A week before Christmas, men claiming to be municipal surveyors, fanned out across the Mullano Mohalla colony and neighbouring areas in Amroha town in Uttar Pradesh. They took photographs of certain houses even as the local councillor said no such survey was commissioned.
Early on December 26, a team of NIA officers along with local police raided one of the houses ‘surveyed’ in Mullano Mohalla and arrested Mufti Suhail, the alleged mastermind of an Islamic State module. In a similar raid at the adjacent Qazi Zada colony, the agency arrested Suhail’s alleged associate, Mohammad Irshad, an autorickshaw driver.
According to the NIA, the two were arrested with eight others from Amroha, Hapur and Delhi’s Seelampur for allegedly being part of a self-appointed group called the Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam and affiliated to Islamic State. The NIA has claimed that the arrests stopped the group from carrying out a series of terror attacks and said they have recovered a huge cache of arms and explosives and even a rudimentary rocket launcher.
Suhail’s relatives and neighbours in Amroha say they barely knew him since he moved to the UP town a little more than a month ago. His house, a one room-kitchen unit which is part of a joint family property, is at the end of the labyrinthine Mullano Mohalla. Only his uncle’s family lives in Amroha after Suhail’s father moved to Delhi’s Jaffarabad almost 40 years ago.
Suhail’s cousin Mohammed Yahya, a sales tax officer, says, “The family came here once in a year or two, if there was a wedding or if someone died. We have hardly been in touch. For the past month or so, Suhail has been living here with his wife. He hardly interacted with us. We do not know what he was doing apart from renovating his room.”
And that’s the refrain in Mullano Mohalla. Neighbours say they barely knew him as he mostly stayed in Delhi. “In the past month that he has been here, he hardly interacted with anyone. He would not even exchange greetings while passing by,” said a neighbour not wishing to be identified.
After the arrests, the NIA had said Suhail taught in a madrasa in Amroha, something his relatives and several madrasas close by know nothing about. “He was here for just a month. It is unlikely he was going to teach in a madrasa. At least we did not know he was teaching here,” said Yahya.
In the adjacent Qazi Zada colony, Mohammed Irshad’s family is busy preparing for the marriage of their daughter, Irshad’s sister, even as they come to terms with his arrest. “He has been arrested just because he had Suhail’s mobile number on his phone. Nothing has been recovered from our house. As an autodriver myself, I can tell you several people keep our numbers to call during emergencies,” says Irshad’s elder brother Aurangzeb.
“In 2016 a case was registered by the UP Police under the Anti Cow Slaughter Act in which Irshad was also made an accused since he was the driver. I wonder if this has any link to it?” he says. Among the other key accused are brothers Saeed and Raees Ahmed, who both run separate welding shops around Amroha. On Thursday, both workshops were sealed. From these workshops, the NIA has claimed to have recovered most of the explosives (gunpowder, sulphur, potassium chlorate) and the rocket launcher.
Shopkeepers near Raees’s workshop say he used to “make and repair trolleys to carry sugarcane” and his family Thursday blocked the Dhanaura-Amroha road near their village to protest his arrest. His father, Habib claims the rocket launcher that the NIA talks of is actually a hydraulic jack used in trolleys.
“You can check in the village. Most trolleys have it. The NIA has confused it for rocket launcher,” he says at his home in Saidpur. Family members say that NIA officers searched Saeed’s shop and their house. “They collected everything in sacks and sealed them. Such hydraulic jacks are still lying in the shop that is now sealed. Someone should explain to them that sulphur is used in welding. The NIA has just collected scrap. No one was trying to make a bomb here,” says a relative.
About 50 km away in Vaith village of Hapur district, an Islamic preacher Saquib Ifthikhar was also arrested. His inconsolable mother Shaista says, “He was even scared of monkeys. How would he be part of such a crime. If I scolded him, he would begin to cry. He married just a year ago and has an eight-day-old baby.”
The son of an Imam at a mosque in Bulandhshahr, Saquib worked in mosques in Meerut and Dasna before shifting closer home after marriage. The NIA claims he helped Suhail procure the weapons. “He was a God-fearing boy. He just had a phone and tablet that the police have taken away. He had shut the tablet down, which was used by our daughters, saying it was not allowed in Islam. We do not even have his photograph since he considered it haram in Islam,” says Shaista.