Dramatis personae: The team behind 26/11 attacks probe

India, Nov. 25 -- Rakesh Maria, the 1981-batch IPS officer has been at the forefront of investigating most terror attacks in Mumbai, from the earliest one in 1993 when he was a deputy police commissioner. He then tackled the 2003 twin blasts at Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar, and later as the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), he led the Mumbai Crime Branch to arrest 21 key Indian Mujahideen operatives in 2008. Four years after he led investigations into the 26/11 attack, Maria, now additional director general of police (Anti-Terrorism Squad), talks to Presley Thomas, about lessons learned.

Q. What were your reactions as the 26/11 attack unfolded?

A: We first thought it was the underworld and the drugs mafia when we heard about the firing at Leopold Cafe. But as it unfolded, we realized it was out of the ordinary. For the first time grenades were being hurled at police and police officials were being fired upon. Our finest officers had been killed. It was a complex situation from handling indiscriminate firing, hostage situations to bombs being diffused.

I was in the control room. Between 21.40 hours on November 26 to 02.00 hours on November 27, we received 1,365 terrorist related calls, each had to be treated with the same level of seriousness. Some calls were about terrorists at Hotel Mariott in Juhu, and at Four Seasons Hotel in Worli. And we had information about terrorists in Hotel Taj and Hotel Oberoi-Trident.

We had to ensure that men at police stations across Mumbai had to be mobilized and reinforcements sent to Taj, Oberoi, Cama Hospital, CST and other places. We also had to update our superiors, co-ordinate with the government, decisions had to be made to call for Army's intervention and mobilize the National Security Guards (NSG). At the same time we had intercepted the mobile phone conversations between the terrorists, and their handlers sitting across the border that gave us clarity that they were trained, equipped, and launched from across the border. Every minute was extremely critical.

Q. What was the first piece of investigation?

A: It was crucial for us to get details about the attackers. The first questions when Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab was brought to me on November 27 morning were: How many had come to Mumbai and from where? How many terrorists were present at Hotel Taj, Hotel Oberoi and Chabad House? What kind of weapons they had, and the quantity of ammunition? What was their plan?

Q. How was this different from the other blast cases you investigated?

A: Each case had its own importance and complexity.1993 blasts were huge. But what was unique to 26/11 terrorist attack was that the entire conspiracy, including the planning, plotting and training of terrorists, was hatched abroad. Terrorists were also launched from Pakistan.

Q. How difficult was this case in terms of international ramifications?

A: The terrorist strike had attracted eyeballs from all across the globe. Police and security agencies from various countries were looking up to us to provide information. Pakistan was in a state of denial. The bogus identity cards carried by the terrorists had made the situation even more complex because foreign agencies were reluctant to believe the attack was launched from Pakistan. The onus on us was to disprove Pakistan's claims, and investigate the case that would stand before the scrutiny of the judiciary, international security agencies and experts.

Q. Has the case changed the manner in which Mumbai police looks at security and terrorism?

A: Today, Mumbai police is a changed force and is trained. We have better equipments and also better equipped in terms of skills. The most important thing is that the force today is prepared for the absolute unbelievable.

Q. Can you describe the amount of work, your men had put in with an anecdote.

A: I think all the 99 men who worked on this case showed absolute dedication and cannot single out one person. But one officer refused to answer his wife's call even after he knew his child was hospitalized. I had to force him to sort out the situation in his family. He visited his child and after a couple of hours was back in his office. It's an example of how the incident had sparked determination to nail the accused.

Q. What can Mumbaiites do to help?

A: The war against terrorism cannot be fought by the police alone. We need citizens to be our eyes and ears; inform us if they spot a suspicious individual in their locality, or if someone suspicious has rented a flat in their neighbourhood. We need people to verify the identity of the persons when they rent their flat out. We take the flak when a terrorist attack happens, but we never let people know of the other nine times we prevented a terrorist attack. Have faith in us.

THE TEAM

Rahul Mahajani

rahul.mahajani@hindustantimes.com

Ramesh Padmanabh Mahale

Age: 56 years

Designation: Senior Police Inspector (Mumbai Crime Branch)

Ramesh Padmanabh Mahale, 56, senior police inspector of Mumbai crime branch can be labeled as the crisis man of Mumbai crime branch. Most senior IPS officers credit this 1983-batch officer, originally from Mangalore, for his meticulous approach in piecing together every fragment of investigation to build a chargesheet in any case.

Mahale's ability stems from the various departments, apart from the police stations, which includes the economic offences wing and the anti-corruption bureau (ACB). He was also part of the team which investigated Bombay riot cases, and later the 1993 blasts.

Even for a trained hand like Mahale, handling a case of the magnitude of 26/11 terrorist attack was the toughest one in his career. Mahale who was involved in the case from day one, and had seen the entire legal process through the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court, was also present at Yerwada prison when Mohamed Ajmal Amir Kasab was hanged. "It has been one of the toughest case of my life, and I will never forget it. It was also my first case in which an accused was sentenced to death," said Mahale.

