An NIA court in Kochi last week sentenced six accused in a case related to the so-called Islamic State to rigorous imprisonment of up to 14 years. Reports from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province suggest that ISIS fighters from Kerala are among the 600-odd militants who have recently surrendered before government forces.
Ten of the 30 cases that have been investigated — or are under investigation — by the NIA in Kerala are ISIS-related. Several accused have been arrested, and chargesheets have been filed in some of these cases. Some of those arrested were brought back to India from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and some were picked up for allegedly planning terror attacks in Kerala.
Recruitments allegedly happened through networks of families and friends; recruits typically came from particular rural pockets, where a local sympathiser of the terrorist group had influence. In some cases, brothers living under the same roof left for the “pilgrimage” together, along with their families.
ISIS’s Kerala numbers
Security agencies estimate that some 100-120 individuals from Kerala either joined, or tried to join, ISIS. Some of them moved to Syria or Afghanistan from the Middle East, where they were employed; others migrated from Kerala. Even in 2018, when ISIS was largely in retreat in Syria and Iraq, 10-odd people from Kerala made the journey.
Many of those who joined the supposed holy war were killed over years. In August 2019, the family of Muhammed Muhsin, an engineering student from Malappuram, got a message that their only son had been killed in a US drone attack in Afghanistan.
In 2014-15, security agencies identified 17 Indians who were suspected to have joined ISIS. Three of them were from Kerala — they had moved to Syria in 2013-14, when they were employed in the Middle East. In May-June 2016, some two dozen people from Kerala, including women and children, left to join ISIS. Investigation unearthed the Kasaragod module of the ISIS (most of those who went missing belonged to that district) and led to other modules, involving separate networks, each with its own traits and mission.
Members of the Kasaragod module moved to Afghanistan with their families “to escape from the land of the kafirs (non-Muslims)”.
Members of the Kannur module went, or attempted to go, to Syria to physically join the war on the side of the ISIS.
The third module is the so-called Omar al-Hindi module, named after Manseed Muhamed of Chokli in Kannur, alias Omar al-Hindi. Members of this group — who were convicted last month — were allegedly spread across India and the Middle East, and wanted to establish an ISIS “vilayat” in Kerala known as “Ansar-ul-Khilafa KL”.
The Kasaragod module
Security agencies stumbled upon this group in June 2016 after 24 people, mostly professionally qualified young men and women, went missing. Most of the men had suddenly turned deeply religious after learning about Islam from the Internet and social media. They followed the hardline Salafi Islam, kept away from mainstream Muslim society, and had no links with any political party. The core group converted three women and two men to their understanding of Islam, arranged for their weddings, and travelled to Afghanistan.
The NIA identified Abdul Rashid, an engineer and education activist, as the leader of this ISIS module. He was accused of converting a Christian, Sonia Sabastian, and taking her to Afghanistan. Yasmeen Mohammed Zahid from Bihar, who was arrested in Delhi in 2016 while trying to go to Kabul with her child, was Abdul Rashid’s second wife. An NIA court found her guilty last year; the Supreme Court upheld her conviction in August this year.
The NIA named 14 other members of this module. Many of them were, however, believed to have been killed in Afghanistan.
According to the NIA, Rashid and several others were expelled from the Al-Quma Arabic College in Colombo for advocating violent jihad. In Kerala, Rashid secretly worked to build support for ISIS, and motivated the other accused by showing them online propaganda material such as the ISIS magazine, Dabiq.
After reaching Nangarhar, Rashid remained in touch with several individuals in Kerala, encouraging them to leave India to join the outfit. Nashidul Hamsafar of Wayanad, who had tried to join Rashid, was deported to India by security agencies in Kabul in September 2018. This year, Riyas Aboobacker of Palakkad and Habeeb Rahman of Wayanad were arrested for their links with Rashid over encrypted social media platforms. Aboobacker had been in touch with Safran Hashim, the leader of the Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.
The Kannur module
Intelligence sources estimate some 40-50 individuals from Kannur, mainly from the Valapattanam region, have joined the ISIS in Syria. The men of this module were activists of the rightwing Muslim outfit Popular Front of India (PFI), and several families went en bloc to Syria. According to intelligence officers, militant elements within the PFI decided to break away after the Front’s political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India, was formed in 2009.
The key figure in the Kannur module is Shajahan Valluva Kandy, who had twice tried to go to Syria, but been sent back along with his wife and two children. Shajahan told the NIA he had joined the ISIS to establish Islamic Shariah law in the subcontinent.
Most of the 16 persons of the module listed as accused by the NIA are believed to be in Syria. Shajahan had been associated with the PFI since 2006, when the outfit was known as National Development Front. One of his PFI comrades, Muhammed Shameer, motivated him to join ISIS; Shameer too, moved to Syria. Shajahan identified 12 people from Kannur who he said had either moved to Syria, or been deported to India by Turkey.
In October 2017, five members of the module were arrested in Kannur. Turkish authorities had captured them while trying to cross over to Syria.
Another prominent figure of this group was UK Hamsa alias Taliban Hamsa. Hamsa’s confession to NIA exposed the alleged ISIS submodule in Wandoor, and led to the arrest of one Shaibu Nihar, who had allegedly attended jihadi classes in Bahrain. This man had unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria in 2016.
The Omar al-Hindi module
This group allegedly wanted to carry out terrorist attacks in South India and establish an ISIS unit in Kerala. The NIA court last week convicted six of the eight accused in the case, including the leader, Manseed Muhamed. Thirteen persons have been named as accused; the rest are absconding.
This group came into existence and operated through platforms such as Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. It was busted on October 2, 2016, after the NIA raided a secret meeting in Kanakamala in Kannur. The group had allegedly planned to attack foreigners, especially Jews, near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, besides prominent political leaders, High Court judges, senior police officers, rationalists, and Ahmadiya Muslims. They had allegedly tried to collect arms, poison and bombs.
Engineering graduate Shajeer Mangalassery, 30, was the “emir’’ of the group. He had moved to Afghanistan from the UAE in 2016, and used code to give instructions to associates in Kerala. In a secret chat group called “Bab al-Noor”, Shajeer had reminded his associates that the group was not meant for “chitchat”, and that their mission was to help the ISIS. According to the NIA, Manseed operated at the behest of Shajeer, who was killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan.
Subahani Haja of Thodupuzha in Kerala and a member of the group, had fought with the ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2015. He was trained by ISIS in Mosul, but had to return to India after he was injured in the war. He was arrested in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, and is now in judicial custody.
Don’t miss from Explained | Narwhal tusk: Once ‘unicorn horn’, now weapon that thwarted terrorist