NEW DELHI: The head of al-Qaeda’s South Asian wing is Sanaul Haq, a one-time resident of Sambhal, in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, over 150 km from the national capital, intelligence sources have confirmed to The Indian Express. Known to the world as Maulana Asim Umar, Haq was appointed amir of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, by its overall chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and last year.

Haq was identified, sources said, on the basis of the questioning of Sambhal resident Mohammad Asif and Cuttack-based cleric Abdul Rehman, who the Delhi Police said, had been tasked by Haq with setting up “AQIS recruitment networks” in India.

Rehman, 37, was arrested by a joint team of the Special Cell of Delhi Police and Asif was arrested in Delhi on December 14. Rehman, who holds two PhDs in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Deoband, runs a madrasa in the Tangi area of Cuttack district.

Haq’s operational deputy, sources said, has also been identified as an Indian national from Sambhal, Said Akhtar. Investigators say they have evidence that at least five Indian nationals are part of the organisation’s network in Pakistan.

Delhi Police Special Commissioner Arvind Deep said today that Asif, who had grown up along with Haq, travelled to Pakistan through Iran in 2012, along with two other Uttar Pradesh men — whose identities have been withheld — to train at a jihadist camp in Miranshah. There, he said, Asif, a 37-year-old father of two, received only ideological instruction, because of ill health, before being sent home in October 2014, to recruit more Indian nationals.

Educated at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband, from where he graduated in 1991, Haq became allegedly involved in jihadist circles following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, investigators say they had been told by his alleged lieutenants whose arrest was announced today. He disappeared from Sambhal in 1995, severing contacts with his family.

Maulana Ashraf Usmani, a spokesperson for the Deoband seminary, said he could not immediately confirm or deny if Haq had been a student there and added that there were no records for many students who dropped out before completing their theological education.