“Mamma shaheed ho gayi (my mother has been martyred),” a little girl says. There is the music of war: gunfire, explosions, screaming. Then, there is another voice, perhaps her father. “Entry to paradise isn’t cheap,” he intones, “it takes sacrifice.” Great blessings, he says, are promised to those who give their lives for Islam. He has no regrets: this blood-soaked hell was also his home, a paradise where he could live as his God ordained.
These are excerpts from 21 minutes of despatches from the last 100 square metres of Mosul to fall in the summer of 2017, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces dismantled the Islamic State: the testament of Shahnawaz Alam that also includes a message to his “mujahideen brothers in Hindustan”.
From Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, the jihadist tides which led Alam to Iraq has left behind a detritus of grieving parents and shattered homes. For all the suffering it’s caused across India, though, the jihadist idea has refused to go away.
“Now I know what a ghost is,” wrote Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. “Unfinished business, that’s what.” The Islamic State’s story in India is about global wars, epic ideological currents, terrorists and spies. But, it is also a story about cycle of hate that has pitted Indians against their most intimate enemies.
Even as Alam was making his way to Iraq, passing from New Delhi to Karachi, and on through the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, a young cleric from Ghaziabad had begun his own jihadist journey, online.
In 2011, angered by violence and discrimination against Muslims in India, Muhammad Suhail began trawling the internet in search of vengeance. He reached out to everyone, from Pakistani jihadist groups to al-Qaeda, National Investigations Agency (NIA) detectives who have studied his digital records say.
For five years, NIA officials say, no one heard his pleas. Then, in the winter of 2015, a ghost popped up in his Facebook messages: Peshawari, an Islamic State recruiter with an assumed name, was looking for soldiers to wage war in India.
The two men spent weeks discussing ideology, NIA investigators say. Suhail thought the Islamic State was a Western conspiracy. Peshawari had to struggle to persuade him it was, in fact, a genuine jihadist group that drew its legitimacy from God’s word.
In 2017, Peshawari handed over Suhail and his small group of recruits from Ghaziabad and Amroha to another Islamic State operative, code-named Akhi Umesh. Now, the NIA says, the conversation — conducted through encrypted chat — was taken over by al-Bengali, who instructed the group in the art of fabricating improvised explosive devices.
There is at least some reason to believe all these Islamic State recruiters were, in fact, police officers sitting in Hyderabad. Two intelligence officials separately told Firstpost that the recruiters were likely fictions — espionage-jargon for make-belief identities — for Telengana Police’s cyber-cell.
Arguably India’s most sophisticated online counter-terrorism operator, the Telengana Police has been responsible for a string of anti-jihadist successes over the past two years.
Entrapment operations of the kind they are alleged to have carried out are controversial, with critics arguing they entrap individuals who might not otherwise have proceeded from ideological anger to actual criminal planning. This is a stock-in-trade of global counter-terrorism operations, which the Federal Bureau of Investigations has used to bring about dozens of arrests.
Indian law, though, has no body of precedent to serve as guidance for lawful police entrapment. Bar the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, no law allows authorities to conduct such operations. In 2014, the NIA asked the government to introduce appropriate legislation but there has been no forward movement.
In September 2008, days after a Delhi Police team climbed up the steps to the second floor of L-18, Batla House, Shahnawaz Alam disappeared into the bowels of Pakistan’s jihadist underworld. The chief of the Indian Mujahideen, Atif Amin, was shot dead, and dozens of arrests followed. But, there were two other men, Mohammed Sajid and Abu Rashid, who disappeared with Alam. All three were from the same village: Sanjarpur in Azamgarh.
The men, alleged to have played a key role in multiple strikes, from the Mumbai train bombings of 2006 to the Delhi blasts of 2008, weren’t quite at the end of their jihadist journey. In Pakistan, they broke with the new Indian Mujahideen chief Riyaz Shahbandari, also known as Riyaz Bhatkal, and headed to al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State.
Friends and family remember all the three men as simple, studious boys who kept their heads down, hoping for job prospects abroad like other many Azamgarh residents. Sajid had done a course in jewellery polishing in Mumbai and was in Delhi looking for admission in an English-speaking course. None was known for particularly strong ideological or religious convictions.
Last year, the police summoned Shadab Ahmad, local Samajwadi Party politician and Alam’s father, to listen to his son’s testament. “The voice sounded similar,” Ahmad says, “but I can’t be certain.” It has been 11 years since he spoke to his oldest son. Father to 14 children — 10 sons and four daughters — Ahmad’s life is focused around the ongoing trial of Saif, his second oldest son who was arrested from the Batla House. Saif was then 21.
“In our village, the police visiting a household is a matter of great shame. People stop talking to you, acquaintances snub you. No one wanted to marry their children to ours,” says Shadab. He does not know who the child in the recording is. “The first wedding in my family was only in 2013.”
Shadab refuses to let Firstpost meet Alam’s mother. “You will go away but she will not stop weeping for a week." There is no television in home — many of Azamgarh’s deeply pious families reject one, for religious reasons — so she is shielded from the news.
In 2016, an Islamic State video featuring Muhammad Sajid and Abu Rashid, among other Indian jihadists, surfaced online. Both men, Indian intelligence believes, died in the fighting around the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Muhammad Shakir, Sajid’s brother, says he last spoke to him on the day of the Batla House shootout. “Eid was coming and he wanted to know if he should buy some new clothes.”
For Shakir, the memories of his brother are now filtered through the lens of police questioning and the media. “Sometimes he is responsible for a blast in Varanasi, sometimes he is in Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan. Which report do I believe? Which do I discard?”
