SYNOPSIS: Kaalkut is a military thriller which tells a story about India dealing with provocations from two enemy nations China and Pakistan. Both neighbours have tried their best to make life tough for Indians by waging wars, land grabs, creating and supporting terrorist groups, economic sabotage, threat of nuclear annihilation among a few other things. Most of the time, Indian actions have been quite passive but there have been a few occasions when India has hit back hard using various tools of statecraft and military.
Many of the events in story are based on real life incidents and a few are completely imaginary. As far as weapon systems are concerned, I’ve taken some liberties with a few facts like numbers, deployment dates etc., but their capabilities as described in the story are more or less close to what most reliable sources claim to be. I don’t want to write something which claims 400% victory to India against all odds by virtue of vastly superior tactics, secret super weapons or stupid enemy. My previous attempts (Flames & Arrows and Pinaka) were a bit like this and I was not really satisfied with both. So just hoping that 3rd one will be better.
This post is an index post for all the chapters in the story. I’ll keep on adding entries in this post as new chapters are published. As of now, I have managed to write a basic outline of the book and I plan to publish a new chapter on a weekly basis or may be faster. But as is the case with such writing attempts, there will be some corrections and updates which will be mentioned here. Feedback, critique and corrections are always welcome.
Wilford Sawicki, US Defence Secretary was not in the best of moods when he entered the meeting room. There were a lot of fires raging all through the world and he mostly felt overwhelmed trying to deal with them all. He had read the news about Xijiang spyware in one of his many briefings, but had not paid much attention to it. What happened in a few phone and internet companies was not directly related to his mandate. There were a lot more important things that needed his full attention like emergence of another islamist faction in Syria, Chinese activities in it’s neighbourhood and beyond to list a few.
So when he got a notice about an urgent meeting with Geoffery Stilwell, Chairman of US Federal Communications Commission, first thing he felt was exasperation. Now that he was in the meeting room unexpectedly 10 minutes early, he just wanted the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.
“Hello Mr Sawicki, thank you for giving us some of your time and I am very sorry to keep you waiting. There are some things related to this meeting which kept us busy. ” Stilwell rushed into the meeting room and offered his hand to the already bored Sawicki.”We are going to start the meeting right now. Under Secretary Richard Barrow from Homeland Security was supposed to join us too, but he got stuck in Florida. He’ll probably join us through a video link. There is a short presentation by Clarke Marias, our technical espionage expert. He will explain what we are doing.” No description was given about who the other four people were and Sawicki didn’t feel like asking.
He was followed in to the meeting room by 5 other people, each one with a tired expression on their faces. Marias fiddled with a digital projector and put a screenshot of Axone’s report on the screen.
He began after getting a nod from Stilwell, “As we are all aware this article declared that Xijiang is using hardware trojans in it’s telecommunications equipment. These trojans or backdoors are stealing data from our voice and computer networks and sending it to Chinese operated servers.”
Sawicki interrupted, “ Pardon me for interrupting Mr Marias. As far as I know, Xijiang has no presence in our military networks.So what’s my role in this meeting?”
Stilwell nodded, “You’re right, we’re coming to your point just now.”
Marias resumed his briefing, “As Mr Defence Secretary mentioned, Xijiang has been kept out from our military networks. But unfortunately a huge part of our civilian network including some vital parts like internet, telephones, some power plants, traffic control among others are using Xijiang equipment. We’ve done our own research about the Axone report. We actually started working on it a few months before this report was published and every thing that they’ve published is true.”
He clicked the forward button on the remote control to bring in a data network map of USA on screen. “I am assuming that all of us have read the report and our remarks in the meeting brief already. So I’ll save some time and not go over all those points again. Our focus will be on how it affects USA and what we can do about it.
This chart here shows the general outline of our communications structure and presence of Xijiang backdoors is indicated by red triangles. As you can see, two of our biggest telecommunication companies Cellcom and Mictel are using Xijiang’s equipment in a total of 29 states across USA. In total this covers 142 million mobile phones, 40 million broadband connections and 90 thousand dedicated leased line connections for vital civilian infrastructure such as traffic control, banks, stock exchanges, hospitals, electricity generation & distribution in addition to e-commerce and other internet infrastructure.
He paused to change the slide which presented names of some companies and government agencies. “With trojans in networks of these companies, China now has nearly full access to networks of all these companies and government infrastructure here which are vital for our national security and interests. We believe that China now has a huge database of data related to identities of our citizens, even their financial and medical records.
That itself is a huge security breach. But the worst part is that now they have nearly full access to our civilian infrastructure which is absolutely vital for national security. With these backdoors, they can cripple our power grids, hospitals, food distribution, internet, traffic and almost every other thing which is necessary to keep our country functioning properly. They can do it all from China without firing even a single bullet or bothering to arrange a huge cyber attack.”
“In short, if a war breaks out between USA and China, they can cripple most of our infrastructure within a few hours.” Sawicki said with a sigh. “How did they manage to install such spyware on such a wide scale? Why didn’t we know about it?”
Stilwell looked at the man sitting furthest away from him who spoke in a nervous voice. “I believe we can answer this question. My name is Bryan Kemp and this is Eric Adams. We are representing Cellcom and Mictel respectively. There is one simple reason how Xijiang managed to create such a strong foothold in our country; that is cost. The equipment bought from Xijiang was 25 to 40 percent cheaper than all other comparable competitors. Additionally, they offered us very favourable payment terms which made them the obvious choice. Even the installation and maintenance of first 2 years was included in the cost.
For Cellcom’s upgraded broadband network, we saved 110 million US dollars by choosing Xijiang.
They bid for the projects in open market, had all clearances from all government agencies including FCC, State Department and others. Not just in USA but in 18 other countries when we signed the contract with them. Now they are present in more than 40. There was no way for us to know they had installed backdoors in their equipment.”
Sawicki pointed to the mobile phone in his hand, “So if my mobile phone connection is serviced by either of these two companies, then Chinese have a tap on me?”
