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  December 21, 2000
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  The hijack Line

How the hijack case was solved

Josy Joseph

Some clinical analysis and a little commonsense in Kathmandu. A shrewd investigation and corroboration in distant Mumbai. And a lot of luck.

These factors were the key to the successful identification of the five hijackers of IC 814 by the Indian intelligence and security teams, reeling under criticism for having failed to prevent the hijack in the first place.

Despite the criticism, investigators and intelligence agencies unearthed precise information about the hijackers and located their photographs with a speed unmatched in the recent history of Indian investigation.

The breakthrough came even before the week-long hijack concluded on December 31, 1999 in Kandahar.

A year after the hijack, returned to senior investigators and intelligence officials involved in cracking the case to find out how they did it. How did they manage such a precise identification in such a short time?

Refusing to be identified, officials spoke in detail about how the identity of the masked men in the plane, which flew over alien skies and parked in a hostile land, was established so swiftly, and so accurately. And how their photographs were procured even before the hijackers returned home.

Within minutes of the hijack on December 24, Indian intelligence officials and Nepal police officials in Kathmandu got down to work. Upset, embarrassed and at the receiving end of the establishment's anger, the Indian officials --some reputed to be among the nation's best intelligence brains -- began a clinical analysis of the passengers list.

First came the elimination round. The flight crew, the embassy officials and their family members and then those whose identities and movements could be established beyond doubt.

The analysis stretched into the first night and the next morning, a cold Christmas day in Kathmandu. Back home in Delhi, a reckless political establishment rushed to blame Pakistan, even before there was any concrete evidence of Islamabad's complicity.

Simultaneously, the Nepal police, which extended full co-operation to India at Kathmandu, was busy interrogating all personnel posted at the Tribhuvan International Airport to study the movements of passengers and other strangers in the run-up to the takeoff of IC 814.

Interrogation of the security personnel at the airport revealed that a Pakistan embassy car (42 CD 14) reached the airport minutes before IC 814 took off. Some interrogated personnel claimed that the first secretary at the Pakistan embassy, Mohammed Arshad Cheema, and another staffer, Zia Ansari, passed on a bag to some people who were boarding the Indian Airlines plane. But this could not be independently confirmed.

The computer at the headquarters of Royal Nepal Airlines stores all the data in its central unit, which is linked to major travel agencies. Indian investigators, who were analysing the computerised details, tumbled on some curious information.

Three passengers had bought their tickets together from Everest Travels and Tours, located near Nepal King Birendra's palace, on December 13. The tickets were first booked for December 27, but by the evening of December 13 the three tickets had been advanced to December 24.

Also on December 13, two business class tickets were brought from the Gorkha Travel Agency. And by the evening, these two were also advanced for December 24.

But that was not enough evidence to conclude that the five passengers were the hijackers.

Except for one of them, none of the five had booked any luggage. The luggage booked in by the one person weighed just 15 kilograms.

The only faux pas during the initial investigation was the suspicion of Kathmandu-based investigators that Gajendra Man Tamarkar, a Nepalese television comedian, was also involved in the hijack. The suspicion arouse after the airport staff, some of whom could identify Tamarkar, claimed they had seen him interacting with the suspected hijackers.

The news about Tamarkar was out in the Delhi media within hours, and that was an embarrassment the investigators would regret for some time. Tamarkar was given a clean chit as soon the investigators realised he had booked in 150 kg of luggage, something a hijacker would never do.

On December 24, the day the hijack took place, there was an interesting piece of investigation in Mumbai. The city police, which kept watch on the movements of Abdul Latif Adam Momin, believed to be a Harkat-ul Mujahideen supporter, chanced upon a telephone call made by him to Karachi.

The conversation, intelligence sources point out, was between Latif and Abdul Rauf, freed militant cleric Maulana Azhar Masood's younger brother. But those details unfolded much later.

For now, the police officers were sure Latif had a key role in the hijack, as the conversation had centred around the crime, and Rauf's order to take the plane out of India from Amristar. The conversation, just after the hijack, also revealed they had contacts in Delhi who tipped them off about the Crisis Management Group meeting. But this startling angle was never investigated.

By the evening of Sunday, December 26, Indian and Nepali investigators in Kathmandu had zeroed in on the five names. They were sure these men were the hijackers. The conclusion was also arrived at after investigations at the premises of the travel agencies.

New Delhi in turn flashed the information to all agencies, including the Mumbai police. The hijackers had used false Indian names, and fake driving licences made in Maharashtra for getting tickets to Kathmandu. Most of the name used by them were Hindu names.

In Mumbai, Latif was the prime suspect. But there were loopholes that the Mumbai police had to still work out. A lot of details about the hijackers came from other sources, including passengers freed at Dubai.

A debriefing of the passengers confirmed that the names drawn up by Kathmandu-based Indian officials were true.

Intercepts in Mumbai also revealed that the hijackers boarded the Airbus, assuming that the plane would have a phone facility. But IC 814 did not have such a facility.

So, the investigators concluded everything about the hijackers through logical deduction, debriefing of released passengers and other intercepts received from Kashmir and other places.

On December 26, after Rupin Katyal was murdered and 26 passengers were released in Dubai, Army headquarters forwarded to the Prime Minister's Office a highly reliable intercept. This intercept -- of a conversation between two senior militant commanders -- was reported by during the crisis, and was an accurate indicator of how the crisis would unfold.

In the intercept, the Harkat-ul commander tells his counterpart in Laskhar-e-Toiba that no more passengers will be hurt. That all of them would be freed on December 31 and that the empty plane would be blown up on January 1.

The government was able to react based on these multiple inputs. Says a senior official, "We were assisted by inputs from numerous agencies. There were inputs coming in from Kathmandu, from Mumbai and even as far as Line of Control and outside the country."

As the crisis dragged on, the Mumbai police decided to crack down on Latif. On December 29, a special crack team from the Mumbai police began to trail Latif from the Mohammed Ali market. After keeping a night-long vigil outside his home, the crack team continued trailing him the next day, December 30. A couple of kilometres from Jogeshwari, where Latif was staying, he was arrested from an autorickshaw. On sustained interrogation, he revealed the months of planning behind the hijack, details about the the hijackers, the strategy.

In several rounds of raids that followed Latif's arrest, the Mumbai police recovered five passport applications, all in the name of the five suspected hijackers in the plane. All applications in Hindu names, all fake, attached with fake proof of residence. The names used in the passport applications were the same as the names used for buying flight tickets.

The corroboration between the Kathmandu discovery and the application forms was simple. Latif, who admitted they were indeed the hijackers, also reavealed their real names.

And this was how Home Minister L K Advani proudly went to the press and the people on January 6, less than week after the hijacking, with the details of the people involved.

The Hijack: One Year On


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