Four suspected IS operatives arrested overnight near Haridwar were planning attacks on the Ardh Kumbh Mela and the trains ferrying tens of thousands of pilgrims to the three-month festival, police said on Wednesday.
The men arrested in a joint operation by the Delhi police special cell and Uttarakhand police were tasked with carrying out bomb blasts at 10 locations on the Har ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar this week, most probably on Friday, sources said.
Special cell officials said the four men, students from Manglaur near Roorkee in Uttarakhand, had conducted reconnaissance of the 10 spots.
Akhlaq-ur-Rehman, 21, Mohammad Azim Ushan, 20, Mohammad Osama alias Adil, 18, and Mohammad Mehraj, 22, were already under intelligence agencies’ scanner as their online activity had attracted attention.
The suspected IS operatives had planned similar blasts on trains operating between Roorkee and Haridwar and other express trains ferrying devotees from different states. Police sources said the alleged IS men conducted reconnaissance of 13 trains.
“The preliminary interrogation of the four students has revealed that the objective of their module was to cause maximum damage to human lives and properties in one go. They had planned to target bus terminals and trains as they knew that after simultaneous bomb blasts at Har ki Pauri ghat, devotees from outside would attempt to flee in buses and trains. And striking public transport would result in more panic and maximum damage,” a Delhi police officer privy to the probe said.
“They were initially treated as sympathisers of the IS in India. They collected explosives by removing flammable material from matchsticks that were to be used in preparing bombs,” the officer said.
The four were allegedly in touch with their prime handler, Shafi Armar, a native of Bhatkal in Karnataka who was earlier associated with the Indian Mujahideen (IM), in Syria. They were recruited and trained online for more than three months in preparing bombs using locally available explosive items. Their names are also said to have cropped up during the interrogation of arrested IM leader Yasin Bhatkal.
Shafi Armar is the brother of Sultan Armar, the first Indian national who died fighting for the IS in Syria. Armar is believed to be a key member of the Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind which has pledged allegiance to the IS.
The two brothers first fled to Pakistan along with other founder-members of IM in the mid-2000s. The two left for Aghanistan after differences arose between them and top IM leaders such as Riyaz Bhatkal and Amir Raza Khan. From Afghanistan they moved to Syria and associated themselves with the IS.
“Interrogation of the arrested men revealed they were planning a major attack in Haridwar. They were provided funds by their handlers to implement their design,” said Anil Raturi, additional director general of police (law) in Dehradun.
Raids were still on in Uttarakhand to arrest more suspects. Haridwar shares its boundary with western Uttar Pradesh, a communally sensitive belt that is a worry for security agencies.
“Akhlaq was already wanted by Delhi police as an FIR was registered against him under section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Act. The other three of them have no criminal history,” inspector general of Garhwal Range, Sanjay Gunjayal, said.