The head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) spent several years working at an ISI-linked facility run by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which trained Kashmir jihadists, suicide-bombers targeting western forces in Afghanistan, and western jihadists, intelligence sources said.
Indian-born cleric Asim Umar, named head of AQIS by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri last year, served at the HuM’s Batrasi camp in Mansehra district in PoK, one of three similar facilities run by the organisation, the sources said. The Indian Express reported on Wednesday that documents filed by US prosecutors in a New York court last month showed that Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, the founder of HuM, had carried out secret talks with al-Qaeda on behalf of the ISI.
“There is growing reason to believe AQIS has closer links to the ISI than earlier imagined,” a senior intelligence official said. “We’re increasingly worried about the forces which led to the formation of AQIS.”
Files now being reopened by investigators contain suggestions Umar may have been involved in setting up jihad cells that the ISI sought to build across India from the late-1990s. In a statement to the Assam Assembly in April 2000, then chief minister Prafulla K Mahanta named 17 men arrested on charges of running an HuM cell in the state, including residents of Pakistan, Assam and J&K.
The cell’s leader was UP-trained cleric Salim Ahmad, and five of the men, Mahanta’s statement records, received training in handling explosives and assault weapons at the Batrasi camp. The men, investigators now believe, also received religious and ideological training from Umar, even though he was not identified to them then as an Indian national.
Umar arrived in Pakistan in the late-1990s and joined the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, the seminary that produced Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami’s Qari Saifullah Akhtar. From the late 1990s to 2004, Indian intelligence officials believe, Umar taught jihadists at Batrasi and Karchi, before relocating to HuM’s office in Haroonabad in 2004.
The HuM, one of the ISI’s oldest assets, was founded in 1980 to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and later turned its energies to Kashmir.