Stilwell hurried with his response, “ Not at all. All of our sensitive communications are through a secure network. I believe that it’s impossible for China to eavesdrop on it.”
“Fair enough. But what about phone or internet connection of my son or my parents or your family Mr Stilwell.”
“Well, I can’t really answer that with any certainty.” Stilwell answered uncomfortably.
Sawicki stared at the slide for a few moments and spoke again, “I believe we have one of the best and most extensive surveillance networks on the planet. How did Chinese manage to do all this without us knowing? How did that small Dutch company manage to discover this before us?”
Marias cleared his throat before answering, “We were investigating this for last 4 months. It took a long time due to reduced manpower and budget cuts. Also, we are not completely sure whether Chinese have activated these backdoors in USA already. It’s not like these backdoors continuously steal and transmit data. It’s done in very small bursts, encrypted and hidden very cleverly with normal data which makes it impossible to find without use of supercomputers powered decryption rigs. Axone managed to do it after they managed to lay their hands on a data dump and a partial decryption key posted on dark web.”
“So, what do we do now? Can we stop these backdoors from being used as kill switches and stealing our data? ” Sawicki didn’t have enough technical understanding of the issue. He understood the severity of it only in non-technical terms and wanted simple, to the point answers which could be understood and approved by people in the government with similar or even less knowledge.
In answer, Marias changed the slide and began, “We have some options. Whatever we’ve managed to learn so far indicates that the backdoor needs external commands to do whatever it can. If we can block the incoming commands then it wouldn’t turn on to either steal data or shutdown the network it’s connected to. Our teams are creating software patches which can be installed in majority of Xijiang equipment to do this. We should be able to release a working version in 4-6 days as a short-term measure. If we manage to find out IP addresses of servers the data is uploaded to, then we can investigate them to see what kind of data is being stolen and by whom. We actually do have some addresses, but those servers are just proxies which transmit the data to some other servers for storage and analysis. We suspect that the actual servers where data is stored may be hidden behind 2-3 such layers which will take a lot more time to analyse fully.”
“OK, how long will it take?”
“Once the software patches are ready, it’s up to them to install them as soon as possible.” Marias replied while looking at Kemp and Adams.
Kemp rubbed his neck nervously and responded, “Testing and installation of the patches on our nationwide network should take 8-10 days.”
Stilwell interjected, “8-10 days is too much. This is a matter of national security. Millions of lives are at stake. Once we release the patch, it should be installed in all of your network in no more than 2, at most 3 days. “
Adams opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it.
Sawicki addressed Stilwell, “What if the software patch doesn’t work as expected?”
Stilwell smiled wryly, “Then we cut the cables or let Chinese do what they want. Even this software patch is a temporary solution at best. What we need is complete replacement of Xijiang equipment immediately. It’s not going to be quick, easy or cheap, but this has to be done as soon as possible and with minimal fuss.
There’s another thing. We should not make our vulnerability public for obvious reasons. We are supposed to take this to President too before we take more steps. So whatever options we have should be ready before meeting with him tomorrow.
In any case Cellcom and Mictel should get ready to replace Xijiang with a trusted non-Chinese vendor as soon as possible.”
Adams protested, “If the software patch works, there should not be any need for replacement. Any such step at this point will cause huge losses. We may even go out of business due to this.”
“Do you really want your customers to know that all of their data is being stolen by Chinese and you don’t want to put an end to it? When American public comes to know that their trusted internet and phone providers are routing their data through malware infested Chinese equipment, what do you think will happen? You’ll be lucky if the people just abandon your service. Knowing the pulse of United States as well as I do, both Cellcom and Mictel will be drowned in so many lawsuits that you’ll go bankrupt fighting them all. Take some advice from me. Take a hit of a few hundred millions, replace the equipment and you can save your reputation as well as companies. I don’t really think that you have any other choice.
When this goes to Congress, they’ll ban Xijiang without much hesitation and perhaps even impose restrictions on their clients. It shouldn’t be a very difficult decision for you as you hardly have any choice.”
Adams started, “In last 3 years, 4 non-Chinese companies have taken Xijiang and Wuman to international courts as well as their countries’ local courts and regulation bodies for theft of intellectual property including designs, corporate espionage and unfair trade practices. Not one government agency in any nation lifted a finger against the Chinese even when their own companies were getting screwed. Why would US Congress do anything now?”
Sawicki grimaced, “Are you saying that you knew of Xijiang’s wrongdoings and still gave them business leading up to this situation ? I should get both of you to appear for the committee meeting.”
Kemp and Adams both went pale and hurried to say something but Sawicki raised his hand and addressed Stilwell, “I think we should wrap up this meeting. President needs to hear about this as soon as possible before a decision is made. Is there any other thing that needs to be discussed now? ”
Roland Bakker had been staring at his desktop screens for the whole night with just a few bathroom and coffee breaks. His work as a security analyst for one of the top network security firms in Europe and his own nature meant that he never could develop a healthy work life balance. It was not uncommon for him to spend weeks cooped up in his apartment ignoring all but most vital phone calls and emails. He considered himself to be a kind of internet detective keeping poorly designed computer and communication networks safe from malicious people and more often than not, human stupidity.
Most of his work was done solo and he enjoyed the focus that solitude provided him. But for this job, he had to take assistance from another person. Few months back, he had discovered some information about security flaws in the new network equipment which was being used in most of western world. He had seen a data dump leaked by an anonymous hacker on a dark web forum which was soon taken offline. But he had managed to download the dump and had spent 2 months labouriously analysing every bit of it.
There was just enough information for him to discover that many telecom exchanges in Europe were transmitting user data to certain servers in a way they were not supposed to. But his expertise had reached it’s limits and he needed help from a hardware expert who specialised in chip design. They had both worked for 6 weeks putting together puzzle pieces one by one and it seemed like all the hard work was finally bearing fruit.
He read the email that his hardware expert friend had sent and dialled his boss’s number.
