In early January this year, the Bangalore police knocked on the doors of a semi-wooden bungalow called Baithul Aman on the main road leading to the Bhatkal port. They had with them a Bhatkal resident and homeopathy doctor, Dr Syed Ismail Afaque, 36.
In charges and a raid that stunned the town, Dr Afaque was accused of supplying explosives to the Indian Mujahideen.
Since the emergence of Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari, and their follower Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa alias Yasin Bhatkal, as the founders of IM, their town Bhatkal has struggled to shed off its terror tag. But the January arrests of Dr Afaque and four others were actually the first terror-linked detentions from the town.
In the past two years though, other Bhatkal men have been linked to terror.
In the course of a family dispute involving a property adjacent to their bright blue house ‘Al Sharique’, on the road to the scenic Bhatkal port, an elderly couple break down at a nephew’s words. “He called me a terrorist’s mother,” says Saeeda, stepping away from the fight. “A terrorist is someone who occupies another person’s property, not someone who does things in the name of his faith.”
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The 52-year-old and her husband Mohammed Syed Yousuf, 65, are parents of Anwar Hussain. On July 18, 2014, the media arm of a new al-Qaeda and IM-affiliated outfit, the Ansar-ul Tawheed fi Bilad al-Hind, tweeted that Anwar Bhatkal (alias Hussain) had been killed fighting in Afghanistan, becoming the first Indian ‘jihadist’ to die in the country.
Barely 2 km from the Bunder Road house, at the edge of colonies inhabited by Bhatkal’s native Nawayath Muslim community, a woman in her 80s peeps out of the window of a dilapidated two-storey house. Hajira is the mother of Abdul Khadir Sultan Armar, 39, and Shafi Armar, 28.
In March this year, a few Twitter accounts and websites known to be aligned with the Islamic State (IS) put out messages paying homage to ‘Abu Abdullah Al Hindi’ alias Sultan Armar. The Internet messages claimed that Abu Abdullah al Hindi had died on March 14, fighting for the IS in the battle for Kobane in Syria.
In April, five men were picked up from Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh and accused of being members of allegedly the IS’s first known jihadi cell in India. Intelligence sources said they had all been recruited by Hajira’s younger son, Shafi Armar.
Earlier, in September 2014, Afif Jilani alias Mota of Bhatkal was alleged to be the new leader of the IM, replacing Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari.
All the new names have emerged since the August 2013 arrest of Yasin Bhatkal. Many of them old friends of Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari — attending religious discourses or debates organised by the brothers in Bhatkal in 2003-04 — they used to work in the UAE, Oman or Saudi Arabia. Then, one by one, acknowledge their families, between 2009 and 2013, they broke all ties with them.
According to a chargesheet filed in September 2014 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a grand conspiracy case against 20 alleged IM members, the founders of the banned group summoned former associates working in the Gulf to join them in Pakistan around 2009 to bolster their ranks.
In that list of six, apart from the Armar brothers and Anwar Hussain, are said to be Afif Jilani, 41; Mohammed Saleem Ishaqui alias Bigadu, 36; and Mohammed Farhan Hussain, 30. Five of them are identified in the NIA chargesheet as “Sultan @ Maulla, Salim Ishaqui @ Shajad, Shafi alias Shabar, Afif @ Mota Bhai and Farhan @ Jabroodh”.
Investigating agencies also say that following his arrest, Yasin Bhatkal told investigators Anwar was being prepared by Riyaz Shahbandari to be a suicide bomber.
“I don’t know where they are,” Hajira says, of Sultan and Shafi Armar, the IS’s alleged Indian spearheads. “My sons don’t send me any money. They were in Muscat for over 10 years. Around five years ago they stopped communicating.”
She shares the rundown house near NH-17 with Sultan’s wife, his child and her youngest son, who works in a factory. Sultan was an Imam who received his religious schooling at the Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow, before moving to Muscat.
Anwar Hussain’s parents Saeda and Yousuf say they thought the 38-year-old, their eldest son, was still in Dubai with his wife, working as a taxi driver. They lost touch with him two years before his suspected death. “He never provided for us,” says the mother.
Saaeda and Yousuf held on to hope for a long time. The NIA still has Anwar’s photograph in its gallery of wanted terrorists. But now, Yousuf admits, they have no reason to believe their son is alive. “We spoke with the NIA and police. They asked us to perform our rites for the dead. We have done it,” he says.
Saeeda consoles herself saying “what Allah gives, he takes away also” and that “Anwar believed what he was doing was religious service”. However, she adds, “Our lives are ruined. I cry every day for him.”
