Mohammad Shafi Armar, a one-time Karnataka resident charged by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) with playing a key role in Islamic State (IS) operations targeting India, has been named a specially designated global terrorist by the US, a statement released by that country’s Treasury Department said on Thursday. The designation prohibits “any transaction or dealing” with sanctioned individuals.
The statement also sanctioned three other alleged IS figures, Bahrain national Mohammed Isa al-Binali, Iraqi Umar al-Kubaysi, and Belgian Oussama Ahmad Atar as specially designated global terrorists, among dozens similarly sanctioned in recent months.
Intelligence sources said it was not known if the four men were in any way linked, but said al-Binali was a former Bahrain Ministry of Interior officer, who appeared in a 2014 IS video calling on subjects of the kingdom to rebel. Al-Kubaysi owned Al-Kawthar, a money exchange also sanctioned on Thursday, which is alleged to have handled some $2.5 million in IS funds between late 2015 and early 2016.
The Treasury Department statement gives no details of the basis on which it designated Armar, but one of the aliases it cites — ‘Anjaan Bhai’ or ‘Unknown Brother’ — was one of several used by the alleged terrorist. Government sources said that the fact that the designation had been made by the Treasury Department meant that the US saw Armar primarily as a financier of IS networks in India rather than as an operational terrorist.
In 2015, the NIA has said in legal documents, Armar used the alias to communicate with Mumbai resident Mudabbir Ahmed Sheikh, who is now being tried on charges of attempting to set up an IS network with over Rs 1 million as well as operational guidance. A section of the media had incorrectly reported that Armar had been killed in an air strike last year.
Armar emerged as a key figure on the jihadi landscape after the death of his brother, Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar, during the battle of Kobane in 2015. The older Armar brother had been a founding member of Indian Mujahideen (IM). In 2008, following the arrest of several of its members, many leaders and cadres fled to Karachi, including both the Armar brothers.
In 2014, though, the older Armar led a rebellion by key IM members against the Karachi leadership. Their new Ansar al-Tauhid group first based itself at the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s training camps in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and then, after relocating to Raqqa, called on Indian Muslims to join the IS in a series of propaganda videos.
Last year, a video released by the group showed that it not only included several fugitive IM figures, like Mohammad Sajid, but also Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, one of the first four Indian youths known to have joined the IS in Syria. In addition to the Mumbai network allegedly led by Mudabbir Sheikh, Armar is charged by the NIA with having recruited figures alleged to have set up IS networks in Ratlam, New Delhi and Rourkela.
Born in Bhatkal, both brothers grew up in a pious family with neo-fundamentalist religious leanings. Like his older brother, Shafi Armar was sent to Nadwat-ul-Ullema seminary in Lucknow after their high school education. Nadwat-ul-Ullema theologians are among few in India to have backed the IS. They are, according to the seminary’s web page, to acting against “Western influences, often forcibly imposed upon the world of Islam”.