“Hey Roland, you finally called. I was getting worried about you.” Jasper said in his usual cheerful tone.
“Hello Jasper. Sure you were. I wish I had more time to ask what exactly had gotten you worried, but this is very important and I need your approval immediately.”
Jasper took a serious tone of voice, “Ofcourse, what is this about?”
Roland started talking even before Jasper had finished. “You know about the data leaks from telecom exchanges I was working on, right? The thing is, well as far as I’ve been able to discover that these are not random data leaks but very cleverly planned thefts. This is very serious.”
“All the data thefts are serious in our line of work Roland”, came the reply.
“Well, that’s true but I can guarantee you that this one is going to be as big as Edward Snowden incident. But it’s not the Americans this time but Chinese and you wouldn’t believe how celeverly they have done it. They have their malware in almost every single telecom exchange which has equipment from Xianji. Actually the malware is a very small chip, looks just like a normal diode and is embedded in almost every single Xianji router and switch I’ve managed to analyse. I had Merlin go over the chip and he was the one who actually discovered it.”
“Wait, wait. Jasper interjected. “What exactly have you discovered?”
“In case you didn’t know, a very large number of telecom exchanges which handle voice and data traffic have Xianji hardware these days. This is not just limited to 2-3 countries, but atleast 40 that I know of. And Chinese are eavesdropping on all that data flowing through their equipment. I’ve sent you circuit level analysis of the chip done by Merlin and a sample of data which it transmits to a group of servers spread in different parts of the world. Chinese have the capability to steal almost any type of voice or computer networks data with this and they’re doing it right now.
And before you ask; No, Xianji is not gathering generic anonymous user or diagnostic data or downloading updates or any other benign stuff. These are data dumps from our data exchanges being stolen by Xianji. Well by Chinese government to be exact.”
Jasper stayed quiet for a moment, then asked, “How sure are you about this? You know that information of this kind can disrupt international relations, right?”
“I’d not have called you if I was not sure.”Came the reply.
“When can you send me a full report? I want to get it checked and published as soon as possible.”
“You’ll get it by tomorrow evening. Bye for now“ Roland replied and disconnected the call.
27 June 2017
BNN LIVE NEWS
Xijiang accused of spying on it’s users
In a potentially explosive development, one Amsterdam based web security firm has claimed that Xijiang, one of the biggest telecommunication companies in the world is running a massive global spying ring through it’s equipment. They are alleged to be stealing user data through it’s equipment which is being used in multiple telecom networks around the world. What makes it even more concerning is that the data is apparently being stolen to help Chinese government spy on foreign citizens.
Axone Infosec, the company which published the article has further claimed that the majority of XIjiang’s telecom equipment used in data and voice traffic has a hardware trojan which captures data passing through it and sends it to unverified servers without the user’s knowledge. This trojan can also operate as a killswitch to cripple communication networks wherever they’re installed. In simple terms, it means that any one with access to this trojan can cripple vital telecom networks in a cyber attack. The article has detailed circuit diagrams of a very small chip which Axone claims has no other feasible purpose and yet is present on nearly two-thirds of Xijiang routers, switches and various other equipment they tested.
Xijiang has released a brief press statement dismissing Axone’s claim as mere fiction and claimed that the company is open to any legal investigation of it’s equipment by certified professionals. The press release also claimed that absolutely no user data is either captured or stolen by any of it’s equipment for spying or any other nefarious purpose. But this statement has done little to check the fall of share prices of the company which have fallen by 21% since the report was published.
Some right wing political parties in multiple countries including France, Sweden and Germany have already called for a total ban on all Chinese companies from bidding in creation of new 5G and broadband networks in Europe. This demand is gathering more supporters with each passing day. BPTEL, biggest telecom operator in France with 7 million subscribers on it’s Xijiang equipment based voice and data networks has said that it’s investigating the allegations.
Italian LHCom which was in talks with Xijiang for a new 5G network has suspended the process pending further investigations.
US Federal Communications Commission has also announced the creation of a committee to investigate this issue. Atleast two of the major American telecom companies use Xijiang equipment in their networks.
As of now, we are not sure whether these allegations are true or not. But this incident has brought the issue of user privacy and corporate espionage in limelight once again.
National Technical Research Organisation, New Delhi
The latest high resolution satellite images along with notes about things of interest had arrived at the desk of senior analyst Subhash Punia. The tall and burly Jaat from small town Haryana looked a bit out of place in a desk job analysing complicated intelligence briefs. But he was one of the sharpest minds in the secretive agency who had a reputation of making out patterns in intelligence reports which most other people would dismiss as useless chaos. He was going through the imagery analysis reports of Pakistani air bases when one particular point caught his eye.
The report written by a junior imagery analyst mentioned creation of new semi-permanent structures next to Belab airstrip. The airstrip was located in the middle of nowhere, 150 km west of LoraLai and Multan lay 120 km east. Former had a cantonment of Frontier Constabulary, a Pakistani paramilitary mostly meant for law-enforcement, anti-smuggling and similar activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and sometimes in other parts of the country. Closest sign of any human habitation was an MG Syed Cement Plant and the small residential colony 2 km south of it. Effective control of the plant was in hands of Pakistani army for all intents and purposes, just like majority of other profitable businesses in the country.
The images and analysis further suggested that the structures which looked like air traffic control tower and civilian terminal seemed a bit too large for the small airstrip. It was 1400 m long and barely had any traffic apart from very rare small planes and helicopters. Constructing such large temporary structures for an airstrip was somewhat strange and didn’t fulfill any real purpose.
Multiple high resolution pictures did show some armed people in and around the structure and their positions and movements suggested that it was being used as a training area instead of airport infrastructure.
