New Delhi/Kolkata/Kochi: Foiling an attempt by internationally banned terror group al-Qaeda to set up a base in India, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Saturday swooped on its cadres in West Bengal and Kerala and arrested nine of them.
An NIA spokesperson said that the agency carried out the simultaneous raids at several locations in Kerala's Ernakulam and West Bengal's Murshidabad after learning about a Pakistan-sponsored inter-state module of Al Qaeda operatives at various locations in India.
The agency said the terror module has been operational for some time and was planning to carry out terror attacks at vital installations in India and kill innocent people.
Three terrorists were held from Kerala's Ernakulam district, while others were arrested in West Bengal's Murshidabad. No Keralites were arrested so far.
All the terrorists arrested on Saturday - Murshid Hasan, Iyakub Biswas, Mosaraf Hossen, Najmus Sakib, Abu Sufiyan, Mainul Mondal, Leu Yean Ahmed, Al Mamun Kamal and Atitur Rehman - will be taken to courts in Kerala and Bengal to seek their police custody.
Murshid Hasan, Iyakub Biswas and Mosaraf Hossen – all working as guest workers – were arrested from Ernakulam district. Hasan was taken into custody from Pathalam, Biswas from Perumbavoor and Hossen from Aluva.
Hasan is the leader of the gang and those arrested from Kerala are also originally residents of West Bengal, the NIA spokesperson said.
A closely-monitored operation of the NIA and other central agencies began on September 11 when the premier investigating agency registered a case to probe the al-Qaeda module.
"Large quantity of incriminating materials including digital devices, documents, jihadi literature, sharp weapons, country-made firearms, a locally fabricated body armour, articles and literature used for making home-made explosive devices have been seized from their possession," the NIA said in a statement.
"These individuals were radicalised by Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda terrorists on social media and were motivated to undertake attacks at multiple places, including Delhi-NCR," the agency said.
The module was "actively indulging in fund-raising and a few members of gang were planning to travel to Delhi to procure arms and ammunition," as per the initial investigations.
According to sources, the group was planning attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) made from potassium procured from firecrackers, and planned to go to Kashmir for weapons delivery. The NIA recovered switches and batteries from Abu Sufiyan's house during the raids.
Besides, the module was trying to establish a well organised al-Qaeda network in different parts of the country, including the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, on the instructions of the Pakistan-based handlers, the officer said.
According to the officers investigating the case, the arrested men are highly radicalised and were getting instructions from foreign handlers, including Pakistan-based al-Qaeda operatives, in cyberspace.
Meanwhile, Idukki district police chief R Karuppasamy said Iyakub Biswas had worked in a shop at Adimali in the district.
The shop, which had functioned for seven months before the lockdown imposed due to COVID-19 in March, was owned by a native of Perumbavoor. The police said they are looking into the matter.
Terrorists active in Kerala
The arrest of three Al-Qaeda terrorists from Kerala came days after the central government acknowledged the presence of terrorists in Kerala and other southern states.
On Wednesday, Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy had informed Rajya Sabha that the central agencies are "investigating individuals from different states - including from southern ones - who have joined the terror group Islamic State."
The NIA registered 17 cases related to the presence of IS in the southern states of Kerala, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and arrested 122 accused, the minister said.
"Some instances of individuals from different states, including southern states, having joined Islamic State (IS) have come to the notice of central and state security agencies," he said in a written response to a question.
The minister said NIA investigations have revealed that the Islamic State is most active in Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.
"The IS is using various internet based social media platforms to propagate its ideology. Cyber space is being closely watched in this regard by the agencies concerned and action is taken as per law," he said.
The minister said the government has information on how these people are being funded and whether they are getting any foreign funding to activate their terror activities.
Reddy said the Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Daish, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham-Khorasan (ISIS-K) and all its manifestations have been notified as terrorist organisation and included in the First Schedule to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 by the central government.
(With inputs from PTI)