Sleeper cells have increased in Delhi, say police

Alok Singh   |  New Delhi


Sleeper cells, the insidious and faceless information gathering attack modules of terror groups, have seen a major rise in numbers in the Indian capital after the Dec 13, 2001, Parliament House attack, say Delhi Police officers.

"Yes, sleeper cells are present in the capital, no doubt about that," Special Commissioner of Police S.N. Srivastava (Special Cell) told IANS. "They have developed skills and the technology to give police the slip, but it's not such a hard nut to crack," Srivastava said.

Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, who conspired with the Lashkar-e-Taiba to launch the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was a member of the LeT sleeper cell.

A sleeper cell consists of secret agents who receive specialised training in their home countries or states and are then "assigned" to assimilate themselves into the targeted country's or area's culture and society.

These sleeper agents may spend years as faceless people, including as students or traders, till they suddenly receive orders from their overseas handlers to either commit an act of terrorism or provide aid to those carrying out the act.

Individual members of a sleeper cell may not even be aware of one another - a vital way of protecting the identity of the others during police interrogations.

Each cell operates under a terrorist group or organisation.

It is only when a blast takes place that police come to know about the sleeper cell that was quietly providing the inputs over months, or maybe years.

Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Kashmir-based terrorist group which was involved in the attack on the Indian Parliament, had set up its sleeper cell in the city ahead of the attack Dec 13, 2001.

"The five Pakistani terrorists who were killed by Indian security personnel during the attack on parliament had been given inputs for the operation by members of such sleeper cells," senior police officer Ashok Chand, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police (Special Cell), told IANS.

Chand was the officer who led the operation to crack the case and the terror module behind the Parliament House attack. They cracked the case within a week and named four people, Mohammad Afzal, Shaukat Hussain Guru, S.A.R. Geelani and Navjot Sandhu, as having been behind the conspiracy. Police arrested the four from different places in the country.

While Afzal has been awarded the death sentence, Navjot Sandhu alias Afsan Guru was let off, and her husband Shaukat Hussain's death sentence was reduced to 10 years' imprisonment and he is now out of jail. Delhi University professor Geelani was also let off later. Guru and Geelani were let off by the courts for lack of concrete evidence against them.

Srivastava, when asked, did not specifically say if sleeper cell numbers had increased in Delhi after the parliament attack.

"Their existence might have increased in the past years," he said.

However, another officer who did not want to be named told IANS: "Their existence has increased greatly after the parliament attack."

Headley had visited several parts of India and did a recce of the Mumbai targets and passed on the inputs to his LeT handlers in Pakistan ahead of the strike. The Nov 26, 2008, strike killed 166 people and injured over 300.

The September 2008 Delhi serial blasts were the handiwork of a sleeper cell that lay quietly gathering information before carrying out the bombings that killed 30 people and left 100 injured in the capital. The suspected terrorists who were killed in the Batla House gunbattle were part of a sleeper cell active in the capital to perform the bombings, an officer told IANS.

"The recent attacks in several parts of the country are a pointer to the setting up of sleeper cells by terrorist groups," the officer added.

Delhi Police investigations have helped crack many modules of terrorist groups. A Maharashtra module of Indian Mujahideen, which was involved in the Pune serial blasts this year, was recently uncovered by Delhi Police. The bombing left one injured.

Delhi has seen nine terrorist attacks since the one on the Parliament House, which claimed 54 lives and left 367 people injured.

Delhi Police declined to reveal any arrest figures of sleeper cells. - IANS