Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
The first blast struck at 1:25 p.m., shattering the walls of the Bombay Stock Exchange, leaving a grisly scene of broken bodies, shattered glass, and smoke. Next to be hit was the main office of the national airline, Air India, followed by the Central Bazaar and major hotels. At the international airport, hand grenades were thrown at jets parked on the tarmac. For nearly two hours the carnage went on, as unknown assailants wreaked havoc upon one of the world's largest cities. In all, 10 bombs packed with plastic explosives rocked Bombay, killing 257 and injuring over 700.
What happened in Bombay on that day, March 12, 1993, was a chilling precursor to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a careful choreography of death and destruction, aimed at the heart of a nation's financial center and intended to maximize civilian casualties. Engineered by Muslim extremists, the attacks were meant to exact revenge for deadly riots by Hindu fundamentalists that had claimed over a thousand lives, most of them Muslim. But more than vengeance was at work in Bombay. Indian police later recovered an arsenal big enough to spark a civil war: nearly 4 tons of explosives, 1,100 detonators, nearly 500 grenades, 63 assault rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Within days of the attacks, police had gotten their first break by tracing an abandoned van filled with a load of weapons. The trail soon led to a surprising suspect: not a terrorist but a gangster. And not just any gangster but an extraordinary crime boss, a man known as South Asia's Al Capone.
Virtually unknown in the West, Dawood Ibrahim is a household name across the region, his exploits known by millions. He is, by all accounts, a world-class mobster, a soft-spoken, murderous businessman from Bombay who now lives in exile, sheltered by India's archenemy, Pakistan. He is India's godfather of godfathers, a larger-than-life figure alleged to run criminal gangs from Bangkok to Dubai. Strong-arm protection, drug trafficking, extortion, murder-for-hire--all are stock-in-trade rackets, police say, of Dawood Ibrahim's syndicate, the innocuously named D Company.
Dawood, as he is known in the Indian press, is very much on Washington's radar screen today. Two years ago, the Treasury Department quietly designated Ibrahim a "global terrorist" for lending his smuggling routes to al Qaeda, supporting jihadists in Pakistan, and helping engineer the 1993 attack on Bombay. He is far and away India's most wanted man, his name invoked time and again by Indian officials in their discussions of terrorism with U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. As a result of those discussions, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration each have active investigations into Dawood's far-flung criminal network, U.S. News has learned.
Understanding Dawood's operations is important, experts say, because they show how growing numbers of terrorist groups have come to rely on the tactics--and profits--of organized criminal activity to finance their operations across the globe. An inquiry by U.S. News, based on interviews with counterterrorism and law enforcement officials from six countries, has found that terrorists worldwide are transforming their operating cells into criminal gangs. "Transnational crime is converging with the terrorist world," says Robert Charles, the State Department's former point man on narcotics. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, agrees: "The world is seeing the birth of a new hybrid of organized-crime-terrorist organizations. We are breaking new ground."