He was going places this year: Mohammad Maroof Nirban was near the end of his Bachelors course in computer engineering, had won a placement with Wipro, and was hoping that Tata Consultancy Services would top Wipro’s offer at a campus recruitment fair later this year.
Then, the journey took a strange turn — leading Nirban into the Delhi Police net, facing allegations that he was a key figure in a jihadist cell linked to the Indian Mujahideen (IM).
Nirban’s family and friends say the allegations are untrue but investigators insist he is the face of a disturbing new wave of jihadist recruitments.
The story, as investigation records accessed by The Hindu narrate, is deeply enmeshed with the newest of things, the Internet, and the oldest of things, India’s tragic history of communal violence.
In 2011, the Rajasthan police opened fire on a mosque in Gopalgarh, killing several worshippers. The police claimed they were fired on first; local residents said it was a cold-blooded murder.
Like many young people, Nirban was angered by the incident. He turned to the ultra-conservative Ahl-e-Hadith sect, breaking with his parents’ traditions. He also became increasingly close to Waqar Azhar, son of a local scrap dealer and organiser for the Tablighi Jamaat proselytising group.
Delhi police officials say they have evidence of the two men regularly accessing Islamist websites — notably the speeches of the slain al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.
Nirban’s father, a Jaipur-based engineer, disagrees. “Maroof is a regular follower of religion,” he says, “but does not believe in any radical ideology.”
Police records claim that Nirban was contacted, through his Facebook account, by Shafi Armar, an IM recruiter long sought by the National Investigation Agency. Armar, the police allege, put Nirban into contact with the IM’s top commander, Karachi-based Riyaz Bhatkal.
Following weeks of Facebook chats, the cell allegedly received a visitor — recently arrested IM commander Tehseen Akhtar. Akhtar, the police allege, stayed in a room near the Hassanpur Masjid rented for him by Nirban and Azhar.
From another of the circle of friends, Jodhpur resident Mohammad Saqib, the police say they recovered some 250 kg of low-grade explosives.
Murtaza Azhar, Azhar’s cousin, denies these claims. “Nobody with the name of Tehseen Akhtar ever stayed with Waqar,” he insists. There is no proof for this. As regards the recovery of explosives, it is only a tall story by police.”
Growing recruitment For months now, the police have been stumbling on similar cells — shattering conventional wisdom that the appeal of Indian jihadists was waning. Many have been set up by members of the proscribed hardline faction of the Students Islamic Movement of India, led by Safdar Nagori — an Islamist political leader arrested in February 2008.
Hyder Ali, wanted by the NIA for his alleged role in bombing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s Patna rally earlier this year, recruited cadre in Ranchi at meetings of two legal Islamist political groups, the Muslim Students Federation and the Wahadat-e-Islami.
In Raipur, the police have also held two former SIMI leaders, Mazhar Imam and Umair Siddiqui, on charges of aiding the Patna bombers.
The men, the police say, knew Tehseen Akhtar but ran their jihad cells independently, conducting the Bodh Gaya and Ranchi attacks without his knowledge.
Similar arrests have been made in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala.
(With additional reporting by Mohammad Iqbal)