Punia stared at the screen for a few minutes and then quickly opened a report he had read a few days back. It was based on debriefing of a RAW agent extracted out of Pakistan a few weeks back and had a few updates added to it provided by the other agents put in his place. One of the updates had mentioned arrivals of a group of 15-18 “daarhiis” (beards) in the area. They were living in tents away from the plant but near the airstrip and were noticed driving out to LoraLai in civilian cars driven by drivers with fauji bearings. The local asset had reported that the group was a mix of some Mirpuris, Pathans and Punjabis who usually went out in groups of 5-6 every 4-5 days.
To a casual observer, it looked like that the facility was being used by FC or some other Pakistani organisation for counter-terrorism training. But the local intelligence reports went against it. He went through the agency’s database of aerial imagery looking for something to confirm his suspicions. He fed the design of new Belab facility into a custom designed software built for the agency and scored a partial hit almost immediately. The basic design matched that of Kolkata airport.
He wrote his own report about this and marked it important before sending it to RAW Joint Secretary Shankar Kaushik. 2 hours after sending the report, he was called by Kaushik and asked to attend a meeting with a few other officials the next day.
He reached the meeting room the next morning attended by Kaushik, Major Abhinav Samant from Military Intelligence (MI) and two officers from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Girish Joshi and Arvind Sahay. All of them had read his report and asked him a few questions about it. Joshi’s job was to analyse the financial transactions made by Pakistan based organisations of interest. He was first to offer some information of his own, “We had noticed a few suspicious transactions from bank accounts belonging to Pakistani Jamat-Ul-Dawa to bank accounts of a few Pakistani citizens. We have a tap on databases of some of those banks and managed to get pictures of four account holders. All of them are males aged between 20 to 25, three from Mirpur and one from Lahore. We’re now working with our local assets in LoraLai to confirm if these four are part of the group present there. We expect to get confirmation in 3-4 days.”
Major Samant looked through the pictures and transaction details, “All of them got exactly 5 lakh Pakistani Rupees in one to two transfers from the same four accounts. The patterns speak for themselves. This is the price for their lives as jihadis.”
Punia felt a bit out of touch and asked a question of his own, “Are we sure that people in this list are the same as those mentioned in my report? What gave this impression?”
Arvind Sahay answered, “This is a long story and I am making it short. We had helped Counter Terrorism and Intelligence Bureau (CTIB) of Bangladesh catch a large shipment of arms and a few people of interest some time back. We interrogated the prisoners and went through the data captured from them. Most of the weapons were meant for NNFC and a few other terrorist groups in India and Bangladesh. Additionally, there was a smaller package of 25 assault rifles, 70 grenades. 2 RPGs and some explosives that were supposed to be transferred to someone related to BMC politician Tahir Hussain based in Hingalganj, near India-Bangladesh border.
This Hussain had received a payment of 20 lakh from the JuD around the same time rest of the transfers were done. When you submitted that report about the replica of Kolkata airport terminal and presence of suspicious outsiders, Joshi here put it together and called this meeting. We’re not 100% sure if their intentions and possible targets yet.
That’s why we’ll be working together on this mission with Major Samant from MI. Going by the intelligence collected so far, it seems like that Pakis are trying to do something unusually big, something like 2007 Mumbai attack. Normally Pakis train terrorists in ISI and Army operated training camps in PoK and push in the terrorists across J&K LOC. Even if these terrorists have already received regular training in PoK, bringing them to a faroff airstrip for an unusually detailed and expensive training program raises a lot of red flags.
Additionally, the cement plant next to the airstrip is owned by some people who’ve served.
Most of the routes which these terrorists use to infiltrate into J&K will be closed very soon due to snow. Some are already snowed over. Lately Pakis have started to push in terrorists even during winters, but their success rate is quite low. All evidence says that these terrorists will use Bangladesh route to cross over to India and their most likely target is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, Kolkata. It is a civilian target and any attack there will be nothing short of catastrophic.
Your job will be to keep an eye on them from the sky, our assets in the region will be monitoring their movements and should be able confirm the identities. At the same time, we’ll keep a close watch on Tahir Hussain and his contacts. We’ll take care of him at a later date. Any action against him and his contacts in Bangladesh right now will alert Pakis. Bangladeshi intelligence has promised their full cooperation to us. They are pretty happy with our help with foiling a few major terrorist attacks in their territory. We are trying to gather ELINT (Electronics Intelligence) at the same time. If they’re using satellite phones or even mobiles, we may be able to get a toehold. At the same time, we’re sharing this data with Americans and see what they come up with.
Our mission objective is to arrest or kill the bastards as soon as they try entering India. “
3rd December 2016
Satellite pictures around three weeks after the meeting showed that the tents near the airstrip were removed and most of the temporary structures without signs of any movement. Girish Joshi had managed to confirm the identities of three suspects as Amanatullah from Haji Kot, Lahore, Assad Ul’Din from Chitterpari, Mirpur and Abdul Qadir from Muridke.
22 years old Assad was the son of two Pakistani immigrants living in London and had come to Mirpur for a vacation previous year and to meet the rest of his family in Mirpur. For unknown reasons, he had not taken a flight back home and had gone underground. On his Facebook profile, he had posted a long rant against atrocities of kafirs on muslims and claimed to have dedicated his life for glory of islam.
23 years old Amanatullah was one of 7 children in his family and he worked as a porter for Pakistani army in Attock. He managed to send 3000-4000 PKR every month to his family for a few months after moving there. Then he had called his family one day, expressed his desire to be an Islamic mujahid and deposited PKR 5 lakh in the family’s account.
Abdul Qadir, 21 years old son of an islamic preacher in Muridke was the third suspect. His father was a cleric in a local salafi mosque. Abdul had spent most of his life helping out his father in the mosque’s madrasa.
During their training period in Belab, the terrorists in training were not allowed any contact with the outside world. Few of them were taken to LoraLai every 4-5 days where they relaxed and some of them called their families. A RAW operative managed to get the number of Amanatullah’s father, but a tap couldn’t be placed on his phone before the camp was disbanded. Surveillance on Tahir Hussain gave hints that he was supposed to get a group of eight to ten people out of Bangladesh in to India and host them for two to three days in one of his houses in Kolkata.
