In the middle of coronavirus scare in the country, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has taken over investigation into the case of a man arrested for allegedly spying for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. Identified as Mohd Rashid, he had been arrested in a joint operation of Military Intelligence (MI) and Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad (UP ATS) from Varanasi in January this year.
The NIA took over the investigation on April 6 on basis of an order issued by Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Sources aware of the development said, “The fact that NIA has taken over the case even during the coronavirus lockdown indicates how significant this case is at the national level.”
Twenty-three-year Rashid, originally a resident of Chandoli district of Uttar Pradesh, is a school dropout – after Class-8. He lived with his grandparents in Varanasi after his parents got divorced. The story of his ISI link developed over 2017-19 during which he paid two visits – in 2017 and 2018-19 — to Karachi to attend wedding ceremonies of his relatives.
LOVE, WARNING AND ISI TRAP
On these visits, he fell in love with a girl from his relatives’ family in Karachi. During his visits to Karachi, he was introduced to two ISI operatives, who identified themselves as Ashim and Amad.
Now, security agencies say the two ISI operatives cultivated Rashid as their ‘source’ in India tasking him to provide with Indian phone numbers for new WhatsApp groups for sharing information about key installations, monuments and public rallies.
He was also asked to send photos, videos and information on movement and deployment of army units. They lured him with money and assured him to help him marry the girl he had fallen in love in Karachi.
Rashid was apparently warned by his relatives – an uncle and an aunt – Karachi to beware of the two ISI operatives. But the security agencies say Rashid agreed to work for them and was in frequent communication with his handlers despite multiple warnings by his relatives.
WHAT HE SHARED WITH ISI?
On his return to India, Rashid allegedly facilitated the ISI in creating two WhatsApp accounts on Indian mobile phone numbers. He also shared photos and videos of several public places including famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, Air Force Selection Board, Gyanvapi Mosque, Sankat Mochan temple, Cantt railway station, Dashashwamedh Ghat (all in Varanasi), Agra Fort, Naini Bridge and Ardh Kumbh Mela (in Prayagraj), CRPF camps (in Chandauli and Amethi), Gorakhpur railway station (UP), Renukoot Thermal Power Plant (Sonbhadra) – all in Uttar Pradesh, the India Gate in Delhi, the Ajmeri Sharif dargah (in Rajasthan), and Nagpur railway station (in Maharashtra) among others.
Besides, Rashid also sent video and photos of recent protests at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and anti-CAA/ NRC protests in Lucknow after getting instruction from his Pakistani handlers, the security agencies said.
A senior NIA official said, “Yes, our Lucknow branch has taken over the case on 6th [of April]. This is period of Covid-19. So, due care has been exercised. We will soon be procuring his custody, or else, Rashid will be interrogated in judicial custody if need be.”
The last known communication between Rashid and his handlers was traced to January 13 this year. “Data on his phone and money transactions is under scanner,” the officer said.
Investigators say that ISI operative Ashim was the prime handler of Rashid.
FROM TIP-OFF TO ARREST
Before NIA came into picture, the Military Intelligence (MI) was tracking Rashid for about six months. The Military Intelligence got a whiff of him in the month of July 2019. It received an input regarding a youth from Varanasi passing critical information to Pakistani intelligence agency over WhatsApp.
The Military Intelligence developed the input through months of discreet surveillance and analysis with support from another central agency. Finally, a joint team of MI and UP ATS was formed to identify the suspect on ground and arrest him.
After weeks of reconnaissance, physical surveillance and questioning of preliminary suspects it emerged that Mohd Rashid is the person, who had been passing information to Pakistan. He was called for questioning on January 16. After his initial questioning and examination of his mobile device in subsequent days, his involvement with Pakistani intelligence agency was clearly indicated. Subsequently, he was arrested on January 19.
Further investigation found that he had received a gift packet containing a T-shirt in Pakistan’s national colours (green and white) in the month of May 2019 and a payment of Rs 5,000 in the month of July 2019 from Ashim and Amad (the ISI operatives and his handlers).
Apart from Ashim and Amad, he had also spoken to their boss (possibly an officer) once in the month of October-November 2019. That person asked him to acquire a shop near army installation in Jodhpur to monitor movements of the latter. Rashid was assured a sum of Rs 1 lakh and monthly rental of Rs 10,000-15,000 for the shop.
Now, Rashid has been booked under Section 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war) of Indian Penal Code vide FIR No-001 dt 19/01/2020 and was produced before court. He is presently in judicial custody.
Identified as Amad is believed to be the other handler of Rashid.
CONTACT TRACING FOR ISI NETWORK
Further assessments by Indian agencies indicated that Ashim was the prime handler of Mohd Rashid and Amad alias Havaldar Fayyaz was another handler. They are understood to be associated with Karachi Detachment of ISI Unit-942.
UP ATS could subsequently trace the person, who had sent Mohd Rashid the gift packed from Mumbai on behalf of Ashim. The person, who has gone to Pakistan on a personal visit on valid documents, had received the packet from Ashim at Rajasthan border while he was returning to Mumbai. Though he is didn’t know either of the two, he received the packet and sent it by courier to Mohd Rashid it in good faith.
The Mumbai resident recorded his statements with UP ATS. The said T-shirt has been recovered from Rashid. UP ATS is also working to identify the Indian citizens involved in making the payment of Rs 5000 on behalf of the ISI operatives.
The investigators have found that the two WhatsApp numbers activated by Rashid for ISI were used to lure serving defence personnel. One of the two numbers was found to be in contact with a serving soldier over WhatsApp. The same is being further investigated by the MI.
However, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has stalled investigation in the case. Both MI and UP ATS are likely to resume their part of investigation after lifting of the coronavirus lockdown.