Three things – an Adidas jacket, a damaged mobile full of lustful messages and a Kashmiri lover helped NIA nail Pulwama mastermind, reveals a new book by journalist Rahul Pandita who interviewed NIA and Jammu Kashmir Police officers who conducted investigations into the matter.
In February 2019, one of the worst terror attacks on India takes place in Pulwama in Kashmir. Forty Indian soldiers are dead. But when the NIA probes the bombing, they hit one dead end after another. Who were the actual masterminds of this audacious strike? It seemed impossible to find out. The intelligence agencies too did not know that Umar Farooq, a nephew of Masood Azhar and the mastermind of the attack, had crossed into Kashmir or he was killed in an encounter just a month after the Pulwama attack.
In his book ”The Lover Boy of Bahawalpur”, the award winning author and journalist tells the story of how a team of extraordinary NIA sleuths cracked one jigsaw piece in the case at a time and against all odds, managed to connect the dots between a seemingly routine troublemaker put in preventive detention at the time of abrogation of Article 370, a mobile phone full of lustful messages recovered after an encounter in which a terrorist was killed.
Pointing out that it was Umar Farooq’s love for two things — sportswear, and a Kashmiri woman, Rahul Pandita who interviewed investigating officers from both the NIA and the J&K Police wrote that the things started becoming clear because of a photograph.
Balwal tells Pandita that it was seeing a picture of two terrorists killed in March that he felt that the well-groomed babyface in Adidas clothing was no ordinary person. The police said he was called Idrees bhai. Balwal was informed about two confiscated phones, an iPhone and a Samsung S-9 Plus, that the police found damaged and could not get any information from.
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.
However, despite the recovery of the data from the damaged phone, 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.