This is a short spoof of a typical “immersed” journalistic piece by one of India’s leading “security experts” whose names may rhyme with Pukhta-Khaami, Apuz-Khodai-Koata or Trith-ki-taas. Such writing is characterized by connecting factual dots via long detours into vague and outlandish theories about Islam and Muslims, allusions that something humongous and sinister is imminent, attribution to opaque sources, and the view that people outside the security establishment (of India) are pigeons. Two can play at that game.
On 8 March, moments before Tair ibn Shahbāz (codename: Arash) dived headlong into a MiG-21 jet of the Indian Air Force in Bikaner, the face of his half-sister and co-jihadist Huma binti Shahbāz (codename: Shaheen) must have flashed across his mind. Huma had infiltrated into India in May 2015, carrying cryptic notes on paper and microfilm hidden under her left wing, and was apprehended by authorities after an alert 14-year boy had noticed her flitting around nervously in the fields near the village Manwal in District Pathankot and promptly informed the Punjab Police.
Next day, in New Delhi, the MEA called a press conference at around noon at which amused reporters were informed that a “spy” pigeon had been apprehended near the international border with Pakistan carrying a message in Urdu which read, “Modiji, we are not the same as we were in 1971”. The MEA officials added that it was probably just a prank by someone across the border and should not be “hyped” in the media.
But, unbeknownst to the reporters present, the sole purpose of the slightly frivolous and baffling press conference was to throw the handlers of Huma off-track. At a high-level meeting held earlier that day in New Delhi and possibly chaired by the NSA himself, it had been decided that a Pakistani pigeon crossing the border and being able to penetrate deep into the territory of India posed a “grave and immediate danger to national security” which needed to be “unravelled, understood and undone,” a source in the defence ministry revealed.
As soon as the pigeon had been nabbed, crack teams of NIA and IB were quickly dispatched to ground zero and the area was sealed. The material recovered from Huma was sent to forensic labs in Chandigarh and Hyderabad. Sources within the NIA revealed that within a couple of hours of receiving the material, both the labs relayed back that “they were onto something big”. The paper and microfilm, it was discovered, contained a “complex, cryptic code written in a matrix of Urdu words and Arabic numerals”. The message bore Jaish-e-Mohammad’s stamp. The NIA quickly cobbled together a team of the country’s best forensic experts, code breakers, mathematicians and Urdu scholars, and dispatched them to a secret location near Pune. Together, the team tried to break down and rearrange the material in order to decipher the information it contained.
It was not an easy task. Since the partition of India in 1947, and the formation of the state of Pakistan, Urdu has developed differently in the two countries. While Indian Urdu has been secularized and modernized; across the border, its sister language has taken a turn towards radical Islam, absorbing disparate influences from a wider spectrum of Islamism, from the militant Persian of post-“revolutionary” Iran to a Wahabbi brand of Arabic. Indian Urdu scholars summoned by the NIA struggled to decode the message contained in the material and, “without the precise and complete deciphering of the Urdu words and their significance, there was no way the overall code could be understood,” an NIA handler involved in the investigation revealed, on condition of anonymity. “It was a race against time as well, for we did not know what the information implied. Even as we were trying to connect sheens with threes and qaafs with sevens, was the clock ticking on a major terrorist attack?” the source added.
While the team grappled with the code late into the night, around midnight, NIA handlers sent a dispatch each to the defence, home and external affairs ministries. The dispatches, sent over secured computer channels, contained an update on the investigation and a request to “accord the matter the highest priority” and to “handle the situation with utmost precaution”, revealed an official in the MEA, on condition of anonymity. At the meeting held in New Delhi the next morning, it was decided that MEA would brief the media and cover the “footsteps of the investigation with the dust of banality”, the official revealed.
