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Organised crime and terrorism Part III: Letters from Dubai: D-Company’ and the ‘93 Mumbai terror attacks

This is the third piece in Strife’s four-part series exploring the relationship between organised crime and terrorism in a 21st century security environment. The first and second parts can be found here and here, respectively.

By: Andrea Varsori

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The aftermath of the bomb near the headquarters of the Shiv Sena. Source: India Times

Rags-to-riches criminal overlords do not normally lack ambition; yet, most of them do not aim to claim the title of ‘Protectors of the Faith’. Their daily worries are mostly concerned with assuring that their network of businesses runs smoothly, that officials are sufficiently bribed or intimidated, and that all their underlings actually remain loyal. However, even the most business-minded criminal bosses can develop a sense of allegiance to their own community, be it ethnic or religious. In times of sectarian violence, these overlords may decide to act to defend their people. This decision may be completely at odds with the logic of the criminal enterprise: it entails a potential backlash from the authorities and the larger public. During sectarian conflicts, however, their reputation is at stake: inaction may spark doubts about a boss’ ability to project his own power, thus encouraging rivals to try to take over his networks. The boss’ community may also feel betrayed, and may begin to sabotage the boss’ illicit trade and favour someone else. There is no simple way to solve this problem.

Dawood Ibrahim probably never had this kind of thoughts before December 1992. At that time, Ibrahim was one of the most powerful citizens of Mumbai, although he was no longer a resident. He was born in the southern part of the city in 1955, the eldest son in a low-income family of ten. After dropping out of school, he gradually resorted to extortions and robbing, eventually ending up smuggling goods in local markets. The major boost to his career arrived while in jail: there, in fact, he managed to earn the trust of Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel, two of the most important smugglers of the city.[1] Having understood Dawood’s ambition, they entrusted him with their business before retiring. By the time Dawood was free again, he had thus gained access to Mastan’s and Patel’s resources. Starting from there, he used both ruthless violence and cunning to profit from the weaknesses of the most important gang in Mumbai, led by Pathans from Afghanistan. By 1982, he had managed to kill the new leader of this gang; however, the Mumbai police was often able to prove his complicity in most of his gang’s crimes, and he was visiting prison quite often. On 4 May 1984, he jumped bail and fled to Dubai.[2]

In Dubai, then a major haven for smugglers, he managed to build a massive network of illegal and legal businesses. This network included both Muslims and Hindus, as it had often been the case in earlier criminal gangs of Mumbai. What became known as ‘D-Company’ — from the first letter of Dawood — smuggled in gold, silver, electronic goods, and textiles; it extorted protection from businessmen and occasionally solved disputes between them.[3] In Dubai, Ibrahim built for himself a luxurious mansion, where he organised lavish parties, inviting Mumbai’s most famous celebrities, cricketers, and politicians. His story was that of a boy from Dongri who had successfully taken control of entire criminal enterprises and who had silenced rival Hindu dons: in Mumbai, Muslims in the slums started to see him as an empowering model, as a vindicator of the Islamic minority. He could not return to his own city, however, as he knew that the police was waiting for him. This constraint became a problem for him and his associates when the Mumbai riots began in December 1992.

It all started in Ayodhya, 1,460km northeast of Mumbai. In this region, Hindu mythology claimed that Ram, one of the avatars of Vishnu, was born; a temple stood on the exact place of Ram’s birth. In 1523, Mahmud of Ghazni, commander of an army of Muslim invaders from Central Asia, conquered the area and destroyed the temple of Ram. In its place, he built the Babri Masjid, or Babur’s Mosque, in honour of the first Moghul Emperor. The memory of these events contributed to embittered relations between Hindus and Muslims in the area. In the 1980s, the Hindu Sangh Parivar (HSP), an umbrella organisation including several Hindu nationalist groups, aimed to revive the dispute. The members of its various branches claimed that the mosque had to be closed and destroyed, in order to build a new, bigger temple to Ram. The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), itself a part of HSP, at the local state elections in 1991 decided the fate of the mosque. One year later, the government transferred the property of the land on which the Masjid stood to a Hindu organisation charged with constructing a new temple; volunteers destroyed all buildings surrounding the mosque.[4] On 6 December 1992, a crowd of 150,000 Hindu nationalist militants summoned by the main leaders managed to overcome a weak police presence and razed to the ground the Babri Masjid.[5]

