Lucknow: “A trip to Saudi Arabia, social media contact with extremists, and several attempts to go to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS or ISIS)” — these are some of the details that the Uttar Pradesh Police and Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) claim to have uncovered about the alleged radicalisation of Ahmed Murtaza, accused in Sunday evening’s attack on the revered Gorakhpur Math in Uttar Pradesh, where UP CM Yogi Adityanath is the mahant (head priest).
A desire to attain “shahadat (martyrdom)” is believed to have been the motive behind the armed assault, which injured two provincial armed constabulary (PAC) personnel deployed at the main gate of the Gorakhpur temple, sources privy to the investigation told ThePrint.
Additional director general of police (ADG), law and order, Prashant Kumar said that Murtaza — an IIT-Bombay graduate — was “highly radicalised” and would often consume ISIS-affiliated literature online. “His laptop and two-three other gadgets recovered from him have been sent for forensic examination. They will reveal more information,” he said.
“He is more of a self-radicalised person. He went to Saudi Arabia in 2016 and moved ahead on the path of radicalisation ever since then. He made several attempts to go to Syria through local channels [in 2017-18] to join the IS, but failed,” a police source said, describing Murtaza as an “introvert”.
While Murtaza fits the profile of what is called a ‘lone-wolf’ attacker, the Gorakhpur incident could be part of a larger pattern, according to a source in the security establishment.
On the same day as the temple attack, a video featuring three masked men, with the IS flag in the backdrop, appeared on social media and messaging platforms. This video promoted lone-wolf attacks — attacks perpetrated by one person — and one of the men held a machete, like the one used in Gorakhpur. It is now under probe by the UP ATS and the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
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From ‘promising software career to radicalisation’
Highly placed police sources described Murtaza as “intellectually brilliant and a loner by nature”, echoing the claims of his family, who said he cleared his IIT exam in the first attempt.
Murtaza reportedly comes from a well-respected family, and his great-grandfather is believed to have been a collector (equivalent to a district magistrate today) in Gorakhpur during the British era.
Before the attack, Murtaza — at least at some point — had been staying in the posh Millennium Tower in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai, with the address also mentioned on his Aadhaar card.
“He is a software expert. He was working with a private consultancy firm earlier and has even developed a mobile application,” the police source said.
However, even amid these trappings of privilege, the source said that Murtaza was getting “radicalised gradually”. He was allegedly in touch with some Kerala-based men whom he visited frequently during his stay in Mumbai and, through them, made attempts to go to Syria.
“He remained unsuccessful,” the source said, but did not lose his desire to pursue this path.
“He wanted shahadat (martyrdom), which is what the jihadists believe they will get after death. This has emerged so far,” the source added.
A contradictory picture emerges of Murtaza from those close to him.
His father has portrayed him as a troubled young man with “suicidal tendencies” that the family was trying to assuage, but Murtaza’s ex-wife, in an interview with ABP News, suggested that there had been a repressive atmosphere in the household.
Check what divorced wife of #GorakhnathTemple attacker has to say about Ahmad Murtaza Abbasi. His wife confirmed that He was very religious towards Islamic ideology. This proves his family claims that he is mentally unstable as wrong n reveals IIT graduate Ahmad has jihadi links pic.twitter.com/GW3BnK9YCA
— GyanGanga (@sarinmall85) April 6, 2022
“He was very reserved and would speak very less. He would normally not speak to me because his mother didn’t like it,” his ex-wife said. He would leave at 6am and return around 7pm. His mother used to say that he cannot enter the room before midnight and he would be with his parents till about 11pm. We would be together very little of the time and he would sleep with them at times,” she said.
She also said that the couple differed on religion and freedom: “He was a little religious. I was not… I like a little freedom in things. They were not like that. They would like purdah… we didn’t have that environment.”
‘On intelligence radar before the attack’
Some news reports have mentioned that Murtaza’s name was in a list of 16 “suspected people” whose names the central agencies had shared with the UP ATS late last month.
While the sources did not comment on the list, they confirmed that Murtaza was definitely under the UP ATS’ scanner.
“He was definitely on the radar. His activity was being watched for some time, which is why the ATS officers even visited his house,” the police source said.
Murtaza’s father had earlier told mediapersons that two bike-borne persons had visited their house two days prior to the attack and he suspected they were ATS officers.
When confronted by the media at the hospital he was being treated at after the attack, the accused claimed that two policemen had come to his house with a summons, although he did not specify what it was about, and that he was scared, which is why he fled to Naugarh in UP to move to Nepal.
The IS video and ‘Gorakhpur link’
As visuals of the Gorakhpur temple attack gained traction online, a video with three masked men, one holding a machete, in front of an IS flag, was released on Telegram channels and other social media platforms.
This video, which talked about lone-wolf attacks and “coming together under one flag” for jihad, may have a direct connection with the Gorakhpur incident, a source in the security establishment said.
IS content like this video as well as its propaganda magazine Voice of Hind were “encouraging these lone-wolf attacks across the country”, this source added.
The November issue of Voice of Hind featured extensive content about lone-wolf attacks across India.
“We have taken note of the video and are probing it. We still do not know about the person talking in the video. But it is a grave concern for India as these attacks point at ISIS expansion,” the source said. “We have sent the video for a detailed analysis. The audio and diction are being analysed to ascertain if the person talking in the video is from India or not.”
Another source from the UP ATS said they have not yet found any connection of the video with the alleged attacker, and his interrogation is still on. “No clear connection has been established till now. He is being interrogated,” the UP ATS source said.
According to the security establishment source, the “attempt to establish an ISIS caliphate in India” has been on for the last several years.
In 2018, the NIA registered a case about the formation of an alleged IS module to commit terror activities in India. Ten people were arrested, and weapons and explosives, including rocket launchers, recovered from them. According to the NIA, the men wanted to establish an IS caliphate in the country and were planning large-scale attacks.
“Encouraging these lone-wolf attacks, pumping in money… the preparation for this [to set up an ISIS caliphate in India] has been on for a while,” the source said. “This is the reason why this propaganda material is pushed into India through several Telegram channels and these magazines.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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