How the NIA tracked down the bombmaker of Pulwama
India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about NIA tracking down Umar Farooq as the lynchpin of the Pulwama attack, in the September 14, 2020 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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For the past five months, we have been inundated by news that falls into just four categories—the corona pandemic, the conflict with China on the LAC in Ladakh, the shrinking economy and the controversy around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. All bad news, and all still on the news radar because they all remain unresolved. This issue, we move away from these four topics and bring you a powerful story in which there has been substantial progress.
February 14, 2019, is a day that will forever live in infamy. Not just because a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, killing 40 troopers, but also because it pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of war. The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group founded by Maulana Masood Azhar, claimed credit for the Pulwama attack, provoking a retaliatory bombing raid by Indian warplanes on a JeM terrorist training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province just 12 days later. No such action was taken in the case of other similar terrorist outrages, be it the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001 or on Mumbai in November 2008. This is noteworthy, as it signalled a paradigm shift in the way India dealt with Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks. It was the first time that India went across the border and launched an attack on Pakistani territory during peacetime. It also became the clarion call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his campaign for the 2019 general election, which the NDA won handsomely.
Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber who was vaporised in the blast, was only a pawn. The vehicle, too, was pulverised. So, there was little physical evidence to go by. Several months after the Pulwama attack, many questions remained. Who had radicalised him? Who was the bomb-maker? How did they smuggle explosives into India? Who were their accomplices? As the months passed by and there was no sign of the charge-sheet, there was reason to believe that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) entrusted with the probe had hit a dead end, like in so many terror attacks in the past. Finally, on August 25, the terror investigation agency filed a voluminous 13,800-page charge-sheet against the 19 accused in the case. The charge-sheet is a complex jigsaw puzzle that the NIA painstakingly pieced together over 18 months, using everything from DNA tests to cyber-forensics.
India Today September 14, 2020 cover, The Bombmaker of Pulwama.
Among the revelations is the identity of the bomb-maker in the case — Muhammad Umar Farooq, the nephew of Maulana Masood Azhar. His father Ibrahim Ather, Azhar’s older brother, was one of the terrorists who hijacked the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24, 1999, and diverted it to Kandahar.
The NIA charge-sheet details how the peripatetic Pakistani terrorist Umar Farooq travelled to Afghanistan for training before entering India to lead the Jaish in the Valley. He was killed in an encounter with the security forces in March 2019, 43 days after the Pulwama bombing. Dead men tell no tales, but it seems their smartphones do. At that time, security forces did not link Umar Farooq to the Pulwama blast. However, eight months later, the NIA saw the value of the data harvested from his damaged cellphone.
Seven of the 19 accused are Pakistani. Worryingly for us, 12 are Indians, many of them overground workers who helped shelter the terrorists and buy the deadly items required to assemble the car bomb. This is a scary testament to the JeM’s powerful network within J&K and the possibility of more such attacks in the future.
The NIA charge-sheet has arrived at a critical juncture. It offers concrete proof of the perfidy of Pakistan’s deep state run by its powerful army and its infrastructure of terrorism. The Pakistan army pulled the JeM out of the doghouse in 2014 when it found its other strategic asset, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), coming under global pressure. The US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2019 notes that Pakistan continues to serve as a safe haven for terrorist groups. Pakistan is also on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list for its inability and unwillingness to crack down on terrorists operating on its soil. The global agency will decide next month whether Pakistan has to be blacklisted. A blacklisting, as Prime Minister Imran Khan recently warned, could ‘destroy Pakistan’s economy’. Living with terrorists, it would seem, carries no such risks.
Our cover story, ‘The Bombmaker of Pulwama’, written by Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa, focuses on Umar Farooq as the lynchpin of the attack and, based on what the NIA uncovered, how he planned and executed it.
Hopefully, the NIA has built a watertight case to prosecute the agents of terror across the border. It remains to be seen, however, if it hammers another nail into the JeM’s coffin or the case goes into an unending loop like the trial of the 26/11 masterminds in Pakistan.
As we grapple with new problems—from the pandemic to an economic recession and a belligerent China—the Pulwama conspiracy is a reminder that there are covert networks insidiously and continually working to subvert our country.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, The Bombmaker of Pulwama, for September 14, 2020 issue of India Today magazine)