Hardcore operations man. Soft-spoken and genteel in the Lakhnavi mould. Team leader. And curiously, chain-smoker of India Kings cigarettes. These are some of the appellations colleagues use for Sayed Asif Ibrahim, an IPS officer of the 1977 batch who takes over on December 31 as chief of the Intelligence Bureau.
He’s the first Muslim to head an agency that’s at the centre of India’s security establishment. It fills a gap that has been long felt. It comes, however, at a politically loaded juncture—the UPA-II is going into election mode, with less than 18 months left for its normal schedule to play out. The appointment is being seen as a counter to the impression that Muslims don’t make it to key posts in intelligence. But it cannot subtract from Ibrahim’s track record, during which he handled key responsibilities like the Kashmir desk and the cyber security cell.
Ibrahim has had direct experience in anti-terror operations. He had zeroed in on jehadi leaders like Maulana Masood Azhar, who founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Omar Sheikh, of Daniel Pearl infamy—even playing a role in the latter’s arrest. Much before Azhar’s arrest and the exchange drama that followed, Ibrahim is said to have written to his seniors that Azhar “was the key to crucial anti-India developments in Pakistan”. And an officer of Delhi police’s special cell says, “At a time none of us were aware of the Indian Mujahideen, I remember Ibrahim telling us, ‘Don’t look to Pakistan after every terror attack. Look within too.’”
Another area of Ibrahim’s expertise, say colleagues, is psy-ops. One close associate says, “In Kashmir, he gradually started supplying editing and publishing software like QuarkXPress to Urdu newspapers with an anti-India stance. He even organised training sessions for their journalists and design staff. Slowly but surely, these publications ended up softening their anti-India stance. He turned the tables on them in one masterstroke.”
Ibrahim began as a police officer in Madhya Pradesh, where he served from 1977 to 1986 in the Ratlam, Morena and Gwalior districts. He had his share of encounters with the dacoits of the Chambal ravines. “In fact, on the very day he took charge as SP in Morena district, he neutralised the Ramesh Sikarwar gang, rescuing seven hostages after a fierce battle,” says V.K. Panwar, his batchmate and Madhya Pradesh’s D-G for community policing. Ibrahim was known to lead from the front. “He was involved in several encounters and killed several dreaded dacoits. Not only that, he shared his success with SPs of neighbouring districts. One of them even went on the head the CBI,” says a policeman who served under him.
Ibrahim has seen rough times too: as police chief of Gwalior district, he came under scrutiny when a rival gang attacked a police convoy and killed Munna Singh, a dacoit it was ferrying. Perhaps the only other awkward blip on his career scan occurred in 1993, after the Mumbai blasts: it turned out that convicted film star Sanjay Dutt had procured his general arms licence from Gwalior during the time Ibrahim was the police chief of the district. A few years ago, he was still attending court hearings related to that case.
It is said the late Madhavrao Scindia, Congress leader and from the former ruling family of Gwalior—with whom Ibrahim was close during his time in the district—gave him a leg up by choosing him as OSD when he became a Union minister. He then became OSD to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and went on to join the Intelligence Bureau. There was no coming back to Madhya Pradesh. As one of his IPS batchmates from the state puts it, “He left Gwalior in 1986 and has never looked back. In any case, if you spend seven or more years with the Intelligence Bureau, you generally become part of that system.”