Alleged terrorist Abdul Matheen Taha & Mussavir Hussain Shazib

Authorities suspect the “Colonel” was in touch with terrorist Abdul Matheen Taha, the alleged main planner, and terrorist Mussavir Hussain Shazib, the alleged bomber, since their association with the IS Al-Hind module in 2019-20

A week after the arrest of two suspects in last month’s blast at a Bangalore café, Indian agencies are trying to identify their elusive online handler codenamed “Colonel”, people familiar with the probe said.

He is believed to be a key figure behind indoctrinating several young men in south India to carry out attacks on religious structures, Hindu leaders and prominent places, in addition to sending them funds through crypto-wallets.

“We heard about the handler named Colonel after the Mangaluru autorickshaw blast in November 2022. He operates from somewhere in the Middle East, most likely Abu Dhabi,” said a senior counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to reporters.

Agencies are not ruling out the “Colonel’s” association with Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI (inter-services intelligence agency), in reviving terror activities by creating small modules of the Islamic State (IS) group. The ISI has previously sponsored terror modules in India while disguising them as IS operatives, such as the arrest of three ISI-sponsored IS module members in Delhi in October.

The National Investigation Agency arrested Taha and Shazib from a hideout in Kolkata on April 12 for their alleged involvement in the Rameshwaram Cafe blast on March 1, which injured nine people. They are being interrogated about the “Colonel”, his online identities, future terror plans and other members of the Shivamogga IS module.

Taha and Shazib were previously part of a 20-member Al-Hind module that planned to establish an IS province in the jungles of South India, according to an NIA charge sheet.

The Al-Hind module, led by Bengaluru-based Mehboob Pasha and Cuddalore-based Khaja Moideen, which operated from the Al-Hind Trust office of Pasha in Guruppanpalya, Bengaluru, had planned to establish IS Daishwilayah (province) inside the jungles of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala and to understand how to survive inside the deep forest. They even bought books on famous sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

Their plan was to target/murder Hindu religious and political leaders, police officers, government officials and some high-profile individuals all over India and then retreat to the forest without getting noticed, NIA said in its charge sheet against 17 members of Al-Hind module in July 2020.

The members of Al-Hind (of which Taha and Shazib were also part) practised taekwondo and Kung Fu at the Al-Hind premises and even participated in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests in different cities, according to the NIA charge sheet.

Pasha, according to NIA charge sheet, was receiving instructions from an online handler called “bhai” (brother).

Multiple agencies are now investigating if “Bhai” and “Colonel” are the same handler and if he was associated with Taha and Shazib since their Al-Hind days.

“We suspect this Colonel uses encrypted chat applications to give directions to operatives here in India,” said a second official in one of the central intelligence agencies.

Investigators are also looking into the “Colonel’s” role behind the little-known Islamic Resistance Council, which claimed responsibility for the Mangalore auto-rickshaw blast in November. However, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province also claimed responsibility for the same attack five months later, leading counterterrorism officials to suspect these could be diversionary tactics by ISI-backed handlers to mislead authorities.

(With Agency Inputs)