ISIS Bigger Threat Than Pakistani Terrorists: NIA Official

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New Delhi: Just 18 months after Daesh’s early attempts to recruit Indian youth, especially from Maharashtra, were uncovered, the extremist group has emerged as the biggest threat to national security, surpassing Pakistani outfits, said one of the country’s top anti-terror investigators.

Nearly 40 people — suspected Daesh operatives and sympathisers — have been arrested in different parts of the country since mid-2014 and eight jihadist modules have been broken up, according to DIG Alok Mittal of the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

Mittal, a 1993 batch IPS officer, is an authority on the subject and last week, he was awarded the ‘President’s Police Medal’ at the Independence Day celebrations in Delhi for his anti-Daesh efforts. His work — dismantling cells and stopping young men from joining the extremists in Iraq and Syria — has even won him the moniker “Daesh hunter”.

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During an exclusive chat with Mirror, Mittal provided a worrying assessment of the threat from Daesh, but he underscored the fact that Indian agencies had foiled every potential attack by the group’s local cells. “The NIA has registered eight cases so far. Chargesheets have been filed in six of them, while the remaining two are under investigation,” he said. “The sheer number of cases and recruitment attempts that have come to light in less than two years clearly show the level of threat we are facing. Daesh has become the biggest terrorist organisation.”

Officials refuse to comment on the number of Indian youth who have been radicalised or influenced by Daesh, but according to one estimate, the figure is in the range of 7,000 to 8,000. A few hundred are prepared to travel to Iraq and Syria, where the extremists control large swathes of territory. Around 50 people, like Mumbai businessman Ashfaque Ahmed (26) and his two cousins, have already left the country.

Such recruits pose as a major security challenge as there are fears that they may carry out lone-wolf attacks on their return. Some of the recent attacks in Europe have been blamed on people who had previously travelled to Syria.

“There is a high possibility of lone-wolf terror activity in the country. Recently, we arrested a Daesh operative from Kolkata, Abu Musa, who had planned to travel to Srinagar and stab foreign tourists,” Mittal said.

Until 2014, Indian agencies were focused mainly on Pakistan-based or supported groups such the Lashkare-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and Indian Mujahideen. But Kalyan engineering student Areeb Majeed’s arrest that year prompted authorities to seriously consider the threat from Daesh. Majeed was radicalised online and travelled to Iraq to join the group. He later returned to India. “Majid’s arrest was our first success.

He is currently facing trial,” said Mittal, who was earlier part of the investigation into the January attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station. He added: “The internet, especially social media, provides the extremists a convenient platform to recruit youngsters. In all the eight cases we detected, the suspects were drawn to Daesh after becoming acquainted with the group’s handlers on social media. It’s a challenge for all countries to monitor such activity. But we have had some success in this area and we continue to keep a close watch on the online chatter.”

Contrary to common belief that Daesh’s activities in India have been restricted to drawing youngsters to its fold, the NIA has recovered arms and explosives in at least three cases.

“We recovered weapons from a suspect arrested in Hyderabad and explosives were found during our investigation into the Haridwar module,” Mittal said. “The Parbhani cell busted by the Maharashtra ATS had also planned to carry out attacks in the country.”

NIA’s biggest success has been what some officers call the “mother Daesh case” in which 18 suspects were arrested from different parts of the country, including Mumbai.

Their interrogation revealed Daesh’s efforts to recruit members in almost every state and set up an apex body. “We recovered material used in explosives from some of the suspects. In most cases, the suspects had planned attacks on police and security personnel,” Mittal said.

The DIG identified Shafi Armar as the man who manages Daesh’s activities in the country. “He uses different online identities to communicate with his aides. Malwani man Ayaz Sultan, who recently left the country, is assisting him,” Mittal said. Shafi, who is in his late twenties, is a native of Bhatkal, Karnataka. “He also supervises Maharashtra operations and was in touch with the main accused in the Parbhani case,” Mittal said.

The top cop added that international cooperation was crucial to stop the extremist group. “In the Areeb Majeed case, we wrote to 12 countries, including UAE, Turkey, China, Kuwait and Luxemburg, to seek information. Kuwait recently arrested one person on the basis of our tip,” Mittal said.