RAW had a bit of luck, when they captured image of Abdul Qadir in surveillance recordings of Dhaka airport. He had arrived in Bangladesh via a flight from Malaysia on a Pakistani passport with a different name. CTIB managed to locate him by tracing his taxi to a double story house in Shantibagh, 7-8 km from the border. Three other people were already staying there and five more joined in a few days later. Abdul Qadir was among the last. Surveillance of the house led them to a man named Sharjeel Ajiz from Pakistani embassy who visited the house in an unmarked car three times in twelve days. During his second visit, he entered the house carrying two bags. ELINT surveillance detected the presence of two Thuraya satellite phones but no call was placed from them.
On the evening of 10th November, all 9 men left the house in three cars one after the other and drove towards Ichamati river which formed the border between India and Bangladesh. Most of the area was under dense fog and only the thermal imaging cameras on the surveillance UAV tailing them had constant eye on them. They got into a motor boat which was waiting for them and crossed in to Indian side under cover of darkness and fog.
On Indian side, there were two trucks waiting for them. The area on Indian side had a lot of brick kilns, so a few trucks were always moving in and out of the area. All nine of them got into two trucks laden with bricks which dropped them just outside Kolkata. Two SUVs belonging to Tahir Hussain were waiting for them there which took them to a house belonging to his brother. Once inside the house, one of the satellite phones was switched on and a call placed to a number in Rawalpindi. One hour later, a team of National Security Guards (NSG) raided the house and arrested 11 people from the house. Two other people were identified as Tahir’s brother and the other one his aide and member of BMC. He himself was picked up by a NIA team as he was driving to his home a few minutes later. 10 AK rifles with multiple full magazines, material to make IEDs, grenades and three RPGs were recovered from a hidden cabinet in the house and two imported pistols from Tahir’s car.
There were some news reports about the disappearance of the local politician and arrests of some illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Subhash Punia, Girish Joshi, Arvind Sahay, Major Abhinav Samant and some other people were given promotions and commendations in private that not many people even in their own agencies were aware of. Indian public had been protected against yet another incident of Pakistan sponsored islamic terrorism and no one outside a small circle was any wiser.
7th December 2016
14:30, West of Multan
Birgadier Muhammad Taj was driving his official car himself for a change. He had taken over the wheel after they had gotten out of the congested city to the main highway as a way to blow off some steam. His driver was sitting on the passenger seat praying to allah for their safety as the Brigadier pushed the not that new car to its limits. A team of bodyguards followed them in a SUV few meters behind.
His morning meeting with Lt General Hamid Hussain, Director General ISI and a few other ranking officers of the agency had not gone very well. The failure of Kolkata airport attack under his leadership had brought his reputation down by many notches and his promotion seemed to be a far fetched dream. Lt Gen Hussain had almost laughed at his face when he tried proposing another plan to hit India. If his previous plan had succeeded, he could have expected reaching the rank of Lt General and perhaps even General before his retirement. But the setback had proven to be costly and he doubted if he’d ever get promoted to a higher rank. He had not suffered any official punishment like a transfer, written or verbal rebukes due to his seniority and family clout. In his place, one of his closest aides, a Major Salman Butt had been transferred to Taftan, an ugly border town on Pak-Iran border. Major Butt had been personally involved in training and subsequent shortlisting of the final team. His transfer orders had come directly from the DG office and he hadn’t been given even a single chance to explain himself.
One saving grace was his family owned cement plant on which he could rely to lead a comfortable life even without the ISI job. His uncle, a retired Rear Admiral wanted him to get more involved with the working of the plant and had asked him to go there to sort out some labour related problems. The plant itself was far out of any other human habitation and he wanted to stop at one of his favourite dhabas (roadside restaurant) before dealing with yet another problem. Thankfully the dingy, yet popular place still had most of his favourite lunch items and he had his fill before resuming the drive.
The familiar sight of old family owned plant spread over hundreds of acres came up on the windscreen and he started to consider resigning to start working at the plant full time. It was far away from the noise of big city, he’d have a huge apartment in a quiet location and there’d be no need to lose sleep over the clusterfuck which most ISI missions usually turned out to be. He’d still need to deal with a lot of high ranking military officers to ensure that bribes were paid on time to ensure smooth sales, but even that procedure had been set up a long time back and the job would be a lot less taxing than this spy stuff.
The security guards raised the barrier on seeing his official car and saluted smartly. Many of these people were ex-servicemen from his uncle’s and father’s old units and they gave him same amount of respect. He drove up to the porch of main office, switched off the engine and took a deep breath. It proved to be his last as a powerful explosion ripped the car into thousands of pieces just then. Front of the building was completely destroyed and most of the windows in nearby buildings were shattered.
Same Day, Taftan Bazar
Major Salman Butt was not enjoying his new posting in the godforsaken town at all. It had all the perils of a field posting with none of the perks. He had to keep track of all the rebels belonging to dozens of Balochi, Afghan and even Pakistani factions running in and out of the porous border with zero infrastructure and support. Only other thing of interest was a copper mine around 30 km from the main town which employed a lot of Chinese. He had wondered why the mine in Pakistan employed more Chinese than local Pakistanis. But he never had the time to think about it much.
His new boss visited the place maybe twice a year, but wanted a work report every other day. One thing that helped him deal with all the bullshit was a small shop which existed to cater to the Chinese. It had a stock of imported and smuggled snacks, alcohol and porn which made life somewhat bearable. The shopkeeper sold him stuff at a discounted rate after realising that he was military, so Butt had that going for him. His fifth bottle of whiskey since his transfer less than three weeks back was already finished and he wanted to get 3-4 of them at one visit.
