Online propaganda, Salafism put Kerala youth on path to ISIS

Journalist Stanly Johny’s book is an informative and comprehensive account of how the terrorist group, born in strife-torn Iraq and Syria, has managed to entrench its ideological roots across the world. An excerpt:

It is evident from its actions that ISIS leadership has seen South Asia as a fertile ground for the organisation. The history of jihadist insurgency, high Muslim population and growing tensions between communities may all have prompted the group to focus on the region in its quest for expansion. Understandably, it chose Afghanistan, which has been at war with itself for decades, as its operation centre. The group may not have expanded its influence in the region like it did in Iraq and Syria. But ISIS remains a potent terror force in South Asia. In Afghanistan, repeated US bombing, including the use of the Mother of All Bombs in Nangarhar, did little to defeat the group. India has also been high on the group’s agenda. In the 13th issue of ISIS’s online English magazine Dabiq, Hafiz Saeed Khan, the Wali of Khorasan, said it will not be long before Kashmir is run by the organisation.

Dabiq: Is the Islamic State capable of expanding to Kashmir to fight the cow-worshipping Hindus and the murtaddin from the apostate factions allied to the tawaghit [idolators] of Pakistan, such as Lashkar-eTaiba for example?

The Wali: In reality, we’ve seen before how the tawaghit of Pakistan, and specifically their army and intelligence, would exploit the various “Islamic” organizations on the issue of Kashmir for their despicable personal interests. They also exploited the zeal of the people of Kashmir for the sake of their own interests, not out of any concern for the affairs of the Muslims, nor for the sake of establishing Allah’s law in the land. And how would they establish Allah’s law over there when they don’t even establish it in their own lands! So when the “maslahah” (preservation of their interests) required that they ceasefire, withdraw, and retreat, the intelligence agencies left the people of Kashmir in the middle of the road and in the worst of situations.

Indian authorities have arrested several people who they say were part of ISIS cells from different parts of the country. But surprisingly, one of the most-affected states by this ISIS influence was India’s most socially advanced one. In fact, ISIS’s India connect became national headlines when 21 people, including women and children, from the southern state of Kerala went missing in 2016

But ISIS’s immediate priority was not to fight in Kashmir or to build any organisational network in the valley. Instead it started propaganda to attract Indian Muslims to join its community and jihadist rank and file. From across the country, dozens were attracted by ISIS. Some have gone from India to Khorasan, while some others travelled from the Middle Eastern countries they were working in to Iraq and Syria to live under the Caliphate. Indian authorities have arrested several people who they say were part of ISIS cells from different parts of the country. But surprisingly, one of the most-affected states by this ISIS influence was India’s most socially advanced one. In fact, ISIS’s India connect became national headlines when 21 people, including women and children, from the southern state of Kerala went missing in 2016. Months later, police and intelligence officials claimed to have busted an ISIS network, again in Kerala. These two incidents raised questions on whether ISIS ideology is gaining foothold among the country’s Muslims, especially among those in Kerala, who make up 27 percent of the state’s population. Most of the youth who went missing are educated professionals hailing from middle class or upper middle class families, nullifying the argument that lack of education and poverty drive extremist ideas among the youth. An investigation into their disappearance and the subsequent arrests showed how ISIS’s online propaganda is radicalising Muslim youth in the state where Salafism has strong roots.

Hijrah from Kerala
At Hamza Sagar House in Padanna in northern Kerala, Abdul Rahman talked to me at length about his two sons — Ijaz Rahman (34), a doctor, and Shihaz Rahman (28), a management graduate — who went missing in May 2016. They grew up pretty much like the other boys in the area, but turned extremely religious a few years ago. “They said they wanted to live like the Prophet lived. They were following a strict religious life. They didn’t want any of these luxuries,” he told me, gesturing to his bungalow as if it was a symbol of excess that his children had rejected. Of the 21 people who have gone missing, 17 are from two nearby villages in Kasaragod — Padanna and Trikaripur. The other four are from Palakkad. Interestingly, all 21 knew each other; some as relations, others as friends. Take the case of Ijaz and his brother Shihaz. They went missing with their wives and Ijaz’s only son. Shihaz and his wife left Padanna, saying they were moving to Mumbai. Ijaz said he was taking his family to Lakshadweep for a professional assignment before they vanished into thin air. Their cousin Ashfaq Majeed (25) and his friend Abdul Rashid Abdulla (30), a central figure in this mystery, are among those missing. Hafeezudin TK, another member in the team, was a neighbour of Ijaz.

If this motley group had planned their departure jointly, they did this outside the gaze of local eyes. They were not part of any local Muslim organisations. “They were a group, but largely they interacted only among themselves,” a salesman at a stationery shop close to Ashfaq’s house in Padanna told me. For instance, Palakkad-based Isa (Bexen before he recently converted from Christianity) was a frequent visitor to Padanna to see Rashid and Shihaz. Isa took other members of his family along with him when he went missing — his brother Ehisa (earlier Bestin) and their wives.

Six of the 21 people are women. Four recently converted to Islam. And almost everybody is middle class or upper middle class. The local police have found no organisational network responsible for their disappearance. Did the group have a leader? Abdul Hakim, father of Hafeezudin , who runs an automobile workshop in Dubai, believes like many others in Padanna that Rashid was the “captain” of the team. “Rashid has been very strict on religious matters. He is a very knowledgeable person. Shihaz used to hang around with him,” said Rahman, Ijaz and Shihaz’s father. Getting Rashid’s family to open up proved to be an impossible task. At his house close to the Udumbunthala Juma Masjid in Trikaripur near Padanna, a short elderly man with a full grey beard refused to take any questions. “We have nothing more to say,” he declared, cutting me short. “The Superintendent of Police has also told us to keep our mouths shut.”

But who is Rashid? A software engineer who had worked in the Gulf, the 30-year-old was associated with Peace International School, run by an Islamic scholar named MM Akbar. “Rashid used to come to train our teachers,” says a staff member of the school. The school has lost one staff member — Mohammed Marvan (23). Most of these youth sent messages on the Telegram app to their families that they have reached Dawlatul Islam, which is how ISIS refers to the territories under its control. A message sent by Marvan to his family read: “I am fighting in the path of Allah.”

(This excerpt from The ISIS Caliphate: From Syria to the doorsteps of India by Stanly Johny is published with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing India)

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