Sajeer Mangalasseri Abdulla, the head of the Islamic State (IS) volunteers from Kerala in Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province, is suspected to have been killed in the April 13 GBU-43/B bomb strike near Asadkhel, police and intelligence sources have told The Indian Express. Sources said that the information was based on communications between friends of the IS commander in Kerala, and his associates in West Asia and Afghanistan. In an off-the-record briefing to Kabul-based journalists on Tuesday, an Afghan official had claimed that 13 Indian nationals were among 96 IS insurgents killed in the strike. The official claimed that two Indians, named as Mohammad and Allah Gupta or Alagitha, were among the IS commanders killed.
However, Indian diplomats and intelligence officials, who spoke to The Indian Express, disputed the claims, saying no such information had been provided to them by their Afghan or US counterparts, a standard part of counter-terrorism cooperation. They said that the US and Afghan special forces were still fighting at the periphery of the Shadel Bazaar valley, over a kilometre from the edges of the cave-complex targeted by the bomb, making physical verification impossible. Kerala police sources said that there was nothing to indicate that families of any of the other residents of the state in Nangarhar, who include women and children living far from the combat zone, had learned of other fatalities among the group.
“There have been a lot of Telegram chat messages going back and forth seeking information,’’ one officer said. “But there is no hard news on losses or injuries, because the Kerala families on the ground have dispersed into the hills. Even the news on Mangalasseri could be true, or not.’’ Born to Kerala State Road Transport Corporation driver Mangalassery Abdulla and his wife, Subaida Abdullah, in 1981, Abdulla grew up in the Wayanad town of Sultan Batheri. He moved to the UAE in 2004, two years after earning a Bachelors degree in civil engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Calicut. He is believed to have been drawn to jihad by Islamist groups operating in the UAE, which claimed to be preparing to avenge the 2002 violence in Gujarat.
Hafesudheen Theke Koleth and Murshid Muhammed, part of the 25-strong group of Kerala émigrés to Nangarhar, had earlier been killed in US drone strikes. The information was conveyed by Ashfak Majeed Kallukettiya Purayil, who is believed to be living some distance from Shadel Bazaar. Abdulla was believed to have been a key figure, together with alleged Indian Mujahideen operative Muhammad Sultan Armar, to carve out a safe haven for training Indian jihadists in Afghanistan in the face of the collapse of the IS.
Armar, along with Abu Rashid, Shahnawaz Ahmad and Mirza Shadab Beig, had fled to Pakistan in the wake of the 2008 Batla House shootout, only to split with their leadership and leave for Syria. The plan, intelligence sources say, likely matured around September 2016, when under intense air assault, the IS began moving important foreign leaders and their families to al-Thakanah on the eastern outskirts of its capital, Raqqa.
Early this summer, key IS leaders were shifted, western sources say, to al-Mayadin, in Syria’s Deir es-Zor region, deep in the Euphrates valley. Even as leaders and their families were barred from leaving the city without permission, top foreign commanders were told to prepare to wage a long war in the periphery, using the cadre in their home countries rather than in the so-called caliphate.
Following this, instead of calling potential recruits to Syria, Abdulla had used his Facebook page to distribute instructions on making simple improvised explosive devices, and urged followers to stage attacks on Hindu nationalist leaders and Muslims critical of the jihadist movement. Those who demonstrated commitment, intelligence officials believe, were to be called to Afghanistan.