The National Investigation Agency (NIA) said on Saturday that it has busted an al Qaeda module and arrested nine people who were allegedly planning to carry out major terror strikes in India at the direction of their Pakistan-based handler.

The nine suspects were picked up from West Bengal and Kerala on Saturday, people familiar with the developments said, requesting anonymity.

The suspects, under the scanner for some time, were arrested after the agency learnt that they acquired large quantities of weapons, country-made firearms, locally fabricated body armour, jihadi literature, and literature used for making explosives, according to the officials cited above.

The suspects were planning attacks at several locations, including Delhi-NCR, Kochi and Mumbai, and they were about to leave for Kashmir to receive a consignment of weapons, which was likely to arrive from Pakistan, the officials added.

“NIA learnt about an inter-state module of al Qaeda operatives at various locations in India, including West Bengal and Kerala. The group was planning to undertake terrorist attacks at vital installations in India with an aim to kill innocent people and strike terror in their minds,” NIA spokesperson Sonia Narang said in a statement.

“These individuals were radicalised by Pakistan-based al Qaeda terrorists on social media and were motivated to undertake attacks at multiple places, including the National Capital Region (NCR). For this purpose, the module was actively indulging in fund-raising and a few members of gang were planning to travel to New Delhi to procure arms and ammunition. These arrests have pre-empted possible terrorist attacks in various parts of the country,” the statement said.

The handler of the module has been identified as Abu Hamza, who is in Pakistan. He is said to be directly linked to the main al Qaeda outfit headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the officials familiar with the investigation. The suspected Indian operatives were found to have been in touch with the leadership of the al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and not the general high command of the terror group.

All nine suspects are residents of West Bengal. While three of them (Murshid Hasan, a labourer; Iyakub Biswas, a salesman; and Mosaraf Hossen, a cook at a small eatery) were held in Kerala’s Ernakulam, the remaining six (Abu Sufiyan, a tailor; Mainul Mondal, a cook; Leu Yean Ahmed, an electrician; Ali Mamun Kamal, a driver; and Najmus Sakib and Atitur Rahman, both pursuing graduation) were taken into custody from West Bengal’s Murshidabad.

Murshid Hasan is believed to be heading the nine-member module and was receiving directions from Pakistan through social media.

A senior official who did not want to be named said that the agency recovered YouTube videos of Murshid Hasan — who is believed to have been in touch with the Pakistan-based handler for a year — in which he purportedly threatened to kill non-Muslims. Also, the agency detected a YouTube channel of Leu Yean Ahmed on which he allegedly propagated jihadi ideology.