New Delhi: Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who has told police he carried out the 7/11 Mumbai train bombings along with four others, claims to have had a change of heart soon after the attack.
“I began reading stories in newspapers about the victims,” Sheikh, then 34, told his interrogators on September 18, 2009. “In fact I’ll say that I credit the newspaper Indian Express for changing my thinking. The Indian Express played a crucial role in changing my outlook. Daily the paper carried a story of a victim which really influenced me. I came to the conclusion that what I am doing was wrong.
That my path was wrong and I shouldn’t be involved in these activities. I decided from then on not to get involved in any more of such activities.
“There were stories of people who had just one son, or just one earning person to depend on, and people with kids. I put myself in their place: how would I have felt if this had happened to me. I was married and had a daughter by then, you see, and I understood what it meant… The reality is my thinking changed completely.”
In his custodial questioning, whose video is available with The Indian Express (www.indianexpress.com), Sheikh also talks about what set him down the road of terrorism, particularly the role played by the Babri Masjid demolition.
Sheikh was born in 1975. His parents, who were small farmers owning just five bighas of land in Azamgarh, had moved to Mumbai, to a slum in Chembur, hoping to build a new life. Two years before his birth, the slum was relocated to Cheeta Camp, a new project that was built to make way for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. There, his father ran a small store.
In his 2009 interrogation, Sheikh says, “Before the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, my mentality (inclination) was towards Communism, I was Communist-minded. Before that I was nationalist minded because the locality in Bombay where I lived was a defence services area — Army, Navy… After the Babri Masjid demolition and riots, my mentality changed and I turned towards my religion. And because I was upset, in 1996, I joined SIMI.”
Sheikh, who says he was in SIMI from 1996 to 1999 (it was banned for the first time in 2001), also claims to have been attracted to it because he was “very aggressive”. “I used to pick fights, both at home and outside, which bothered my parents. So I thought I should get into the company of good people.” In SIMI, Sheikh says, “the pain that had taken root in my heart after the Babri Masjid episode got nurtured”.
At the same time, he clarifies, “I saw some people from SIMI and realised they were good people — Shafiq, Salim. These two were from the Cheeta Camp. I noticed they were of a religious bent, were educated and did jobs. I could have also joined the Jamat but those people become complete ‘mullahs’ — they are then not concerned about the world. I joined SIMI so that I stay religious and change to become better.”
While Sheikh failed to clear high school, life did seem to be headed the right way. He did a course in refrigeration, air-conditioning from an institute in Dongri, Mumbai, and in 2000, got an apprenticeship with Godrej as a refrigeration technician, and was later hired as full-time worker.
Early in 2001, investigators have found, the Godrej plant moved to Mohali in Punjab, and Sheikh found himself jobless. In those months, his family received a visit from a Hyderabad-based relative, Mujahid Salim Azmi, the son of a prominent cleric. The two men shared anger against “oppression of Muslims in India”, and the belief that jihad was the way forward.
Mujahid Salim is believed to have introduced Sheikh to Asif Raza Khan, a ganglord then in the process of setting up what would flower into the Indian Mujahideen several years later.
In February 2001, Sheikh told police, he flew from Dhaka to Karachi, armed with fake travel documents. He said he received training at the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Umm-ul-Qura camp near Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and then took an advanced course at a camp in Bahawalpur.
In 2002, according to Sheikh’s testimony, he participated in his first terrorist action — an attack on the US consulate in Kolkata, carried out to avenge the killing of Asif Raza Khan in a shootout with police.
Later that year, Amir Raza Khan, the brother of Asif Raza Khan, allegedly offered him a job in Dubai. His co-workers included Riyaz Shahbandri or Riyaz Bhatkal, a man he knew from the SIMI meetings he attended in 1996, who would soon become his boss.
Back in India in 2004, Sheikh was reportedly put to work building the network that grew into the IM. From September 2004, the group allegedly began carrying out its campaign: a bombing in Varanasi, followed by a strike on the Shramjeevi Express, and then serial bombings in New Delhi.
His remorse in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, as Sheikh says in his videotaped testimony, caused him to drop out of the network.
He was arrested in September 2008 in Mumbai, more than two years after the 7/11 bombings, while on his way to work.