After the purchase, he got back in to his car and took a couple of long swigs straight from the bottle. He needed some relief after the idiotic conversation he had with a local politician who thought of himself as a master spy of sorts. The strong liquor burnt his insides but the numbness felt good. He started the car and started to take a turn to get on to the main road Lost in his thoughts, he failed to see a huge 18 wheeler truck from the mine barreling down the road. The massive truck hit his small car on the driver’s side and it rolled 4-5 times before stopping on the asphalt. Major Butt died within minutes of the impact, his body broken in numerous places.
9th December 2016
20:45 Hours, Skardu Airbase, PoJK
Sahir Mehmood was having a well deserved nap in his house after a hard day of labour in his farm right next to Skardu airbase in Pak Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. There was hardly any traffic on the barely used airstrip on most days. A few small civilian passenger jets and sometimes some military planes and helicopters used it every now and then. Most of the time it was pretty quiet, just the way he liked it. Even his house was on the far end of the village and his nearest neighbour was 300 meters away. The electricity supply to his neighbourhood and most of the region was patchy even in the best of times. So he preferred to go to sleep early and wake up at sunrise to work in his fields and then do a bit of socialising and other stuff before finishing the day.
His sleep was interrupted by the loud noise of a jet aircraft passing so close to the ground that the windows of his house rattled. He didn’t mind that much during the day time, but hated the ruckus they made at night. He peeked out of his window to see a orange-yellow flame of a jet engine coming close to the ground and disappear as it went out of sight, followed by another a minute later. He knew there’d be still more noise as the aircraft would roll down the taxiway to stop at airport apron to park for the night. The spot was only 500 meters from his house and he lay waiting for the aircraft to reach there and turn off their noisy engines.
Four of the Pakistani newest JF-17 Thunder fighter aircrafts had been temporarily deployed to the airfield around a week back and this disturbance at night was now almost a routine. He got out of his bed and picked up the torch to go to kitchen to get a glass of water. He came back carrying the glass and put it on floor next to the bed preparing to go to sleep again. He sighed with relief as the noise of jet engines started to wind down just then. Just before the noise completely stopped, he heard two near simultaneous blasts and then saw two pillars of flames rising above the boundary wall of airport in the distance. He put on his slippers in a hurry spilling the cold water on his feet. He cursed and pulled the quilt off his wife who was still sitting rubbing his eyes and demanding to know what was going on. He sprinted out of the house to have a better look himself and had reached gate of his property when he noticed 3 men walking briskly on the street outside. He shined his torch on them just to hear one of the men growl in Balti (local language), “Go inside and stay quiet if you know what’s best for you.”
Mehmood noticed a black barrel pointed in his direction and didn’t need further convincing. He turned immediately and shooed his bewildered wife inside the house asking her to stay quiet and not ask any questions. It was only around 02:30 in the morning that he came to know from some investigating Pakistani soldiers that someone had destroyed four of PAF’s newest fighter jets which were brought in from China, assembled and painted in Pakistan just a few months back.
Mob rampage over cattle theft in Meerut leaves 5 dead. – Dainik Bharat News
Five people died and twenty one were injured in an incident of mob violence in Meerut yesterday. The violence started after a mob of locals attacked a local police station to protest the arrest of three people under charges of cattle theft. Meanwhile, another mob attacked the house of person who had lodged the FIR about three cows stolen from his house. He was dragged out of his house by the mob and beaten to death in the street. All of his family members suffered serious injuries in during the assault too. His son and wife later died in hospital. Another mob at police station prevented the police from leaving the police station to help the besieged family and set fire to police station and five vehicles parked there.
The two mobs went on a rampage later and set fire to three other houses, multiple vehicles and shops in the area. A video recorded by a resident shows some people who were part of the mob gathering in front of a local mosque and carrying out petrol bombs and sharp edged weapons from inside. Victims of the mob violence admitted in hospital alleged that the local maulvi (islamic cleric) made announcements on loudspeaker calling for an emergency gathering. They also alleged that the mob was shouting Islamic slogans during their arson and assault on people.
This part of Meerut is infamous for cattle theft by organised gangs since quite some time. Local chapter of Bharatiya Hindu Sangh (BHS) released a press statement asking for quick arrests of the perpetrators and provision of security for the local Hindus which are a minority in the area. Some members of BHS were arrested by the police when they tried to take out a protest march against the violence and alleged non-action of local police.
This is the third such incident of mob violence and rioting in last 2 months. On 3rd July, there was a similar incident in Hyderabad when a gathering to discuss the allegedly islamophobic content on Facebook turned violent leading to 6 deaths and multiple acts of arson. On 9th August, another mob had damaged a temple in Thane which was allegedly encroaching on a local graveyard. Elderly priest of the 160 years old temple was stabbed to death and all idols destroyed by the rampaging mob.
Journalist Baba Naqli condemned the registration of FIR against the alleged cattle thieves calling it misuse of state machinery by militant Hindus against peaceful muslims just trying to earn a living. Noted Hindi film personality Bhara Dancekar posted a picture of her holding a poster which read, “BHS should be ashamed” and asked muslims should not be discriminated against due to allegations of a few militant organisations. Another Bollywood personality Khusraddin Khan claimed that she now feels unsafe in India because of hatred against muslims.
Same Day, New Delhi
HM Sudarshan didn’t seem happy. A few sections including a few in his own party had already started calling for his resignation over a spate of riots in different parts of the country. He had summoned Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) Secretary Govidam Rao and Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) Deputy Director Ranjeet Shekhar to the multi department meet with NSA Dhumal,and DM Kamat being other participants. PM and EAM were not present as they were on a state visit to Saudi Arabia.
Officials from IB and RAW had been summoned by the minister multiple times in last few months after each such incident.
NSA Dhumal put up a few pictures on a screen. “This intelligence was collected by our assets in Pakistan few weeks back. An official from Deen Maryam Inc. gave USD 1,10,000 in cash from a hawala operator in May this year. We have a tap on this operator as his services are being used by a few people we monitor there. The money trail led us to Hong Kong registered shell company used by their military generals for collecting their cuts. Then shortly after, he deposited USD 1,05,000 in accounts of people related to or working with some NGOs, political parties and organisations like Islamic Students Federation (ISF), NGO Bediyan Tod, Socialist Party of India and their student wings in two universities in New Delhi.
