First published in South Asia Intelligence Review
After nearly six months of investigation in a case related to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL, later, the Islamic State (IS)], the National Investigation Agency (NIA), filed a charge sheet on May 20, 2015, before the NIA Special Court in Mumbai. According to the Agency,
…the arrested accused Areeb Majeed along with his three co-conspirators, Saheem Tanki, Fahad Shaikh and Aman Tandel and few others entered into a criminal conspiracy, hatched by them between January 2014 to November 2014, to commit terrorist acts in the name of jihad in Middle East countries, more specifically in Iraq and Syria, and aided and abetted each other by agreeing to commit terrorist acts to strike terror in the minds of the people by joining a banned international terrorist organisation, ISIL, with an intent to threaten the Unity, Integrity, Security and Sovereignty of India… in furtherance of the aforesaid criminal conspiracy underwent various trainings including training in arms and explosives and actively took part in various terrorist acts includingfidayeen attacks as a member of ISIL against Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces and thereby committed offences punishable under section 16, section 18 and section 20 of The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 as amended, read with section 125 of Indian Penal Code.
Prior to leaving for India, in November 2014, Majeed had personally met Abu Hammam Iraqi, Ameer(chief) of “Tasnia” (Ministry of Defence and Development) in Syria at his office. Abu Hammam allowed him to leave, and Areeb subsequently tried to sneak into India by taking a Turkish Airlines flight on November 27, 2014, but was arrested by Indian authorities at Mumbai Airport on November 28, 2014. Majeed is presently in judicial custody. Saheem Tanki was reportedly killed in January 2015, while Majeed’s other co-conspirators are still in Iraq/ Syria fighting on behalf of the IS. Though the charge sheet used the word “few others”, it did not reveal any identities.During the course of the investigation it was found that the four accused, all residents of Kalyan in Thane District,, Maharashtra, under the guise of performing pilgrimage, travelled to Syria and joined IS. After joining the IS camp in Jazira (Syria), Areeb Majeed, Saheem Tanki, Fahad Shaikh and Aman Tandel, were named Abu Ali Al Hindi, Abu Uthman Al Hindi, Abu Bakr Al Hindi, and Abu Umar Al Hindi, respectively. After their training, three of them, Areeb Majeed, Fahad Shaikh, and Saheem Tanki were chosen to be fidayeen (suicide bombers). Areeb Majeed, subsequently, took part in several battles on behalf of the IS, and was injured thrice. After an injury in October 2014, he decided to return to India to spread the so-called ‘holy jihad’ in India.
On November 28, 2014, the day Majeed was arrested, the NIA, Mumbai, as per the orders of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), had registered a case on the allegations that some Indian youths had joined the IS to wage war against ‘Asiatic Powers in alliance with the Government of India’, and were likely to commit terrorist acts in India.
In June 2014, IS released a “world dominion map” which had the Indian sub-continent shown as part of the Islamic state of Khorasan, within the ‘caliphate’ that IS fighters sought to achieve. Again, on July 1, 2014, IS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, declared,
“Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Sham (the Levant), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Ahvaz, Iran [by the rafidah (Shia)], Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and in the West... It is a khilāfah that gathered the Caucasian,Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi (North African), American, French, German, and Australian... Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s…” [Emphases added]
According to unconfirmed media reports, citing intelligence agencies a total of 10 Indians have gone to Syria. Media reports indicate that at least six of these are confirmed to have gone to Syria directly from India (the four Kalyan youth and another two youth from Chennai), another four who joined IS are of Indian origin but from different countries. The four who went from different countries, include Adil Fayaz, a student from Jammu and Kashmir, who was radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists in Australia during his stay there (he did his MBA from Australia’s Queensland University). Thereafter he left for Turkey and entered Syria via Jordan. A youth from Hyderabad and another youth from Kerala went to join Islamic State from Texas and Dubai respectively. No further details about them are available. A Tamil man, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, from Parangipettai in Cuddalore District of Tamil Nadu, had left for Syria from Singapore on January 22, 2014, to fight alongside the IS, and was reportedly the first recruit of Indian origin in IS. Usman Ali, a Singapore permanent resident, had recruited the two youth from Chennai.Soon thereafter, reports of some youth demonstrating solidarity with the IS started emerging from different quarters of India. Indeed, according to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 27 youth were arrested/detained by the security agencies to stop them from joining the IS in Iraq/Syria, including nine youth from Bengaluru, who had arrived in Istanbul (Turkey) on December 24, 2014, but were deported by Turkish authorities after they were allegedly caught trying to cross over to Syria to join the IS. In the latest of such arrests/detentions, 14 students, who were on their way to Syria and Iraq to join IS were stopped at Hyderabad Airport on May 6, 2015.Operation Chakrayuh has been initiated by the Intelligence Bureau to counsel youth who try to join IS, and have placed vulnerable youngsters under constant surveillance. It is, however, not clear how many of these arrested/detained youth are in custody.
