On April 11, 2017, as dusk was settling over Aurangabad, policemen from Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) knocked on his door and asked him to go with them for an “urgent” investigation. He guessed why they had come.
He had been in touch with his childhood friend who is believed to have joined the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. And through this friend, he had spoken to an IS recruiter over a chat app on becoming a suicide bomber. On his Facebook page, he had changed his profile picture to the black-and-white IS flag and posted two messages that declared his affiliation.
That evening, his wife and parents watching, he feared the worst as he was driven away in a car — life behind bars, even death. But nothing prepared him for what came next.
At their office in Aurangabad, the ATS officers pushed a sheaf of papers towards him. It was a list of 240 questions but not about him and IS. They were questions no one had ever asked him.
Are you impulsive? Do you like going on roller coaster rides? Do you have an active fantasy life? Do you do things just for the thrill of it? Do you sometimes flatter people to get your way? For eight hours, the questions kept coming. Unknown to him, he was facing a psychometric test. And the questionnaire was to assess the degree to which he had been “radicalised” or how vulnerable he was to radicalisation. Then came the second surprise. He was sent home — asked to return every day until further instructions.
He was the latest entrant to the ATS’s “deradicalisation programme” under which the police say they are trying to pull people like him back from the edge.
According to Maharashtra Deputy Commissioner of Police Dhananjay Kulkarni, this three-year-old programme has “reintegrated” at least 114 young men and six women who were being wooed by IS. The ATS claims to have counselled 200 others, too.
Much of the programme is under wraps so The Indian Express spoke to several officers who run it, individuals who were put through it and their families to piece together the story of how police turned counsellors working with a hastily put-together roadmap with a clearly defined goal.
Traditionally, India has been an outlier in the jihadi recruitment business — al-Qaeda and now IS have few from India in their ranks. While experts point to several factors — robust democracy, political representation and a more inclusive form of Islam being some of them — senior officers cite Maharashtra’s deradicalisation programme as one tangible intervention.
In fact, Maharashtra’s programme is the only one in India to be run by a state police force and word-of-mouth has had police from Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat informally sounding them out to study the possibility of replicating the model.
So far, ATS records show, 93 people have been arrested in India for alleged links with IS. While 52 have allegedly travelled to IS conflict zones since 2014, 10 have returned, including Areeb Majid, who is being prosecuted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and is currently facing trial. He is in judicial custody in Mumbai.
Investigator say that Majid told them he was lured into a honey trap by a faceless woman on Facebook. The officers claim he married her online and went to Syria on her invitation to fight for IS. But, they claim, he could not find the woman. There are conflicting versions about why and how Majid returned to India, and his case is now being heard in a Mumbai sessions court.
The Aurangabad visit
In the Aurangabad case, which is illustrative of the contours of the programme, the visit to the youth’s home was followed by counselling customised to the results of the psychometric test, which was analysed by a Thane-based group of private counsellors.
For the next 15 days, the youth reached the ATS office at 11 am to “chat” until late in the evening. Sometimes it would be just one officer, at times there would be two or three. “Rather than formal sessions, we made it seem like informal chats. We would chat about his perception of the world. It was more like friends talking over tea,” an officer said.
The room in the ATS office had a large table where the youth sat across his counsellor. It also had workstations for ATS officers, which added to the informality of the setting. At least three officers involved in his counselling said the topics would range from his favourite Bollywood hero to key events in Islamic history.
The conversations would sometimes get heated. Once, said the official, the youth referred to a key event from Islamic history and claimed that injustice was done to Muslims — the officer responded by arguing that there was no reason to fight now over a conflict from centuries ago.
During the sessions, he was allowed to pray five times in a separate room. An officer said they served him tea and snacks and often, homemade food from their lunch boxes.
Gradually, he opened up. He said he was told by the online IS recruiter that he must leave India, which he referred to as the “land of disbelievers”. An ATS officer then intervened to point out that this was his own country, and asked whether he had ever been stopped from praying by anyone.
The youth also claimed to have been influenced by Maulana Syed Anzar Shah Qasmi’s speeches. Qasmi was arrested in 2016 for suspected links with Al Qaeda. One heated conversation ended when an officer pointed out that preachers who deliver hate speeches do so to exploit vulnerable minds and fulfil their own agenda.
During one session, the youth brought up another grievance: problems faced by Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The ATS officers told him his wife and four children were more important than any international issue. That was when he broke down to admit that his wife gets agitated when he leaves home to reach the ATS office and wondered aloud what her state would be if he had actually gone to Syria.
After he lost his job as a mobile phones seller in 2016, he confided, he could not even buy a football for his son. In response, an officer asked how he would fulfil their needs if he spent all his time watching propaganda videos.
‘He won’t leave us’
By then, the counselling team knew his mind was changing. He pledged that he would not betray his country. But the ATS officers played it safe, saying they did not trust him.
Citing the example of a doctor who was arrested for his IS links, an officer asked him to imagine what would happen if he spent the rest of his life in jail. At the same time, the officer pointed out that he would be risking his career if he let the youth go.
The youth then swore on his family and the Quran that he would never betray the officer’s trust. After 15 days of these conversations, he was called to the ATS office once every week, before the sessions tapered off to twice a month.
Speaking to The Indian Express, the youth’s wife said: “The day he told me that he wanted to join IS, I was shocked and at the same time I was scared. What if he leaves without telling us? I just told him that we won’t be able to live without him. But looking at his expression I understood that he won’t leave us and go.”
The youth, now 33, said: “I wanted to make Allah happy by sacrificing my life but I have realised that even Allah doesn’t want me to do this.”
(Next: How families played a role in helping ATS)