Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, one in a four-member cell of students from Maharashtra’s Thane who became the first Indians to join the Islamic State, has been killed fighting near Raqqa last week, his family has been told by an anonymous caller. Sheikh was the last surviving member of the cell, following the arrest of Areeb Majeed, and the killing of Sahim Tanki, and Aman Naim Tandel.
“Late Tuesday, my wife received a call from a foreign number from someone who told us our son had been killed,” said Dr Tanvir Sheikh, Fahad Sheikh’s father. “She was distraught, and did not note down the details the caller offered about what had happened and where.”
National Investigation Agency sources said Dr Sheikh had telephoned the organisation immediately after receiving the call, adding that they were now working to trace its origin.
Sources, however, said there were no means available to independently verify the circumstances of Sheikh’s death, given violent and anarchic conditions in the area.
Fahad Sheikh had left for Iraq in May 2014, as part of a pilgrimage group, travelling with Majeed, Tanki and Tandel. The four men then drove from Baghdad to Mosul, before disappearing into Islamic State-held territory. Family members said Sheikh, an engineering student, had misled his parents into believing he was leaving home to take up a job in Mumbai’s Bandra area.
Little has become known of Fahad Sheikh’s motivations, and how he financed his trip to Iraq. Having graduated in mechanical engineering, Sheikh had completed a course in air-conditioner fitting and maintenance, and was seeking employment at the time he left for Iraq. “He had a job offer paying Rs 300,000 a month from Kuwait,” Dr Tanvir Sheikh said. “I cannot understand why he betrayed us.”
Aman Tandel, who is thought to have been killed in a December 2016 airstrike, appeared in a propaganda video released by the Islamic State last summer, vowing to return to India “with a sword in hand, to avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, in Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar”. In the video, he paid tribute to Shaheem Tanki, on the eve of graduating from high school at the time the group left India, who had been killed in combat earlier the same year.
Areeb Majeed, who was also an engineer, returned to India after being injured in combat, and is now being prosecuted by the NIA.
Intelligence sources said Sheikh may have been among the 300-odd jihadists who staged a last stand against Kurdish forces at a Raqqa sports stadium and a hospital, even as their commanders debated whether to surrender to forces that were closing in.
Forces from the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or Peoples’ Protection Militia, are believed to have killed dozens of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters in the last days of the battle for Raqqa, after receiving informal instructions not to take prisoners.
Brett McGurk, top United States envoy to the anti-Islamic State alliance, recently told Dubai based al-Aan television that his “mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country and came into Syria, they will die here in Syria”. “If they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die in Raqqa,” he added.
France’s Defence Minister, Florence Parly, also appeared to allude to a take-no-prisoners policy, telling Europe1 radio “if the jihadis perish in this fight, I would say that’s for the best”.
Even though European governments have publicly said they are committed to protecting the legal rights of their nationals fighting with the Islamic State, none has issued a statement expressing concern about their fate.
The fate of several other Indians known to have been in jihadist-held territories now recaptured by the Syrian government and Kurdish forces remains unknown.
Former Mumbai eye-hospital worker Abu Rashid, wanted by the NIA for his alleged role in the Indian Mujahideen’s urban terror strikes, was among those who appeared in the Islamic State video, warning the Government of India that he would soon return to “avenge every crime that has been committed against Muslims”.
Muhammad ‘Bada’ Sajid, similarly sought by the NIA for being a member of the Indian Mujahideen, is also missing.
A Telegram blog run by Abu Thahir, a 28-year old Kerala resident who served as a stringer for the Islamist publication Thejas before becoming an al-Qaeda propagandist, has had no new posts in weeks.
India’s intelligence services say they have no word on several Indian Mujahideen jihadists suspected of having been in Syria, including Shahnawaz Ahmad, a Unani doctor and the son of a Samajwadi Party politician in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh; and students Mohammad ‘Bada’ Sajid, Mirza Shadab Beig. Karnataka Muhammad Shafi Armar, a key figure in recruiting Indian jihadists for the Islamic State, is also missing.
“There’s a strong possibility some of these individuals may already be in Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s north-west,” a senior Indian intelligence officer said. “However, no-one has eyes on them, and to the best of our knowledge, they have not made contact with their families.”