Iranian intelligence officials released an alleged lieutenant of al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief from prison after learning that he was a jihadist fighting against US-led forces in Afghanistan, documents accessed by The Indian Express have revealed.
The testimony was provided by Muhammad Asif, a resident of Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh who is now being tried in New Delhi, but it was never made public because of its potentially damaging diplomatic repercussions. “Efforts were made to seek details on Asif’s case from Tehran. Iran did not come back to us with anything. Iranian cooperation is important for India to secure its interests in Afghanistan, so we chose not to make an issue of this matter,” a senior government official involved in the case said.
The revelations on Asif’s mysterious release from prison come even as the CIA released papers purportedly showing that al-Qaeda and Tehran cut a deal to allow the jihadist group to route personnel through its territory. The negotiations are contained in a tranche of over 470,000 documents purported to have been recovered from slain al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s safehouse in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Instead of notifying Indian authorities of Asif’s arrest, Iranian officials handed him over to a narcotics trafficker who arranged for him to cross into Turkey along with five others, the documents show. In Istanbul, Asif claimed to be an illegal immigrant who had lost his passport, and succeeded in obtaining emergency documentation from the Indian consulate within days.
The case has drawn renewed attention because of fears that several Indian jihadists known to have been fighting with the Islamic State in Syria could be seeking to return home after the fall of its de-facto capital, Raqqa. “Iran’s apparent willingness to let some jihadists travel through its territory, as well as the ease with which emergency documentation was obtained by an individual whose travel records should have raised red flags, point to serious vulnerabilities of the system,” the official said.
Led into the ranks of al-Qaeda by fellow Sambhal resident Muhammad Usman, Delhi Police investigators allege, Asif travelled to Iran in May 2013 as part of a group of three recruits. The visa was obtained by falsely claiming to be a Shia pilgrim who wished to visit the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The other two men travelling with him, Muhammad Sharjeel Akhtar and Mohammad Rehan, are sought by Delhi Police, but yet to return to India. In Tehran, a series of al-Qaeda affiliated traffickers arranged for their travel by bus and then car for a weeks-long journey through Zahedan, Pakistan’s Quetta, Afghanistan’s Ghazni province and then the jihadist stronghold of North Waziristan.
Late in June, Asif told interrogators, the men were met in the town of Miranshah — then al-Qaeda’s regional base, and the area where 26/11 perpetrator David Headley allegedly trained — by another Sambhal resident, Sayeed Akhtar. He was also to meet Sana-ul-Haq, an UP resident who authored several apocalyptic religious tracts under the pseudonym Asim Umar, and is now the head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
Asif’s testimony to police records that he met with several other Indians at al-Qaeda’s camp in Mirsanshah, including fugitive Indian Mujahideen operative Muhammad ‘Bada’ Sajid, and two men he knew only by the names ‘Imran’ and ‘Akhlaq’.
Following the formation of al-Qaeda’s South Asia unit in April 2014, police documents state, he was ordered to return to India, allegedly to help find recruits and set up operational units. Travelling again through Paktika, Ghazni and Zabul in Afghanistan, Asif reached the Pakistan-Iran border before heading to Zahedan, records show. There, however, the trafficker assigned to get him to Tehran pointed out that his visa had expired, making further travel hard.
In panic, Asif attempted to travel to Tehran on his own, hoping to get a fresh Indian passport from the Embassy, but was arrested by a police patrol searching for illegal immigrants. From prison, Asif told interrogators, he was taken to a civilian home, where he was met by civilian officials, likely from Iran’s intelligence services. “There, I disclosed that I was doing jihad against the United States of America to one Urdu-speaking Iranian officer,” he told police in transcripts seen by The Indian Express.
The transcript records Asif as saying that “Iranian officials kept my passport and told me that they would not send me to India from Tehran, as India was a friendly country”. Instead, he was handed over to a narcotics trafficker, who took him to Istanbul. Based on identification provided by Asif’s wife, India’s consulate in Istanbul accepted his claims to have been an illegal immigrant hoping to reach Europe, and provided emergency travel documents.
Like all individuals arriving on such certificates, Asif was questioned on arrival but his activities were not detected. “There are thousands of emergency travel certificates issued every year and tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from India all over the world. There’s just no system in place to subject each case to close verification,” said an official at the Ministry of External Affairs.
Important clues as to why Iranian authorities may have aided Asif appear in a 19-page document released by the CIA on Thursday. The author explains that Iran offered al-Qaeda arms, training and cash “in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf”. Iran is known to have negotiated safe passage and sanctuary with al-Qaeda for Islamist ideologue Mahfouz Ould al-Wali prior to 9/11, but the new document shows the deal fell apart after jihadists failed to keep their end.
The note’s author, however, explains to Bin Laden that the interests of al-Qaeda and Iran “intersect”. Bin Laden himself, an earlier tranche of Abbottabad documents show, underlined to his cadre that Iran was al-Qaeda’s “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication”. Even though his letters were abusive of Shia Islam, he emphasised that the convergence of interests allowed for cooperation.
Little information has, interestingly, been made available by Iran on the movements of at least 22 Kerala residents who joined the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province last year. Though Indian intelligence services have established that the women, men and children flew from the UAE to Tehran, no investigative material was passed on about how the highly visible group transited through the country.
For years now, India’s intelligence services have known of Iran’s role as a transit hub for terrorists targeting the country but say it has been less than helpful on investigations. For example, Fahim Arshad Ansari, a Mumbai-born, Dubai-based printing-press worker held in 2008 on terrorism charges related to an attack in UP’s Rampur, is alleged to have been sent to a Lashkar-e-Taiba training facility in Pakistan through Iran’s Zahedan, using the services of transborder traffickers.
Investigation records of the case, obtained by The Indian Express, state that he trained at Bait ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar’s headquarters in Muzaffarabad, in February 2007. He then travelled back to India through Nepal, using a Pakistani passport, and set himself up in Mumbai using the pseudonym Sahil Pavaskar.
Following the Rampur attack, Ansari was arrested along with Pakistani nationals Imran Shahzad and Farooq Bhatti, who were alleged to have been preparing to execute a strike on the Bombay Stock Exchange.