Above: Riyas Aboobacker, a Palakkad resident arrested by the NIA team (file pic)/Representative Image/Photo Courtesy: nia.gov.in
The arrest of a man with links to the Sri Lanka bombing has led to fears of more such attacks, this time in Kerala. The Kerala government’s complacent attitude is not helping either
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
A week after the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) carried out searches in the houses of three suspects in Kerala, two in Kasaragod and one in Palakkad. They are believed to have links with those who left in 2016 for Afghanistan to join the ISIS. Some of these youths travelled to Sri Lanka before sneaking into Afghanistan through Iran. There were also reports of one of the suicide bombers in Lanka having spent considerable time in India.
The NIA also arrested Riyas Aboobacker, 29, a Palakkad resident, for allegedly conspiring to commit a terrorist act through the Kasaragod ISIS module. He reportedly confessed that he was inspired by Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of the Lanka bombings. Aboobacker had been following Hashim’s videos for more than a year and also the speeches of controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, NIA sleuths said. He confessed that he wanted to carry out a suicide attack in Kerala.
An NIA statement said about those raided: “These persons are suspected to have links with some of the accused persons in the said case who had exited India to join the proscribed terrorist organisation ISIS/Daish.” Aboobacker, said the NIA, was mentally prepared for conducting serial blasts or acts of terror. What prevented him was the delay in accessing explosives. But he was in frequent touch with three ISIS operatives who migrated to Afghanistan and Syria—Abdul Rasheed, Ashiq Majeed and Abdul Khayoom. The NIA claimed it was the trio who prepared him for engaging in terror acts. It is learnt that the ISIS module in Kasaragod had another operative, a Kollam native. “Riyas had not decided on the location where the blast should be conducted and he could not procure the explosives,” an officer of the Agency said.
Meanwhile, two other suspects, Ahammaed Ashraf and Aboobacker Siddique, were brought to the NIA’s Kochi office and interrogated. They and Aboobacker were accused in a case registered in 2015 in connection with the migration of those from Kasaragod to Syria via Afghanistan. Eight of the 15 have already been killed in Syria in the fight against government forces, according to the NIA.
The investigation is being overseen by IG Alok Mittal. The NIA found that the trio unfollowed Hashim immediately after the Lanka blasts. In the raid conducted on the houses of the accused, NIA sleuths have been able to seize useful information linking them to the modules of ISIS operatives.
Fear has now gripped Kerala. The suspected ISIS module operational in Kerala has allegedly planned to trigger a series of suicide attacks there, according to the NIA. Those who joined the ISIS from Kerala are believed to be behind the conspiracy. Aboobacker told his interrogators that he had been instructed to purchase explosives for attacks in Kerala and that the operatives were looking to strike several economic and administrative nerve centres in Kochi and other places.
Mittal said: “They (the three persons) are suspected to have links with some of the accused persons in the 2016 case.” A source in the agency said they zeroed in on the three while monitoring the ISIS’s online activities. “One of the three was found to be in touch with Abdul Rashid Abdulla alias Abu Isa, a Kozhikode youth who had joined the ISIS in 2016. We are interrogating them on whether they were planning to do anything and who all they were in touch with,” a senior NIA officer said.
NIA sleuths recovered mobile phones, SIM cards, memory cards, pen drives, diaries with handwritten notes in Arabic and Malayalam, DVDs and books of Zakir Naik, and CDs with religious speeches. Sources said that during a similar raid in Coimbatore in December 2018, the NIA had stumbled upon the plot of a suspected attack in Lanka and had shared the inputs with RAW, which garnered more information and shared it with the Lankan authorities.
On April 4, the Tamil Nadu DGP had sent an alert to all commissioners and superintendents of police warning that the Lanka-based National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), named in the blasts, was planning to attack Lankan establishments in the state. According to reports, the DGP had alerted that the attack could be perpetrated by suicide bombing, a truck or parcel explosion or a knife attack. He asked officers to take necessary steps. The same day, the police tightened security for the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai.
The NIA had found a video of Hashim on the phone of one of the suspects, Ashiq, held in Coimbatore. In the video, suspected to have been recorded by Hashim in Tamil Nadu, he talked about a big job he was about to pull off and exhorted Muslims from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka to fight for the cause of Islam. Intelligence agencies found that Hashim had travelled to both Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the past couple of years.
However, Ashiq said he had no links with the NTJ. Accusing the NIA of trying to frame him without any evidence, he said he had never been an ISIS sympathiser or extremist. “I heard of the Thowheeth Jamaath in Tamil Nadu. But I never heard of the NTJ or Zahran Hashim. They are trying to falsely implicate me,” he reportedly said. He added that he could not vouch for the others arrested. “I don’t know about them except for the brief period we were in jail together,” Ashiq said.
In 2016, the NIA registered a case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act following the discovery that 22 youths from Kerala had fled to Afghanistan between May and July that year from Kasaragod and Palakkad districts to join the ISIS. They included 13 men, six women and three children. They left India from Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai airports for Kuwait, Dubai, Muscat or Abu Dhabi, from where they are learnt to have travelled to Afghanistan.
The previous LDF government had taken initiative to bust terror modules, but the UDF government under Oommen Chandy did not proceed further. Even the current LDF government under Pinarayi Vijayan has shown scant regard for keeping up a vigil against fundamentalist groups and terror outfits which are highly active in the garb of social and religious organisations. The Left government is finding it a delicate issue to deal with firmly.
Whatever the outcome of the ongoing NIA probe, the people of Kerala are concerned about the complacent approach of the state government and the intelligence agencies under its purview.