They were three IT engineers who started chatting over a period of three months last year — in between prayers at Masjid e Quba and Jamiya Mohammedia mosque in north Bangalore’s Thanisandra area — about the plight of Muslims in Syria.
The discussions spurred the three men — Muhammad Abdul Ahad, 46, Ibraham Nowfaal, 24, and Javeed Shaikh, 24 — into attempting to get to Syria via Turkey in January this year.
But the journey ended prematurely when they were taken into police custody in Turkey for 23 days.
On January 30, nine persons — the three men and six members of Ahad’s family who accompanied them — were deported to India from Turkey. While no charges were pressed, they were accused in the media of attempting to join the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
“We wanted to go to Syria and help in a humanitarian way because we saw the atrocities Muslims were being subjected to. It had nothing to do with the IS. We did not imagine it could cause so much trouble. We did not evaluate the magnitude of the situation before leaving — this is where we went wrong,” said Ahad, who hails from Chennai but lives in Bangalore.
Over the past four months, Ahad and his family have got back to leading a regular life. Ahad, who has a Masters degree in computer science from the Kennedy Western University in California, is creating software for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj. Four of his five children have resumed their education. In family circles, the stigma of the accusations has receded.
Religion remains central to Ahad’s existence, but he is no longer in touch with the two young engineers who quit well paying jobs in global IT and analytics company IHS Inc last year to head to Syria.
“We thought it would be easy to take permission from Turkish authorities. We did not know strict measures had been imposed on movement of people to Syria by Turkey,” Ahad said.
The group of nine had set out from Bangalore to Istanbul on an Oman Air flight via Muscat on December 23, with Turkish visas valid till January 15.
On January 5, they visited the town of Akcakale in southeast Turkey, bordering a region of Syria controlled by the IS.
According to Ahad, he ventured into a border post to seek permission to legally enter Syria, while the others waited in the taxi. After talking to him for a while, Turkish authorities took him and the others into custody, beginning their 23-day prison ordeal, Ahad claimed.
“We wanted to gain legal entry into Syria… and get some pictures, interviews to circulate among friends so we could raise funds to establish a charity or a hospital,” the software architect said.
“People attracted to the IS don’t know what Islam is… Islamic scholars are trying to prevent people from joining the IS, but this does not make news,” he said.
Ahad, who moved to Bangalore in 2014 so his daughter could study at the Jamiya Mohammediya madrasa for girls in Bangalore, met Nowfaal and Shaikh during his daily visits to local mosques.
“They were my friends. We talked about Syria when we met for prayers… I told them my plan and they were interested. I thought it would be good to have two young men with me,” Ahad said.
Instead, it led to the police in India asking him if he was the ring leader. “When I returned, they asked me if I was trying to be Rambo. I am just a regular family man,” Ahad said.
After they returned to India with the help of Indian and Turkish authorities, Ahad lost contact with Nowfaal, an engineer from Hassan, Karnataka, and Shaikh, an engineer from the Kakatiya university in Khamman, Andhra Pradesh.
“Their old numbers are not working. They don’t live in Bangalore… They do not come to the mosque,” Ahad said.
A small house near the Masjid e Quba which the two men had been sharing has been vacated. “They have gone to Saudi. We took the house from them,” said Naveed, the new tenant. The two men, who occasionally posted religious messages on Facebook, have not posted anything since they returned.
“The Turkish police investigated us for 23 days and released us. I sent an email to the Ambassador of India in Turkey, saying thank you for doing whatever you could to get us released,” Ahad said.