From the window of his apartment, Ejaz Badruddin Majeed stares out over the grimy suburban heights of Kalyan, willing himself, it seems, to see past the oceans and the deserts, all the way to Iraq — and to his son.
“(He) had asked me for a motorcycle and I said, no, not just yet. He didn’t say anything, but perhaps that’s why he went away,” says the quiet, greying doctor. Adding, moments later, that perhaps that’s not why his son, Arif Fayyaz Majeed, went away.
He talks about a handwritten letter his son, an engineering student, wrote and left behind at home saying “fighting has been enjoined upon you” and telling his mother that the “angel of death” will ask him why he didn’t migrate to “Allah’s land.” In the letter, the son tells his family, “May we all meet in Paradise.”
Arif is believed to be fighting with Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) along with Thane residents Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, Aman Naim Tandel and Shaheen Farooqi Tanki — all young men in their twenties, with no known past involvement in radical Islamist politics.
Like Ejaz Majeed, parents of these three men have filed missing persons complaints with the Kalyan police which have been accessed by The Indian Express. Arif’s father has also handed over a copy of his son’s “farewell letter” to the police.
For weeks now, the media’s focus — and the government’s — has been on Indian workers trapped in Iraq and how to get some of them home. The story of the young Indians who have headed into the carnage though, has passed untold.
Fahad Sheikh, a student of engineering, is, like Arif Majeed, the son of another Kalyan-based doctor Maqbool Ahmad Sheikh. Aman Tandel was also an engineering student in Navi Mumbai and the son of Nayeem Ismail Sheikh who works with a private firm. Shaheen Tanki was working at a call centre.
Iraq’s intelligence services have told their Indian counterparts they believe these men had joined ISIS but have no word on where they might be.
Four other young Thane men living in the United Arab Emirates, sources told The Indian Express, are also suspected to have volunteered to fight with ISIS. Three of these men are believed to have returned to their homes, while a fourth is thought to have been killed in combat.
“I want to meet (External Affairs Minister) Sushma Swaraj or (Home Minister) Rajnath Singh”, Arif’s father Ejaz Majeed told The Indian Express, “and ask them to punish the people who seduced our children to participate in this madness. I want to ask them to warn other parents to watch out for their children being led astray. I want to beg them, also, to please help bring these children back. Please help me meet them.”
The families of the other three missing men did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
Police sources have told The Indian Express that the four Kalyan men flew to Baghdad on May 23 as part of a group of 22 pilgrims intending to visit religious shrines in Iraq. Arif called his family from Baghdad on May 24, apologising for having left without telling them. He claimed he had travelled in the hope of finding a job there. Then, he phoned again on May 25, this time to reassure his family he was well.
Late that evening, other pilgrims on the trip have told investigators, the four Kalyan men hired a taxi to Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad that has emerged as the epicentre of Iraq’s lethal insurgency. Then, the men went silent. Iraqi intelligence officials say Arif Majeed’s cellphone connected to a tower in the Mosul area — and went dead.
Investigators have made little progress in establishing what drove the men or precisely how they made their plans. However, police believe the men paid for their tickets with money saved from their allowances and student fees. “Their radicalisation seems to have taken place online,” a Maharashtra Police official said, “with news of atrocities in the region inflaming their passions.”
Last year, Pakistani al-Qaeda ideologue Asim Umar called on Indians to join the global jihad. The ISIS, too, cited India as key concern for global jihadists. In internet chat rooms where Islamists congregate, messages have been posted calling on Indians to join up, to prepare themselves for what’s being described a coming communal apocalypse.
Internet propaganda on the wars and Iraq and Syria has drawn thousands of young people from distant countries to the conflict. Hundreds of volunteers from Europe, the United States, and Australia have been reported to be participating in the fighting, along with some numbers of Pakistani nationals.
In his letter, Arif Majeed appears to reject his family’s values. “I cried when I saw you all sinning, smoking cigarettes, taking interest, watching TV, illegal sexual intercourse, living luxurious lives, intermingling of sexes, not praying, not growing beards.These things will lead to you burning in the hell-fire,” he says (letter edited throughout for clarity).
Arif Majeed had harsh words, in particular, for his sister, and female cousins, who all watched television, “a professional way to ensure nudity, lewdness, obscenity and disbelief prevail. It is a major sin. In it is music, which is an instrument of Satan.”
“He was a good boy,” says Arif’s father. “He was very religious, never spent time in bad company, never chased after girls, never seemed attracted to violence”
“O’ Mother,” he wrote, “the sun is setting in the backyard of our house, behind the mountain and I have told my friend that we will meet there for our greatest journey. It is a blessed journey for me because I don’t want to live in this sinful country. At the time of my death, the angel of death will ask me why I did not make hijra (migrate) to Allah’s land, which is spacious.”
‘I cried when I saw you all sinning’
Arif Majeed (above) left behind a letter that his father has turned to the police. In the letter, he writes: “At the time of my death, the angel of death will ask me why I did not make hijra to Allah’s land.”
* Arif is among four who, Iraqi investigators believe, broke away from a pilgrims’ group of 22 from Mumbai. He called his family on May 24. Investigators say Arif’s phone went dead near Mosul.
* Another group of four Thane men living in the UAE are also suspected to have joined ISIS, one of them is feared killed in combat.