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From anti-Islamist letter to jihad camp in Syria, a Srinagar youth’s journey

The letter ended, “Nobody cares, nobody listens, it starts in Kashmir and ends up there, no where in the world cares.”

“I disagree,” wrote Adel Fayyaz Waida in an angry letter to a Srinagar newspaper in the summer of 2010, in the midst of a communally charged mass movement spearheaded by Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “I am so fed up of this thing,” he continued, “do I have an option to confront him, so I can ask him, what are we going to get with these useless strikes?” The letter ended, “Nobody cares, nobody listens, it starts in Kashmir and ends up there, no where in the world cares.”

That summer, as Srinagar burned, Waida was just over 10,000 km from his hometown, in the second year of an MBA course at Queensland University in Brisbane. He was also poised to begin a journey, through romantic heartbreak, career hardship and ideological conversion, to a jihad camp in Syria.

Family and friends of Waida have for the past week been struggling to make sense of his journey, since news broke that he was being investigated for joining a support network for jihadists. Waida’s family, documents available with The Indian Express show, have told Jammu and Kashmir police they are in regular touch with their son, who they believe is working with an NGO in Turkey. They insist he has no connection with jihadist groups.

Australia’s intelligence services, though, have told their Indian counterparts Waida is involved in Islamist-linked networks whose support is crucial to Islamic State’s infrastructure. Last month, Australia froze bank accounts belonging to Sydney resident Mohammad Zuhbi, who admitted to raising over $40,000 for humanitarian work he claims to be conducting in Syria. Like Waida, Zuhbi lives in Turkey, but travels regularly to Syria, the Australian probe has found.

The Australian phone number the family provided to police, though, belongs to someone else — and Waida did not respond to e-mail and Skype requests from The Indian Express.

Home and away
Educated at New Era Public School in Srinagar’s Rajbagh neighbourhood, and then at Higher Secondary School in Jawahar Nagar, Wadia appears to have have had an unexceptional, if entitled, middle-class upbringing.
His father, Fayaz Ahmad Waida, ran a successful contracting business, which enabled the family to move from Srinagar’s congested Habbakadal neighbourhood to the safer, more spacious Rajbagh, one of Srinagar’s most expensive neighbourhoods, in 1996. The elder Waida also opened a supermarket chain, and funded his son’s education overseas.

The extended family has several children who have done well abroad — Muhammad Arif, a doctor at a children’s hospital in Australia; Zubair Shah, a public-relations executive in Dubai; Tahir Maqbool, an engineer also in the emirate — and it seemed Waida was headed down the same road.

Things began to change around 2011. Waida had by that time completed his MBA, and taken another year to pursue a masters degree in commerce at Griffith University, which has a chain of campuses on Australia’s Gold Coast. He did not, however, find full-time work. “He had a string of part-time jobs,” a relative told The Indian Express, “but his hopes of finding something permanent in Australia didn’t work out. I think it was a big blow for him.”

Waida also fell in love, with an Australian woman of Lebanese origin, and told his parents he planned to marry. The relationship ended in just a few months, however. “He was shattered,” the relative said, “perhaps because his professional and personal dreams were all unravelling.”

The summer of 2012, Australian investigators have told their Indian counterparts, saw Waida spending time with activists of Street Dawah Australia — a proselytising order that preaches Islam to passers-by. Several Street Dawah Australia leaders have died in combat alongside forces of Islamic State in Syria, among them Ahmad Moussali, Sheikh Mustafa al-Majzoub and Yusuf Ali, as well as Ali’s wife Amira Karroum.

“If the people of Syria, Palestine, Bangladesh, Mali and all the other Muslim lands under oppression were animals,” Street Dawah Australia says in one Facebook post, voicing sentiments not dissimilar to Waida’s 2010 letter, “the whole international community would come to help.”

The Street Dawah movement also has branches in several Indian cities, including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Lucknow  — though its activities consist solely of religious agit-prop, including telling Muslims to give up practices like wearing charms and amulets.

Last shift
In the summer of 2013, Waida returned home. He consulted several firms in New Delhi, family have told police, that specialise in finding jobs overseas. The only opportunity that presented itself, though, was a teaching job in Malaysia. Though it paid much less than Waida’s qualifications may have led him to hope for, he took the opportunity, and travelled to Kuala Lumpur in September 2013.

Less than a month into his time in Malaysia, though, Waida told his family he’d found a job with an NGO in Turkey. He shared few details, the relative who spoke to The Indian Express said. Waida’s father has also told media he does not know what it is called; Australia’s intelligence services, though, believe the NGO is in fact an Australian group closely linked to Islamic State.

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