Bengaluru: The arrest of several suspected members of groups linked directly or indirectly with the Islamic State has revealed a “bigger plot” to spread terror across India, according to investigating agencies.
Police and intelligence agencies are on high alert, after the suspected terrorists were arrested in Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu for “plotting to spread terror and create communal disharmony” in the country.
“Police suspect there was a bigger plot to spread terror involving these individuals,” said a senior officer of the Intelligence Bureau branch in Karnataka.
Sources in the agencies also told ThePrint that the “foreign handlers” of these terrorists have activated several sleeper cells, aiming to recruit, radicalise, train people and arm them to attack India and also join the IS.
Another intelligence source, who did not wish to be identified, said the agencies had foiled earlier attempts to create unrest.
The role of Khaja Moideen
Intelligence sources said the three arrested men — Khaja Moideen (52), Syed Ali Navas (32) and Abdul Samad (28) — were trying to escape via Nepal to join the IS after “having plotted a series of attacks” across India.
Their arrests led to those of several others in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and police sources said they had links to the banned terror group Al-Ummah.
Moideen’s arrest, in particular, has provided a connection to various sleeper cells in the three southern states. He was jailed in Tamil Nadu for his alleged involvement in the murder of Hindu Munnani leader K.P. Suresh Kumar in 2014. Moideen was released on conditional bail in July 2019, but by the end of the year, the Tamil Nadu police had begun a massive manhunt as he did not turn up for his court appearances.
It was then that the police uncovered a massive radicalisation plot by Moideen, which included re-organising and recruiting men to “fight for their cause” and join the Islamic State, sources said.
The sources added that Moideen was clearly in touch with his “foreign handlers”, as in 2017, the NIA had filed a chargesheet against him for having facilitated a man called Haja Fakkurudeen from Tamil Nadu to travel to Syria in 2014 to join the IS.
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The role of Mehboob Pasha
A joint investigation conducted by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Police revealed that a plot was being hatched by members of Al-Ummah to “foment communal disharmony and target people from other communities”.
This plot, the police claimed, was being hatched by a man named Mehboob Pasha along with 13 associates, who were all being guided by Moideen. They apparently held several secret meetings in Bengaluru.
According to sources in the Bengaluru Crime Branch, Mehboob Pasha and his nephews facilitated meetings at his south Bengaluru residence, where Moideen would meet youth from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and radicalise them and encourage them to join the IS.
“Pasha, his nephews and Moideen were not just recruiting, but also helping in procuring arms and identifying areas where these men could train,” said a crime branch official on the condition of anonymity.
Three of Pasha’s associates were arrested on 7 January from Suddaguntepalya in south Bengaluru.
“They had major plans to create communal disharmony and they were following instructions of their foreign handler,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be named.
The official statement from the police, signed by Joint Commissioner (Crime) Sandeep Patil, said: “Case registered under UAPA against Mehboob Pasha and others. Few accused in Bangalore along with accused in Chennai were in direct contact with a foreign handler and panning to create disturbance. They were procuring weapons also for this. Chennai accused are already involved in such cases in Tamil Nadu. Few accused are in custody of Chennai and Delhi Police. Further investigation is on.”
On Sunday, Karnataka’s anti-terror squad and Internal Security Division arrested two more persons in Gundlupet, Chamarajanagar district. Police sources said these persons were also present during the meetings held by Pasha and Moideen in Bengaluru. The police refused to divulge the names of those arrested, but said they have connections with terror modules in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Tamil Nadu Police investigations revealed that the 8 January shooting that killed sub-inspector Wilson at a check-post near Kaliyakkavilai could have been in retaliation to the arrest of three of Pasha’s men in Bengaluru — Mohammed Haneef Khan (29), Imran Khan (32) and Mohammed Zaid (24).
The police said the two men accused of killing the police officer, Shamim and Thowfic, were also part of the Pasha-Moideen meetings in Bengaluru. Both of them were arrested for the 2014 Hindu Munnani murder case, and both have been absconding since obtaining bail last month, just like their leader Moideen. A manhunt has been launched to catch the duo after they were identified on CCTV footage.
Delhi Police input
The Delhi Police has informed its southern counterparts about the increasing presence of IS sympathisers and the role of local handlers in converting the local youth.
A senior police officer confirmed to ThePrint that an alert has been issued to keep a watch on possible meetings held by terror outfits in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who have also been taking instructions from their “foreign handlers”.
‘Current situation giving terrorists ground to radicalise’
Counter-terrorism specialists say that the present situation in India is giving terror modules ground to radicalise and regroup.
“The sleeper cells have always been there, but they always wait for an opportunity to raise their heads. The prevailing situation in the country with regards to protests has possibly given them an opportune time to act, “ said Gopal Hosur, former inspector-general of Karnataka, who has been part of with several terror-related investigations in the state.
Col R. Hariharan (retd), a specialist on South Asian military intelligence, added that Al-Ummah is not active, and its members have scattered.
“With advances in web and mobile communications, the IS recruits and remains in contact using social media. So, regrouping in the traditional sense may not be there, as the IS now prefers ‘lone-wolf’ attacks by fewer terrorists” Hariharan told ThePrint.
Hariharan did, however, agree that “handlers” and heads of terror modules are using the situation “when agitations are muddying the society”.