India’s intelligence agencies have begun investigating information that the head of al-Qaeda’s new unit in the subcontinent is a former Uttar Pradesh resident, highly-placed government sources have told The Indian Express.

Maulana Asim Umar, earlier reported to be a Pakistani national, is now believed to have studied at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, before emigrating from India in the late-1990s.

The investigations were under way even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a Washington, DC-based think tank that terrorism in India was “exported, not home-grown”.

Both the UP Police and Intelligence Bureau (IB) have questioned figures linked to the Islamist movement in India in the 1990s, seeking details on any Indian national who may have moved abroad. Intelligence sources said their inquiries had focussed on former members of the now-proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), whose cadres were enthusiastic in their support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime that took power in Afghanistan in 1996. “No firm details have emerged so far,” one intelligence official said. “But from the bits and pieces of information we have, we’re increasingly convinced that Maulana Umar is likely of Indian origin, perhaps even an Indian national.” The fact that the cleric has never appeared without a digital mask, the official said, “suggests he has something to hide, since the top jihadist leadership in Pakistan generally do not hesitate to show their faces”.

Maulana Ashraf Usmani, a spokesperson for the Deoband seminary, said that in the absence of identifying pictures, or approximate dates of residence, it was impossible to confirm — or deny — whether Maulana Umar had been a student there. “Thousands of students go through here,” he said, “and we don’t have full records of the many who drop out”. However, Maulana Usmani said, “I want to emphatically underline that the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband is unequivocal in its condemnation of terrorism, and, indeed, in its opposition to all forms of wrongdoing. Wherever this man got his ideas, it was not here.” From three separate Pakistani sources familiar with the jihadi movement, The Indian Express learned that Maulana Umar arrived in Pakistan in the late-1990s, and began studies at the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, a Karachi seminary that has produced several top jihadist leaders, including Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who headed the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, the leader of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

Maulana Umar, the sources said, was mentored by Nizamuddin Shamzai, a cleric with close links to the Taliban, who once bragged about having been a “state guest” in Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. E-mail requests to the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, seeking confirmation of Maulana Umar’s residence and nationality, went unanswered. The seminary says on its website, though, that students from 60 countries, including India, have studied there. After finishing his studies in Karachi, Maulana Umar is believed to have joined Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil’s Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, teaching briefly at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania seminary in Peshawar, and serving at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Following the events of 9/11, the sources said, Maulana Umar moved back to Karachi, living from 2004-2006 at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s office in Haroonabad. He also authored a number of best-selling books, which gave him rock-star status among Pakistani Islamists. The Pakistani state’s growing confrontation with jihadists pushed Maulana Umar towards al-Qaeda.

The decision, the sources said, appeared to have been made final by President Pervez Musharraf’s storming of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, a seminary run by Maulana Umar’s old Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia friend, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi. He then made contact with Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a top jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda. Interestingly, Lashkar-e-Toiba operative David Headley had told the FBI about a “Karachi project” run by Kashmiri, with plans to target India. Maulana Umar delivered exhortations specifically targeting Muslims in India for the first time last year — also the first of its kind in global jihadist writing. Published in the June-July 2013 issue of the jihadist magazine Azan, and made available online as digital audio, the essay said, “The global jihad leadership feels justified in asking the Indian Muslim scholars and masses as to why the jihad battlefields remain deprived of their blessed presence — especially when history shows that their ancestors always raised the banner of jihad against the enemies of Islam.

In it, Maulana Umar invoked anti-Muslim communal violence in India, saying “the Red Fort in front of the mosque cries tears of blood at your slavery and mass killing at the hands of the Hindus”. He asked, “Is there no mother left in UP (Uttar Pradesh) who can sing to her sons the songs that would inspire them to decorate the battlefield of Shamli instead of wasting their time in marketplaces, parks and sports fields? Have the inheritors of Shaykh-ul-Hind left out Hijrah and jihad from their lives forever? “Has the land of Bihar become so barren that it is unable produce even one jama’ah [group] of the likes of the Mujahideen of Azeemabad? And which Kafir’s evil sight affected the land of Bengal that the eyes of history became weary awaiting another Siraj-ud-Daula?” India-specific memes like these have been frequent in Maulana Umar’s work — especially calls directed at Indian Muslims, such as ‘Why is there no storm in your ocean?’, released by al-Shahab, al-Qaeda’s media house, in 2013.

Internet forums used by Islamists have long contained hints of Maulana Umar’s Indian origins. In a 2012 discussion on the absence of Indians in global jihadist movements, a commentator on the popular SunniForum.com platform lamented that just one Indian — “one mujahid made hijrah (holy emigration, modelled on the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina) to where the sword is being used. only one out of billions of indian Muslims. his name is maulana asim umar sahab (rh). just one (sic).” The forum member, ‘mh16388’, used Maulana Umar’s story to make the case that jihad was incumbent on all Muslims, writing: “could Muslims even do half the tableegh (missionary work) in India that they do today had India not been conquered by (the medieval warlord Muhammad) Bin Qasim (rh) and other subsequent Muslim rulers?” In another discussion the same year on another Islamist forum, forum member ‘Mullah’, argued that “the Prophet (PBUH) migrated to a safer place and then formed a state. which is what they should do too if they are serious about khilafah (a caliphate). (and alhamdulillah [praise the lord] done by maulana asim umar)”.

Following news that Maulana Umar had been appointed chief of the new al-Qaeda unit, @Pak_Witness, a reliable Twitter feed followed by many Pakistani journalists for information on the jihadist movement in that country, reported that “@Pak_witness … Maulana Asim Omar is a graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband in India, he taught in variuos madrasas in Karachi” (sic).

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