After media attention had been successfully deflected, it took another two days of round-the-clock examination and a generous dollop of luck to crack the code. “It was one of the Urdu scholars who finally had an epiphany that each Urdu word in the code and the numbers it corresponded with matched perfectly with the pages of the First Edition of Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s Bāl-e-Jibreel (Gabriel’s Wing). All you had to do was to find that particular word on that particular page, and then write down the word that appeared just after it,” one of the forensic experts involved in the investigation revealed, on condition that his name be protected. “It was a brilliant code, but we managed to crack it,” the NIA handler exclaimed proudly. After the code had been cracked, the team cursed themselves for not having seen through it sooner. Sir Iqbal, or Allama Iqbal, as he is better known in Pakistan, widely considered to be the country’s ideological father, was a poet and Islamist of Kashmiri ancestry who came up with the idea of having a separate homeland for Indian Muslims in the late 1920s. He was inspired by Nietzsche’s Übermensch in the same era as Hitler and Savarkar, and Islamicized it in the form of the philosophy of khudi (ego/ self-respect). He was obsessed with the shaheen (falcon), which was also the alias under which Huma was operating.
Once the code had been deciphered, it opened a Pandora’s Box of information for investigating agencies. “We learnt about the middlemen and overground workers through whom terrorists stay in touch with their handlers across the border, their hideouts within the territory of India and the details of upcoming terrorist strikes,” claimed a high official in the home ministry, speaking anonymously. “It was as if someone had given us the key to their hearts,” he added.
But before agencies could start acting on the information unlocked by the code breakers, they needed one final confirmation that it was true. “It was absolutely vital to get Huma’s inputs on the information we had been able to gather. Without that, we could not act with 100 per cent surety,” one of the NIA interrogators revealed, on condition of anonymity. Although terrorists are not provided all the details of an operation by their handlers beforehand, to guard against their capture by or turning to the other side, they have a pretty good picture of how things generally stand.
So Huma was subject to intense interrogation by the agencies once more, but this time, instead of just trying to extract facts from her, it was they who fed her morsels of information so that she would break quicker and more easily. “In our experience, once a terrorist realizes that we know all about their plans, they tend to cooperate more readily,” said the NIA interrogator. Eventually, Huma confirmed that the information Indian intelligence agencies had been able to put together was correct. The deciphered code was now actionable.
However, her cooperation meant that Huma became a hazardous asset, to be managed with utmost precaution. Her interrogators realized that they could not risk her getting in touch with her handlers, at least not as long as the information she had validated was “hot”. Her wings were promptly clipped with the help of a veterinary worker because the authorities “didn’t want to take a chance”.
Somehow, this last bit of information was leaked to the press. One of the NIA officials involved with the investigation complained that the press “showed a cavalier attitude towards national security, compromising assets and operations”. After the initial reports in a few national newspapers, the story of clipping of Huma’s wings was picked up by international media as well, creating a challenge for the security agencies trying to minimize the outflow of information related to the case. When animal rights activist joined the bandwagon, terrorist handlers in Pakistan became suspicious and alert. “Suddenly, the flow of information through the terrorist channels that had been compromised because of the efforts and diligence of our code breakers slowed down to a trickle,” the NIA handler said. “One single mistake by the press almost undid all our hard work,” he added.
While Indian security agencies were trying to figure out ways to limit the damage caused by the exposé, Shahbāz Simurgh, father of Huma and head of Al-Sijheel, the dreaded terrorist organization of birds headquartered at Abbottabad, was steeling his heart on the loss of a daughter and planning his revenge. Shahbāz, who operates under the nom de guerre Abu Ababeel, is considered by many as a master military strategist and a scholar of Islam. He has the reputation of being able to transform an ordinary bird into a hardcore jihadist in less than a week’s training.
His method is simple yet effective. New recruits are subject to a combination of a rigorous and unforgiving physical training regime, and the synthesis of a radical, fire-brand version of Islam with crude propaganda about “oppression” of Kashmiri Muslims by the Indian state. It is said that he is particularly fond of and often narrates Sura-e-Fil (Chapter of the Elephant), a short interrogative passage in the Quran about a story of how Allah sent a flock of birds to destroy the elephant caravan of an infidel king of Yemen who was marching on Mecca and the Kaaba. Every one of these birds is said to have been carrying a stone in their mouth, which they each drop on an elephant, “turning them into straw”.