And as most of you may know already, every single riot or any other islam related controversy in India since last three years has footprints of one or more such organisations.We have reasons to believe that atleast 3 riots this year including the one last week Meerut were sponsored by Pakistanis. Some of the incidents were definitely due to latent islamism in India. But we should start putting more focus on the external instigators too.”
HM stared at the screen and then spoke, “Are we taking any action against these foreign agents and their collaborators here yet ?”
NSA Dhumal looked around the room not sure about whom the question was directed at. Ranjeet Shekhar spoke first after some pause, “I can answer about local instigators. We have many of these people under surveillance already. But just transfer of money is not enough to make a strong case against them. We have made some progress against a few of them by communication records, HUMINT and witnesses. It’s good enough to just arrest them, but we’ll need a bit more to get them in jail. “
Shekhar looked through his notes before resuming, “For example, we have this Sohail Ayub of ISF. Five lakh rupees were transferred to bank account of his cousin Tufail Ayub. Most of that money was then withdrawn in next 4-5 days. Then there is this Rajdweeb Banerjee of Today’s India who was very supportive of muslim mobs and published a lot of fake and provocative articles. 7.5 lakh were deposited in his wife Khannum Sharafa’s account.
We can get people like Tufail and Khannum arrested or at least taken in for questioning right now. Some of them can be imprisoned too, but the charges will be comparatively lenient and hard to prove. Even as we speak, our people are hard at work following the money trail and gathering more evidence. We need 12-15 days more to have enough evidence for strong chargesheets. ”
DM nodded in approval, “That’s good to hear, but you need to pickup the pace. We can’t give these traitors too much time.” He then looked at RAW’s Govindam Rao, “What about their financiers in Pakistan and elsewhere ?”
“We’ve managed to activate a few more assets in Pakistan over the last 2 years. We have a few planned missions that were shared for approval. As far as their agents in Nepal, Bangladesh and middle-east are concerned, we are keeping them under close watch. Some of them can be neutralised or arrested as soon as we get approval. You already know of our proa-active actions on the border.
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is trying to use muslims in India to replicate what they’re doing in Kashmir. But we have some leverage against them too. Every group in Pakistan like Balochis, Shias, Pakhtoons, people of PoJK, Sindhis, Punjabis and many others have one or more problems with Pakstani state and each other.
Additionally, we can make most parts of Balochistan, Pak Occupied Kashmir and most of their border with Afghanistan very hot. We have a few high level assets in Afghan National Army (ANA) and their intelligence agency Khadamat-e Aetela’at-e Dawlati (KHAD) who hate Pakistanis with a passion. Only problem with Paki western sector is meddling by Americans and the leaks in Aghan agencies. Even Americans don’t trust them much.”
Rao explained and stopped for a breather only to get another question by DM, “What about the economy part ?”
“We are putting some effort into the Pakistani economy. It’s not like whatever they are doing is helping them, but a bit of push from our side will help them slide down the gutter much faster. One major issue is that most of their profitable ventures are controlled by military and their allies in China, middle-east and even USA are not very cooperative when it comes to curtailing their illegal activities.
I am no economist myself, but whatever China is doing in Pakistan seems to be bankrupting Pakistanis. At the same time, I request that we get the approvals to do something about some of their strategic projects like ports, railways and roads, specially for CPEC projects. Pakistani public doesn’t realise this, but they are paying through their nose for something that’ll be useful for China only. It’ll be in our interests to see that some of Chinese projects are delayed or abandoned there. ”
The fishing boat’s engines were shutoff and it moved gently with the ocean waves. A Dornier Do 228 surveillance plane of Indian Coast Guard flew in circles a few hundred meters above it. All six people on the boat were lined up on the deck watching the plane anxiously awaiting further instructions. The Dornier had noticed the suspicious looking boat far from usual fishing grounds and ordered it to stop on radio.
Mohsin Safi smoked a cigarette with his feet dangling past the bow of boat and waited for an update on his satellite phone. He was a passenger on the boat with Pakistani registration and crew who were not so calm and fidgeted nervously. But there were a lot of things keeping them from trying to make a run. One immediate concern was the threat of a heavy machine gun on Dornier which could have killed every single person on the small boat in a few bursts even if they tried hiding below the deck.
Then it was the matter of a significant payment and threat of beheading by Ashraf Azam if they failed to do what Safi asked them to do.
Amad Butt, owner of the boat looked at the radio every few minutes praying fervently. Safi looked at him, smiled and uttered something asking him to not worry. Although he didn’t have any contraband on his boat on this run, he was not sure about what his passenger was carrying. He was tempted to go and check the small bag that Safi had carried on to the boat, but memory of smiling face of Azam as he threatened to behead him stopped him.
He had been working as a runner for Azam for many years now, carrying all sorts of goods for him from Indian coast in Gujarat to Sindh in Pakistan. He had seen one execution done by Azam on the sea himself when the unfortunate victim had dumped some cargo in to the sea after being spooked by a Pakistani naval ship. Like most devout muslims, he believed that he’d get 72 virgins in heaven. But he didn’t want to get beheaded slowly like a halaled goat to get there.
There was a notification on Safi’s phone and he got up to stretch his limbs. He walked to Butt and offered him a cigarette. Butt could barely read, but he recognised the expensive Davidoff brand which he had carried on his boat for smuggling quite a few times. He moved his hand to pull out one cigarette, but Safi handed him the whole, still mostly full pack and said, “We should be good to go in a few minutes. Get ready.”
Butt didn’t seem convinced but nodded. Few minutes later, Dornier gained altitude and went out of their sight towards Indian coastline. Butt and rest of his crew stared blankly at Shafi as if asking what now ?
Shafi grinned, “Ashraf bhai has long arms. We’re free to go.”
