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Jail never a bar for terror mastermind

Jail never a bar for terror mastermind

Author: Ritu Sarin
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 30, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/jail-never-a-bar-for-terror-mastermind/547871/

Introduction: An LSE dropout and a chess whiz with a privileged background, Omar Sheikh's audacious acts of terror, crime and guile have kept him firmly on the list of the world's most dangerous men

On the night of November 28, 2008, as the siege on Mumbai was painfully winding to a close, a call was made to then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee from the 'President of Pakistan'. A lengthy verification process, however, stalled the process, so the caller, according to a story broken by Pakistani newspaper Dawn decided to become Pranab Mukherjee instead and threatened Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari over the phone. This resourceful caller with his impressive list of contacts was none other than Omar Saeed Sheikh. His location: the confines of Hyderabad jail in Pakistan, where his wife had been surreptitiously giving him inputs on the carnage unfolding in Mumbai on his mobile phone.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in his book, described him as a rogue agent who was once recruited by the British spy agency MI6, the international intelligence community is convinced he has the protection of Pakistan's ISI but with unfailing regularity- ever since he was arrested for kidnapping foreigners in India in 1994 - Omar Saeed Sheikh has been committing audacious acts of terror, crime and guile that have kept him firmly on the list of the world's most dangerous men.

Prison, clearly, has not been much of a deterrent. Thus, after a brief lull from his prison cell in Karachi--where he has been on death row for seven years for the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl--news was out that it was none other than Omar Sheikh who had almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Reason: after being informed by his wife about the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, he executed a devious plan of making hoax telephone calls to President Asif Ali Zardari and members of the top defence establishment posing as an enraged Mukherjee.

While the hoax calls could be described as a mere "prank", the incident nonetheless is an indication of the luxuries he enjoys in prison; a reminder how appeals for reviewing the death penalty have been kept pending interminably, and that Pakistan is nowhere near extraditing the militant mastermind to either India, UK or the US.

Of course, even during his years of incarceration in Pakistan, nuggets have been added to Omar Sheikh's fascinating crime profile. For instance, reports surfaced about the convict confessing to the Pakistani police that he had a role in triggering the blasts outside the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building in 2001 and shortly thereafter, was associated along with his mentor Maulana Masood Azhar with the sensational attack on Indian Parliament. The same year, US officials had let in that one of the key funders for the 9/11 attack was none other than Omar Sheikh who used the fake identity of Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad and wired $100,000 dollars to Mohammed Atta to be distributed among the conspirators.

The 1994 kidnappings of foreign tourists was a plot that Omar Sheikh executed for the release of militant leaders arrested in India.

Among the hostages that Omar Sheikh took was British national Paul Rideout who in his statement to the police described the transformation of the friendly young man who had introduced himself as Rohit Sharma into a dreaded captor, "He (Omar Sheikh) informed us that in case we tried to escape we would be shot. He informed us that we had been taken prisoners by Mujahideen and we will be detained by them in order to bargain with the Indian government for release of 11 Mujahideen people in custody of the government."

It took five years and the hijacking of IC-814 for the plan of the militant leaders to finally succeed. During negotiations, the hijackers agreed to whittle down the list of arrested militant leaders they wanted swapped with the hostages on the plane, and they were clearly not ready to bargain for the continued incarceration of Omar Sheikh who suddenly found himself being miraculously released from prison along with Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar.

This is what his formal release order of the TADA court stated: "It is submitted that the State does not want to proceed against the accused in public interest and the reasons for withdrawal cannot be disclosed being confidential in nature..."

It was only a matter of time that the disastrous consequences of the release order were known to everyone. For, immediately on reaching Pakistan, Omar Sheikh, who got married around this time, plunged into arms training, developed close ties with the LeT leadership, including Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, and put into motion what he had written in his prison diary (in India) about the emotions he felt on being nabbed by the Uttar Pradesh police and the hostages being let off: "This was the end of an era and the beginning of another".

It is because of the diabolical genius of his crimes and the brutality of the manner in which his last victim Daniel Pearl was ensnared and then beheaded that Omar Sheikh has been the subject of several books and even a film. Then there are his compelling biographical details, all of which had been carefully chronicled by Indian intelligence agencies.

His father was born in Pakistan and after trying to become a chartered accountant, moved to London to start a garment business. In London, Omar Sheikh excelled as a chess player and took part in wrestling competitions. He eventually enrolled in the prestigious London School of Economics, but dropped out of college. During a 1993 trip to Pakistan, he joined the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA).

Omar Sheikh's confidential dossier mentions how after his arms training in Pakistan in 1993 and, later, a 40-day course in Afghanistan, he volunteered to join the Mujahids in Bosnia but was told by members of the HuA's Executive Council to procure visas for India. Having managed to do so, he received orders - significantly, from an ex-Special Service Group (SSG) officer - to "execute kidnapping of British and American nations and (use) that as leverage to secure release of top HuA leaders." The organisation, the dossier states, "deliberately did not own the responsibility of kidnapping and instead a new name--Al Hadeed--was used to avoid pressure of the Pakistan Government as was done in the case of the kidnappings of two Britons in the Valley."

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