The arrests of three suspected members of the Indian wing of al-Qaeda this week indicates that the militant group was planning an attack in the country while Indian security forces shift their focus on combating the Islamic State (IS) threat, analysts said.
The Delhi police on Thursday arrested Zafar Masood from the northern Uttar Pradesh state, following the arrests of Abdul Rehman from the eastern state of Odisha on Wednesday and Mohammed Asif from the nation’s capital on Monday.
All three are suspected of being operatives of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which was formed in September 2014. The arrests mark the first successful raid by Indian police since the militant organization’s formation.
“AQIS had already said they will carry an attack on Indian soil. So yes, there must have been a plan for an attack,” New Delhi-based counterterrorism analyst Bibhu Prasad Routray told BenarNews. “These arrests have revealed that India is very much on the radar of groups like al-Qaeda.”
Meanwhile, India’s Anti-Terrorist Squad on Thursday claimed to have tracked down a 16-year-old girl from Pune, Maharashtra state, who was going to join the IS after the group promised to fund her studies if she traveled to Syria. The girl is involved in a deradicalization program.
Police said the arrest of Asif, who hails from the Sambhal district of Uttar Pradesh, and his subsequent interrogation led them to Rehman and Masood.
While Masood is a resident of Sambhal, Rehman, a doctorate degree holder in Arabic and Islamic studies, ran a madrassa in Odisha’s Cuttack town, police said.
Rehman’s family said he was innocent.
“The claims of Delhi police are completely false. He is being framed and I know that police will never be able to prove him guilty. My uncle is in no way related to any terrorist activity or organization,” Rehman’s nephew, Tanvir Khan, told the Times of India.
Asif was trained in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region and was one of the recruiters in India, police said.
“We know he had links in several states of the country,” a senior Delhi police official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
After an initial round of questioning, police said they believed that Asif had been in touch with some people in Sambhal.
“Since the last two days, we are verifying details of the migrants who work here and are closely watching some other people,” Sambhal Police Superintendent Atul Saxena told BenarNews.
“We are conducting searches at the railway station, bus station and several more places,” he said, adding that more arrests were likely.
Following the interrogation of Asif and Rehman, security forces identified AQIS’s chief as Sanaul Haq, popularly known as Maulana Asim Umar, a one-time resident of Sambhal, according to a report in The Indian Express.
Competing terror groups
The arrests of the suspected AQIS members come at a time when Indian security forces have turned the heat on the Islamic State (IS), which has threatened to launch attacks in the subcontinent in a recently released e-book.
On Wednesday, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said India would undertake operations against the IS under the United Nations flag if the global body adopted a resolution in that regard. The declaration followed Parrikar’s meeting with his U.S. counterpart Ashton Carter in Washington.
“The reason AQIS is focusing on India is the competition it senses from the IS in terms of funding, publicity and cadres,” Sameer Patil, a security analyst at Mumbai’s Gateway House, told BenarNews, adding that terror groups have considered India an important hunting ground for for recruits.
According to intelligence reports, 23 Indians have left the country to fight for IS in Syria and Iraq. Of them, six have died. Another 150 Indians, a large majority from the southern part of the country, are under surveillance for showing sympathy toward the group.
Routray said these numbers were highly suppressed.
“In 2014, when the IS was formed, the government had said that Indian Muslims will not get attracted to the organization. That is turning out to be completely false,” he said.
Analysts weigh move
Experts, however, welcomed India’s move to join the war against the IS as part of a U.N.-led mission.
“India’s capabilities in such operations are well recognized and it is in the country’s national interest to be proactively involved against the ISIS,” Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnian, former general officer in command of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, told BenarNews, using another acronym for IS.
If the international community is thinking of intervening in Iraq and Syria under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, India should not hesitate to provide troops, Hasnian said.
But Arshi Khan, an international relations and political science professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, said India should focus on eliminating terror outfits on its own soil instead of going to war with the IS overseas.
“It would not be an easy task for India to act against the hidden the IS scriptwriters, who are presumably based in Middle East nations. And to fight against them, India will need the support of countries like the U.S.,” he added.