They live under deep cover, hide their identities and live a normal life on fake identities for years waiting to receive orders from their overseas handlers to either execute a terror strike or provide aid to those who will. As most of the time they are on inert mode they are termed as ‘Sleeper Cells’.
And one of the most insidious tactics at a terrorist organization’s disposal is the implementation of a sleeper cell. These cells consist of secret agents who receive specialized training in their home countries and sometimes in other countries too that support terrorism and fund the terror camps.
During the training and motivation sessions they are tutored to assimilate ‘enemy’ country’s culture and society.
Ashok Chand, a retired senior Delhi police official who has spent his life in cracking cases of terrorism and curbing it said: “Money sustains terrorism. As long as money trail is involved, it is hard to curb terrorism. Sleeper Cells are the most important part of the outfit, as it provides logistic support, easy access in the targeted areas, it strengthen network and work. Almost every city has a sleeper cell that consists of at least six to seven members. When needed they are used by the terror outfits and a terror strike takes place right under the nose of the police.”
It is worth mentioning that Chand, is the officer who along with his team apprehended Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist Afzal Guru from Kashmir in connection to December 13 Parliament attack.
He added that the individual members of a sleeper cell may not even be aware of each other, since plausible deniability during police interrogations can be vital. One sleeper agent may work for an airline ticket office, for example, while another may work at a car rental company or a chemical plant. When the commanders of the terrorist organization activate a cell, each agent may receive the name of just one contact person or receive only his or her specific orders.
The airline ticket agent, for example, may only be told to provide tickets for four men traveling from Dubai to India. The car rental agent may only be told to pick up these men from the airport and deliver them to the chemical plant. This process insures that no individual is aware of the entire plan.
It can be extremely difficult for government agencies to track and dismantle sleeper cells because of their nebulous construction. If the individual members are well-trained and dedicated to their cause, they can easily blend into society without raising any suspicions.
There is certain classification of sleeper cells. One, who are not Indians. They belong to a different nationality, they are trained for years in the neighbouring countries and by using the network and agents they infiltrate them into India.
A highly places source in National Investigation Agency (NIA) told Millennium Post that since they are mostly from Pakistan, it is difficult for them to enter into India following the laid-down norms and make contacts related to their operation. Besides, they do not get a suitable accommodation. So most of the trained terrorists from Pakistan follow a route, which is through Bangladesh to India or via Nepal. In the meantime, they manage to get their fake Indian passport and other identity proofs such as Voter ID and Adhar cards made.
“These agents spend a few days in Bangladesh or Nepal on their Pakistani passport. Then, the agent based in Bangladesh and Nepal help them infiltrate into India by crossing over the porous border. In the meantime, the agent gives them sufficient documents that help them procure Indian identity proofs. After entering India via eastern borders, they halt either in West Bengal, Assam or Western Uttar Pradesh,” the source added.
Apart from procuring them the forged Aadhar and Voter ID cards, they also help Pakistani handlers in getting a safe accommodation. Becoming a sleeper cell for few months, they leave for other parts of the country and cultivate vulnerable people towards terrorism. “The religious institutes is the hub where vulnerable targets are found. Then they are motivated to follow an ideology. At times they are sent to Pakistan to get the training done,” he added.
To avoid suspicion, the Pakistani terrorists, on the basis of forged documents, marry Indian women. This helps them avert suspicion by security agencies. For example, Junaid, who was arrested in Hyderabad in July 1998. His cover organization was Lashker-e-Toiba. He was tasked to recruit local boys for training in Pakistan and settle them in Hyderabad. He infiltrated in India in 1995 through Jammu border. He was blessed with a child in March 1998 after his marriage with an Indian girl who was daughter of retired army soldier. Junaid along with his team planted RDX in the Dehradun Express on July, 1997 to eliminate some army personnel travelling in it. The explosives were detected in time and a major blast was averted. Similarly, the Red Fort attack was staged by a sleeper cell that were from Pakistan.