To put up the 11,280-page voluminous chargesheet was no mean feat. There were times when Mahale and his men stayed back in their offices to ensure there was no loophole in their papers. And at times have even worked for nearly 20 hours a day. They also had to ensure with the other teams which worked on technical intelligence, interrogation to ensure they did not miss a single point.

Be it the recent Azad Maidan violence case, or the case against 26/11 handler Lashkar-e-Taiba's (LeT's) Syed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, or the famous arrests of 21 Indian Mujahideen in September 2008, Mahale and men from his unit has been called on each occasion to ensure that the chargesheet against the accused is watertight.

The flair, with which he handles each case and its papers, has seen officers from various units of Mumbai police call him for help while handling sensitive cases or those of importance.

But his popularity among his fellow men does not reflect in his demeanor as he welcomes almost anybody readily to his office, and helps out in crisis. Hence, it was not surprising when Mahale was made in-charge of the 26/11 terrorist attack case after crime branch was entrusted with investigation.

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Presley Thomas

presley.thomas@hindustantimes.com

Dinesh Parshuram Kadam

(not permitted to be photographed, for security reasons)

Age: 46 years

Current Designation: police inspector (ATS)

Designation during 26/11 terrorist attack: Police inspector (Unit-3 Crime Branch)

It was sheer exuberance of a 27-year-old police sub-inspector posted at Worli police station that got Mumbai police its first major lead into the 1993 Bombay serial blast case. Kadam along with his colleague had spotted Rubina Memon's abandoned Maruti van - MMC 1972 - at Worli.

This crucial piece of information, on the very same day of the blasts, gave Mumbai police a clear roadmap for its investigation. Kadam was roped into the core team of Mumbai blast investigation, and his career has grown exponentially since then.

One of the few officers in Mumbai police who has come out unscathed from the Mumbai's underworld era, Kadam focused on the art of interrogation and has earned repute. He was also one of the few officers who were quick to understand the need to monitor terrorists, and organisations that support terrorist activities, and played a key role when Mumbai crime branch arrested 21 Indian Mujahideen men in September 2008.

So it is not surprising that Kadam was asked to crack down Mohamed Ajmal Amir Kasab. "My immediate goal was to extract important information like the number of terrorists who had come with Kasab. It was absolutely crucial information which our forces who were fighting against them wanted," said Kadam.

Even for a trained hand like Kadam, it was a little tough to interrogate Kasab. "Antecedents of a criminal play a crucial role in interrogation. But in this case, we had no knowledge of Kasab's antecedents. It had to be done from scratch. So in that manner it was a touch tougher than other cases," said Kadam.

A graduate from Kirti College, Kadam's penchant for history helped him piece together the dynamics of Mumbai's underworld in a manner which only a few serving officers have done. From the gang leaders to their cronies, a separate personal cupboard, which Kadam maintains and updates in his office, has the minutest details of whose who in Mumbai's underworld.

Kadam, who shies away from media, had earlier cracked the murders of Sunil Khatau, builders Pradeep Jain and Om Prakash Kukreja, hotelier Ramnath Payyade, and attack on filmmaker Rakesh Roshan. He has gunned down 34 dreaded underworld gangsters like Nilesh Kokum, Rajesh Igwe, Mast Chand Sheikh, Mohamed Ali, Salim Haddi, Raju Vikhroli, Raosaheb Killedar, Durga Bhaiyya, Suresh Bhagwe, Mangesh Dhotre, Tiger alias Captain and Suresh Waghmare alias Dedu.

Recently, he played a pivotal role when the Maharashtra ATS cracked the German Bakery Blast case, and investigated the 13/7 blasts. The shelves of his cupboard have seen additions of profiles and pictures of wanted terrorists across the country.

Technical Intelligence (TEAM)

Arun Chavan

Current Designation: Senior Police Inspector (Vakola)

Designation when 26/11 terrorist strike happened: Police Inspector

Nandkumar Gopale

Current Designation: Police Inspector (Property Cell)

Designation when 26/11 terrorist strike happened: Assistant Police Inspector

Shripad Kale

Designation (Now and Then): Police Inspector (Unit-6 Crime Branch)

Role: Played the crucial role of intercepting phone calls between the terrorists holed up at Hotel Taj, Hotel Oberoi and Chabad House. It was the interceptions they had recorded which made it clear that the attack was a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) conspiracy that was hatched, planned and plotted in Pakistan.

Interrogations

Ninad Sawant

Current Designation: Police Inspector (ATS)

Designation when 26/11 terrorist strike happened: Assistant Police Inspector

He along with Dinesh Kadam played a key role in interrogating Kasab, Sabauddin Ahmed and Fahim Ansari. He also played a crucial role in verifying minute aspects of the case which came out during the interrogation of the accused.

Chargesheet

Prashant Marde

Designation (Then and Now): Police Inspector (in-charge of Unit 3 Crime Branch)

He along with Mahale played a crucial role in piecing together the chargesheet. Marde was involved with the case since the initial days, and was also involved in the court process in the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court.

Sheru Shinde

Designation (Then and Now): Constable (Unit-3 Crime Branch)

He played a crucial role in writing down numerous statements of witness who were examined, and statements of those accused in the case.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.