An online recruiter who is at the centre of Islamic State (IS) recruitment plots in India used a combination of tactics to lure Indian youths into the terrorist organisation’s network — including prospects of travelling to Syria, finances, mobile phones, literature and religious guilt — online chats of the recruiter with some of the youths arrested in India have revealed.
The recruiter, Shafi Armar alias Shafi alias Yusuf al Hindi, 29, a former resident of Bhatkal in Karnataka, who is reported to be in Syria according to a recent NIA chargesheet on a nationwide IS recruitment plot, helped two Hyderabad youths travel to Syria in 2015, provided bombmaking documents to at least three others, and was in touch with around 300 Indian youths online between 2014 and 2016, the NIA’s probe into the IS plot has revealed.
As many as 20 people were arrested from Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Delhi and other places in January this year for links to the IS in separate cases by the NIA.
Investigations of the communications of the arrested men have shown that many of them were in touch with Shafi Armar — a former Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative who claimed to be the India media chief of the IS — via secure online messaging platforms like Skype, Trillian, Surespot and Telegram.
The online chats provide insights into the modus operandi of the recruiter, who worked for a while with the al-Qaeda and Taliban on the Af-Pak border before heading to Syria around 2015.
In December 2015, Shafi Armar had a lengthy online discussion on the Trillian messaging service with two youths he had appointed to leadership positions in the IS affiliate Junood-ul-Khalifa-al-Hind in India. The discussion among Mohammed Nafees Khan, 21, from Hyderabad, Mudabbir Shaikh, 33, from Mumbai, and Armar was about finances of the group, and Armar told the youths about his frugal existence on the Af-Pak border in 2013-14.
At one point, Mohammed Nafees Khan, who was using a ‘qasret.sahen’ Trillian ID, asked Armar, who was using the Trillian ID ‘farooq309’: “us wqt AQ is juden the na aap? (Were you associated with the al-Qaeda then?)”
Armar (farooq309) replied, “aq se bhi the T ke saat bhi, phir aq se aqeede aur manhaj he mamilem mai ikthilaf ho gaya. (We were associated with the al-Qaeda and the Taliban but later we broke ties with the al-Qaeda over some issues.)”
The NIA investigations have revealed that Nafees was introduced to Shafi Armar on Trillian as Gumnaambhai alias Yusuf by one Rizwan alias Khalid from Uttar Pradesh, who was arrested in January in Mumbai in a separate case for alleged recruitment of youths for the IS.
Armar began to slowly radicalise Nafees by sending him IS literature, and later asked him to travel around India to meet dozens of youths that Armar had contacted online. Nafees, according to the NIA, told a Hyderabad associate, Obedullah Khan, 33, that there were 300 Indians wanting to join the IS.
He also claimed that he was in touch with top leaders of the IS who wanted to set up a base in India, according to the NIA chargesheet.
Armar and Nafees allegedly helped two Hyderabad youths travel to Syria in 2015. One of these youths received Rs 1.7 lakh in his bank account from another Hyderabad youth named Abu Anas, so he could show he had requisite funds to travel to Turkey. The money was transferred back to Anas’s account in three instalments before the recruit entered Syria, the NIA found. Both Hyderabad youths are still suspected to be in Syria.
The Mumbai youth, Mudabbir Shaikh, met Armar online around May-June 2013 after he posted some comments on a page on Khilafat. Shafi introduced himself as a leader of the Ansar ul Tauheed (AuT) based on the Af-Pak border, and created a Skype account for Shaikh to communicate with him. In June 2014, Armar told Shaikh he had sworn allegiance to the IS and was proceeding to Syria. He subsequently went missing for three months. When he surfaced, he claimed to be in Syria, and said he had nominated Shaikh to be an IS follower.
Both Nafees and Shaikh were provided access to online documents on bombmaking by Shafi Armar, who asked them to fabricate IEDs, the NIA’s investigations have found.
Nafees was sent a link to a PDF document on the website justepaste.it with the password ‘dekho’. Nafees did manage to make a pipe bomb, the NIA has found.
The IS recruiter allegedly asked Shaikh to make a mobile phone timer for an IED by connecting the wires of the speaker of a mobile phone to a torch bulb, so that when the alarm goes off, the lamp lights up and produces an electrical charge for an IED. Such timers were very useful in fighting the Americans in Afghanistan, Armar allegedly told Shaikh during a chat.
