IT IS a regular summer afternoon at Malvani’s Gate No 7 in suburban Mumbai. Wajid Sheikh, a 25-year-old commerce graduate, is selling lemons from his cart. It’s an average suburban ‘naaka’ or junction, busy, filled with chatter about Pakistan staring at a possible exit in the T20 World Cup. Sheikh does not join the discussion. Then someone starts talking about the attack in Brussels — Sheikh still has no comment to offer. He takes a break only to offer evening namaaz at a Sunni mosque a few metres away. There, he meets Noor Mohammud, a long-time acquaintance and also a regular at the masjid. They share pleasantries stiffly at the gate, but still don’t engage in a conversation. Clearly, the two have realised, the hard way, the value of silence.
On December 15, 2015, Sheikh and Noor Mohammud fled the city with alleged handler Mohsin Sheikh, reportedly to join the Islamic State. The two visited three different states trying to get passports made to flee to Syria. But their plan was cut short when their photographs were flashed across news channels. The two then developed cold feet and returned separately. Both were interrogated and counselled by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). Months later, as normalcy returns slowly, the duo still feels it is better for them to maintain a distance from each other.
Six months ago, Sheikh was the most vocal when people gathered around his lemon cart, especially while discussing Islam. Sheikh would actively endorse the need to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and its ‘holy war’ for a Caliphate. Today, however, Sheikh refers to the IS as ‘Khawarij’ — members of a sect that deviated from mainstream Islam and came to be known as rebels.
“I was shown videos of how Assad (Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad) was bombing hospitals and homes, killing innocent women and children. I felt that was wrong and therefore decided to go to Syria to join the war,” Sheikh tells The Indian Express, speaking to the media for the first time since his return.
“On December 15, around 11 am, Noor and Mohsin met me at Gate No. 7 and told me we have to leave today. Mohsin told me to arrange for some cash. I obliged. I went home, had lunch with my wife and parents and stole my wife’s jewellery. I then sold the same to a goldsmith in the locality and pocketed Rs 18,000. Around 4.30 pm, I met the two near Gate 7 and we left to Karnataka via bus. I only knew that we were going to meet somebody who would help us get ‘documents’ to help us travel to Syria. Mohsin was coordinating and we were just taking his orders. We weren’t aware of this contact,” says Sheikh.
He continues, “We stayed overnight in Karnataka and then left for Hyderabad where we stayed with Noor’s relatives. From there, we travelled to Chennai where we stayed in a lodge close to the station. I don’t recall the name as all the arrangements were made by Mohsin.”
It is at this lodge that Sheikh and Noor saw their photographs being flashed on TV.
“We asked Mohsin what we were supposed to do next. He told us to wait at the lodge and excused himself by giving an alibi of meeting the ‘contact’. We waited for nearly two hours but he did not return. We then tried contacting him over his cellphone but it was not reachable. Noor then told me he was going to offer namaaz. Without informing him, I sneaked out and took the next train to Mumbai on December 22. On my way, I was caught by an ATS team,” he recalls.
Sheikh says he was taken to the ATS office in Nagpada where he was grilled from morning to night and later sent home.
“Around a week after my return, Noor was also brought to the ATS office. On certain occasions, we were grilled together. I learnt that like me Noor had also fled from Chennai,” he adds.
Taking a compassionate approach in the case, the state counter-terrorism squad decided to counsel the two. Two local clergymen were called in who these youth claim helped them understand “the right meaning of the various verses of Quran that were twisted by the IS to attract the recruits”.
“Tanvir and Ibrahim, the local clergymen, corrected our wrong notions. Through them I understood that IS is a ‘Khawarij’ and that their fight is hogwash. In the name of religion, they are spreading hatred,” says Sheikh.
Post his return, a lot has changed in the Sheikh household. Tired of the constant scrutiny by neighbours, the family has moved from the old house to a rented apartment in Malvani Gate No. 8. The house with two rooms and a mezzanine floor is equipped with a toilet.
“We did not have a toilet in our previous home. We are paying a heavy rent of Rs 8,000 per month but with both my son and I working as vendors we make around Rs 20,000 per month,” said Bashir, Sheikh’s father.
The Sheikh family throws a cordon around him; a few checks are conducted before one can gain an entry into the home. Sheikh prefers to stay in his bedroom.
