Nine men held by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Friday were planning to travel to New Delhi and Kashmir to receive a cache of weapons promised to them by an al-Qaeda commander in Pakistan, sources familiar with the investigation have told News18. The sources said that the men had already gathered aluminium powder and potassium perchlorate, used in commercial fireworks, to fabricate an improvised explosive device.
"The men had been told to turn off their mobile phones before they left their homes in West Bengal and Kerala," a senior official said. "We would have been in the dark and had to arrest them to preempt any chance of a tragic outcome."
The NIA investigators said they had found pipes, wires, switches, and bolts meant to be used as shrapnel in searches, along with jihadist literature, in searches targeting the homes of the nine arrested men.
News18 was unable to locate lawyers for the nine men and efforts to seek a response from their families were unsuccessful.
In a statement released on Saturday, the NIA alleged that the al-Qaeda cell was planning to conduct multiple terrorist bombings and assassinations in the coming weeks. The arrests are one of dozens made in recent weeks as the NIA has cracked down on jihadist groups mobilising on platforms like WhatsApp.
The NIA last month had made several more arrests on jihadism-related charges, targeting individuals alleged to be linked to the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Former Kerala resident Muhammad Muhsin, who staged a suicide bombing targeting a gurdwara in Kabul, is believed to one of several Indian nationals involved in the terrorist organisation's operations in that country.
NIA sources say the cell held on Friday was led by West Bengal-origin Kerala resident Murshid Hasan, who is alleged to have both organised and raised funds for the group. Hasan was known in West Bengal Islamist circles for inflammatory social media posts calling for the killing of people he described as "infidels".
An official familiar with the investigation said Hasan made contact with a still-unidentified individual on WhatsApp, who described himself as a Pakistan-based al-Qaeda operative. The commander first said he would arrange delivery of the weapons in Kashmir, but later shifted the rendezvous to Delhi, citing problems caused by Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Mosaref Hoseen, alleged by the NIA to be Hasan’s key aide, made separate plans to purchase a 9-millimetre pistol and ammunition in Bangladesh, the source said. The NIA believes that a third member of the group, Mainul Mondal, contributed Rs 10,000 for this enterprise.
The NIA has also held Leu Yean Ansari, a West Bengal-based member of the group, who investigators claim had procured a locally-made weapon and also fabricated a crude armoured jacket for his own protection.
The NIA on Saturday said it has also arrested Najmus Saqib, Yakub Biswas, Atitur Rehman, Abu Sufiyan and Al-Mamum Kamal on charges ranging from assisting in purchasing bomb fabrication equipment to raising funds for the group.
Sakib, an active member of the group, is highly radicalised and involved in further radicalising youth in jihadi ideology of the group. He is in communication with other group members regarding the procurement of arms and ammunition.
Lawyers for some suspects held in recent counter-jihadist investigations have raised fears that intelligence personnel posing as jihadists have lured ideologically-committed Islamists into jihadisim -- a tactic widely used by western law-enforcement organisations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but one for which there is no express legal sanction in India.