Al Qaeda in India

Print edition : January 05, 2002

WAS there a second terrorist cell in New Delhi, set to launch attacks even as the Jaish-e-Mohammad stormed Parliament House?

Two days after Christmas, the Jammu Police arrested Pakistani national Qamar Ayub on charges of planning to kill British and American tourists in New Delhi as reprisal for the United States' bombing of Afghanistan. People's Democratic Party leader Abdul Rahim Wani, a Surat cleric named Mohammad Tahir, hotel worker Abdul Rahim Najjar and two policemen, head constable Mabook Khan and constable Bashir Ahmad, were also arrested for their alleged role in the conspiracy.

Wani, police officials say, had provided Ayub cover to scout targets in Jammu in his officially provided car. The police have also arrested a West Asian national, and are searching for other members of the cell in New Delhi. "We expect to be able to announce further arrests soon," says Farooq Khan, Senior Superintendent of Police, Jammu.

The 33-year-old Ayub joined the Harkat-ul-Ansar in the early 1990s, training in Afghanistan and then staying on to fight there. The son of a retired Army soldier from the Mirpur area of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, he later left to work in Bahrain, as three of his four brothers had done. He returned to Pakistan in 1997, and after a three-month stint with Al Badr in early 1998, rejoined the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which had by then been renamed the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) in the wake of its proscription by the U.S.

Qamar Ayub, at a police camp in Srinagar.-NISSAR AHMAD

Ayub is from an affluent family - his lawyer-cousin Raja Razzaq is a prominent figure in the Muslim Conference - but was keen to continue with his work for the jehad. Offered the opportunity to serve in Jammu and Kashmir by the HuM's chief Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, he jumped at the chance. "You have to understand," he told Frontline in an interview, "that passions run high on the issue in our side of Kashmir. We were told all the mosques in the valley had been shut down by the Indian Army."

On March 21, 2001, Ayub was sent across the Line of Control into the Rajwar forests in Kupwara. He arrived there with six personal guards, two porters and a guide. Much of the HuM's cadre had defected to the Jaish-e-Mohammad, set up earlier in the year by Masood Azhar after his release in the IC-814 prisoners-for-hostages swap. Khalil told Ayub that his job would be to set up a fresh apparatus for the HuM, through which it would later be able to operate independently.

For the next several months, Ayub worked to rebuild the HuM's local network. Tahir, a Surat resident employed by a mosque in the Lolab area, did much of the running around. Final instructions arrived in late July. "I received a message in code from my headquarters," Ayub says, "telling me to contact an Al Qaeda operative in New Delhi. I was given his code name, and a cell phone number, and told to give him whatever he needed." When Tahir made the trip to Delhi, the Al Qaeda operative, whose name is being withheld by investigators, asked for arms and explosives to be shipped to New Delhi.

Their plans, says Ayub, almost did not come off. On August 2, the Delhi Police arrested two Al Qaeda suspects in New Delhi, leading his contact to disappear for over a month. Then, in October, Ayub was placed in overall command of the HuM in Jammu and Kashmir, after the elimination of its earlier chief, Shahid Nasser. But, with the help of his growing circles of associates, things fell in place. Ayub obtained a driving licence issued in Hyderabad to use as identification, and Wani's help in Jammu ensured that movement in and out of Srinagar was no longer a problem.

After the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, the group's plans crystallised. Western tourists in New Delhi's downmarket Paharganj area were to be bombed as a reprisal for the killing of Al Qaeda cadre. Cash, weapons and explosives were taken to Jammu, while other consignments were moved to New Delhi. The group planned to bomb the MLAs' Hostel in Jammu, and then escape by using Wani's car to reach the airport. Their first attempt to set off an explosion in Jammu failed, and the group missed their Jet Airways flight to New Delhi. A travel agent was then told to make bookings for a few days later - but their arrest made sure the tickets were never used.

What Ayub's arrest makes clear is that terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir are in the process of restructuring themselves in significant ways. While the relationship between HuM elements and the Al Qaeda is not new - one-time HuM and now Jaish-e-Mohammad head Masood Azhar studied with Taliban chief Mohammad Omar at the Binori seminary in Karachi - no operational collaboration has been seen in the past. After its eviction from Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda presumably wishes to deploy some of its assets in India, using the HuM's network. As further arrests follow, a clearer picture of this network should emerge. There are enough dots on page, however, to be certain the picture that will emerge will not be a pretty one.

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