For ISIS, virtual is the real as it scouts for India recruits

Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, the NIA alleges, was recruited online by a Syria-based Indian who patiently trawled Facebook, Twitter and dozens of blogs in search of potential recruits.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: March 22, 2016 4:37 am
ISIS, islamic state, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered to arrest ISIS leaders, terror group chief, ISIS leaders arrested in Iraq, islamic state news, world news, latest news Last month, that young man was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on charges of being the head of a new Islamic State cell determined to wage war on India.

In the summer of 2006, a young web-designer, who his friends called Muddy, entered the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s office in Mumbai’s Byculla area. He walked up to a greying man sitting alone near the entrance with a request for information: How might one sign up for the jihad in Afghanistan?

“I heard him patiently,” the Jamaat office worker recalls, “and then suggested that perhaps his energy and enthusiasm could be put to better use serving the poor in our community. I never saw him again.”

Last month, that young man was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on charges of being the head of a new Islamic State cell determined to wage war on India. Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, the NIA alleges, was recruited online by a Syria-based Indian who patiently trawled Facebook, Twitter and dozens of blogs in search of potential recruits.
Intelligence Bureau officials estimate the Islamic State’s Indian cell, led by one-time Indian Mujahideen operative Muhammad Shafi Armar, has engaged more than 700 people in conversation — and raised more than 20 identified volunteers.

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The recruits’ online activities and their online stomping-grounds cast unprecedented light on the Islamic State’s new campaign — a campaign to raise an army, using nothing but zeros and ones flying through cyberspace. Long before his alleged jihadist project began, Shaikh’s main Facebook page shows Islam, and its relationship with culture in a changing world, figured high on his agenda. In the autumn of 2012, for example, he posted links to an article on French rap singer Mélanie Georgiades who converted to Islam after years of drug-fuelled excesses led to her hospitalisation.

There was another article on a Bosnian man who made a 5,650-km journey to Mecca. Lectures by neo-fundamentalist proselytisers Zakir Naik and Yusuf Estes also figured on his timeline — along with one to an essay claiming 9/11 was a plot by the United States to discredit Islam.

There is plenty on Shaikh’s timeline, though, that suggests Islam was just part of his world, not an all-enveloping obsession. His posts were eclectic: the nuances of Kinetic JavaScript and HTML5; a project to build a flying motorcycle; a piece on how teenage software designers became millionaires; wisdom from new-age guru Paulo Coelho.

Incidentally just 18 of his main page’s 52 friends were Muslim, and from their appearance, all seem secularised: many are engineering and software professions, with multinational firms. “There was nothing in his behaviour to suggest he had any strong political views,” recalls a Facebook friend who worked with him briefly at his last job. “He seemed like just one of the guys.”

Like her husband, Uzma Shaikh’s Facebook timeline also shows a coexistence of worlds. Her timeline includes fat-burning workouts from fitness trainer Jordan Yeoh, and humorous online videos — one, a video of a dog riding a tortoise.

There is also, though, evidence of a more complex set of religious concerns. In one video Uzma Sheikh has posted, the Aurangabad-based preacher Faiz Syed railed against Muslim women who do not allow their husbands to take a second wife, arguing this denies marriage to the poor and needy. She also posted a speech by Zakir Naik, praising Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — a speech that led to his being denied entry to the United Kingdom. Uzma Sheikh did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

In the summer of 2013, according to NIA documents, Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh ran across an account run by Yusuf al-Hindi. Al-Hindi — a pseudonymous account which intelligence services say was run by Karnataka-born Indian Mujahideen operative Muhammad Sultan Armar — was a member of several online jihadist fora, on and off Facebook, posting regularly on religion and India-linked issues.

The two men first met, investigators say, on Dajjal-e-Akbar, a closed group with over 1,400 members, which warns, in somewhat incoherent English, that “its the era of Dajjal Akbar whose come soon as possible, and Jews are totally ready to welcome him, so we made this group (sic., throughout)”.

It goes on to say that when the Dajjal, or Devil, comes to earth, he will “make mess and kill the people then ALLAH swt send Hazrat Eesa a.s and give him order to kill Dajjal”. For many drawn to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, this centuries-old apocalyptic fantasy is living belief: the armies of the jihad, recruits believe, will be blessed by god for their role in fighting the devil and his agents on earth.

