He appeared online four weeks ago on the Ansar ul-Tawhid website, his face digitally masked, a laptop to his left, religious books to his right, and a Glock 9mm automatic on his desk, delivering the first-ever call by an Indian for Muslims in the country to join the global jihad.
“My beloved brothers,” he said, his voice woven into images of communal carnage, “what has happened to you that, in the sight of god, you do not fight for helpless children, women and the aged, who are begging their lord for rescue?”
He went on: “Rise, like Ahmad Shah Abdali and Muhammad ibn-Qasim, like Syed Ahmad the martyr, like the Prophet and his companions, take the Quran in one hand and the sword in the other, and head to the fields of jihad.”
Sources have now told The Indian Express that the man behind the mask is Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar, the 39-year-old son of a small businessman from Bhatkal in northern Karnataka, and a soft-spoken cleric trained at the respected Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama seminary in Lucknow.
Allegedly a key recruiter for the Indian Mujahideen once, Armar joined a rebellion against its leadership, which is believed to have led more than a dozen Indians to camps run by the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan so far.
Investigators have linked the voice on the tape to Armar based on questioning of arrested Indian Mujahideen suspects who knew him well. The Indian Express also spoke to two of Armar’s former friends, who corroborated the claim.
The first jihadist group based abroad formed by Indians, the Ansar ul-Tawhid believes terrorism will not achieve anything. Their imagination fired by the Islamic State’s success against better-equipped and trained forces in Syria, its leaders see themselves as the kernel of a full-bown insurgency in India.
In the online address, the man believed to be Armar exhorts, “Listen to the calls rising from the dust in Iraq and Syria… and migrate to the motherland of jihad, Afghanistan, gather your courage, and teach these Brahmins and worshippers of cows, as well as the whole world of unbelievers, that the Indian Muslim is no coward.”
The Ansar ul-Tawhid Twitter feed has put out videotape footage of cadres training in camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As reported by The Indian Express, it recently paid tributes to an Indian, Anwer Husain ‘Bhatkal’, allegedly killed during a raid on an Afghan border outpost. That would make him the first Indian among several known to be training in Afghanistan to be killed.
Armar’s videotape itself, intelligence sources told The Indian Express, was likely produced by his brother Shafi Armar, a 28-year-old who did a visual media course after finishing school in Bhatkal.
According to officials, Shafi Armar runs al-Isbah Media, a media house of the Ansar ul-Tawhid. Shafi is allegedly also behind platforms such as Shabab-ul-Hind, the first online jihadist forum dedicated to an Indian audience.
Like the Armar brothers — one cleric, the other a digital-era media producer — the Ansar ul-Tawhid’s membership is diverse. One of the members is Afif Hassan Siddibapa, also known as Afif Jailani, a 41-year-old businessman who left a job in Saudi Arabia and settled in Karachi with his wife and children.
Indians Shanawaz Ahmad, a Unani doctor and the son of a local Samajwadi Party politician in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh; Abu Rashid Ahmad, who once worked at an eye hospital in Mumbai; and students Mohammad ‘Bada’ Sajid and Mirza Shadab Beig are also allegedly linked to the group.
Investigators believe that the Indian Mujahideen itself is an offshoot of al-Isbah, literally meaning “a group in search of truth”. It started from Bhatkal in late 2001 as a grouping, including Ahmad Zarar Siddibappa, listening to sermons by cleric Muhammad Shish. Siddibappa, by then better known as Yasin Bhatkal, was arrested in August 2013.
After Shish allegedly shot down their flirtations with the idea of violent jihad, the radicals broke away from him. Later, they organised themselves under Riyaz Shahbandri a.k.a. Riyaz Bhatkal, and in 2004, started calling themselves al-Isabah. The name IM was first used by them in e-mail manifestoes, to distinguish themselves from foreign jihadists.
Forced to flee India in 2008, the group soon began fighting amongst itself. As per Yasin’s testimony to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Riyaz’s brother Iqbal Shahbandri a.k.a Iqbal Bhatkal married a Karachi hairdresser who did not wear a veil, infuriating the conservative Afif. There were problems too over money, with accounts not maintained of the crores allegedly pumped in by Pakistan’s ISI.
In the wake of 26/11, the ISI started instructing the IM to ensure that no big terror attacks were carried out in India. According to Yasin’s testimony, the frustrated group formed the Ansar ul-Tawhid, which made contact with jihadists hostile to the Pakistani state.
David Headley, an accused in the 26/11 case, said in his testimony to the NIA that the contact was made through former Pakistan army officer Abdul Rahman ‘Pasha’. In 2010, al-Qaeda commander Said al-Masri released a posthumous audio message claiming responsibility for the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune — making it clear that the two groups were by then in regular contact.
“Ansar ul-Tawhid is the single biggest terrorism threat to India,” said a senior intelligence official. “These guys will come home sooner or later, and bring with them skills that jihadists in India have never had.”