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada — the GCHQ has sophisticated systems in place to gather and analyse electronic communications from across the world.

“Analysis of Zarrar Shah’s viewing habits … [redacted]” the note continues, “yielded several locations in Mumbai well before the attacks occurred and showed operations planning for initial entry points into the Taj Hotel,” the NSA document said.
India’s Intelligence Bureau passed on the warnings to the Mumbai Police, which beefed up security on September 25, in response to the first warning.

The enhanced police presence was, however, drawn-down when no attack materialised. Later, following the second warning, an alert was withdrawn after the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) reported that the ship carrying the terrorists was headed back to Karachi.

Little known to RAW, the assault team had hijacked a Porbandar-registered fishing boat in the high seas, while their commanders turned back home, carrying the Thuraya satellite phone that the Indian intelligence organisation was tracking.

British intelligence services, India believes, continued to listen-in after Lashkar communications chief Wajid moved into a control room in Karachi, where he linked four laptop computers to a voice-over-internet service that allowed real-time communication with the attackers.

Maharashtra-born Zabiu-ddin Ansari, now being tried in Mumbai, is alleged to have been in the control room, along with Lakhvi, Mir and Wajid.

“The technology available to the GCHQ would have allowed them to track Wajid’s e-mail to persons other than Headley, and to listen-in to conversations inside the room prior to the attack. They would also have been able to penetrate the linked computers,” said a communications intelligence expert.

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