Another source said that a cell doesn’t necessarily need to hold regular meetings or undergo additional training to carry out their missions. Members simply go about their daily routines until a handler contacts them for an assignment. Some agents may not even be fully aware of their obligations, believing that a benevolent government agency simply paid for their education and immigration expenses.
Some agents may be fully aware of their roles in an operation, while others may be deliberately kept in the dark until called upon to act. This is why an attack can be so notoriously difficult to thwart. A cell is often discovered through covert surveillance and infiltration by a double agent.
Explaining about the second type of sleeper cell, the source said, “They are Indians though their religion may make them vulnerable, these set of operatives are largely motivated for money and ideology. Despite being an Indian, they change their names and live life of a sleeper cell by performing routine work. They all have done terror trainings from Pakistan. At times they visit Pakistan illegally and sometimes they go there with legal passport. Once they are back to India, they become silent for a while and when the top honchos instruct them they become active.”
It would be worth mentioning the case of Yasin Bhatkal, the founder member of Indian Mujahideen, now in police custody. Yasin Bhatkal, who was wanted in many terror activities in the country, was residing in Delhi with a changed name. His posters were pasted on every wall of the police stations in the national Capital.
A highly-placed source in the Special Cell of Delhi police told Millennium Post that, “During his interrogation, Bhatkal revealed the unbelievable incident and said he was proud of such audacious attempts.” He said that in October 2010, when he was residing in the Shaheen Bagh area of south-east Delhi, he lost his Nokia mobile phone and he decided to seek the help of Delhi police to find it. He went ahead and lodged a complaint.’ While coming out of the police station, Bhatkal reportedly pulled the poster off.
The other set of sleeper cells are the one who are motivated through social media. They get in touch with terror operatives with fake ids on the social sites. People are motivated and ideologies were exchanged. And when they start following the terror outfit and are radicalised, they are moulded into sleeper cells and when needed they are used.
“The sleeper cells usually function using trained secret agents, who are assigned to gather maximum information about the area they target for an attack. They can easily blend into society without raising any suspicion. The terror agents infiltrate target institutions and live in the city, study the situation and finally carry out the attack when they receive orders from their leader,” said a senior official.
“Earlier there was a trend of infiltration and the terror strikes were comparatively much violent. Now the banned terror outfits are encouraging home-grown terrorism. The sudden switch is because India is somewhere or the other divided on religious lines and taking the advantage of religion based issues, the victims are radicalized easily and they are converted into sleeper cells,” a source in one of the intelligence agency said.
After Muzzafarnagar riots in 2014, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operatives tried influencing riot-ravaged residents pushing them to take up terrorism. Sources said, “Huge amount of money was distributed to several riot affected victim’s using LeT’s Muzaffarnagar module.”
“During the riots, a sleeper cell of the LeT, consisting of a particular religious community, was covertly active within the camp. The members of the cell were in touch with Mohammad Shahid (arrested), Rashid (arrested) and Abdul Subhan (absconding), allegedly of the LeT. The trio of terror operatives was instructing members of the cell to influence the communal riot victims in the name of the violence and lives lost during riots.”
The LeT operatives distributed substantial funds as relief aid to ease the financial loss caused by the damage to life and property during riots. “A multi-level conspiracy was hatched and funded by Javed Baluchi, LeT Commander, now hiding in Pakistan,” the source said. Several people were radicalized and Muzaffarnagar module was setup by involving the riot-hit locals in the terror attack by recruiting and funding them to ensure their permanency and undergo ‘terror training.’
“Sleeper cells have become active nowadays in parts of the world. Many terrorist activities have been potentially powered by such bodies like the sleeper cells. Tracking them has been difficult for years, but the new technological development has enabled various governments to dismantle and dissolve such hazardous elements out of the society,” said PS Srivastava, a Defence Expert. However, it is difficult for the agencies to track down sleeper cells because of their nebulous construction.