THIS Sunday morning, as K F Vincent’s family and neighbours were preparing to head to church, his first grandchild was about to be born in a small village with no electricity or running water — 2,670 km away. The fact that the ageing Palakkad patriarch’s two sons lived amid the diaspora wasn’t unusual. The details, though, were — and that ensured there were no celebrations in the Vincent family home.
Bexin Vincent, the newborn’s father, is among 21 Kerala residents, eight of them minors, who left India earlier this year to live with the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan’s war-torn Nangarhar province — a decision that has placed him, his wife, and child in the path of United States B52 bombers targeting the jihadist group.
“The life of a mujahid here is just a few months long,” the group’s leader, Abdul Rashid, said in a Telegram message to a friend, seen by The Indian Express. “The rewards are in the next life.”
In a text to his father, informing him of the still-unnamed grandchild’s birth, Bexin had much the same message, urging him to embrace Islam, and focus on rewards of the afterlife.
Eleven weeks after the Kerala families disappeared into Afghanistan, investigators still have only a sketchy understanding of their journey. The families, all linked to Rashid’s neo-fundamentalist preaching circle, travelled in smaller groups to Abu Dhabi, Muscat, and Dubai. From there, they obtained visas to Tehran, claiming to be pilgrims wishing to visit Islamic religious sites — a tactic used earlier by the four young men from Thane who became the first Indians to join the IS in Syria.
In Iran, India’s intelligence services have learned, the group from Kerala obtained visas to visit Afghanistan, again citing a desire to visit pilgrimage sites. The Indian Embassy in Kabul, though, has been told the visas were never used, suggesting that the group crossed into Afghanistan using the services of IS traffickers operating through the Iran-Afghanistan or Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Early this month, Delhi airport immigration authorities detained Rashid’s first wife, Bihar-born Yasmeen Ahmad, as she attempted to board a Kabul-bound flight with her five-year-old child from an earlier marriage. Yasmeen, police say, told authorities her husband had told her that a man would be waiting for her in Kabul to bring her to Nangarhar. Rashid had left with his second wife, Ayesha, who converted to Islam from Christianity a year ago, along with their two-year-old daughter.
”The Indian government told Afghan authorities that we are very keen to know all that is possible about the families, and to secure the return of the women and children, at least,” said a senior Indian diplomat.
The story of Nimisha Kumar — or Fatima, after she converted and married Bexin though she never filed the paperwork needed for a new name — shows that the road to IS was complex, driven by ideological commitment and personal dislocation.
According to police documents and a letter from Nimisha’s mother, Bindu Kumar, to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the young student converted to Islam in 2013, hoping to marry a fellow student she met at the Zephyr coaching institute. But Nimisha became pregnant, and her boyfriend, who had secured admission in a medical college in another city, refused to marry her.
Following the heartbreak, and an abortion, she began working at a charity that worked with children affected by the controversial insecticide endosulfan.
There, Nimisha is believed to have encountered the work of Mumbai-based preacher Zakir Naik who advocated for a rigid moral order opposed to premarital sex and individual romantic choices. Her attraction to Naik led her to an proseletysing order called Sathya Sarani.
It was through Sathya Sarani that Nimisha met Rashid, a teacher at the Peace International School, also run by a proseletysing order. Rashid is alleged to have run a Salafist network, drawing converts from other religions and young Muslims disaffected with the traditional practices of their parents.
Bindu says she knew nothing of her daughter’s plans — a sign of the distance that grew between them after her abortive legal attempt to stop her marriage. The last time they spoke, Nimisha said she and her husband were going to Sri Lanka. Later, there was a voice message saying the two were headed somewhere their Indian phones would not work. On June 3, 2016, she got a text message: “Mom’s sweet daughter going to bed, kisses.”
The families of Rashid’s Muslim recruits knew little more. Abdul Rehman claims his two sons, Ejaz and Shiyas, were indoctrinated by the schoolteacher through classes preaching individual jihad. “I shouted at him once and told him to get out,” Rehman told local media.
Ejaz left with Rihaila and his two-year-old child; Shiyas, with his wife. Their relative, Ashfaq Majid, his wife Shamsia, and their infant, are also among the missing.
Indian intelligence services believe Rashid was asked to head to Afghanistan, instead of Syria, because of the growing difficulty of travelling into war-torn Raqqa through Turkey or Iran. Entry into Afghanistan is relatively easy, especially for Indians.
The Ansar-ul-Tawhid fil’ Bilad al-Hind, the core of the estimated 67 jihadists from India now with the IS in Syria, served in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands and spent years with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Islam fighters who have now rebranded themselves the IS in Khorasan or Afghanistan.
Faced with the Pakistan Army’s offensive against the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam, a number of Pakistani jihadists settled in Nangarhar’s Kot, Deh Bala, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts — even opening madrasas for their children in Achin and Nazian.
In the summer of 2015, fighting broke out between the Taliban and IS, after the former asked the migrant jihadists to close their madrasas and courts, and confiscated their weapons consignments. But subsequently, the Taliban lost much of the territory it gained in Nangarhar to an IS counter-offensive.
Thousands of villagers from the valley fled their homes to escape the fighting, leaving behind cattle and farms — seized, thereafter, by IS fighters arriving from Pakistan’s Orakzai and Bajaur agencies, who are creating a proto-state.
In the meantime, the US began bombing IS targets in the area with growing intensity. Earlier this month, two B52 strategic bombers based in Qatar joined the effort, operating after over a decade in Afghan skies, including over Nangarhar, where K F Vincent’s grandchild was born two days ago.