By Praveen Swami
October 20, 2016
On an April night this year, Sajeer
Mangalachari Abdullah boarded a packed flight to Dubai, headed back at the end
of a rare vacation. The son of a truck driver in Kerala’s Kozhikode city,
Abdullah had clawed his way into the middle-class; his friends knew him to be
hard-working and pious, with no interest in politics. There was nothing to mark
him out from the crowd of workers waiting to board the Air India flight from
Kozhikode. He passed immigration and security checks without trouble, and
settled into an economy-class seat for the four-hour flight.
Then, he disappeared into the bowels of the
Ever since the National Investigation
Agency arrested six Kerala men earlier this month on allegations of planning
terrorist attacks, the intelligence services of India, Afghanistan and the
United Arab Emirates have been hunting Abdullah — a man now believed to occupy
a key position in a shadowy network of Man from Kozhikode now in Afghanistan identified
as Islamic State recruiter in India recruiters routing Indian jihad volunteers
to the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province which has its capital
Faced with the fall of the so-called
caliphate in ongoing offensives targeting its twin bases in Raqqa and Mosul,
intelligence officials say, the Islamic State has been telling Indian
volunteers keen for military training to make their way to Afghanistan instead.
It has also been pushing them to stage attacks at home, providing detailed
do-it-yourself instructions on manufacturing explosive devices.
“Nangarhar is about as close as you can get
to a black hole,” an Indian intelligence official said. “It’s the perfect place
to go if you want to disappear. Even Afghanistan’s intelligence services have
next to no on-ground reach there.”
The men alleged to have been recruited by
Abdullah were all educated professionals. The key figure in the cell, NIA
officials say, was Doha-based Manseed Bin Mohamed who moved to West Asia from
Panoor in Kerala five years ago. Once a member of the Popular Front of India,
alleged by the Kerala government to be linked to violent Islamist groups,
Mohamed once researched the activities of Hindutva groups for the organisation.
In Doha, though, his political views lurched towards direct action, the NIA
says: the Islamic State’s caliph was his new beacon.
NIA officials say that in encrypted
Telegram conversations, Mohamed recruited several like-minded men, all from the
educated middle-class: Swalih Muhammad, a researcher with an automobile
manufacturing major in Chennai; Safwan Pookatil, a graphic designer working for
the PFI daily Thejas; Ramshad Neelangan Kandiyil, a chartered account based in
Kozhikode; his cousin, engineering drop-out Jaseem Neelangan Kandiyil;
small-time businessman Rashid Ali.
The NIA alleges that the men were
instructed by Abdullah to plan strikes against Israeli tourists in Kodaikanal,
as well as attacks on leaders of the BJP and judges who had delivered what they
believed to be “anti-Muslim” verdicts.
Earlier, Indian intelligence services
believe, Abdullah facilitated the travel of 21 Kerala residents, including
eight minors, to Nangarhar, led by neo-fundamentalist cleric Abdul Rashid. A
baby girl was also born to the group soon after their arrival in Afghanistan.
“The life of a Mujahid here is just a few
months long,” the group’s leader, Abdul Rashid, said in a Telegram message to a
friend soon after the group arrived in Nangarhar. “The rewards are in the next
Intelligence services say the Kerala cases
underline fears that greater numbers of Indian nationals may have joined global
jihadist groups through the diaspora than the 67 known to be serving with the
Islamic State. “Frankly,” an official familiar with the investigation said, “we
have no idea how many people from the diaspora are involved in the Islamic
State. It is a real concern.”
Those fears have been underlined by ongoing
investigations into Subhani Haja Moideen, a Tamil Nadu resident arrested this
month on charges of planning attacks on instructions from key Islamic State
operative Muhammad Sultan Armar, also known as Yusuf al-Hindi. Moideen, the NIA
alleges, was plotting strikes on foreigners visiting south India, at one stage
considering the use of weapons as basic as a machete to decapitate his victim.
In 2015, the NIA alleges, Moideen left for
Turkey to join the Islamic State after being recruited online. He served
briefly in Mosul, investigators say, but fled the battlefield after two men
alongside him were blown apart in a missile attack. Following his desertion, he
was held for 40 days in an Islamic State prison, but eventually allowed to
return home, with a $200 payment for the time he had served.
The case illustrated a series of holes in
the counter-terrorism system which, intelligence officials warn, remain
unplugged. The Indian consulate in Istanbul issued Moideen with an emergency
certificate allowing him to return home, since he had lost his passport. Police
and intelligence services, government sources said, were not notified, though
Moideen was unable to account for his activities in Turkey. Thus, Moideen was
only cursorily questioned on his return, and not placed under surveillance.
Like the alleged Al-Qaeda in the Indian
Subcontinent chief Mohammad Asif, held in New Delhi last year and now facing
trial, Moideen was able to return from Istanbul without facing investigation,
and resume normal life.
Even as his relieved family was delighted
when he found a job at a jewellery store in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli, investigators
allege, Moideen resumed contact with Islamic State’s Armar.
Intelligence services believe Indian
jihadists now fighting with the Islamic State have old links in Afghanistan,
where the organisation is made up mainly of one-time Tehreek-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam
fighters from Pakistan’s north-west. The Ansar-ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind, the
core of the estimated 67 jihadists from India now with the IS in Syria, served
in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands with these groups, after splitting with the
Indian Mujahideen, and its chief, Riyaz Shahbandri.
The new group in Syria, led by Armar, is
believed to include Indian Mujahideen operatives Abu Rashid, Shahnawaz Ahmad
and Mirza Shadab Beig, all named as fugitives by the NIA. Abu Rashid appeared
in an Islamic State video released earlier this year.
Faced with the Pakistan Army’s offensive
against the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam, a number of Pakistani jihadists settled in
Nangarhar’s Kot, Deh Bala, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts, even opening madrasas
for their children in Achin and Nazian.
In the summer of 2015, fighting broke out
between the Taliban and IS, after the former asked the migrant jihadists to
close their madrasas and courts, and confiscated their weapons consignments.
But subsequently, the Taliban lost much of the territory it gained in Nangarhar
to an IS counter-offensive.
Thousands of villagers fled their homes to
escape the fighting, leaving behind cattle and farms — seized, thereafter, by
IS fighters arriving from Pakistan’s Orakzai and Bajaur agencies, who are
creating a proto-state.