Butt could hardly believe that. He had almost started making plans about his time in an Indian jail and number of years before authorities from India and Pakistan would have enough numbers for a prisoner swap. One of his maternal cousins, a regular fisherman had spent 3 years in an Indian jail when he was caught fishing in Indian waters. Butt was not the type of person to look a gift horse in the mouth. He ordered his crew to lift the anchor and start the engine. The small diesel boat was chugging on to it’s destination in a few minutes.
Shafi stayed on deck, scanning the sea around them and occasionally checking his satellite phone. Soon he gave directions to Butt and they saw another boat standing still in the water, just like Azam had said. Both boats got close, Shafi got on to the other one and waved back. Butt heaved a sigh of relief on completing his part of the mission and turned back to go home. All that excitement was enough to make him look forward to reach back home and down a few drinks even with his quarrelsome wife staring daggers at him.
Shafi stood on the deck watching the other boat recede away in to a small speck. He kept watching till he saw and then heard a faint explosion in the distance. Butt’s boat sank within a minute with all hands on deck. Crew of his new boat didn’t even give a second glance to the spectacle or to their new passenger.
26 October 2016, Udaipur
Kishan Jha stood up to shake hands with Mohsin Shafi. It had been eleven years since they had seen each other. “Are you going to keep this beard even now ?” He said as a way of greeting.
Shafi pointed to Jha’s belly, “I’ll shave it off as soon this disappears.”
Jha laughed, “That’s not going to happen my friend. Do I call you Mohsin Shafi or Sudarshan Tomar or do you want a completely new identity now that you’re back ?”
“Nine years in Pakistan living under a false name was enough. It’ll be good to be addressed by my real name again.”
“Sudarshan Tomar it is then. Welcome back to your own country.” Jha nodded approvingly “There is still some work to do before we do anything else. Arvind Sahay will be here shortly for debriefing and details about the spy network you set up there. You’ll need to describe your missions from beginning till the end, don’t leave out any detail. “
Tomar worked in Rajasthan Police as an Assistant Sub-Inspector before he was deputed to Intelligence Bureau. From there, he was contacted by Kishan Jha and offered a job as a secret undercover agent in Pakistan. Tomar was first sent to Jamnagar and then to Indore for his undercover training. His training over 15 months taught advanced intelligence gathering techniques, covert communications, proficiency in various weapons and how to blend in as a muslim. He also learnt Urdu and Arabic and studied some Islamic theology and history. After his training, he spent a year in muslim areas of western Uttar Pradesh and coastal Gujarat as an under cover agent honing his skills.
Jha then sent him to Dubai, where he spent 5 months learning details about the city and it’s culture he’d need later. He was then given a new cover with some documents, money and detailed instructions on what to do further. His new identity put him as only son of Pakistani nationals who had lived in Dubai for most of their adult lives and passed away a few years back. After their deaths, he had sold off most of the possessions and came back to Pakistan to try his luck. The passport and other identification papers provided to him were quite good and he had no problem reaching Karachi.
Once there, he was contacted by a Sindhi named Abdul Noor who provided him a place to stay and showed him around the city. Noor by himself was quite unremarkable and he was owner of a stationery shop in the city. He then introduced him to another local named Ashraf Azam who had deep links with Karachi’s underworld and law enforcement alike. Azam owned a number of legal, illegal and somewhere in between types of businesses all over the city. Shafi was given job of manager of a restaurant named Dynasty Cafe in an upscale area of Karachi. It had a dedicated clientele of a number of elites of the city which included businessmen, police, armed forces and politicians. It had quite a few dishes from Chinese and Sindhi cuisines printed on the menu. But it made a lot more money selling smuggled liquor, hosting gambling parties and providing discreet meeting places to elites of Pakistani society.
A significant portion of the earnings were given to Karachi police and agents of various other security agencies which dropped in from time to time. Dynasty Cafe had powerful patrons who valued their privacy, so business was pretty good.
Shafi spent his first four years in Pakistan establishing himself, cultivating resources and getting a feel of the place. To cement his cover, he married the divorced daughter of a shopkeeper next to the restaurant and bought a house. His four years of work had brought him close to a lot of people of interest. He had links with smugglers who dabbled in transport of drugs, alcohol, gold, luxury items, weapons and various other items of interest to his patrons. He was arrested twice and put in lockup. Once when caught with contraband liquor in his car and once again when a senior police officer developed a dispute with Azam. He managed to get out both times without blowing his cover and the arrests and quick releases raised his street reputation.
His handlers assigned him to cultivate a few assets in Pakistani military which was a lot more dangerous but overall not that difficult job. There are a lot of dedicated professionals in Pakistani military, but their main focus is to enrich themselves. Most of Pakistani military activities are related to land grabbing, business control, taking grafts and controlling politicians in one way or another. So getting a few Pakistani personnel from Army and Navy on his payroll was not a very difficult task. Direct payments, help with visa or residence in a western country, few cases of liquor, introduction to a senior official, mediation for a mostly illegal business venture and even blackmailing tactics were used to set up a fairly robust spying ring.
Safi kept a very low profile and almost never dealt directly with his sources. That’s how he managed to stay undetected for so long. During his nine years in Pakistan, he funneled arms and intelligence to Baloch separatists, collected enough intelligence about Pakistani naval assets and army bases in Karachi and nearby areas to fill up a whole library. His dirt sheet on the rich and elite of Pakistani polity and military was even more extensive which proved to be invaluable for RAW. His best work was his intelligence on Chinese and their links with Pakistani politicians and military. This intelligence reached a few important desks in RAW as well as a number of other places which made decisions about Indian foreign policy and defence.
In mid 2015, he expressed his desire to go back home. There was a limit to which he could collect intelligence efficiently without getting caught. RAW realised that and sent three other agents which were established by Safi in his own place. Only thing he felt bad about was leaving the woman he married without any goodbye. But he had left a house and enough cash for her to last her life. It’d not be that bad for her to believe that her husband was killed during a smuggling trip to India.