Like every other grandmother, there’s just one thing Afsath Rehman wants to talk about: the children that her sons, Ejaz Kettiyapuraiyil and Shihaz Kettiyapuraiyil, have had in past few months. “They promised to send me photographs but they haven’t so far,” she sighs, echoing the complaints of a million other parents with children living in the diaspora. “They said they have to travel one-and-a-half hours to reach a telephone. That’s a very long way”.
Except, Afsath Rehman isn’t like every other grandmother.
WATCH VIDEO | Families From Kerala Try To Build Islamic State In Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province
Last year, Ejaz Kettiyapuraiyil, his wife Rahaila, then three months pregnant, and their two-year-old child, along with Shihaz Kettiyapuraiyil, and his wife Ajmala, disappeared into the mountains of Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province along with eighteen other Kerala residents, all members of an Islamic State-inspired cult led by preacher Abdul Rashid.
From interviews with family members, and messages they have sent their friends, The Indian Express has pieced together a portrait of the bizarre life the group has built for itself in the eight months since they disappeared. The members of the group have set up stores, teach religion, have married, and had children. None appears to be engaged in military activity.
“The intent seems to be to set up a community that will nurture future jihadists who will arrive from Kerala and other parts of India for training,” says an Indian intelligence official. “This is the incubator, the nursery.”
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. Three years ago, though, the sons discovered neo-fundamentalist religion, and began rebelling against their father, saying they wanted to live life as the Prophet had.
“They rejected all this,” Abdul Rehman says, “this life I had made”.
In Nangarhar, the life they have is hard. The region they inhabit, Indian intelligence officials believe, is remote and mountainous, unconnected by regular road links. The rest of the migrants from Kerala are also thought to be living in village homes dotted around the same area.
“Ejaz said both families are living together in a small house”, his mother says. “There is no air conditioner or fridge or any luxury. But, they say they are living in heaven and would not come back.”
In their last call home, made a month and a half ago, Ejaz told his family about the birth of the two sons, and said he was running a medical clinic — contributing his skills as a doctor to the war-torn community. Shihaz, he said, was working as a teacher, also volunteering his knowledge of the sciences.
A third child has been born to the fledgling Islamic State community from Kerala. Bexin Vincent, who named himself Issa after converting to Islam, called his father K F Vincent to inform him of the news. Bexin called his mother-in-law, too, to say his wife and he were living some distance away, and that phone calls were expensive.
Though Afsath Rehman craves phone calls from her children, her husband disagrees. “I don’t like attending to their calls,” he says bluntly. “When we tell them to come back, they ask us to join them in what they tell us is the true Islamic life. They imagine they are living as every true Muslim should. It’s a lecture, not a conversation.”
Abdul Rehman says he believes others in Kasaragod are also in touch with his sons. “When one of our family members met with an accident a few months ago, Ejaz came to know about it much before I did,” he says.
Local police and intelligence officials agree. “There’s a whole subterranean Islamist network that’s still active in Kerala, sympathetic to the Islamic State project,” says an officer familiar with the investigation into the disappearance. “The next stage will likely be the recruitment of volunteers for actual military training.”
That assessment may not be alarmist: al-Qaeda channels on the encrypted chat client Telegram, for example, have been producing prodigious amounts of translated propaganda material in Tamil and Malayalam for the past six months, translating the primary texts of jihadist patriarchs Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri for audiences so far unfamiliar with them.
It isn’t hard to detect the communal strains that underly this development. Ashfaque Masjid, who travelled to Nangarhar with his wife, Shamsiya, and one-year-old daughter Ayesha, called his sister, Shajira Majid, some months ago. “This is a land of Muslims,” Shajira Majeed recalls her brother saying, “and we need not see any Hindu here. He wanted all of us join him in that place. He told us he would not return.”
No one is quite certain what shaped Ashfaque Majid’s world view. Until 2012 a commerce student at Mumbai’s Mithibhai College, he looked after his father’s hotel business in the city alongside.
But then, according to charges filed by the National Investigation Agency, Majid made contact with Arshi Qureshi, a manager with controversial neo-fundamentalist preacher Zakir Naik Islamic Research Foundation, who in turn put him touch with the cult in Kasaragod. Majid broke with his family business, and moved back to Kerala.
The idea that emigrating is necessary for a full practice of Islam has old roots in South Asia’s political history: in 1920, tens of thousands responded to calls to make hijrat, or migration, to Afghanistan, rather than live in British-ruled India. Large numbers of migrants were killed by hunger or looters; the Khyber pass, contemporary accounts record, was littered with corpses.
For the families of many of those who have gone to Afghanistan, the politics underlying their migration is incomprehensible. Mohammad Mehmood, whose son Mohammad Salil was among the migrants, has got two calls from his son, once a well-off worker in Sharjah.
“When I asked him why left home, he had no answers,” Mehmood says. “He is living according Koran and has no plan to return. I pick up his calls, and he starts delivering religious sermons.”
The shortest conversations have been between Hafeezuddin and his mother, Khadeeja. “The words get stuck in my throat,” she says, speaking from behind a half-closed door. “I cried when he last called. He told me that we would meet in heaven.”
He’s sent Telegram messages since. “Sleep doesn’t help when it’s your soul that’s tired,” one reads.