It had been six months since the Pulwama attack that killed 40 CRPF jawans on February 14, 2019, but Rakesh Balwal, the Jammu and Kashmir head of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) tasked with the probe, was getting nowhere.
Intelligence agencies had no clue that the mastermind of the attack, Masood Azhar’s nephew Umar Farooq, had crossed over into Kashmir or that he had been killed in an encounter just a month after Pulwama.
So what led the NIA joining the dots? Interestingly, it was Umar Farooq’s love for two thing—sportswear, and a Kashmiri woman. The case unraveled thanks to a photograph, reveals a new book by author and journalist Rahul Pandita who interviewed investigating officers from the NIA and J&K police to weave together the story of how the Pulwama plot was cracked.
Balwal tells Pandita that it was while looking at a photo of two terrorists slain in March that he got the gut feeling that the well-groomed baby face in Adidas clothing wasn’t some ordinary guy. The police told him that the young man was called Idrees bhai. Balwal was also told about two confiscated phones, an iPhone and a Samsung S-9 Plus, that the police found too damaged and, hence, useless.
Convinced that the phones could hold some vital clues, Balwal used the occasion of the Kashmir IG’s farewell to appeal that the phones be sent to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In). A week later, Balwal’s phone rang. It was an expert from CERT-In.
‘Sir, we have hit a jackpot,’ he said. And jackpot it was. The 100 GB of data included a selfie of three men, one of whom Balwal recognised as the man he’d been told was Idrees bhai and the other as the Pulwama bomber Adil Dar.
“In another photo in Idrees Bhai’s phone, the NIA investigators noticed a package from Amazon. They sent the consignment number to the company, which got back saying it was sent to one Waiz-ul-Islam, who had in the last few transactions bought aluminium powder, battery, chargers, knives and a pair of size 13 shoes.”
The book reveals that Umar had been told by Masood Azhar’s brother Rouf Asghar, the operational head of the Jaish, to destroy his phone after the Pulwama attack. But instead of doing that, he sent his uncle the picture of another smashed phone so he’d think that he had followed orders. Had Umar not made that mistake, it would have been very difficult to establish the Pulwama attack conspiracy all the way to Masood Azhar and his brothers, says Pandita.
But why did Umar not destroy his phone? The reason was Insha Jan, 22, a resident of Kashmir. Umar used the phone to chat with her and often stayed at their home as Insha’s father being a Jaish sympathiser. Her photo was also on the phone, posing with a pistol and an assault rifle. Little did Insha know that the Jaish commander or ‘The Lover Boy from Bahawalpur’ as the book calls him, had liaisons with several other Kashmiri women, including her own cousin sister.
But despite the phone cache, Balwal was yet to make the connection between Idrees Bhai and Umar, and it was again the love affair that clinched it. In February last year, the NIA picked up Shakir Bashir who sheltered the terrorists and drove Dar to the spot of the attack.
At the interrogation, Balwal realized that Bashir wasn’t in it for the money or adventure but was committed to the cause. He was also puritanical. ‘Our officer showed him photos of Idrees Bhai and Insha Jan together. He was in utter disbelief that a man whom he revered could be cosy with women other than his wife,’ a senior official at the NIA headquarters is quoted as saying.
The shock of betrayal Bashir felt put the last piece of the puzzle in place. Soon after, he told Balwal: “Aapko kuch batana hai” (I have something to tell you). “Idrees Bhai is actually Umar Farooq and he is Masood Azhar’s nephew and the son of one of the hijackers of the IC-814 plane. He is the one who planned Pulwama.” That was what the NIA needed to establish that Idrees Bhai was none other than Umar Farooq, the Jaish commander who had planned the attack.
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