On 12th March 1993, several ships left Dubai for India, carrying enough explosives, weapons and ammunition to wage a small insurgency. Shortly after the ships arrived, undetected, at Mumbai (then called Bombay), ten bombs exploded at high-profile targets across the city, including the Bombay Stock Exchange, government buildings and several crowded public spaces and hotels. 257 people were killed and over 700 injured.
That the devastating blasts, which came at a time of heightened tensions between Hindu nationalists and Muslims throughout India, were masterminded by the Pakistani Security Services (ISI) is disturbing enough. Even more so was their choice of partner in orchestrating the attack: the powerful mobster Dawood Ibrahim, leader of South Asia’s biggest organised crime syndicate.
Today, Ibrahim is one of the subcontinent’s most notorious fugitives. He continues to run his crime empire D Company from a safe house in Karachi, under the protection of the ISI. His presence there is a constant reminder of just how deep the divisions between Pakistan and India run.
Mafia Boss or Terrorist Mastermind?
But just who is Dawood Ibrahim? Few verified accounts exist about the shady figure, but we know he was (ironically) born the son of a police constable in the Dongri area of Mumbai. It was here that Ibrahim was first arrested on robbery charges in the 1980s, although he has also been implicated in street gangs, violent crime, extortion, gambling and various forms of smuggling since the 1970s.
The budding young gangster quickly ascended through the ranks of the Mumbai underworld, forming the (now infamous) D Company. When a police crackdown on organised crime in 1975 fractured the strongest mafias at the time, Ibrahim saw an opportunity to take over the Mumbai underworld. Perceiving a power vacuum, he led the charge in a violent gang war with the Afghan gangs of Alamzeb and Amirzada for control of Mumbai. D Company maintained a tight grip over the city throughout the 1980s and 90s, with Ibrahim at the helm.
Ibrahim’s influence in modern Mumbai is everywhere, extending well beyond backroom gambling dens and territorial drug wars. Before 2000, the Indian film industry was unable to qualify for bank credit and film producers were often left with no alternative but to consider illicit sources of funding. The ever-opportunistic Ibrahim spotted a profitable business model – one that would, moreover, see him rub shoulders with India’s elite. D Company has financed Bollywood films for decades, using the connection to launder cash as well as rake in money from distribution rights.
Much like Johnny Fontane in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, real-life stars in contemporary Bollywood make little secret of their relationships with the mob. At lavish showbiz parties, A-listers mix with the Mumbai mafia. So much so, in fact, that in 2013, Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for receiving firearms from D Company.
The days of Dawood Ibrahim treating Mumbai as his personal gangster playground did eventually come to an end, however. An arrest warrant was issued after he ordered the assassination of a rival gang leader outside of a Mumbai court house in the late 1980s. The underworld figure fled the country and continued running his operations from bases in Dubai and Pakistan.
From here, the D Company gang grew into the international organised syndicate that it is today, with 5,000 active members and bases throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. At the same time, the outlawed mafia boss began to develop relationships with militant groups. It is here that the Dawood Ibrahim and D Company story becomes rather more complicated.
Merging of Crime and Terrorism
India declared Ibrahim a terrorist following his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai attacks. It is hardly surprising that Pakistan did not follow suit – but then, neither did the US at first. In fact, it took the US Treasury until 2003, a whole decade later, to declare Ibrahim a terrorist supporter, alleging links to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Soon after, the United Nations Security Council also accused Ibrahim of having supported al-Qaeda for decades.
But is Ibrahim truly a terrorist mastermind, another Osama Bin Laden (whom he apparently met with in Afghanistan)? Or is he simply a scheming mafia boss, using the real terrorists as a way to cement his power?
The truth is somewhere in between.
“Everyone is paying their taxation quota to the Taliban and so D Company would be no exception,” says Dr Tricia Bacon, a researcher on terrorism and insurgency at The American University. Bacon believes that Ibrahim’s relationship with groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are about pragmatism, not extremism: you simply can’t smuggle heroin out of Afghanistan without encountering them.
“They’re going to have to the pay the Taliban like everybody else, which is not necessarily a close relationship, it is just how these sorts of arrangements work,” she says.
But while Ibrahim clearly started out as a criminal with no terrorist or political ideology, some experts say his motivations may have shifted over time.
Dheeraj P.C., a PhD candidate at University of Leicester who has carried out extensive research into the D Company organisation, believes that something shifted for Ibrahim when violent Hindu nationalists destroyed the 16th Century Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, a devasting act of cultural vandalism that descended into months of anti-Muslim rioting. Some defendants prosecuted over the 1993 attacks cited both the destruction of the mosque and subsequent rioting as a motive, and it was around this time that Ibrahim began to conspire with the Pakistani ISI. Could this have stirred the gangster’s sense of outrage on behalf of his Muslim brothers and sisters?
It’s possible. More cynical commentators, though, suggest that Ibrahim wasn’t so much moved by the desire to protect or avenge his fellow Indian Muslims as by an opportunity to reassert control over the Mumbai underworld. Profits from fine metal smuggling had begun to drop for D Company in the early 90s, following a global decline in gold and silver prices. Developing a relationship with the ISI (Pakistan’s security service) at this time opened new markets for Ibrahim’s crew in smuggling heroin and explosives. Orchestrating the attack on Mumbai would cement this.
“It wasn’t ever clear to me how political D Company was,” says Bacon. “[After the 1993 attack] we didn’t really see any political activities or political agenda”.
What Is Ibrahim Doing in Karachi?
Whether a terrorist or a gangster, how can a man who orchestrated a large-scale terrorist attack in which 250 people died continue to live freely in a mansion, without fear of arrest, in the fifth most populous city in the world?
Bacon believes that, rather than equal partners in the attack, the ISI simply outsourced the 1993 blasts to D Company. In return, Ibrahim could continue to run his global mafia from Pakistan as part of what Bacon calls a “legacy of protection.” To an extent, this suited India too: doubts over exactly who ordered and carried out the Mumbai attacks meant that India could treat it like a domestic terror attack, rather than a strike from a foreign government. The alternative would likely have meant war.
The US, meanwhile, is reluctant to push Pakistan too hard on counterterrorism issues at a time when they need the country’s cooperation to secure a peace arrangement in Afghanistan. What’s more, Washington is hardly keen to weigh in on an issue that clashes with its top priority in the region: ending nearly 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
“Dawood Ibrahim is one of the top international fugitives out there,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior expert on South Asia for The Wilson Centre. And yet, he says, “I am pretty sure that President Trump has not heard of D Company.”
His aides are hardly likely to enlighten him, either. Despite the US labelling Ibrahim a terrorist supporter, it would likely do more harm than good to pressure Pakistan into handing him over. “The US really needs that Pakistan-Taliban relationship if they’re going to push through this peace deal,” says Kugleman.
Terrorist or mafia boss, it looks as though Ibrahim is sitting pretty in Pakistan without fear of arrest – at least, for now. With peace talks still underway and India-Pakistan relations more fraught than ever, the D Company leader continues to pull the strings of his global criminal empire. Whether the US will take India’s side on the issue once safely out of Afghanistan, though, remains to be seen.