Around 4.30 am on Wednesday, a team from the National Investigation Agency knocked on Mohammad Azam’s door in Jaffrabad, a Muslim-dominated locality in north-east Delhi. His wife and five-year-old daughter were still asleep. Over the next seven hours, the team searched Azam’s home, interrogated him and eventually arrested him. Officials claim that Azam is the “mastermind in arranging weapons” for Harkat-Ul-Harb-e-Islam, a group inspired by the Islamic State that was allegedly planning to bomb key targets.
As Azam was being questioned, officials from the agency were conducting similar operations in at least five other homes in Jaffrabad. At the end of the day, agency officials said they had conducted search operations in at least 16 places in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. They said they had arrested 10 people and detained six others for interrogation.
The group was at an “advanced stage” in planning bomb attacks on vital installations, security personnel, political figures and crowded places, the National Investigation Agency said. The group is thought to have approximately 20 members.
They intended to use remote-controlled bombs but were also planning a fidayeen suicide attack in case it was necessary, said the agency. The group was largely self-funded, and some of the accused men had bought material after allegedly selling gold they had stolen from home. They used messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram for their internal communications, the agency claimed.
A country-made rocket launcher, 150 rounds of ammunition and 25 kg of an explosive paste of potassium nitrate, potassium chlorate, sugar and sulphur were recovered during the raids, said Inspector General (NIA) Alok Mittal. Investigators also seized Rs 7.5 lakh in cash, nearly 100 mobile phones, 135 SIM cards, several laptops and memory cards during the raids. Several batteries and 120 alarm clocks that could be used for making bombs were also found, he said.
The alleged mastermind of the plan, Mohammad Azam, 35, owns a pharmaceutical shop in Jaffrabad. As the raid on his home began, officials confiscated his mobile phone and also his wife’s. But one of his relatives heading for the mosque noticed the police vehicles outside the home and the officers standing guard at the entrance. She alerted other family members about the raid, said Mohammad Naved, Azam’s nephew.
At around 9 am, the officers opened his shop and searched it too. Azam is the youngest of five brothers, who are engaged in business ranging from pharmaceuticals to garments and scrap dealing in Delhi. According to Naved and Mohammad Nazeem, one of Azam’s employees, the officers took away some documents and two mobile phones from Azam’s home.
Also raided in Jaffrabad was the home of Mohammad Ubaid, whose brother Mohammad Suhail, 29, was arrested in Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha, where he resides with his wife and teaches in a madrassa. The agency claimed that Suhail was a mufti who had “tasked other team members to procure arms, explosives and other accessories to prepare IEDs [improvised explosive device] and pipe bombs”.
But his elder brother Mohammad Ubaid, refused to accept this contention. “He has always been a peaceful person and that is why he chose to be a teacher in the first place,” said Ubaid. Agency officials arrived at Ubaid’s home around 4.30 am and started a search, relatives said. They confiscated mobile phones and SIM cards of all relatives.
Suhail, his relatives said, had got married last year and moved to Amroha around two months ago. He lives there with members of his extended family. Till early 2018, he was a teacher at a madrassa in north-east Delhi. His family owns a battery and inverter shop, which was also raided on Wednesday. The police took away some equipment from the shop which Ubaid and his cousin Akram said they could not clearly identify.
The family currently is more concerned about Suhail’s father Mohammed Hafeez, who has a motor disability caused by a neurological disorder and went into shock after Wednesday’s raid.
In lane number 24 of Jaffrabad, the gates of the home of Anas Yunus, a civil engineering student at a private university in Noida, were locked for around 12 hours as investigators interrogated the 24-year-old in the presence of his relatives. Around 5.30 pm, one of the iron gates was opened. Some police officers rushed out of the three-storeyed house with a man whose face was covered with a muffler. Yunus was shoved into a police jeep, which sped away as some reporters chased it till the end of the congested lane.
The agency has accused Yunus of being “instrumental in procuring electrical items, alarm clocks, batteries, etc in furtherance of their terror conspiracy”. The engineering student’s father, Mohammad Yunus, specialises in fancy plaster designs and works with building contractors in the city, said his neighbours. They said they had not known Yusuf to be religious, and were sceptical about the accusations that he was a member of a terror group.
Also arrested were two brothers, Zubaid Malik and Zaid Malik. Zubaid, 20, is a student of humanities at the University of Delhi. His brother, Zaid, 22, helps their father in his air cooler shop. Teams of police and NIA officials had arrived in their home at around 4.30 am, and after a search took away the mobile phone and SIM cards of all family members. They also too away some books belonging to Zubaid and Zaid, said a relative who asked to remain anonymous. He could not recall the title of the books.
The agency has accused both the brothers of being “instrumental in procuring batteries, connectors, SIM cards on fake documents and mobilising funds for buying bomb making materials”.
The sixth man arrested from Delhi, identified as Rashid Zafar Raq, 22, owns a small garment shop on the Jaffrabad. Officers arrived at his home around 5 am and interrogated him for more than 14 hours, said Shehnaaz Begum, his mother. All his relatives were summoned by the police, who conducted a search operation in their presence.
Raq is the youngest of three brothers. While the eldest also works in the garments business too, the other is a physiotherapist who has recently returned from Japan where he had gone for a business trip in connection with sale and purchase of some physiotherapy-related products, the relatives said.
Mohammad Ameer, a school friend, said that though Raq never went to college, he is a sharp businessman. This, said Ameer, is why Raq was able to move from running a street garment business to starting a permanent shop around six months ago.
Raq’s relatives said that they had no inkling about the plot the police claimed the young man was involved in until he was taken away by the police in late evening. The agency did not specifically elaborate on Raq’s alleged role in the terror module.
The four other persons arrested in connection with the case are from Unnao, Amroha and Hapur districts of Western Uttar Pradesh. The other persons being interrogated are believed to be residents of Amroha, Lucknow and Meerut districts.
Relatives deny involvement
As the operation was underway, the anxiety was palpable in Jaffrabad, the site of a major garments market, where most shops deal in artificial leather products. The area has a population of around 60,000, of whom 70% are Muslim. Several residents accused the government targetting their neighbours because of their religion.
Relatives of all six men arrested in Jaffrabad claimed that the accusations were untrue. At least three of the men sported beards, they said. These identity markers, the relatives claimed, were used by the security agencies to target their relatives.
Earlier this month, the National Investigation Agency claimed to have broken up a Tamil Nadu module of ISIS. For the past two years, the agency has been conducting crackdowns on ISIS-inspired groups in Jammu and Kashmir. The agency has been investigating cases in Kerala too. So far, Delhi has not been linked with any of them.