In the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s statement that one of the suicide bombers of last Sunday’s attacks in the country had spent considerable time in India, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Sunday raided three locations in Kasaragod and Palakkad in Kerala on suspicion of youths there being in touch with an Islamic State recruiter.
The agency carried out searches at the houses of three suspects (two in Kasaragod and one in Palakkad), who are believed to have links with 20-odd youths from Kerala who had in 2016 left for Afghanistan to join the IS. Some of these youths had travelled to Sri Lanka before sneaking into Afghanistan through Iran.
“The three persons are suspected to have links with some of the accused persons in the 2016 case,” NIA IG Alok Mittal said. A source in the agency said they zeroed in on the three while monitoring online activities related to the IS. “One of the three was found to be in touch with Abdul Rashid Abdulla alias Abu Isa, a Kozhikode youth who had joined the IS in 2016. We are interrogating them on what, if anything, they were planning to do and who all they were in touch with,” a senior NIA officer said.
During its searches, the NIA claimed to have recovered several “digital devices, including mobile phones, SIM cards, memory cards, pen drives, diaries with handwritten notes in Arabic and Malayalam, DVDs of Dr Zakir Naik, besides untitled DVDs, CDs with religious speeches, books of Dr Zakir Naik and Syed Kutheb”. These would be forensically examined for extraction of data.
Sources said that it was following a similar raid in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, in December 2018, that the NIA had stumbled upon the plot of a suspected attack in Sri Lanka, and shared inputs with R&AW. The latter had had further developed the inputs and shared what is now said to have been “specific” information with the Lankan authorities.
Incidentally, on April 4, the Tamil Nadu DGP had sent an alert to all commissioners and superintendents of police warning that the Lanka-based National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), named in the Sri Lankan blasts, was planning to attack Lankan establishments in the state. The attack could be perpetrated by suicide bombing or truck explosion or knife attack or parcel explosion, the alert said, asking the officers to take necessary steps. The same day, police had tightened security for the Sri Lankan High Commission in Chennai.
The NIA had found a video of NTJ member Zahran Hashim, identified as one of the suicide bombers behind the deadly Lanka attacks, on the phone of one of the suspects held in Coimbatore. In the video, suspected to have been recorded by Hashim in Tamil Nadu, he talked about a big job he was about to pull off, without any details, and exhorted Muslims from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka to fight for the cause of Islam.
Intelligence agencies have found that Hashim had travelled to both Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the past couple of years. The NIA had raided seven locations and arrested six for suspected links with the IS, including R Ashiq, Ismail, Salavuddin, Jafar Sadiq Ali, Shahul Hameed, Shamsuddin.
Talking to The Indian Express on Sunday, R Ashiq said he had no links with the NTJ. Accusing the NIA of trying to frame him without any evidence, he said he had never been an IS symapthiser or extremist. “I heard of the Thowheeth Jamaath in Tamil Nadu. But I never heard of the NTJ or Zahran Hashim. They are trying to falsely implicate me,” he said.
He added that he could not vouch for the others arrested. “I don’t know about them except for the brief period we were in jail together,” Ashiq said. In 2016, the NIA had registered a case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act following the discovery that 22 youths from Kerala, all acquainted with each other, had fled to Afghanistan between May and July that year, from Kasaragod and Palakkad districts, to join the IS. They were reported to have reached IS-controlled Nangharhar in Afghanistan.
The 22 included 13 men, six women and three children. They left India from Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai airports for Kuwait, Dubai, Muscat or Abu Dhabi, from where they are learnt to have travelled to Afghanistan through Iran.