Sheikh says he is a changed man now with family being his priority. “Mohsin used to show us the videos on his iPhone and our discussion used to revolve around Islam and ISIS. We watched many video, including that of a UK-based preacher who supported the fight called by ISIS. I also watched sermons given by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I was influenced by the manner in which Mohsin used to speak so passionately for IS and therefore I thought it was right to desert by wife and ageing parents and flee the country,” he said, while trying to smile at Fatima, his wife, who looked the other way.
“But now all I want is to live a normal life with my wife and parents. I am a five-time namaazi but I no longer go to the Ahle hadees masjid, but instead to a Sunni masjid to offer my prayers. I no more use a cellphone. If I have to make a call, I use my wife’s phone,” he adds.
A few meters away at Gate no 8, Noor Mohammud has just returned, picking up his daughter from a local balwadi (playschool). Like Sheikh, he too has shifted from his old home to a new rented accommodation. But unlike his old door-less house with a tarpaulin roof, this is a ‘pakka’ house with a bathroom.
A broken steel cupboard is the only furniture in his home. The kitchen comprises a cracked granite platform with old rags and plastic bags stocking bare essentials. A small two-piece dish rack adorns the wall opposite the granite platform. A few steel and thermocol dishes and glasses are randomly arranged on the dish rack.
“The ATS has played a major role in my rehabilitation. They have helped me move to this home, even paid the rent a couple of times. They have also connected me to a couple of local contractors because of which I get steady work,” Noor shares while sitting down for a chat in his one-room apartment.
“I don’t have a smartphone, so I used to watch the videos on Mohsin’s iPhone. I was attracted to the Arabic songs played by ISIS. It’s very catchy. I have not heard the sermons of Baghdadi or any other IS preacher. I don’t know what they mean but Mohsin used to say they were asking Muslim men across the world to fight and contribute in the noble war. I decided I should lend myself for his purpose and therefore decided to flee with others,” he narrates.
Noor says he also met another “IS handler” Rizwan Nawazuddin, “who used to visit Mumbai”.
“He met me at Haji Ali and in Malvani a couple of times. While we discussed Islam and ISIS, he used to talk to Mohsin in great detail about the plan,” he adds.
Khalid is one of the 14 persons recently arrested in a joint operation carried out by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and six state counter-terrorism agencies, including the Maharashtra ATS. Even the Malvani case has now been transferred to the NIA.
“On December 15, Mohsin visited my home and told me to collect some identity proof saying we have to make a ‘document’ that will help us travel abroad. I carried a photocopy of my Aadhaar card and left. I told my wife I would return in a few days,” he continues.
“However, in Chennai, when our photographs were shown on news channels, I got scared. Mohsin deserted us and became incommunicado. I then went to a masjid to offer prayers. There, I read this aayat — ‘if you kill one person, you kill the entire mankind, if you save one person, you save the entire mankind’. This jolted me and made me ponder that the journey that I had set on was un-Islamic. I then went to Gulbarga to my in-laws’ place and subsequently returned to Mumbai. After arriving in Mumbai, I presented myself before the ATS and they grilled and also counselled me,” adds Noor.
There were reports of him trying to commit suicide after his return. Noor does not come clean on why he made the attempt. “I don’t like to talk about it. All I remember that I was returning home when two motorbike-bound men attacked me with a razor. I got a bruise on my neck when I returned home. I had something and after that I don’t recall anything much. I don’t know why I had it but all I can say that till date I regret the decision of fleeing the country and leaving my wife and my four kids in the lurch,” he says.
According to him, seven more youths from Malvani were part of the ‘module’ led by Mohsin. They too are being counselled by the ATS. Like Noor, they too had plans to flee the country, with one of them also planning to take along his wife who had apparently agreed to join the AuT (Ansar-ul Tahwid), which is currently headed by former Indian Mujahideen member Shafi Armar alias Yusuf. The breakaway outfit has pledged its allegiance to IS.
“These are youths who are engineers, call centre employees and also those who work as vendors and businessmen. We all met at the masjid. But after our return, we all are being counselled by the ATS,” claims Noor.
A senior official from the agency confirms the claims made by Sheikh and Noor.
“This phenomenon is not restricted to Malvani Gate no 7 but has spread across the country. As law enforcers, our job is to distinguish between the active members, fence-sitters and passive sympathisers. If we find out that they don’t have much of a role to play, we counsel them,” says the senior ATS official.