Five Madhya Pradesh men arrested from the town of Ratlam last month were part of an Islamic State-linked jihad cell planning strikes in India, highly placed police and intelligence sources have told The Indian Express.
Although growing numbers of Indians have been fighting with the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria, the cell is the Islamic State’s first known affiliate inside the country, sparking fears more could be forming elsewhere.
Imran Khan Muhammad Sharif, the leader of the five men held in Ratlam on April 15, is alleged to have been recruited online by an Indian jihadist he knew as “Yusuf” — code, investigators say, for Karnataka-born Muhammad Shafi Armar, a fugitive Indian Mujahideen operative now leading group of Indians fighting with the Islamic State.
Muhammad Shafi Armar’s brother, Muhammad Sultan Armar, was killed in combat near the Syrian town of Kobane in March, fighting with Islamic State forces attempting to take the city from Kurdish control.
Khan, police sources in Ratlam said, was initially held for possession of chemicals that could be used to fabricate explosives, to which separate terrorism-related charges have since been added.
In voice-over-internet and chat conversations recovered by investigators, police allege, Khan sought help from Armar on how to build explosive devices, procure weapons, and select targets for attack.
He was advised, police say, to record each operation — in line with standard Islamic State online propaganda tactics. Fuller details on the conversations, sources close to the investigation said, are expected to become available after the Central Forensic Science Laboratory completes analysis of Khan’s computer.
The son of a clerk in the Madhya Pradesh government’s rural education department, Khan dropped out of an undergraduate business course at Ratlam’s Royal College in 2001, having completed just four semesters.
Khan’s passport shows he made five subsequent visits to Dubai, and one to Saudi Arabia, after terminating his studies in search, his family says, of work. However, none of the visits seem to have yielded offers of durable employment.
In testimony to police — which, under law, will not be admissible for the purposes of his trial — Khan said he had joined Ahl al-Suffah, an Islamic proselytising and charity group, in 2012. Led by local resident Amjad Khan, Ahl al-Suffah became active after the pre-election communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, working to distribute relief among Muslim victims of the violence.
Khan’s interest in religion, a source familiar with the investigation said, developed in the years of economic frustration that began after he failed to get a job.
The term Ahl al-Suffah, or “men of the platform”, refers to a group of believers who took residence in the Masjid al-Nawbai during the Prophet Muhammad’s years of exile in Medina. Faced with a trade boycott and military threats by Mecca’s Qurayshi, the group was forced to spend its days foraging for firewood and dates but did not give up Islam despite the hardship.
Following his encounters with victims of communal violence, a source inside Ahl al-Suffah told The Indian Express, Imran Khan became increasingly dissatisfied with what he saw as the organisation’s quietism arguing, instead, for the group to take a more militant stand.
Imran Khan’s increasing radicalism, the source said, led to his expulsion by the mainstream leadership of Amjad Khan.
However, investigators claim Imran Khan managed to persuade four other members of Ahl al-Suffah to join him: Wasim Khan, Mohammad Rizwan, Anwar and Mazhar. Imran Khan, police allege, made his first contact with “Yusuf”, while trawling pro-Islamic State Facebook pages run by Islamic State supporters in India, as well as Islamist discussions forums.
In August, Sultan Armar had appeared online in a video released by the breakaway Indian Mujahideen faction, Tawhid-ul-Ansar, calling on Muslims to join it at training camps in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands. Later, Indian jihadists in Tawhid al-Ansar made their way to Syria, where they formed a group called Ansar-ul-Tawhid fil’Bilad al-Sham. Late last year, several Rajasthan men were arrested for planning acts of terror, allegedly after being recruited online by the slain Armar.
Interestingly, the latest arrests come against a backdrop of escalating communal warfare between Hindutva and Islamist extremists in Ratlam. The city was placed under curfew in September after the killing of a Bajrang Dal activist involved in the cow-protection campaign. Earlier, an attempt on attempt on the life of Yasmin Sherani, a local Congress politician, sparked off riots.