Updated at 6:56 a.m. ET on 2016-08-30
An Indian national who is a suspected Islamic State operative claimed a link to Bangladeshi militants when he recently told investigators that a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) leader involved in the July 1 attack in Dhaka has served as his handler for two years.
Mohammad Mosihuddin, alias Abu Musa, 25, told India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) that JMB leader Mohammed Suleiman had tasked him with creating an IS cell in India and choosing non-Muslim targets for attacks, according to sources in the agency, who spoke to BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Musa was arrested in Burdwan district of India’s West Bengal state on July 4. Bangladeshi police, who sent a three-member team to Kolkata on Aug. 15 to interrogate Musa, confirmed that Musa had been in contact with the JMB.
“During interrogation, Musa said JMB leaders from Bangladesh radicalized him in India and ordered him to carry out operations. Neo-JMB is the party that nurtures IS’s ideology and is responsible for recent atrocities,” Monirul Islam, the chief of Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism and transnational unit, told BenarNews.
“We asked him about the militant attacks that took place in the Bangladesh. Musa replied that some JMB leaders encouraged him in fundamentalism and showed him some targets for attacks,” he said.
The comments by security officials on both sides come in stark contrast to the repeated assertion by the Bangladesh home minister and others that IS does not have a foothold in the Muslim-majority country.
Suleiman has been described by Bangladeshi officials as one of the masterminds of the deadly siege at the Holey Artisan café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter on July 1 that left 20 hostages dead, most of them foreigners.
During questioning, Musa revealed that Suleiman was directly involved in the April 23 killing of Rajshahi University English professor A.F.M. Rezaul Karim Siddique for his atheist beliefs, sources said.
Musa told interrogators that Suleiman slipped into India two days after the professor’s slaying and planned the Dhaka café attack from a hideout in West Bengal, sources said. They added that that Suleiman “could still be holed up somewhere in northeast India” and a manhunt to nab him was ongoing.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal has blamed the Dhaka café siege and a string of other attacks on secular intellectuals on home-grown radical outfits including JMB.
On Saturday, Bangladeshi police gunned down Tamim Chowdhury, suspected to be the “main mastermind” of the Gulshan café attack, along with two other suspects. Chowdhury, police said, headed a faction of the JMB known as Neo JMB.
Inroads in India
While in India, the visiting Bangladeshi police team extracted names of 12 JMB operatives, including Suleiman, while questioning Musa, Islam said. Two of them have subsequently been arrested.
“JMB acts as IS’s sleeper cell and has made inroads into West Bengal, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh,” a senior NIA official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
The comment appeared to corroborate a recent dossier from Dhaka that named as many of 100 suspected JMB members who had gone missing and could have taken shelter in the northeastern state.
“Apart from Suleiman, whom he had met five to six times since 2015, Musa was also in touch with Shafi Armar, his Syria-based handler, via social networking sites,” the official said. Musa came in contact with Suleiman in late 2014 through a social networking website.
Musa, who worked in a grocery store in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, came under scrutiny of security agencies soon after the Dhaka café attack when his calls and emails were traced to Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Syria, the official said.
“Musa had been directed to find new recruits for IS and look out for areas where tourists from the United States, Britain and Russia hang out,” a senior official of the NIA told BenarNews.
“For this purpose, he made recreational trips to the Mother Teresa center in Kolkata and the Dal Lake in Srinagar to plan stabbing attacks similar to the July 1 assault in the Holey Artisan cafe.”
Acting on a tip from the NIA and India’s Intelligence Bureau that Musa was heading to his birthplace in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, state officials picked him up at Burdwan railway station on July 4. Police claim he had an improvised gun, a 13-inch dagger and fake currency notes from Afghanistan and Syria.
While government officials constantly deny that IS has made any significant inroads in India, intelligence agencies claim about 50 Indian Muslims have left for Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Middle East-based terror outfit. Among them, six have died in battle. About 30 Indians have been prevented from leaving the country to join the outfit and more than 150 are under surveillance for showing sympathy toward the organization.
A security expert based in northeast India said the region’s porous border with Bangladesh “poses a grave threat” to the country.
“The language similarities between the two neighboring countries make places like West Bengal and Assam an ideal ground for militants from Bangladesh to increase their foothold in the Indian sub-continent and carry out deadly attacks,” G.M. Srivastava, Assam’s former director general of police, told BenarNews.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Shahriar Sharif in Dhaka contributed to this report.
An earlier version incorrectly identified Tamim Chowdhury as the head of JMB.