Mohammed Farhan Hussain’s family lives behind the Tuba mosque, around a kilometre from the port, in the heart of the Muslim colonies in Bhatkal. He is one of seven children of 70-year-old businessman Mohammed Faroque.
Through locked grills to the verandah of their house, surrounded by a tall cream wall, an aunt, Rubina, says, “He went to Dubai five years ago to be with a sister, but disappeared. His parents worry constantly. His father has developed heart problems.”
Farhan was studying to be an Islamic teacher in Bhatkal when he went to Dubai.
In the streets around the Tuba mosque, few are aware of Farhan’s “disappearance”.
The family of Mohammed Saleem Ishaqui, who left his home in the largely middle class Mugdom Colony to work in Dubai in 2005-06, says they have not heard from him for the last one year or so.
His family has moved out of the old ‘Ishaqui Mansion’ to live in a Karnataka Housing Board home outside the Nawayathi part of the town. A long-term acquaintance of the Shahbandaris from their days in Bhatkal, Ishaqui, according to the NIA, was probably one of the first to leave Dubai to join the brothers in Karachi.
The sixth man said to have followed the Shahbandari brothers to Pakistan, Afif Jilani, is the eldest son of one of Bhatkal’s most prominent citizens, Dr Hassan Bapa M T, 74. A former Unani doctor and the principal of a college in Mumbai for over 15 years, Dr Bapa was once a member of SIMI.
Their Baithul Aman house is located around a kilometre from Anwar Hussain’s family’s, and close to the town square.
The Bangalore police have now dubbed Afif the new Pakistan-based leader of the IM, sidelining Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari.
Dr Bapa says Afif used to live with his family in Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE and taught computers in an English-medium school. “Around five-six years ago, he told us he was moving to Saudi. Since then there has been no contact. Something must be wrong otherwise he would not go away.”
The 74-year-old who lives with his two younger sons and a daughter also believes Afif may have gone into hiding after the wrongful arrest of the younger brother of Yasin Bhatkal, Abdul Samad, on return from Dubai in 2010.
Dr Bapa says Afif feared police since the time he was a SIMI member and was roughed up when they lived in Mumbai. “Afif was tortured by policemen who were looking for his friend Abdus Subhan Qureshi (also a wanted terrorist),” he says.
“They are saying Afif is the new IM leader. When his wife and children are with him, will he get involved in terror activities?” says Afif’s elder sister Iffat.
Dr Bapa, however, admits Afif knew Iqbal and Riyaz Shahbandari when they were all in Bhatkal.
In early January this year, Dr Bapa was home when the Bangalore police arrived at his doorstep with Dr Syed Ismail Afaque, a distant nephew.
They told him Dr Afaque, who is married to a Pakistani, had been meeting up with Afif during visits to Karachi, and had been instructed by the latter to help the activities of the IM in India.
A few days earlier, the Bangalore police had raided a single-storey house on the Jamiyabad Road in Bhatkal and seized a cache of explosives, which they now said had been stashed by Dr Afaque. The house belongs to Dr Afaque’s cousin Abdul Suboor, 24, an MBA student who also had a small dairy business in the town. Suboor’s parents were away in Kozhikode for a kidney donation when police came.
The Bangalore police say Dr Afaque procured explosives under the pretext of using it for legitimate activities like fishing and supplied them to IM members.
“They brought him (Dr Afaque) in here and he pointed to where he used to sit in our living room during religious discourses. Those were open discourses and there was nothing secret about them,” says Dr Bapa.
There were protests in Bhatkal following Dr Afaque’s arrest, with the Majlis-e-Islah Wa Tanzeem, a group of elders of the Nawayath Muslim community, threatening to shut down Bhatkal. Police later managed to assuage their concerns.
Suboor and Saddam Hussein, a 36-year-old father of three, were Dr Afaque’s accomplices in procuring and supplying explosives, according to the Bangalore police.
Hussein is incidentally the only non-Nawayath Muslim to have figured in terror investigations here. Of Deccani origin, Hussein dealt in scrap to provide for his poor family, including a one-month-old child.
“He was out distributing wedding cards for his sister’s marriage when police picked him. My husband is not the kind of person to do anything illegal,” his wife Saheera says crying at their modest single-room home, located in a poor corner of Azadnagar.
Along with Dr Afaque, Suboor and Hussein, the Bangalore police also arrested Riyaz Ahmed Sayeedi, 32, another resident of Bhatkal, soon after he had cleared security check at Mangalore airport to catch his flight to Dubai, where he worked at a construction materials company.
