The Islamic State suicide bomber who killed at least 169 Afghan civilians and 13 United States soldiers outside Kabul airport last month was held in Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram prison for four years, after being handed over to the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency by the Research and Analysis Wing in September 2017, senior Indian intelligence sources familiar with the case have told Firstpost.
Abdul Rehman, a former engineering student with roots in Afghanistan’s Logar province and the son of a merchant who frequently visited New Delhi on business, was freed from prison on 15 August when the Taliban took over the crucial prison and US airbase.
His arrest had led to the termination of a plot by the Islamic State of Khurasan Province (IS-K) -- the Islamic State’s regional wing in Afghanistan -- to stage suicide bombings in New Delhi and other cities across the region, probably on the behest of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).
"America’s disorganised retreat from Afghanistan has led to hundreds of highly-competent and highly-committed terrorists being set free to rejoin the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups," one officer who worked on the Abdul Rehman case said.
"Literally a decade’s work on counter-terrorism has been undone by the US' failure to secure key prisoners in Bagram," he added. "The consequences of this failure will be very far-reaching."
The Islamic State’s South Asia magazine, Sawt al-Hind, or Voice of the Indian Subcontinent, revealed this weekend that the suicide bomber had earlier been arrested in New Delhi, in the course of a failed suicide-bomb plot.
First revealed by The Indian Express in 2018, the Islamic State plot to target Delhi was detected in mid-2017 by the CIA, which had picked up the plot while tapping into communications of IS leadership in Afghanistan and their financial support networks in Dubai.
Rehman was selected to lead the plot because of his familiarity with New Delhi, which the jihadist had visited on several occasions in connections with his family business.
Rehman, the sources said, arrived in India under cover of studying at an engineering institute in Noida. After staying in the institute’s hostel for some weeks, he moved to a flat in New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood. Intercepted communications allowed RAW to insert an agent posing as a jihadist in Rehman's proximity, who pretended to be furthering the plot by sourcing explosive devices and recruiting personnel.
Sources said that the the Delhi Police’s counter-terrorism unit, which was led by now-Deputy Commissioner of Police Pramod Kushwaha, had conducted on-ground surveillance against Rehman for several weeks.
RAW’s agent, the sources said, persuaded Rehman that he had recruited multiple suicide attackers and sourced explosives, generating a mass of communication between the Afghan jihadist and his commanders that the CIA was able to exploit.
Instead of prosecuting Rehman in India, the sources said, a decision was taken to extradite him to Kabul on a special flight, to facilitate CIA's investigation. In Bagram, he was questioned by the CIA and Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. The questioning led to the elimination of multiple Islamic State leaders in United States drone strikes till 2019.
“There’s no clarity on what happened to Abdul Rehman between his escape from Bagram and the suicide attack,” one intelligence official said. “It is possible he wanted revenge, or that he was persuaded by his old jihadist friends to atone for his role in the killings of his associates in this manner.”
The New Delhi suicide-bombing plot, the sources said, had begun to take shape in the summer of 2016, soon after the Islamic State’s military shura, or council, picked jihad commander Aslam Faruqi to lead the organisation. A 1977-born ethnic Pashtun from Bara, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Faruqi had joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and operated with its units alongside the Taliban from 2007 to 2014, before leaving for Syria to join the Islamic State.
According to Antonio Giuztozzi's writings, Faruqi returned to Pakistan in 2016, and was appointed leader of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, as a “result of contacts with the Pakistani ISI, which hinted to IS-K the possibility of a trade-off: the appointment of a leader linked to the ISI and the cessation of attacks against Pakistani government targets, in return for access to safe havens in Pakistan.”
The Islamic State’s rapprochement with the ISI was brokered by Azizullah Haqqani, the leader of an Islamic State unit that in turn had close links to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of a Taliban terrorist network responsible for multiple, lethal suicide attacks across Afghanistan and now interior minister of the country.
Immediate command of the New Delhi suicide operation, the sources said, rested with Amir Sultan, an ethnic-Punjabi jihadist also known by the alias Huzaifa al-Bakistani. Amir Sultan was given charge of a unit within the Islamic State charged with recruiting operatives in India, particularly Kashmir, and motivating them to stage operations in the region.
Amir Sultan’s unit included several Indian nationals, among them the only citizens of the country to stage suicide attacks overseas—dentist Ijas Kallukettiya Purayil, killed in a bid to storm a prison in Jalalabad last year, and his fellow Kerala resident, Muhammad Muhsin.
Last month, Firstpost had revealed that Aijaz Ahanger, Amir Sultan’s father-in-law and an ethnic Kashmiri jihadist with a long record of terror activities in Kashmir, had also escaped from Bagram prison.