A Godfather's Lethal Mix of Business and Politics
He is a calm and quiet man, say those who know him, even when he's threatening your life. The boss of India's top syndicate controls a criminal network that reaches into 14 countries, with a small army of contract killers, smugglers, and extortionists at his command. But there is another side to Dawood Ibrahim. The Muslim exile from Bombay has thrown in his lot with al Qaeda and other jihadists, according to the U.S. and Indian governments, and has become one of the world's most wanted terrorists.
One of eight sons of a struggling policeman, Dawood started off as a petty crook but soon formed his own gang and gradually eliminated his rivals among the city's traditional crime bosses, say Bombay police. By the 1980s, his gang, D Company, had become Bombay's most powerful, drawing its strength from the city's minority Muslims. The syndicate grew rich smuggling black-market gold and consumer goods into India's closed economy and forced its way into the country's sizzling Bollywood film industry.
In 1985, beset by gang wars and prosecutions, Dawood fled to Dubai, the freewheeling financial center of the United Arab Emirates. From there, he continued to expand his operations across Asia. In the U.A.E., Dawood's men ran high-stakes gambling rings, fixed cricket matches, and threw lavish parties where Indian actors and sports stars mixed with Arab emirs. Dawood pushed his syndicate into narcotics and arms trafficking, construction, real estate, and hawala, the underground bankers who move millions of dollars around the world each day with barely a trace. "It's like a corporation of the underworld," says Dhananjay Kamalakar, who oversees the Bombay police's organized-crime unit. "There are monthly salaries for foot soldiers, legal defenses for those arrested, and extra pay for contract killers."
Revenge. The shift from gangster to terrorist came in 1993, after rioting targeted Bombay's Muslims. Bent on revenge, Dawood engineered the smuggling into India of tons of explosives provided by Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, say U.S. and Indian law enforcement. The bombings that followed made Dawood India's most wanted man. The ISI then made Dawood an offer: If he relocated to Pakistan's port city of Karachi and kept working with the ISI, it would guarantee him control of the nation's coastal smuggling routes. For 12 years now, Dawood has called Pakistan home, where he is believed to own shopping malls, luxury homes, and shipping and trucking lines that smuggle arms into India and heroin into Europe. India's FBI, the Central Bureau of Investigation, puts D Company's annual income in the hundreds of millions of dollars and says it has up to 5,000 members.
In Pakistan, Dawood has ties to several terrorist groups, say U.S. officials, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed by India for October's bombings in New Delhi, which killed at least 60, and a bloody 2001 attack on India's Parliament. He has allegedly met with al Qaeda leaders and even made a deal to share his smuggling routes with al Qaeda operatives.
Dawood has branded the allegations against him part of a years-long "smear campaign." But U.S. officials now have him at the center of two investigations: one, by the Drug Enforcement Administration, looking at his ties to the heroin trade; another, by the FBI, tracing his assets and ties to terrorist groups through a top Pakistani CD counterfeiter. Getting Dawood may be tough, as Pakistani officials deny he is even in their country. But with Washington pressing for his capture, Ibrahim, now 50, may have outlived his usefulness to the ISI. Indian police are wiretapping his men and tracing his operations overseas. With an Interpol notice out for his arrest, his movements are constrained. Says the Bombay police's Kamalakar, "He's slowly losing control."
This story appears in the December 5, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.