How did Mansoor Peerbhoy, an academically bright, suave and soft-spoken young man, who never exhibited any jihadist tendencies, go on to head the Indian Mujahideen's media cell?
Best-selling author S Hussain Zaidi and Brijesh Singh, an IPS officer who heads Maharashtra's cyber police department, reveal how a brilliant but shy techie became a dreaded terrorist.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Mansoor Peerbhoy had had a rather privileged upbringing.
He went to an English medium school and later graduated as an engineer from the Vishwakarma Institute of Technology (Pune).
He was one of the most well-read and polished members of the Indian Mujahideen.
His residence was in an upmarket Pune locality, and he was a software engineer employed with Yahoo India.
An academically bright, suave and soft-spoken man, he never exhibited any jihadist tendencies.
Hailing from a respectable family that focused on education and academic excellence, Mansoor had secured a whopping 98 per cent in his Class XII and 93 per cent in his Class X board exams.
One of his brothers, Shahid, is a doctor in the UK, while another brother, Adil, is an architect.
His third brother Alim was still a student when Mansoor joined the IM.
His father, Asghar, had been running a successful business of supplying groceries to the Indian Army's Southern Command, while his mother was a well-respected teacher in a Pune school.
Mansoor was everything a young man of his age could hope to be.
He married a girl who was a homoeopathic doctor, a daughter of a mid-level state government employee from Akola in Maharashtra, and fathered three children.
Their neighbours found them cosmopolitan and amiable.
Mansoor quickly rose in his profession on the sheer strength of his talent and intelligence.
Although he was not from any of India's premier engineering institutes, he quickly scaled the ladder to land a lucrative job.
In 2007, it so happened that the firm he used to work for, Zimbra Technologies, got acquired by Yahoo for more than $300 million.
Reportedly, he used to work as the principal engineer, drawing a salary of Rs 19 lakh (roughly around $30,000 at today's conversion rate).
The IM had talent spotters spread across India.
The job of these recruiters was to identify vulnerable youth and drive them towards terrorism.
These modules work insidiously on impressionable minds, selectively feeding them with provocative information about alleged instances of atrocities on Muslims all over the world, especially focusing on Indian examples.
Under the guise of religious discussions, influencers deceptively turn regular people into killers and haters of humanity.
Two such recruiters, Asif Bashiruddin Shaikh and Anique Shafique Syed, came across Mansoor when he joined Arabic classes at the Quran Foundation in Pune's Azam campus.
The duo were in close contact with Iqbal Bhatkal who seems to have developed an interest in their newest find.
Over a period of two years, they worked on Mansoor's mind until the young man was ready for jihad.
It was then that they enlisted him as a member of the IM.
They struck at an opportune moment, the itikaf.
During itikaf, the worshipper withdraws to a mosque in the holy month of Ramzan and comes out only on the last day.
On the last day, when Mansoor completed his itikaf, Asif and Anique, under the guise of religious instruction, told Mansoor about the widespread persecution of Muslims across the world.
They also impressed on him the necessity of jihad, especially in the context of events in Gujarat.
When he seemed convinced, the talent spotters conveyed this development to Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal.
Excited about a potential recruit of such high quality, the brothers asked the duo to continue with their efforts with diligence.
In January 2007 a meeting was arranged between Mansoor and the Bhatkal brothers in the presence of other important IM functionaries.
The recruiters took the techie to Asif's house at Ashoka Mews, Kondhwa, Pune, where the Bhatkals, along with Majid Sheikh, Abdullah and Akbar Choudhary, waited.
The Bhatkals welcomed the new recruit and stressed the necessity of jihad for the sake of the oppressed Gujarat Muslims.
Riyaz told Mansoor that he would be a great asset to the group as he had exceptional technical skills.
Mansoor felt motivated and agreed to join the cause.
Rejoicing at this, Iqbal recited verses from the Quran about jihad and how it is an obligatory duty for believers.
Riyaz asked the new entrant to work on encrypting chats so that they could not be intercepted by agencies.
The group met frequently after that; they would discuss religious issues as well as the plight of Muslims in Iraq, Palestine, India and other places across the world.
They were also becoming close on a personal level and forming a bond that would last for a long and troubled time.
Riyaz would ask Mansoor technical questions about deleted-data recovery, securing and encrypting communication on the Internet and about the software used to perform these tasks. They obtained and tested such software based on Mansoor's inputs.
Riyaz asked Mansoor to get an external hard disk of high capacity on which they conducted tests to see how much deleted data could be recovered by an expert hired by investigating agencies.
Mansoor also showed Riyaz how to use proxy servers to hide online communication.
Soon the 'media cell' of IM took concrete shape.
In May 2007, E2-Labs, a cyber lab in Hyderabad, organised a hacking course for professionals.
Collaborating with Zone-H, a world-class cyber lab, E2-Labs was able to get on board eminent experts with in-depth knowledge of the cyber domain to train the participants.
The delegate fee was a hefty Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) which ensured that only the crème de la crème of the cyber hacking world attended the course.
This included Eyal Dotan, the co-founder of Trustware and the author of ViGUARD, a pioneering Host Intrusion Prevention System software.
Dotan was also the first to provide proactive protection which stopped the 'I Love You' Melissa, Klez, Blaster and Sasser worm outbreaks that threatened to shut down the Internet itself.
E2-Labs' Web site claims that it 'Designs, Develops and Delivers Information Security, training and information assurance services that meet Military, Government, Private Sector and Institutional specifications' and advertises itself as Asia's first anti-hacking academy.
The workshop that was hosted by E2-Labs between May 14 and May 19, 2007, dealt with three major topics: Anti-hacking, Web applications security and anti-wireless hacking.
These courses familiarised the participants with the latest, highly advanced anti-hacking technologies of the day.
The course fee amounted to a substantial part of Mansoor's monthly salary.
When his co-conspirators expressed their inability to finance this venture, he tried to wrangle a discount.
He eventually managed to get a discount of Rs 30,000 and paid the remaining Rs 70,000 out of his own pocket.
Mansoor informed his company that he had some personal work and took a week's leave, while he told his family that he had some official work in Hyderabad.
In a strange turn of events, this Hyderabad trip determined how he would metamorphose from an enterprising young engineer into a hard-core terrorist.
On his way to Hyderabad from Pune by bus, he met Mubin Kadar Shaikh, an acquaintance who was also going to attend the same course.
Both stayed in a lodge near the railway station.
Mubin couldn't eventually attend the course as he was unable to pay the fees, but he stayed with Mansoor all the same.
The instructors and fellow students found Mansoor to be the sharpest when it came to hacking skills, though he was quiet and did not interact much with the others.
As luck would have it, towards the end of the course, on May 18, which was a Friday, a bomb exploded at the historic Mecca Masjid in the Charminar (old city) area, where thousands of people had gathered for the afternoon prayers.
Mansoor had stepped out of class to go there for his afternoon namaz when he heard of the terrible incident.
Riots followed the explosion as an angry mob went on a rampage.
Police resorted to firing and lathi charge, in which four more people died.
There was pandemonium in the city; five people had died on the spot in the blasts and four more were critically injured -- they too succumbed to their injuries later.
After class, Mansoor picked up Mubin and went to the hospitals where the injured had been admitted.
The sight of innocent Muslims mangled in the blast deeply disturbed him; he also felt that the administration was apathetic to the plight of the survivors.
Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal's words rang repeatedly in his mind: 'Jihad is the only answer now.'
Excerpted from Dangerous Minds by S Hussain Zaidi and Brijesh Singh, with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.