This was an insult for many Indian Muslims. The destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya was followed by six days of intense riots. In Mumbai, Muslim mobs started targeting temples; the police, in a desperate attempt to control the violence, fired on looters, while Hindus retaliated on mosques.[6] This cycle of riots in Mumbai left 227 dead: around two-thirds of the victims were Muslims, while only 15% of the whole city population at that time was Islamic.[7] In January 1993, a new sequence of riots occurred: this time, the troubles lasted for ten days, and caused 557 dead and more than 2.000 injured[8]. As in the December riots, the Islamic population had been disproportionally hit by the violence.

As the riots went on, Dawood Ibrahim kept receiving discomforting news. Furious rioters were explicitly targeting Muslim men and women; after days of communal violence, angry mobs began to protest against him, shouting “Dawood to death.”[9] They felt betrayed: he seemed distant, powerless, and unable to protect them. This belief could become rapidly damaging to Dawood’s reputation and business. As the riots abated, sectarian tension did not decrease: by the end of January 1993, Dawood had finally decided to exact revenge for the riots.

He ultimately did not need to do much. He helped to hold meetings in Dubai with powerful Mumbai Muslim criminals, along with representatives of the “concerned Muslims” from the Arab world. He permitted weapons and explosives to be smuggled in India through the routes he controlled. Last, but not least, he provided the connection with the Pakistani secret services, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI).

The plan to hit Mumbai proceeded. On the afternoon of Friday, 12 March 1993, a group of affiliates of Dawood’s smuggling networks struck the city with the widest and most complex set of bombing ever seen in a single city and on a single day. Ten explosions rocked the city between 1.28pm and 3.35pm. The bombs targeted different core points, from the Mumbai Stock Exchange, to the Katha Bazaar, the city’s largest wholesale market for grain and spice, and then to the Plaza Cinema, one of the symbols of the city’s burgeoning movie industry. At the end of the day, 257 persons were dead and 713 more were injured.[10]

Naturally, one of the targets was also the headquarters of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, a part of the HSP. The Shiv Sena had a prominent role in advocating the destruction of the Babri Masjid and in fostering anti-Muslim propaganda. A bomb exploded near an oil pump, on the side of the main building: four people died, no members of the Shiv Sena were among them. Nonetheless, the location of the bomb made very clear what was the target and the sectarian allegiance of those who had placed it. Communal riots could have been the first logical consequence.

Fortunately, police forces managed to avert this potential outcome. Moreover, the brutality and breadth of the attacks had shocked most Mumbai citizens into terror, rather than rage. As soon as the smoke from the explosions had settled, however, the police started connecting the dots. It was apparent from the beginning that this act of terrorism required a complex organization and uncommon skills. On 15 March, the Times of India claimed that “hi-tech terrorism” had arrived in India.[11] At that time, this type of terrorism had several harbingers; apart from the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers), most of them were Islamic fundamentalist organizations.

Right from the beginning, however, Dawood’s fame turned against him: his name was the first to appear in the theories that tried to explain the attacks.[12] The lack of training and discipline on the part of the terrorists also helped the police tremendously. During the bombings, in fact, some of them were reaching by van the buildings that hosted the city and the Maharashtra state administration, with the intent of murdering every BJP member they could find. As they passed near one of the target locations, however, a bomb exploded, and they abruptly decided to abort the mission.[13] Therefore, they left their van behind, filled with weapons and explosives. When the police found the vehicle, it became a decisive lead for the investigators, as the van’s owner was a relative of Tiger Memon.