Sayeedi’s family lives in a small middle-class house in the Nawayath Mugdom colony. He was visiting India because his wife had delivered his second child 10 days earlier.
“He has lived in Dubai for 10 years. He is the sole breadwinner of the family and completely innocent,” Sayeedi’s elder sister Nafeesa says. She adds that while Sayeedi’s newborn is ailing, his father has taken ill since the arrest.
About a kilometre from the Suboor home where the Bangalore police claims to have found explosives is a small playground used for daily practice by a local cricket team, the Azad Nagar Friends Association.
Sports is a big source of entertainment in Bhatkal, with cricket teams and soccer teams for every lane, separate Hindu teams and Muslim teams, as well as highly competitive local leagues.
Dr Afaque and a younger brother, Imran Lanka, were well known among these leagues for both their sporting talent and social concerns.
“My brother is a pious man. Nowhere does the Quran say you can kill people. He would never get involved in such activities,” says Imran, 32, a lawyer.
The Karnataka police may be targeting Dr Afaque because he filed RTIs and complaints against policemen, Imran adds.
“It is an arrest based 100 per cent on evidence available regarding his involvement in providing explosives,” counters Alok Kumar, ACP (Law and Order) in Bangalore. Police claim Dr Afaque has admitted to supplying explosives to the IM several times since 2010.
Investigating officials attest similar evidence against the others.
When the message of his “death” in Syria appeared, Sultan Armar was already on the NIA’s most-wanted terrorists list. He and brother Shafi were alleged to be in the ranks of an IM unit vacillating between al-Qaeda and the IS in early 2014.
Sultan and Shafi are said to have set up the online IS media unit Al Isabah that announced Anwar Hussain’s “death”. Sultan, officials allege, was also the masked man identifying himself as Moulana Abdul Rahman al Nadwi al Hindi, who swore allegiance to IS ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, in a video in 2014.
Shafi has an Interpol Red Corner Notice against him. The NIA says he has expressed interest in joining IS in chats with IM associates. Apart from the Ratlam arrests, Shafi’s name has figured in one other attempt to allegedly recruit Indian Muslims for jihad over Facebook in recent times. Three youths arrested in Rajasthan in March last year for alleged links with the IM were reportedly scoped out by Shafi.
As per the NIA chargesheet, Farhan Hussain was tasked by Riyaz Shahbandari to collect reports appearing in the media about the situation of Muslims in India and the activities of the IM. Farhan, according to the NIA’s submissions in court, “wanted to travel to Syria for religious war”.
Saleem Ishaqui is alleged to be a master forger used by the IM to create fake documents for its operatives in India and Nepal to access funds. In charges brought against him, the NIA says Ishaqui “volunteered to work along with international terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda” and, between December 2012 and January 2013, was sent to Afghanistan by Riyaz, “where he attended training for 20 days on timer devices used in Improvised Explosive Devices”.
Sayeedi, police sources said, was a conduit used to send money, messages and material to IM men in India and vice-versa.
Nearly 60 per cent Muslim, Bhatkal is a town of 45,000 people, largely prosperous on account of a remittances economy and nearly 87 per cent literate.
In one tradition in Bhatkal, a Nawayath Muslim family’s token permission is sought every year by a Hindu temple trust for a chariot procession because a Shahbandari family once funded the repairs of the chariot, says Dr Md Hanif Shahab, the former general secretary of the Majlis-e-Islah Wa Tanzeem.
Ismail Shahbandari, the father of Iqbal and Riyaz Shahbandari, talks about such traditions as well. “When a Hindu neighbour’s daughter got married, we would lend our jewels,” he says, of their life in Mumbai in the 1990s. “It all changed after the Babri Masjid incident.”
Mother Zubeida, 63, adds, “We were not affected but we saw a lot of things. It may have had an impact on my sons.”
Afif’s father Dr Hassan Bapa too blames right-wing groups. “Nowhere does the Quran teach us to go against humanity. It does say Muslims must defend themselves. If they did not trouble us so much, there would be none of this,” he says.
The once impressive Shahbandari family home called Fatima Manzil, just off NH 17, is now a crumbling cottage. Ismail and Zubeida live there with Riyaz’s wife Nausha Ismail.
Zubeida says she doesn’t know how long she can hold on. “My husband sells clothes to support us. We have had no communication with our sons for eight-nine years. It is a horrible thing to have no contact with your children. My tears have dried up crying over them.”
Dr Afaque’s brother Imran says there is not much they can do till the chargesheet is filed.
“This is what happens under laws like the UAPA and POTA. We wait and watch.”