Since the advent of Islam, and the appearance of this chapter, Islamists around the world have used this story as a war cry to infuse courage among fighter birds and as a propaganda tool to recruit more birds to the cause. Khalid bin Waleed, the legendary commander of Muslim armies, is said to have employed two casts of hawks to flank and ambush the Roman army during the famous Battle of Yarmouk, which was incidentally won by Muslims on 15 August, India’s Independence Day. The battle is significant because it marked the end of Roman influence in and the beginning of Muslim domination of Arabia.
However, over the centuries, corps of military birds became unruly and a bit of a nuisance, acting autonomously and hardly under the control of the Muslim rulers they were supposed to serve. Several attempts were made to reform clans of warrior birds, but with little success.
In medieval times, and under the balancing weight of Persia’s own ancient culture, bird bandits in the Islamic world were sought to be reorganized into a more democratic order by Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm, better known as Farid-ud-Din of Attar. He wrote a treatise titled Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (The Conference of the Birds), detailing a plan to introduce the notion of shura (council) among warrior bird clans and return them to a fold where they had a higher purpose. This attempt was somewhat more successful than previous ones; bird warriors were rehabilitated and started to play an important function in Muslim societies and armies once again.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, as advancements in science and technology allowed Western countries to develop strong, modern air forces, Islamist bird warriors became obsolete and archaic, much like horses, and by inference cavalries, after the advent of tanks and other armoured vehicles. It was expected that as aeronautics penetrated into the Muslim world, bird warriors would slowly but surely become a thing of the past. But as Muslim countries started to gain independence from the British and French empires, their rulers refused to part with the old ways out of sheer frustration and humiliation of having to adjust to a world where Islam itself appeared to be outdated. So even as Muslim countries like Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan started to create and develop air forces, their air power strategies differed significantly from those of the Western world. They adopted what scholars have described as a “hybrid” air power doctrine. This doctrine was based on the desire to combine their traditional air power with the modern “iron” birds. Aeroplanes were termed tayyaras, a derivative of the Quranic word for birds, tair.
But this strategy had serious drawbacks. It was almost impossible to achieve coordination between modern aircrafts and the bird warriors. Birds would frequently be sucked into the machinery of warplanes, resulting in catastrophic accidents. So, after a few years of experimentation, most Muslim countries gave up the idea of having a hybrid air force. Modern planes took centrestage and bird warriors were relegated to solo missions of reconnaissance, espionage and communication.
Abu Ababeel seems to have studied this history of Islamic aeronautics extensively. Up until his daughter was intercepted and arrested by Indian agencies, he is said to have often bragged that not a single mission conducted by Al-Sijheel had ever failed and not one of its members ever captured. For a group that had been active for more than twenty years, it was a tall but very effective claim to make.
Shahbāz Simurgh had allegedly been born on one of the minarets of Lahore’s famous Badshahi Masjid (Imperial Mosque), built by Emperor Aurangzeb, a conservative Islamist king who took pride in destroying Hindu temples, and opened to the general public in 1673. Young Shahbāz was raised by his parents on the mosque premises. From an early age, he is said to have been attracted to religion and religious figures and would flap his wings excitedly on hearing the Friday sermons at the mosque. A chance meeting with Qari Haneef Multani, a fiery orator who used to extol the virtues of jihad, left a lasting influence on young Shahbāz. He started to move in Islamist and jihadist circles and soon gained recognition for his passionate speeches and his scholarship of Islamic history.
It was during this time that he came in touch with the ISI. They recruited him and convinced him to set up his own organization, promising to bankroll its operations. Thus was born Al-Sijheel. He would recruit birds of different species from all over Pakistan and Kashmir, and train them to perform missions of reconnaissance for the ISI and the Pakistan Army. The group also worked in close coordination with other terrorist groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad as well as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The most hardcore pigeons and sparrows were deployed as conduits between jihadists in the field and their handlers in the terrorist organizations and Pakistan’s military establishment. A New Delhi-based defence analyst said that “the amount of information gathered and transmitted by members of Al-Sijheel over the last twenty years has been worth its weight in gold” for the Pakistani military establishment and the non-state actors it promotes and protects. “They were operating completely below the radar. Indian agencies had no inkling about their operations. It was the best kind of espionage,” the analyst added.