Incidentally, it was a PDF document provided on justepaste.it by an IS-linked online operative identified as Abdul Khan that helped former SIMI operative Alamzeb Afridi, 34, carry out a bomb attack on Church Street in Bengaluru on December 28, 2014, in which a woman was killed. ‘Abdul Khan’ is suspected to be Shafi Armar himself, but this is yet to confirmed.
Another Indian youth arrested for links to the IS who was in touch with Armar online is Mohammed Aleem alias Mezbaan, 24, from Lucknow. Aleem contacted Armar alias Yusuf al Hindi on Facebook with the reference of one Asadullah from Aleppo in Syria, whom he had met during discussions on the IS on social media. Armar responded to Aleem, saying he was from Karnataka, and was the IS’s media chief.
According to the NIA, Armar created Trillian IDs for Aleem called ‘Crazzyboys’, and another called ‘Jantahoo’, and told him that he was using the ‘Gumnambhai’ ID on Trillian. Aleem was once tasked with translating Arabic written in English to Hindi, but he was not able to do it. Armar asked Aleem to work on improving English to Hindi translations and his speed of typing in Hindi.
The Bengaluru Church Street attacker, Alamzeb Afridi, too, was, as part of initiation into the IS, told to translate a speech of IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi from Arabic to Gujarati by his handler Abdul Khan, before being entrusted with the task of the December 28, 2014 bombing.
According to Afridi, Abdul Khan posted al-Baghdadi’s speech on his Facebook page, and after translating it to Gujarati, Afridi posted it on his own page where it was accessed by the recruiter. The man identified as Abdul Khan asked Afridi to to inscribe the words “Presented by Al-Isabah Media” on the Gujarati translation.
Al-Isabah Media is thought to have been a media outlet for IS propaganda run by Shafi Armar.
Another youth, Imran Khan, 25, from Aurangabad, who was arrested in January for links to the IS, allegedly met Armar alias Yusuf al Hindi on the Internet while browsing the Al-Isabah web site in 2013-14. Armar told Imran he was living on the Af-Pak border. Imran learnt later that Armar had moved to Syria. According to the NIA, Armar created Trillian IDs ‘tiger.boss’ and ‘abukhalid09’, and a Skype ID ‘sulaiman.2450’ for Imran to chat with him. Armar allegedly also sent Imran a link to a PDF document on justepaste.it via the sulaiman.2450 ID. The document was a guide in Urdu to making IEDs at home — which was found in the hard disk of Imran’s computer by the NIA this January.
Imran was allegedly in the process of creating an IED following directions in the PDF document, and had bought decoration lights, 9V batteries, GI pipes, electrical wires and a clock — and had sucessfully created a circuit. He had got firecrackers to use as explosives, but was caught by his family while experimenting with the IED and was forced to dump the material, the NIA has said.
The IS recruiter also appears to have used scare tactics and religious guilt to persuade recruits to sign up. In the case of Mohammed Hussain Khan, 36, of Mumbai, who met Armar on Facebook, and for whom Armar created the Skype ID ‘roll.rolli’, the IS recruiter said, “Humara karza ho gaya hai tum par agar aap mar gaye to Qayamat ke din Allah aap ko gunah dega. (You are now indebted to us; if you die, you will be held guilty on the Day of Judgment.)”
18-year-old Ashik Ahamed from West Bengal, who interacted with Armar online but has not been charged in the IS recruitment plot, was told that Indians should go to Syria to do Hijra, and bring Khilafat to India as well.
Armar, using the ID ‘Ahmed Ali’, told Ashik in a Trillian chat on April 16, 2015: “Ye Jang asal aqeede ke hain… yaane Islam aur Kufr ki… aur Islam bilkul wazaah din hain… Allah ne Quran main farmaya… yaha tak laro ke fitna (kufr ka qalba) khatam ho jaye. (This battle is one of conviction between Islam and the Kufr, and Islam is absolutely clear… and Allah has stated in the Quran, fight until the Kufr are finished.)”
On the same day, Armar told Ashik in another chat: “Sab se aham hota hain aqueedah jis ke sahi hone ke wajah se ham jannat jayenge aur agar aqeedah sahi na ho tho jahannam. (The most important thing is conviction, and if that is right we go to heaven, and if the conviction is not right then you go to hell.)”
The West Bengal youth did not have the money to buy a smartphone in which to download the messaging apps that Armar had recommended for him — so, he was bought a smartphone by Mohammed Nafees Khan of Hyderabad. The phone was delivered to Ashik last year, when Nafees travelled to Kolkata as part of efforts to establish direct contact with recruits found online by Armar.