An initial probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has revealed that a radical outfit Ansar al Islam was trying to set up “sleeper cells” for al Qaida in Assam and was planning to extend them to other parts of the country.

Following the arrest of five members of Ansar al Islam — which is also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) — by the Assam police last month, the central agency recently took over the probe and even carried out raids at 11 places in Barpeta and Bongaigaon districts of Assam. “The six persons were arrested from different parts of Barpeta on Friday based on specific inputs. All of them are affiliated with ABT, which in turn has links with AQIS,” said Amitabh Sinha, police superintendent, Barpeta. “Further investigations are underway to find out more about their network and plans.”

Saiful Islam was arrested along with four others — Khairul Islam, Badshah Suleiman Khan, Noushad Ali and Taimur Rahman Khan (all residents of Barpeta) — in March first week. Six more members of the outfit, all Indian nationals, were caught by Assam police on Friday and they will be handed over to NIA soon. They were produced in court on Saturday and have been remanded to 10 days police custody.

A senior officer familiar with the probe said Ansar al Islam sent Saiful Islam, a resident of Narayanganj in Bangladesh, to India in September 2019 for creating a network here. “He entered India illegally and started working as an Arabic teacher at Dhakaliapara Masjid in Barpeta but his actual job was to indoctrinate and motivate youngsters in the region to join Jihadi network and work in ‘Ansars’ (sleeper cells) for creating a strong base for al Qaeda,” said an officer, requesting anonymity.

Bangladesh-based Ansar al Islam is closely associated with al Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and is known for attacks on atheist bloggers in Dhaka, including the murder of Bangladesh-born American writer Avijit Roy in February 2015. In December last year, the US state department even declared a reward of $5 million on its top two leaders — Sayed Mohammad Ziaul Haque alias Major Zia, who heads ABT’s military wing and Akram Hossain Abir, a key member of intelligence wing of the outfit.

Investigators have found that the module members were interacting through secure messaging apps for radicalising the youth, collecting funds and harboring their associates.

“We are investigating how many sleeper cells had been formed for al Qaeda and what their targets were,” said a second officer, who also requested anonymity, as reported by Hindustan Times. 

The interrogation of arrested members has so far revealed they were not able to carry out any major terror activity as they first planned to look for more men with similar extremist ideology, the officer added.

However, the NIA has not ruled out presence of more senior leaders of ABT like Saiful Islam, in the northeastern region or other parts of the country.

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