Authorities in Afghanistan have announced the killing of Asim Omar, leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), in a joint US-Afghan raid on a Taliban compound in Musa Qala district of Helmand province on September 23.
The Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) said Omar was Pakistani, and was killed along with several other Pakistani terrorists.
In fact, Omar was Indian, and belonged to Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh, 150 km directly to the east of Delhi.
Sanaul Haq, the boy from Sambhal
Asim Omar, the man who was promoted to his biggest job by al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri five years ago, was born Sanaul Haq, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He was the son of Irfan-ul-Haq and Ruqaiya, residents of Mohalla Deepa Sarai village in Sambhal.
When The Indian Express met the couple in their small, single storey home in the village back in 2015, Irfan was 80, and Ruqaiya 72. They had not seen their son for over two decades then, and did not even know whether he was dead or alive.
Early in 2015, some officials showed up at their home. It was then that Irfan and Ruqaiya learnt that their young son who had run away from home some time in the early 1990s, was now the leader of the South Asian arm of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups.
The officers had come earlier too — investigators from the intelligence services and the CBI. But that was many years ago.
“Some years after he left home, officials came looking for him, saying he was involved in terrorist activities. It was a harrowing time for us. We would get scared every time there was a knock on the door. But that died down. Then, around seven months ago, they came again to tell us that our son was alive. He was better dead for us,” Irfan had told The Indian Express.
Sanaul Haq had left home after a quarrel over money, Ruqaiya said.
“After completing his education from the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband, Sanaul asked his father for Rs 80,000 to go to Saudi Arabia for further studies. His father refused, leading to a quarrel. Sanaul misbehaved with his father, so he was slapped by his uncle for his conduct. In anger, my son stormed out of the house,” Ruqaiya said.
The family did try to trace him initially. “We went to the police. But now we no longer want him back,” she said.
Irfan said their family is well-known in the area because his grandfather was a District Magistrate, and his father the Mukhiya of the village.
“During my childhood, the local police used to come to our home to discuss major issues regarding the village. Now they come to ask about my son. They came first in 1999, saying my son was linked to terror activities following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992,” Irfan said.
When The Indian Express visited in 2015, Irfan could barely walk. He said he was happy that apart from Sanaul, all his other children were doing well. “I have three sons and two daughters. He is my fourth child, after one daughter and two sons. One son is a teacher with a private school in Moradabad and the other is working in Delhi as an engineer,” Irfan said.
On road to terror, via Pakistan
Sanaul Haq graduated from the Deoband seminary in 1991, and became involved in jihadist activities following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. It was in 1995 that he disappeared from Sambhal, severing contacts with his family.
Later that year, Haq arrived in Pakistan. He joined the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia-a Karachi seminary, a well known jihad factory that has produced several jihadist leaders, including Maulana Masood Azhar, the 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 Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
Soon afterward, Haq joined the HuM, one of the ISI’s oldest assets, having been founded by the Pakistani intelligence organisation in 1980 to fight the Soviets Army in Afghanistan. After the Afghan War ended, the HuM turned its energies to terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
From the late 1990s until 2004, Haq taught jihadists at Batrasi, Karachi, and Peshawar, and also served in the HuM’s training camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
After the al-Qaeda attack on America on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of the war on terror, Haq moved back to Karachi, and lived from 2004 to 2006 at the HuM’s office in Haroonabad.
Sanaul Haq’s turn towards al-Qaeda
Haq’s turn towards al-Qaeda began in the summer of 2007, after the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf ordered the storming of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, a seminary run by Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia alumnus Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
Haq made contact with Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a top jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda. Around this time, Haq is believed to have been mentored by Nizamuddin Shamzai, a cleric closely linked to the Taliban. Maulana Shamzai had once claimed to have been treated as a “state guest” in Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In 2013, Haq delivered the first exhortations specifically targeting Muslims in India — the first of its kind in global jihadist writing. He 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”.
In September 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been leading the al-Qaeda since Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs in his secret compound in Abbottabad, announced the creation of the AQIS, and named “Maulana Asim Omar” as its chief.
The AQIS went on to claim responsibility for several terrorist attacks in the subcontinent, including the grisly killings of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
The 'discovery' of Omar alias Sanaul Haq
It was not immediately clear that Omar, the chief of the newly announced AQIS, was the same Sanaul Haq whom several security and intelligence agencies had been tracking intermittently over many years. Haq had never been photographed, and he had appeared in propaganda videos only with a digital mask.
There was some speculation though, that the newly appointed AQIS chief, though based in Pakistan, was an Indian national.
He was finally linked with Sanaul Haq of Sambhal after the arrest, in the autumn-winter of 2015, of two men — Mohammad Asif of Uttar Pradesh, and Abdul Rehman, an Uttar Pradesh native who was then based in Cuttack, Odisha.
Asif was believed to be the head of Indian operations for AQIS. He is also from Sambhal, and had grown up with Haq, and had been his friend for long. He had travelled to Pakistan through Iran in 2012 accompanied by two other men — and all three had then trained at a jihadist camp in Miranshah.
However, Asif had not been keeping well, and after being given ideological training, he was sent back to India by Haq in 2014, with the task of recruiting young men for al-Qaeda’s Indian operations.
The other arrested man, Rehman, police had said at the time, had two PhDs from Deoband, in Arabic and Islamic Studies. At the time of his arrest, he was running a madrasa in the Tangi area of Cuttack district. He had, by the time of his arrest, managed to recruit at least one man from Odisha for the AQIS project.
Following the arrests, police had revealed that Rehman had travelled to Pakistan, Dubai, London and Saudi Arabia. In India, he was linked to activities mostly in Karnataka, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. He was detained briefly by Jharkhand Police in 2015 after he had delivered what police said were inflammatory speeches.
Don't miss from Explained: What does ‘no dengue deaths’ really mean?