Saad’s sons are now the same age as Rashid was when he disappeared. One is a physiotherapist while another is preparing for his medical entrance. “I am always scared but that doesn’t mean I will compromise on their education,” says the father-of-five.
The families in Sanjarpur, however, are not the only ones dealing with missing family members. Eighteen Kerala residents, all members of an Islamic State-inspired cult, left for Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province in 2017. Ejaz Kettiyapuraiyil, his wife, Rahaila, who was pregnant, their two-year-old child, along with his brother, Shihaz, and his sister-in-law Ajmala, were among them. The group lived, and worked with Shajeer Mangalassery Abdullah, a civil engineer-turned-Islamist activist who had links to al-Qaeda in Nangarhar.
Most of them are now thought to be dead.
Hamsa Sagar, the Rehman family’s comfortable home near Kasaragod, isn’t anyone’s conception of a jihad incubator. Ejaz practised medicine; his younger brother was an engineer. Their father, Abdul Rehman, worked hard overseas to lay solid middle-class foundations for his family, and by all accounts, had little to do with religious chauvinism.
“They rejected this life, this life I had built for them," says Rehman.
Rehman’s wife misses the occasional phone calls her children made when they first moved to Nangarhar. Her husband disagrees. “I hated their phone calls,” he says. “I used to ask them to come back, and they’d tell us they were living as every true Muslim should. It was a lecture, not a conversation.”
Ejaz told his family about the birth of twins. A third child was born to Bexin Vincent, who named himself Issa after converting to Islam. There’s no word on these children.
A circle of hate
Ever since 2009, around 91 jihadist cells have been dismantled by the NIA, which deals mainly with cases with pan-India significance; 63 of those have come since 2015. The Islamic State has been the biggest single contributor with 24 cases. Twenty-three of these cells were from Kashmir, while 43 included other jihadist groups put together. The message is clear: even though the caliphate has collapsed, its jihadist message still survives.
But, bar the 17 March, 2017 bombing on board a Bhopal-Ujjain bus, there has been no operation of significant scale. Even in that case, the cell was infiltrated by the NIA, which, in a rare error of judgment, held back from arrests hoping to gather more evidence.
“The truth is that as long as there isn’t a political resolution to communal conflict in India, we’ll continue to face this problem,” an NIA official admits. “This is about what’s happening next door, not in Iraq."
From its earliest days, jihadist violence in India has been linked to communal violence. In testimony to police, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s founding patriarch in India, Abdul Karim ‘Tunda’, described how Zafar Rahman, one of his in-laws, and seven other relatives were burned alive in communal violence in Bhiwandi. Feroze Ghaswala told police he had volunteered to join jihad training after witnessing the mass burial of 40 Gujarat riot victims.
In a November 2007 manifesto, Indian Mujahideen explained its terrorism thus: “They demolished our Babri Masjid”, it argued, “and killed our brothers, children and raped our sisters, especially in Maharashtra, and this all happened with the support of [the] Congress party.”
“If you want to be a successful person in India”, the manifesto went on, “then you should be (an) idol worshipper and kill Muslims.”
A Hindi film on the Batla House encounter starring John Abraham is being made. The families in Sanjarpur are not aware of the development and even if they were, they couldn’t care less.
“We want to forget what happened but no one lets us,” says Abu Saad.
The Kerala factor
People of the southern state have been at the forefront of ‘volunteers’ to the Islamic State
Nashidul Hamzafar: In NIA custody. Was deported to New Delhi from Afghanistan in 2018 where he was detained for illegally entering the country. Was reportedly on his way to join ISIS.
Abdul Kayoon: Believed to have gone to Syria in 2017
Abdul Manaf: Believed to have been killed in 2018 in Syria
UK Hamza: Believed to be one of the top recruiters for ISIS in Kerala
Abdul Khyaoom: Believed to have gone to Syria in April 2017
Shahjahan VK: Believed to have visited Turkey/Syria for carrying out terrorist activities
Abdul Kasak KV, Rashid MV: Believed have travelled to Syria and Turkey with the intention of joining ISIS
Manaf Rahman: Arrested
Midhilaj: Member of ISIS
Also under investigation for trying to travel to Syria with intention of joining ISIS
Muhadis, Safeer, Ashraf Moulvi, Fajid, Shanad, Mansoor, Shaibu Nihar, Shabeer Muhammed Shafi, Suhail
Source: ORF’s Tracking ISIS Influence in India; data for the year 2017-18
Caught in crossfire
India has also suffered civilian casualty at the hands of ISIS.
39 Indians went missing in Iraq in 2014, believed to have been kidnapped by the ISIS. The government confirmed only in 2018 that 38 of them were dead (one escaped and came back to India). Their remains were found in a mass grave and identities were confirmed through DNA matching.
46 Indian nurses were held captive in the Iraqi city of Tikrit for more than a week by the ISIS. They were eventually released.
Other names: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Daesh, which is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State
1999 Set up as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda
2014 The group drives Iraqi government forces out of western Iraq and captures Sinjar and Mosul in a push that began in June
Massacres thousands of Yezidis in August
Declares parts of Iraq and Syria under its control as a caliphate and begins referring to itself as the Islamic State
2015 By December, the extremist group gains control of western Iraq and eastern Syria, enforces Sharia on an estimated 2.8 to 8 million people.
At its peak, Islamic State had an annual budget of more than $1 billion and a force of more than 30,000 fighters.
2017 In July, Islamic States loses its largest city, Mosul, to the Iraqi army. Losses pile up and by November, the group has no meaningful territory to call its own. A By year-end, Islamic State was left with just 2 percent of the territory it once held, say military analysts.
February 2019 Islamic State is confined to Baghouz, a Syrian village on the Euphrates, where its foreign fighters are believed to be hiding among civilians
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