Of these 10, four have died fighting in the battlefields of Iraq/Syria. A Twitter handle — @magnetgas16 — on April 7, 2015, claimed that a third Indian died fighting for the IS, while another such Twitter handle — @mukminSharia — identified the killed Indian as Abdul Rahman. “2 indian in IS Performed martyrdom operation 1 is abu Abdullah Al hindi [reference to Sultan Armar] and 2nd Abu Uthman al hindi [reference to Shaheen Tanki]. 3rd was killed. May ALLAH accept them # IS,” tweeted @magnetgas16, on the same day. The fourth Indian to die in Syria was Mohammed Atif Waseem. His family, originally from Telangana and settled in Hyderabad, received an email in Arabic purportedly from IS on April 24, 2015, informing them about Waseem's death in the fighting.
Only one of the four deceased, Shaheen Tanki, had gone to the battle zone directly from India. Two others were of Indian origin, but had been residing in various countries for several years. These include Karnataka's Bhatkal-born Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar alias Abu Abdullah Al Hindi, who went from Pakistan; and Mohammed Atif Waseem of Hyderabad, who went from London. No further detail about the fourth deceased, Abdul Rahman, is available in open sources.
Union Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary in a statement made in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) on March 18, 2015, informed that a small number of Indian youth have joined the IS after travelling to Iraq and Syria. He further disclosed that intelligence and security agencies had thwarted some youth attempting to travel to Syria and Iraq, and that they had been placed under counseling and were being monitored. A certain number of ISIS sympathisers had also been placed under surveillance by security agencies. No numbers or identities were revealed. Earlier, on March 11, 2015, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary had informed the Rajya Sabha that a total of four pro-IS activists, including two from Maharashtra and one each from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, had been arrested in the country since the last one year.
Meanwhile, on December 16, 2014, Union Home Minister (UHM) Rajnath Singh had informed Parliament that IS has been banned in India, as all outfits proscribed by the United Nations were automatically banned in India. Subsequently, through a notification dated February 17, 2015, UMHA banned the Islamic State as terrorist organization under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) at Serial No. 38 in the UAPA Schedule. The notification stated, "Such recruitment of youth to the outfit from India and their radicalisation is a matter of serious concern for the country especially with regard to its likely impact on national security when such youth return to India."
Areeb’s revelation that he decided to return to India to spread ‘jihad’, underlined UMHA’s concern as it confirmed the lurking threat of IS within India. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that five persons – Imran Khan Muhammad Sharif, Wasim Khan, Mohammad Rizwan, Anwar Qureshi and Mazhar – arrested from Ratlam Town in Madhya Pradesh in April 2014, were part of an IS-linked jihad cell planning strikes in India. Joint Secretary, UMHA (Internal Security), M. Ganapathy, confirmed the neutralization of the Ratlam module on May 22, 2015.
Crucially, according to the May 20 NIA charge sheet, IS has established a strong presence in the cyberworld and has found most of its recruits/sympathizers through social media websites. The arrest of IS operative Mehdi Masroor Biswas on December 13, 2014, from his residence in Jalahalli in north Bengaluru (Karnataka), and subsequent revelations underscored the potential of such activities. Using his Twitter handle @ShamiWitness, Biswas had made 124,000 tweets. Of these, 15,000 tweets were directly in connection with the IS --- defending their actions; praising their work (including the appalling mass beheadings); inspiring youth to spread IS ideology and join the war in West Asian as voluntary jihadists. Prior to this, he had tweeted on behalf of IS under a different handle @ElSaltador. At the time of his arrest, Mehdi had 17,800+ Twitter followers of which 15,000+ were from foreign countries.
The present Government has shown some awareness of the cyberthreat and, indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated, on May 17, 2015, “We can seize the economic opportunities of the digital world and work together to make it more secure against growing cyber threats.” Though the Government has announced several measures to eliminate such threat, current trends suggest that it will take a long time to translate these into effective action, unless the Government demonstrates a much stronger will to expedite the process.
Meanwhile, creating a new dimension to the challenge, a February 12, 2015, report claimed that nearly 35 self-radicalised jihadis were physically moving around to find recruits for the IS. Quoting an unnamed intelligence official, the report stated, "The campaign is being carried out by word of mouth, not through the internet."
According to reports, UMHA is studying an "extremism counseling hotline" set up recently by the Austrian authorities, for possible replication in India. Such a counseling facility, if found feasible in the Indian context, would enable parents, teachers and friends of "vulnerable and indoctrinated" youth to seek professional help for their "deradicalisation".
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh noted, on November 29, 2014, "Even though ISIS was born in Iraq and Syria, the Indian subcontinent cannot stay untouched by it -- we need to be aware of that reality." India has found a relatively minuscule number of radicalized youth joining, or attempting to join, the IS, as compared to much higher numbers from countries with tiny Muslim populations, and this is certainly grounds for some satisfaction. This cannot, however, justify any measure of complacency. The dynamics of radical mobilization are still poorly understood, and it is not clear what triggers could spark a dramatic discontinuity in these trends. India’s vulnerabilities, moreover, remain tremendous, particularly in terms of the capacities of intelligence and enforcement agencies to detect and preempt any such discontinuities. With unremitting and drastic transformations in the global order, and growing instability, particularly in the Asian region, extraordinary efforts will be needed to ensure that the situation within India does not enter a more treacherous spiral of radicalization and terrorism.