As the Mumbai police officers soon discovered, Memon was the centrepiece of the bombing plot. The son of a part-time worker, second among six, he grew up in a decaying, crowded building in Pydhonie – a mostly Muslim zone of South Mumbai. After a failed attempt as a bank cashier, he started his criminal career as a chauffeur for local smugglers. He was quickly noticed for his recklessness and his knowledge of the city; this earned him an invitation to Dubai, where he became a gold carrier. In a few years, he took charge of all smuggling operations from Mumbai; a sumptuous wedding in 1985 and the opening of an office in the city’s financial quarters definitively confirmed his rise.[14]

Tiger Memon had been the true organiser and motivator behind the attacks. He supported from the beginning Dawood’s decision to retaliate for the anti-Muslim riots. He was in charge of smuggling the weapons and he knew exactly how they could best reach Mumbai: by arriving on the coast, 250km south of the city.[15] He profited from the same techniques, connections, and intelligence that he used when transporting gold and electronic goods. He also selected the people that could deliver the bombs: they were all members of his network. After choosing his affiliates, he organised their military training in Pakistan; he visited the training camp for some days, according to one of the participants.[16] Most importantly, after giving his men a final rousing speech, the evening before the attacks, he left on a 4am flight to Dubai to join his large family.[17]

Later judiciary proceedings confirmed Tiger Memon’s role. The final judgement on the bombings arrived on 21 March 2013, with a sentence by the Supreme Court of India, which upheld prison sentences for most of the accused. Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, however, have not yet faced trial: they have gone into hiding, possibly in Pakistan; Dawood’s new house has been traced to Karachi as late as 2006.[18] Still, their departure from Dubai and the greater attention on the part of the authorities have taken their toll on Ibrahim’s and Memon’s criminal network. The decision to help to stage the attacks has divided the ‘D-Company’ along religious lines: in 1996, Chhota Rajan, one of Dawood’s main subordinates, formed his own gang in retaliation for the 1993 bombings. Rajan was Hindu, as most of his own affiliates: the schism caused a flare-up of gang-related homicides in Mumbai, with more than a hundred people dead.[19]

Dawood’s decision to act, then, caused permanent damages to his criminal syndicate. Sectarian division has certainly harmed ‘D-Company’s’ activity after infighting broke out in the late 1990s. The public nature of the 1993 terrorist attack, moreover, provided too much unwanted attention for a criminal organisation. Dawood’s choice can be explained by paying attention to the dual nature of his role as a ‘Don’: he had been both the man in charge for a criminal firm’s success and the potential avenger of the Muslim minorities of Mumbai. He decided to act to fulfil the latter role, instead of the former. The fact that he is not serving a prison sentence in India shows that he had some guarantees on his own personal safety. In this perspective, a crisis of his own criminal network may have seemed as a reasonable price to pay.

 

 

Andrea is an MPhil candidate at the Department of War Studies. His research project focuses on security issues in mega-cities: in particular, he is interested in the role of the urban environment in shaping organized criminal and political violence. He tweets at @Andrea_Varsori

 

Notes:

[1] Zaidi, S. H., Black Friday. The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 21-23.

[2] Zaidi, p. 25.

[3] Zaidi, p. 26-27.

[4]McLeod, J., The History of India, Santa Barbara, CA, Greenwood Publishing, 2015, p. 194.

[5] Stein, B., D. Arnold, A History of India, Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, 2010, pp. 411-412.

[6] Padgaonkar, D. (ed.), When Bombay Burned, New Delhi, UBS Publishers, 1993, pp. IX-XI.

[7] Padgaonkar, p. XVI.

[8] Padgaonkar, pp. 42-100.

[9]  Zaidi, p. 21.

[10] Zaidi, pp. 1-17.

[11] High-tech Terrorism, The Times of India, March 15, 1993.

[12] Hypotheses about his involvement started to appear on that same Friday and right afterwards. Zaidi, p. 104; Padgaonkar, p. 169.

[13] Zaidi, p. 94.

[14] Zaidi, pp. 31-36.

[15] Zaidi, pp. 40-52.

[16] Zaidi, pp. 61-62.

[17] Zaidi, p. 82.

[18] Khan, A., Tiger Memon wanted to bomb plane at Sahar Airport to avenge Mumbai riots, says 1993 bomb blasts accused, India Today, August 1, 2015. Available on http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/tiger-memon-wanted-to-bomb-plane-at-sahar-airport-to-avenge-mumbai-riots/1/455519.html .

[19] Swami, P., Mumbai’s Mafia Wars, Frontline, Vol. 16, March-April 1999. Available on http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1607/16070420.htm .

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