Jihadist Messaging: Arrest of al Qaeda Cadres in India 




Arrest of ten men affiliated to the al Qaeda from West Bengal and Kerala in September by the National Investigation Agency has yet again brought into focus the continuing Jihadist mobilization targeting the vulnerable Muslim community in India. Jihadist messaging is proving to be effective in enticing people from small Indian towns into the fold of global terror. However, to assess the actual threat posed by the phenomenon, it is imperative to analyse the underlying factors that aids Jihadist mobilization and the mode of messaging used by such groups.


(Two of the three AQ cadres arrested in Ernakulam, Kerala, on 19 September 2020.
Photo Courtesy: Mathrubhumi)

The Arrest

On the night of 18 September, eight people, part of an al-Qaeda (AQ) module, met inside a house in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. Two among them were students from local colleges. The discussions hovered around plans to carry out attacks, logistical issues, and establishing contacts with people from other states. At the end of the meeting, two persons, who had travelled from neighbouring Malda district left the location. Within hours, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) carried out an early morning raid arresting the remaining six. On the same day, three other persons from West Bengal, described as part of the same AQ module, were picked up from Ernakulam in Kerala state. A week later, Samim Ansari, another suspected AQ cadre, was arrested from Murshidabad district. The two persons from Malda, who attended the Mushidabad meeting, are reportedly on the run.

On the face of it, the arrests are an achievement for the NIA and point at its growing ability to keep the global jihadist activities in check. Ability of the Indian security and intelligence agencies to track Jihadist activity on the web has perceptibly increased. Regular arrests of (potential) terrorists, in various stages of inflicting violence across the country, have been reported. Counter-terrorism (CT) cooperation with the major countries including the U.S. resulting in sharing of intelligence has further enhanced the capacities of the Indian agencies.

However, the narrative provided by the agency, on the arrests of these ten men, appear to have several unconnected dots and is marked by multiple unconvincing claims. While such a phenomenon isn’t unique in cases related to ongoing terror investigations, basic cogitating reveals that the agency’s claims could actually be exaggerated, which in turn may inhibit an assessment of the actual level of threat that the global jihadists could be posing to India’s national security.

The Network

Reports quoting unidentified NIA officials have claimed that the arrested men, part of a WhatsApp group of 22 persons[1], had been radicalized by Pakistan-based AQ terrorists on social media platforms and had been motivated to carry out attacks at multiple locations, including in the National Capital Region (NCR). Finances had been raised and some members of the module were planning to travel to New Delhi to procure arms and ammunition.

It is not clear whether the arrested men were members of or had sworn their allegiance to the al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent (AQIS). It is also intriguing that the arrested men had preferred to join the AQ and not the Islamic State, which in comparison has been much more successful in capturing the imagination of the Indian Muslims.

The NIA has also not provided details of what the three men from West Bengal—Murshid Hasan, Iyakub Biswas and Mosaraf Hossen—were doing in Kerala. Were they on a liaison mission, scouring the state for potential cadres or were they among the thousands of Bengali construction workers who work in the southern state? Samim Ansari, the tenth person to be arrested, used to work as a construction labourer in Kerala. He had returned home a year and half back and was selling vegetables at a local market.

Although on the face of it, the arrests seem to have revealed a multi-state network of Jihadists, several key questions have remained unanswered. Apart from West Bengal and Kerala where the arrests took place, the NIA has also said that the arrested AQ cadres from West Bengal were in touch with unidentified contacts in Kashmir, whom they were attempting to deliver arms.[2] What is intriguing here are two somewhat contrasting narratives. The module clearly did not have access to weapons and according to the NIA, some members were planning to travel to the NCR region to procure weapons. The other narrative, however, paint them as potential arms suppliers for unknown (possibly AQ operatives) in Kashmir. This will remain a puzzle till the time, the NIA reveals the Kashmiri connection of the arrested men, which should be an easy task given the fact that it has ten men in its custody.

Impact of jihadist Messaging

The socio-economic profiles of the arrested persons, except for a passing mention of the two college-going students by some of the media reports, have not been revealed by the NIA. The broad description provided by the NIA that these men were radicalized online does not elaborate the context within which such recruitment by AQ could have taken place. However, both Murshidabad (bordering Bangladesh) and Malda are among the three Muslim majority districts of West Bengal and have been the theatres of communal riots/incidents in the recent years. Poverty and unemployment among the Muslims are rampant in these districts, making them vulnerable to both political as well as extremist mobilization. Protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which seeks to facilitate Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have further polarized the population. Kerala, on the other hand, has witnessed a significant Jihadist mobilization in recent years.

Although a causal link between communal polarization and overall Jihadist mobilization is difficult to establish, it is safe to assume that regular appeals by global jihadist outfits could be having an impact on the Muslim population of the country, both in metropolitan cities and small towns such as Murshidabad. Recruitment into AQ’s fold isn’t a significant factor in India. In contrast, according to the official data 122 persons have been arrested in recent years for their affiliation with the Islamic State in five southern states of Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.[3] In spite of the reversals faced by both AQ and the Islamic State in the past years, reach of their appeal, issued through recent Jihadist publications, especially to exploit the chaos brought about the Covid-19 pandemic, is receiving sympathetic ears. The quantitative impact of these appeals could still be low, but its subjective reverberations are significant enough to be dismissed or underplayed.    