Huma’s capture, though, marked a watershed moment in Al-Sijheel’s operations. Abu Ababeel knew that once the metaphorical cat was out of the bag, there was no stopping it. His suspicions were confirmed as Indian authorities captured almost two dozen Pakistani birds in the next two years. It was a clear signal to terrorist masterminds like Abu Ababeel that the impunity with which they had been operating within India would no longer be available to them.
Days after the Pulwama attack in February, in which more than 40 CRPF men were killed by a young Kashmiri suicide bomber, and India’s retaliatory bombing of terrorist facilities in Balakot in Pakistan, in which one of Al-Sijheel’s prominent commanders, Al-Ghurab Aswad, a Lebanese crow tasked with fund raising in the Middle East, was killed, Abu Ababeel called a secret meeting of all the high-ranking commanders of Al-Sijheel at their Abbottabad headquarters. According to an eyewitness, the agenda of the meeting was simple and sinister: How could the birds help Pakistan’s military establishment take revenge on India for killing their co-jihadists? Further, the eyewitness reported that it was Abu Ababeel himself who suggested that the time was ripe for Al-Sijheel to shed its traditional role of reconnaissance and carrier of information and adopt a more offensive mode. Reportedly, he stressed that a “war of existence” had been unleashed upon the jihadist and “they must fight fire with fire”. He is also said to have reminded the gathering of his incarcerated daughter, and how the “brutal Indian regime had tortured and humiliated her”. The gathering reached a consensus that “India must be taught a lesson it will never forget”.
A new fidayeen squad was created from among the hardcore members of Al-Sijheel. This terrorist suicide squad was given the name Al-Kuatur. Tair ibn Shahbāz or Arash, Abu Ababeel’s second son from his third wife, volunteered to be part of the squad.
On 8 March, just before dawn, Tair ibn Shahbāz and two other terrorists infiltrated into India in the Bikaner sector. They flew at a median height, taking advantage of the cover of darkness, and avoiding being spotted by BSF patrols on the ground. They reached Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary, about 100 km inside the international border, before sunrise. There they parted ways, with the other two terrorists Waaruel Parastoo, a hawk from Quetta, and Kaantur Bulbul, a myna originally from Shopian in J&K, who had joined Al-Sijheel and crossed into Pakistan for training, “flying eastwards”, according to a forest guard at the sanctuary, speaking anonymously. Tair flew in the northeast direction, towards the Nal airport, to complete his “mission”. He intercepted and flew right into a MiG-21 Bison soon after it had taken off. The pilot lost control of the fighter plane but somehow managed to eject and reach safety. The plane crashed in the Shobhasar ki Dhani area. Snarge samples collected at the site of the wreckage were sent to labs where DNA-testing revealed that the remains were of a pigeon related to Huma binti Shahbāz.
The attack, the first suicide mission by a Pakistani bird against an Indian warplane, represents a paradigm shift in Indo-Pak border relations, both on the ground and in the air. It presents a fresh and intricate security challenge to India. “It is almost impossible to track birds crossing the border. Their sheer numbers are a problem, and so is their tiny size. Even the most advanced radar systems are useless against such a threat,” said a high-ranking officer of the Indian Air Force, on condition of anonymity. “New dangers need new and out-of-the-box solutions. One way to deal with the problem would be to look at how other countries are dealing with it,” said an analyst at a Hyderabad-based security think-tank. US armament companies have been working on “smart nets” to deal with terrorist birds for quite some time now, but the technology remains largely untested in real-world conditions. France has developed and tested prototypes of a “scarecrow system” with mixed-results. Israel has developed a “wide-range bird ballast” that can deal with upto three thousand different species of birds, and formerly inducted this ultra-modern weapons system into the IDF. “The edge the Israeli system has over the French system is its flexibility, both in terms of its outreach and firepower, as well simplicity of usage. You don’t need to be a highly-trained soldier to operate the system, a policemen can operate it with a couple of weeks of training,” a source in the home ministry revealed. How quickly India’s security establishment is able to muster the will and resources, and overcome bureaucratic red tape and judicial hurdles, to counter this menace remains to be seen. Until then, buoyed by their success, terrorist birds will continue to think they are superior to planes and supermen.♦