The fantasy had drawn together men from very different backgrounds. Born on December 7, 1975, Sultan Armar grew up in Bhatkal’s Nawayath Colony. The son of Shabbir Husain Armar, a small businessman. Like his 1986-born younger brother and comrade-in-arms Shafi Armar, Sultan Armar was packed off to the Nadwatul-Ulema seminary after high school.

Nadwatul-Ulema theologians are among few in India to have backed the Islamic State: in 2014, theologian Salman al-Husaini Nadwi wrote a letter hailing self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim Awad al-Badri as the Amir ul-Momineen, or commander of the faithful.

The son of a secularised middle-class family, Shaikh, by contrast, graduated from the Saboo Siddiqui school in Byculla, before gaining a commerce degree from Akbar Peerbhoy College, and a web applications design certification from St Angelo’s Institute.

He worked a number of web-design jobs, before being appointed head of New Products development at Sports Interactive, a company which counts top media companies among its clients. His marriage seemed to have been successful; the couple has two small daughters.

In 2005, though, he began a religious journey, abandoning his family’s traditionalist Barelvi Islam, a syncretic tradition reviled by Islamists. From 2005, just as he got his first job as web designer, he began attending programmes by neo-fundamentalist clerics like Zakir Naik, and reading online jihadist literature.

There are important clues to what may have driven Shaikh’s alleged radicalisation in a second Facebook account he maintained — this one, with just a small group of family and close friends. He posted news reports on the Shiv Sena’s calls to disenfranchise Muslims, as well as Hindu nationalist militia forming across the country — material that he kept off the Facebook page used to communicate with a wider world.

In response to one article on a young Muslim woman offering to turn vegetarian to rent a flat in Mumbai, Shaikh bitterly remarked: “Is this some kind of propaganda to portray her a good Muslim as she is ready to forego her religious rights to stay in those society?”

Shaikh lost his job in December, 2012, with his employers claiming he performed poorly; he never succeeded in finding another one — something which may have fed his resentment. Even as Shaikh had been building his career, the Armar brothers were risking their lives. In 2004, the Armars joined the Indian Mujahideen, founded that year by one-time Mumbai gangster Riyaz Shabandri and his cleric brother, Ismail Shabandri — both of whom had left the city for their hometown Bhatkal after the Students Islamic Movement of India was proscribed following 9/11.
Riyaz Shabandri came from a middle-class background just like Shaikh — and had even studied at the same high school, though there is no evidence so far the two ever met.

“For the middle-class Shaikh,” claims an officer involved in his questioning, “these guys were heroes, doing for Muslims what he himself had just fantasised about”. In 2014, the Armars’ Ansar al-Tauhid group, then based at Tehreek-e-Taliban’s training camps in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, declared their affiliation with the IS and called on Indian Muslims to join the organisation.

Not long afterwards, Sultan Armar and Shaikh began to talk through Skype, for private conversations — and, the NIA alleges, that the jihadist disclosed his real identity. Data recovered from Shaikh’s computer shows he downloaded jihadist speeches and books at Armar’s urging — but then his mentor suddenly disappeared.

NIA investigators allege Shaikh began trying to gain recruits for the group regardless, tapping members of political groups like the Muslim Youth Foundation and Association of Indian Muslim Students. Not one, however, took the bait.

Late in 2014, NIA documents state, Sultan Armar appeared online, again — and reached out to his jihadist protégé from Raqqa, in Syria. In May that year, as first revealed by The Indian Express, four young men from Thane had become the first Indian jihadists to reach the Islamic State.

The two men, the NIA alleges, continued contact through encrypted chat clients, with Shafi Armar taking over the communication after his brother was killed. Early last year, the Indians inside the Islamic State had a concrete proposal for their online recruit in India: to set up an organisation called Jund al-Khilafa al-Hind, or the Army of the Caliph in India. Shaikh, investigators say, would soon discover that he was just part of a very wide online circle — none of whose members knew, as yet, the others.

— (Tomorrow: Tech, fear, hate behind Islamic State’s India foray)