Five members of a SIMI-linked group known as the Abu Faisal gang, who escaped from a district jail in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, on October 1, 2013, have emerged at the centre of probes into a series of terrorism-linked cases and a bank robbery since the jailbreak.
Investigations since September 12, 2014, when a few members of the gang are said to have fled leaving behind a mobile phone and other material at a hideout in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Bijnor following an accidental bomb blast, have allegedly given vital leads on the gang’s involvement in crimes across the country.
These include a February 1, 2014, bank robbery in Karimnagar in what is now Telangana; the May 1, 2014, blast on a Bangalore-Guwahati train at the Chennai Central Station that killed a young software engineer; and the July 10, 2014, blast in the parking lot of Faraskhana and Vishrambag police stations near the Dagdusheth temple in Pune.
An NIA chargesheet on the activities of the Indian Mujahideen Ranchi module also links the gang to terror activities carried out by IM.
Investigations have also revealed that two members of the gang could have been hiding in Dharwad region of Karnataka in a rented house posing as cloth merchants until a month ago, but managed to escape before an anti-terrorist squad of the Maharashtra Police arrived on their trail.
Seven members of the Abu Faisal gang had fled from Khandwa jail under suspicious circumstances last year. While one had surrendered the next day, Abu Faisal had been held two months later, in December 2013, from Barwani in Madhya Pradesh, 180 km away. The remaining five are now named in a series of cases.
Incidentally, Abu Faisal and six other members of his gang were acquitted by a court in September 2014 of the charge of robbing Punjab National Bank’s Jaora branch in Ratlam district in 2010.
The most crucial finding is the Abu Faisal gang’s suspected link to the Bangalore-Guwahati train blast. The phone found at the Bijnor blast site was found to have been active on the train before the blast. At 2.30 am on the night before the Chennai train blast, a Reliance number used by a gang member received a call at Jolarpet station from another gang member.
The five members of the gang on the run include Shaikh Mehboob alias Guddu alias Maliq, 25; Amjad alias Daud, 25; Mohammed Aslam alias Bilal, 26; Mohammed Aijajuddin, 30; and Zakir Hussain alias Sadiq, 32.
Their role in the armed robbery of Rs 46 lakh from a State Bank of India branch in Karimnagar on October 1 first emerged when CCTV footage there was shared with the police in Madhya Pradesh. The same men also showed up on the CCTV footage recovered from a clinic in Bijnor, where one of the gang members, Shaik Mehboob alias Guddu, was taken after he suffered injuries in the accidental blast.
“There is a perfect match between the CCTV footage at Bijnor and the footage from the robbery. This gang has been involved in several other robberies as well. We learned that they were hiding in Karnataka in September-October,” Karimnagar DSP Venugopal Rao, who is investigating the bank robbery, said.
The NIA believes the Abu Faisal gang’s robbery spree may have begun in 2010-11 when “Haidar Ali started giving stolen gold ornaments to Firoz Aslam and this continued till the last quarter of the year 2012”. “The gold ornaments were stolen by Abu Faisal and his associates from various places in Madhya Pradesh,” says its chargesheet on the Ranchi IM module. The money made from selling these ornaments was handed over to Haider Ali alias Abdullah, who is incidentally the main accused in the October 27, 2013, attack on a Narendra Modi rally in Patna.
According to the NIA’s chargesheet in a grand conspiracy case against the IM, it was Haidar Ali who had sheltered Abu Faisal in Ranchi in October 2013 after he escaped from Khandwa jail.
Abu Faisal and one of his currently absconding associates, Shaikh Mehboob, were allegedly also part of a SIMI training camp held in Wagamon in Kerala in December 2007, where SIMI members from all over the country participated, as per an NIA investigation.