Four men named by Uttar Pradesh police in connection with the explosion on the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train on Tuesday morning had been under surveillance of intelligence services for attempting to set up an Islamic State-inspired jihadist cell, government sources have told The Indian Express. The surveillance had not, however, thrown up signs of an imminent attack, leading authorities to hold back arrests in the hope of gathering further evidence.
Sources said a sweep was ordered Tuesday after intelligence agencies picked up mobile phone chatter on the train explosion and the suspects.
Police identified the three men held in Kanpur as Mohammad Faisal Khan, Mohammad Imran and Fakhr-ul-Alam while a fourth, Saifurullah, was holed-up inside a Lucknow house where ATS personnel were trying to flush him out, and later eliminated.
The four men, police sources familiar with the surveillance claimed, had made contact with pro-Islamic State Facebook accounts, and downloaded jihadist material, ahead of the attack on the Bhopal-Ujjain train.
Though police would not say what role the men are believed to have had in the bombing, UP Additional DG (Law and Order) Daljit Chaudhary said “all suspects are related to the Ujjain train blast”.
“We were informed that a few suspects were lodged in Kanpur and Lucknow. Policemen and senior officers of the ATS went in search,” Chaudhary said.
UP DGP Javeed Ahmad told The Indian Express that the operation was being carried out on the basis of inputs from central agencies about the involvement of extremists.
Intelligence inputs to UP police said the suspects could be part of an Islamic State module. “The situation is fluid at the moment. We have given whatever information we had to UP police and they are working on it. Concrete information on the antecedents and motive of the suspects will be clear only after they are thoroughly interrogated,” a source in a central intelligence agency said.
Teams of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) too have been sent to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to question the suspects held there and inspect the IED remains found in the train coach.
None of the four suspects in UP is thought to have either travelled to serve with or received training from Islamic State units in Syria or Afghanistan, government sources said.
Earlier this year, the NIA said it had arrested 52 individuals in Islamic State-inspired terrorism plots, with 12 cases being registered in 2016. Thirty-two of those arrested held diplomas, graduate degrees or higher qualifications.
“We will have a clearer picture of precisely what the relationship of these four were with Indian jihadists already with the Islamic State once investigators have the opportunity to trawl through their computers and mobile phones,” a police officer said.
In charges filed last summer, the NIA named Karnataka-born Indian Mujahideen fugitive Shafi Armar, now thought to be based in Syria’s Raqqa, as a key recruiter for the Islamic State. Names of other recruiters have also figured in subsequent NIA investigations.
The bomb used on the Bhopal-Ujjain train, sources said, was fabricated from sawn-off metal pipe, filled with gunpowder — a simple design that has the potential to inflict lethal casualties if built properly. However, the sources said, flaws in the design of the bomb meant the explosion only caused minor injuries to nine people.
Earlier plots, like a strike on a 2013 campaign rally held by Narendra Modi in Patna, and attacks by the al-Qaeda inspired Base Movement in Bangalore, Chennai and Pune last year, also used similar devices.
“It’s probable the design was downloaded from the Internet, just like in those earlier plots,” a source familiar with the investigation said. “However, the fact that the explosion fizzled suggests they probably did not test and refine their designs.”