Kerala becomes easy target for Islamic State as radicalised youth turn to home for jihad recruitment
The 21 Kerala youth who joined Islamic State and were believed to have died in Afghanistan are not only alive, they seem to be turning Kasargod in Kerala into a recruitment zone for the Muslim radical group
Contrary to reports, it seems many of the 21 youth who had left Kerala to fight for the Islamic State in Afghanistan are still alive. What's more, they seem to be engaged in a mission to indoctrinate more youth into their mission. And the recruitment zone seems to be their backyard of Kasargod, Kerala's northernmost district.
On Thursday, a Kasargod native, Haris Masthan was added to "Message To Kerala", a Whatsapp group with 211 members. The admin of this group is a person called Abu Isa who is suspected to be Bexen Vincent from Palakkad who along with his brother and their wives had gone to Syria to join IS last year. All the members added were from Kasargod district and pro-IS literature in Malayalam was posted on the group.
Masthan reported the matter to the Kerala police who saw that the refrain on the group reportedly was to convey that the Islamic way of life is not possible in Kerala and that they should take up the path of jihad. What was also intriguing was that many members claimed to be in Afghanistan and were among those who were believed to have been killed in the drone attack earlier this year. Like one person who introduced himself as Rashid Abdulla, is one of the missing persons from the district and he rubbished NIA's theory that he has been killed.
Clearly, the WhatsApp group was also being used to send a message to sleuths back home apart from trying to net more youth.
For some time now, Kerala's presence on the IS radar has baffled investigating agencies given its social indices of high literacy, welfare programmes, political awareness and remittance economy. After reports of the first lot that fled Kerala in 2016 surfaced, Muslim parents blamed their inability to spot signs of increasing religious conservatism in their children.
The Kerala police say that the factors that are seen as assets for Kerala are also responsible for the radicalisation of the youth.
"It is an easy field because of deep Internet penetration, high digital literacy and foreign contacts. Every family in Kerala would know at least ten people who are working abroad," points out Jacob Punnoose, former Kerala director general of police. "While policing becomes easier because of the Internet, it also means we need to be more vigilant."
Islamic scholars blame the Saudi influence for youth turning truant. Ashraf Kadakkal, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Kerala points out that over a period of time, youth started relying on online sources instead of the Ulema and ended up in websites propagated by hardliners.
"The understanding of Islam by the 21 youth who went to Syria was gained online. The Gulf Salafism is the orthodox and reactionary Saudi template and when these youth get influenced by it, they end up having a very closed world view. It's a more puritanical strain of Islam and an interpretation of Quran for the Saudis," says Kadakkal.
The attempt is to target weak minds who can be radicalised. They are told that the Islam practised in Kerala is impure and does not follow the fundamentals of Islam, which considers interactions with the opposite gender, taking loans, cinema, music as un-Islamic. Using the cloak of religion, they are brainwashed to embrace the path to turn a jihadi for the sake of saving Islam.
Community leaders, however, say they have learnt a lesson from the 21 youth who went missing in 2016. The Jamaat-e-Islami has published half a dozen books criticising the Islamic State and even the Popular Front of India (PFI) has been campaigning against it. Parents have been advised to keep an eye on any kind of deviant behaviour and mosques have been instructed not to give any platform to any group that propagates a hardline approach.
But the jury is out on whether enough has been done. While the Jamaat is at the forefront criticising Hindu fundamentalism, it often tends to do little to control the radicals within Islam. Political parties too have tried to stoke the fire, pitching the PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India, as a counterpoint to the Muslim League. The test then becomes on who is a truer (read Conservative) Muslim.
But with constant attempts such as the latest one in Kasargod to use Kerala as a recruitment centre, the Muslims in the state feel that if this goes unchecked, the entire community could face the heat. Muslims are 27 percent of Kerala's population and goes up to 70 percent in Malappuram, a Muslim majority district.
The BJP and RSS leaders allege that attempts to radicalise Muslim youth using different forms of social media is currently going on in north and central Kerala. "We have informed the police several times about how Whatsapp and Facebook are being used to mobilise youth to join IS but they have not done anything to curb it," says KK Vinod Kumar, general secretary of Kannur BJP.
Though the BJP denies any attempt to tar the entire community with the anti-national brush, any attempt to polarise, Muslim intellectuals fear, will harm Kerala's secular fabric. "The RSS and the BJP are already exploiting it through their media voices like Janam TV and Kerala Kesari," says Kadakkal. "They are trying to portray Kerala as a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists as if we are sitting on top of a volcano against who the Hindu community should unite. The BJP wants to project itself as the only party that can stop this and not the CPI(M) or the Congress."
While the Kerala police and NIA may see the IS as a foreign recruiter whose battleground is largely outside India, it is the ripple effect on Kerala society and the possibility of many of those brainwashed youth forced to turn against their homeland, that they should be worried about. Counter-intelligence cells in other states in India often snoop into chatrooms and even adopt fake names to engage with Islamic State recruiters and try to elicit information. The cyber squads of both agencies will need to up their act instead of only waiting for innocent youth like Masthan to come clean.
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