Thinning divide between radicalization and violence

So far, the overall assessment is that the AQIS is capable of organizing only small scale attacks, while the parent group, AQ central, is ‘more likely to focus on building its international affiliates and supporting small-scale, readily achievable attacks in key regions such as East and West Africa’[4]. Contrary to the claims made by the NIA, which listed ‘digital devices, documents, jihadi literature, sharp weapons, country-made firearms, a locally fabricated body armour, articles and literature used for making home-made explosive devices’ as the recovered items from the arrested Jihadists, media reports have indicated that only a large quantity of firecrackers were recovered. NIA sources have indicated that the men were trying to extract potassium from the firecrackers to assemble IEDs.[5]

In recent past, however, the arrests of AQ and Islamic State operatives in India point at the growing ability of radicalized individuals to establish cross-regional networks, which is possible only through the internet. In August 2020, arrest of Mohammed Mushtaqeem Khan, a self-radicalized Islamic State sympathizer in Delhi had revealed a high degree of sophistication attained by a lone-wolf terrorist.[6] Khan was dangerously close to carrying out an explosion in the national capital. While online radicalization and mobilization for terrorist violence have been a source of major threat to national security for the past several years, their various manifestations—lone wolves as well as organized self-sufficient modules— are an indication of gradual step forward towards overcoming the limitations that novice terrorists encounter, of not being able to perpetrate actual violence. 

Pakistan plus factor

While terrorism is understood as political, counter-terrorism too hasn’t been free from political influence. Subsequent to the arrests of the AQ cadres, the NIA has indirectly suggested that West Bengal, where the state legislative assembly elections are due shortly, could be hosting a large number of AQ cadres. An unidentified NIA official told the media, “There are more members spread in other districts of West Bengal as well as other states having links to al-Qaeda”[7]. Similar charges have been levelled by the West Bengal Governor who has said that the ‘State has become home to illegal bomb making that has potential to unsettle democracy’[8] and ‘law and order situation in West Bengal is very alarming’[9].

On the other hand, details of the Pakistani contacts of the arrested AQ cadres, which the NIA hinted immediately after the arrests on 19 September, have not been provided. There is no doubt that Pakistan remains a significant source of global terrorism and a large number of terror attacks in India. Using the anonymity provided by the internet, non-state actors with varied degrees of nexus with state agencies, have been attempting to expand Jihad, beyond the known theatres such as Kashmir. However, given the fact that such mobilizations mostly take place on the web—on social media platforms and/or in the dark web—the CT efforts have to remain broad-ranging, multi-dimensional, and not necessarily focused on a single country.


Search for an enduring solution to the challenge of terrorism is oxymoronic. This has been the trend across the world where the Jihadists are engaged in cat-and-mouse games with the CT agencies. Clearly, the strength of the potential jihadists remains in their anonymity and the use of web to network with likeminded individuals inside the country and their sponsors outside. Overtime, such networking may help them overcome the technical limitations in manufacturing an explosive or carrying out an actual attack. The intelligence agencies, on the other hand, are tasked with an exponential challenge of picking up few rotten apples among a sea of humanity. Cooperation with foreign agencies will certainly boost their ability to monitor the web. In addition, thorough investigation into each of these cases of arrests will help them connect the dots and upgrade their understanding of the complex challenges posed by these anonymous warriors. It is in this context, the Murshidabad and Ernakulam arrests could be important in unravelling some of the intricacies of terrorist mobilization and psychology of the radicals.

End Notes

[1] Avijit Roy, “Al-Qaeda men arrest: Probe agencies get Malda man link”, Statesman, 22 September 2020, https://www.thestatesman.com/bengal/al-qaeda-men-arrest-probe-agencies-get-malda-man-link-1502925370.html. Accessed on 16 October 2020.

[2] Ananya Bardwaj, “9 arrested ‘al Qaeda terrorists’ were planning attacks in India, wanted to send arms to Kashmir”, The Print, 19 September 2020, https://theprint.in/india/9-arrested-al-qaeda-terrorists-were-planning-attacks-in-india-wanted-to-send-arms-to-kashmir/506114/. Accessed on 16 October 2020.

[3] “Most cases related to Islamic State filed in south India”, The Hindu, 17 September 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/nia-registered-17-cases-related-to-is-presence-in-south-122-arrested-rajya-sabha-informed/article32619053.ece. Accessed on 17 October 2020.

[4] “al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent only capable of ‘small-scale regional attacks’: U.S. official”, The Hindu, 25 September 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/al-qaeda-in-indian-subcontinent-only-capable-of-small-scale-regional-attacks-us-official/article32694186.ece. Accessed on 17 October 2020.

[5] “Nabbed Al-Qaeda men amassed firecrackers to make IEDs: NIA”, Mathrubhumi, 19 September 2020, https://english.mathrubhumi.com/news/kerala/nabbed-al-qaeda-men-amassed-firecrackers-to-make-ieds-nia-1.5065763. Accessed on 18 October 2020.

[6] Shanthie Mariet Dsouza & Bibhu Prasad Routray, “Islamic State in India: The Jihadist Reboot”, Rediff, 25 August 2020, https://www.rediff.com/news/column/islamic-state-in-india-the-jihadist-reboot/20200825.htm. Accessed on 16 October 2020.

[7] “More people in West Bengal working for Al-Qaeda: NIA”, The Tribune, 21 September 2020, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/more-people-in-west-bengal-working-for-al-qaeda-nia-144528. Accessed on 15 October 2020.

[8] Shiv Sahay Singh, “NIA arrests evoke strong reactions about law and order in Bengal”, The Hindu, 19 September 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/west-bengal-governor-targets-police-over-nia-arrests-calls-approach-to-law-and-order-ostrich-stance/article32646771.ece. Accessed on 15 October 2020.

[9] “West Bengal law & order situation alarming, terror outfits like al-Qaeda active: Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar”, Times Now, 9 October 2020, https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/west-bengal-law-order-situation-alarming-terror-outfits-like-al-qaeda-active-governor-jagdeep-dhankhar/664833. Accessed on 16 October 2020.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published under the ‘Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks’ projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)