The arrest of nine people in Maharashtra on Tuesday for alleged links with an Islamic State-inspired terror group came a month after 10 people were arrested from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh for allegedly being part of another group with similar links.
According to statements by the police, the men arrested in Maharashtra are members of a group identified as the Ummat-e-Mohammadiya, which had planned attacks across the country. The police did not give any specific details. An Aurangabad court has sent them to police custody till February 5. “More details will emerge with their interrogation,” said a senior investigating official.
The December arrests were made by the National Investigation Agency. Its officials said the 10 persons arrested were part of a group called the Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam. The agency arrested three more people in January for their alleged involvement with this group, which, the agency claimed, was in an “advanced stage” of planning bomb attacks in some Indian cities.
The recent rise in the arrests of alleged Islamic State operatives across India and an increase in the circulation of WhatsApp messages warning citizens against terror attacks in the country on Republic Day has led to allegations that both are linked to the general elections – due in April or May – given that fear-mongering could have an impact on public opinion.
But several government officials have denied these allegations. While senior officials in the National Investigation Agency said they had been tracking the Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam module for more than three months now, senior officials in the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad told the media that the Ummat-e-Mohammadiya module was under their radar for several weeks before they arrested the nine men.
Past Islamic State-linked cases
In India, most cases related to suspected modules of the Islamic State are investigated by the National Investigation Agency. Even if state police departments register the initial First Information Reports, such cases eventually get transferred to the central agency. Sometimes, the transfers have led to tussles between officers in charge of the anti-terror units of these agencies.
According to senior officials, the National Investigation Agency has initiated investigations into at least 23 Islamic State-related cases since 2015 and has arrested approximately 100 people in connection with them. The maximum number of arrests have taken place in Kerala, followed by Telangana and then Maharashtra and Karnataka.
While details of the latest operations are still awaited, there are certain similarities in the alleged functioning of the older Islamic State-related modules that are being investigated. These include online radicalisation, involvement of a handler based in another country, recovery of literature that the agencies tag as incriminating evidence, and a link to the Kashmir Valley (either to meet conduits or to get funding).
The case of Kashmir
The presence – or absence – of Islamic State modules in Kashmir are in itself a case study, security agency officials admit.
In 2015, the black flags of the Islamic State had become a common sight in the Valley. The number of flags increased significantly in 2016, during protests that followed the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter with security forces. Despite this, investigative agencies made little headway in tracking down Islamic State operatives, a senior officer recalled.
Shortly after, groups such as the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir began to emerge. However, these are believed to have no direct organisational links with the Islamic State, a senior official said. Most of their membersare believed to be affiliates of existing militant groups in the Valley. “They are inspired modules, unlike the cases in Kerala and Maharashtra where the links of the suspects are more direct in nature,” the official said.
Several senior security officials, however, were of the opinion that both the Harkat-Ul-Harb-e-Islam and Ummat-e-Mohammadiya are modules inspired by the Islamic State but with no direct links to it.
Social media misinformation?
Referring to the increase in the warning messages about terror attacks being circulated on social media, while several security officials said the messages could be leaked excerpts of advisories issued within state police forces ahead of Republic Day and Independence Day every year, others said they were simple misinformation.
The increase in the number of messages warning about terror attacks could also be a result of the timing of these crackdowns, suggested a senior official in the anti-terror wing of a government security agency.