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Lucknow encounter: Saifullah’s ‘Khurasan’ module and the ISIS threat to India

The MP train blast, sources said, was only to determine the extent of damage and the response of Indian security agencies

Manish Prasad, New Delhi [ Updated: March 08, 2017 16:15 IST ]
The items recovered from the Lucknow encounter site
The items recovered from the Lucknow encounter site included an ISIS flag

The explosion that hit the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train in Madhya Pradesh yesterday has sent alarm bells ringing across India’s security establishment. Few hours after the blast, that left ten people injured, it was linked  to an encounter miles away at a building located on the outskirts of Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, where voting has reached in the final lap in the seven-phase elections.

At around 4 PM on Tuesday, the UP Police and the state’s Anti Terrorism Squad reported to have holed up a suspected terrorist who was said to have links to the MP train blast hours ago, allegedly the first attack on Indian soil perpetrated by the dreaded ISIS militant group. The accused, identified as Saifullah, was killed after an encounter that went on for 11 hours at a house in Haji Colony of city’s Thakurganj area.

Shocking recoveries from Thankurganj encounter site

The recoveries made by the police officials after the suspected militant was neutralized has sent shock waves across the country. The recoveries included an ISIS flag, eight pistols, 650 rounds of ammunition, 50 fired rounds, 1.5 kg gun power, explosives, gold, cash, passports, SIM cards and a train time table. The other materials seized included wires, different cords and newspapers. The commandos, involved in the Lucknow encounter, also saw a wire wrapped around the stomach of the terrorist.

"The slain terror suspect belongs to the Khurasan module of the ISIS and was an active member. But, whether he has been indoctrinated or not is a matter of investigation," IG ATS Aseem Arun said.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan today confirmed the ISIS role in the passenger train attack. Chauhan said that the blast took place in the train via a pipeline bomb and that militants sent the photographs to their handlers sitting in Syria. The CM further said that the terrorists reached Bhopal from Lucknow via Pushpak Express and were nabbed within three hours of the incident.

“We have proof of the involvement of ISIS,” Chouhan said.

If this wasn’t enough to sound a warning, fresh information coming through intelligence sources surely should.   


Saifullah and rise of ‘Khurasan module’ in eastern UP

Sources in the Intelligence Bureau have told India TV that Saifullah, the accused ISIS militant who was neutralized by security forces in Thakurganj encounter, was a ‘lone wolf’ attacker and a self-made militant. Saifullah, the sources said, had developed ‘Khurasan module’ in eastern UP and was in regular touch with some other like-minded youngsters from nearby cities such as Kanpur and Lucknow.  

The "Khorasan module", an Islamic State offshoot based near the Afghan-Pakistan border, is expanding to new areas, recruiting fighters and widening its ambit of attacks.

Bolstered by fighters from Pakistani and other militant groups and an active social media presence, officials said the "Khorasan module" of ISIS had almost become an "umbrella organization" for other movements as well. The claims were made following the arrest of the alleged "mastermind" of the train terror strike identified as Atif Mujaffar alias Al-Qasim, a well-off engineering student from Aligarh and the self-proclaimed 'emir' (chief) of the so-called the "Khorasan module" in India, from Kanpur last evening.

Most of the meetings Saifullah held with the members of his Khurasan module were in Lucknow and Kanpur. These individuals were all heavily influenced by the radical ideology of the ISIS and had grown increasingly attracted to extremism in the recent past. They also spent most of their time on the Internet. 

As per information, the suspected militants were in continuous touch with a handler who was training them through Facebook on making bombs and planting them, launching lone wolf attacks and guiding them on how and where to get the required training. 

Significantly, intelligence sources inform that the passenger train that Saifullah’s Khurasan module targeted with a pipe bomb was only a trial and perhaps a display of what more was to come. The blast, sources said, was only to determine the extent of damage that placing a certain amount of IED and ammonium nitrate would cause. The alleged attack was also to gauge the response of Indian security agencies.

The past few days had seen Saifullah starting to strictly follow religious diktats like those of the ISIS. He used to offer prayers five times a day, had grown a beard and had stopped watching television and films.

How Saifullah operated

Sources further revealed that Saifullah was in touch with his handler through fake email ids created through different websites. The entire operation was being carried out from the same residence in Thankurganj where Saifullah was eventually ginned down after an 11-hour operation.

IB sources further reveal that the incident wasn’t a one-off attack triggered by suspected ISIS operators in India. The ISIS, they believe, is involved in creating separate modules in Gujarat, UP, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka and other states as well.

Why law enforcement agencies should be worried

While the menace may appear new, considering this was allegedly their first such attack, there have been recent arrests that attest to this claim. Two youths were picked up from Gujarat last week for being influenced by ISIS ideology. Both accused are brothers and had allegedly prepared a module with over 10 members from Rajkot and Ahmedabad.

Sources inform India TV that the Mumbai ATS too has intensified its search for two youths from Raipur who had gone to Iraq on a pilgrim visa and disappeared. A team from the ATS visited their Raipur residence but found the house locked and their family members nowhere to be found. It was later ascertained that the family which claimed to be from West Bengal was from Bangladesh.

The incident has alerted probe agencies who have now rounded up the tour agent who sent the two youths to Iraq on a pilgrim visa.

India’s ISIS connect in the past

Incidents from the past too signal the quiet entry of the ISIS or at least its ideology into India. In 2014, four youths viz., Areeb Majeed, Aman Tandel, Fahad Sheikh and Shaheen Tanki from Kalyan near Mumbai had gone missing on the pretext of going to Iraq. One of the youths, Areeb Majeed fled from Iraq and returned and is currently in the custody of agencies.

Areeb told probe agencies that he was working as a fighter for the ISIS and had gone to Syria from Iraq where he received training in operating guns and making bombs among other terror-related activities, sources said.

The Mumbai ATS now suspects that the two youths who went to Iraq from Mumbai and have since disappeared may also have joined the ISIS and could have been in contact with ISIS handlers through social media.

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