Baghdadi is Dead, But Islamic State's 'Holy War' in God's Own Country is Far From Over

News18.com

The most powerful man at the helm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) is dead. Last week, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a night-time raid by US special forces in Barisha, a village in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib. It was under the leadership of al-Baghdadi that ISIS became one of the most brutal armed groups in modern history and, at its peak, its self-declared caliphate covered territory across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.

About 4,000 kilometres away from where Baghdadi died, the southern Indian state Kerala – known as God’s Own Country – is famous for a long list of things: the lush greenery, the food, the backwaters and, not to forget, the status of being the most literate state in India. It has also been in the spotlight since 2017 for the increasing number of youth who have been suspected to have joined ISIS.

In April this year, on Easter Sunday, as thousands prayed at churches and many others flocked to hotels to celebrate, a series of blasts ripped through Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka and its neighbouring areas. Two hundred and fifty people died, and scores were left injured. Two days later, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. As the Sri Lankan government huddled to maintain calm, the bombings being an unexpected aberration in its otherwise decade-long peaceful environment after the LTTE era, ripples of the Easter blast were felt more than 1,500 kilometers away.

A little over a week after the Sri Lankan tragedy, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested a resident of Palakkad in Kerala for being in touch with members of an ISIS-inspired group from Kasargod. During his interrogation, Riyas Aboobacker confessed that he had been following speeches by Zahran Hashim, the man behind the Sri Lanka attacks, for over a year.

Despite the celebrations, Baghdadi's death may not have been more than just of symbolic importance. A leaderless ISIS may not mean much – with its global 'virtual network', it doesn’t mean anywhere close to the end of the group or its ambitions.

IN SEARCH OF HEAVEN

The coastal city of Kannur, once an ancient trading port, is infamous for being the hotbed of political killings in Kerala. Over the last few years, however, it has gained its place in yet another aspect— for being an alleged breeding ground for ISIS.

A few months ago, a young man from north Kerala’s Malappuram district who is suspected to have gone to Afghanistan and joined Islamic State was reported to have been killed in a recent US drone attack. Police officials identified the man as Muhammed Muhasin, a native of Edappal town. An engineering student, he had been missing since October 2017. Muhasin’s family got a message on WhatsApp informing them about his death. “The message in Malayalam said, ‘your brother has been seeking martyrdom and Allah has fulfilled his wish. He has become a shaheed 10 days back’,’’ according to an officer.

Four years ago, 42-year-old Fatima left her home in Kannur along with her three children – two sons and a daughter – to visit her husband who was running a business in Dubai. That was the last time the family saw her. The next news they received was that Fatima was suspected to have left Dubai for Afghanistan to join ISIS. For close to three years after she left, chatter around the incident was negligible. Every time Fatima was mentioned, one of her sisters, 32-year-old Nafzila, would simply ask, “Why would she (Fatima) go?” No one had an answer.

Last year, Nafzila left. Like Sameer, her husband, Anwar, was a businessman in Dubai, who would often visit his wife and three children in Kerala. During those visits, the family would take short vacations. In winter last year, when Nafzila said that she was going on a holiday to Ooty with her husband and children, the family suspected nothing. However, when they didn’t hear from them for over a week, they sensed something was wrong. Fearing a repeat of what happened with Fatima, the family claim they themselves informed the authorities. Their worst nightmare came true when police informed them that Nafzila had followed her sister’s path.

“Nafzila would send us WhatsApp voice messages and tell us everything was fine,” says one of her sisters when this journalist met her at their home in Kannur. “She used to keep watching videos on her phone. That’s all,” her sister says, adding that there was nothing suspicious about her behaviour. She doesn't believe that either of her sisters left on their own will. “It has to be their husbands. Both my sisters were brainwashed,” she says.

The family doesn't know whether Fatima and Nafzila are live. They have heard multiple conflicting reports over the years. However, their mother has just one wish. “I hope Nafzila had a healthy baby,” she says in a faint voice. Nafzila was pregnant with her fourth child when she left last year and was due to deliver in April.

About an hour’s drive from Kannur is Kasargod district. Here, two quaint villages – Padanna and Thrikkaripur – are home to over a dozen people who have reportedly joined ISIS. In Padne, 11 people are reported to have left in 2016 to join the terror group. Of these, eight belonged to one family. Over the years, the family at their house, named Hamza Sagar, have accepted that their two sons Ijaz Abdul Rahman and Shiyaz Abdul Rahman will not return. Their mother adds the name of her nephew too, Ashfaq.

Ijaz was a doctor and Shiyaz was employed at Peace International School, run by controversial preacher Zakir Naik. Rashida, Ijaz and Shiyaz’s sister still remembers how her brothers had started asking her to cover herself and not wear jewellery. “They even refused to use the car that we had, saying it was bought after taking a loan,” she recalls. They started advocating ending transactions with banks too. In 2015, Rashid Abdulla, the head of the ISIS module in Kerala, started visiting their house.

In one room of the family home, Ijaz, Shiyaz, and Ashfaq would spend hours learning the teachings of the Quran from Rashid. At least that’s what the family thought was happening behind the closed doors. In 2016, Shiyaz left home with his pregnant wife Ajmala. He said he had been offered a job in Kozhikode. Two weeks later, Ijaz, too, left with his pregnant wife Rufaila and their daughter. Ajmala, the family hints, probably knew about the move to join ISIS, but Rufaila didn't. “I remember the first time we spoke to her after they had left. Rufaila was in tears,” recalls Rashida. Their mother wants to believe that her grandchildren are safe. “People are still going to join ISIS, isn’t it? Do you think my children will come back?” she asks.

Right next to Ijaz and Shiyaz’s residence lies Hafisuddin’s house. Born into a well-off family, Hafisuddin, like Ijaz and Shiyaz, had started behaving “strangely”. Teary-eyed, Hafisuddin’s mother recalls that her son who liked luxury – bikes, cars, latest gadgets, combined with regular outings to the mall, theatres and road trips, started denouncing them, one by one. There used to be regular fights at home – his mother would argue with him on the idea of Islam that he believed in. “He used to call everything around him ‘haraam’. He started growing his beard. We would argue on a daily basis.” The quarrels revolved around his mother wearing half sleeves and living in a big house among other things. He said they were against the idea of Islam. His father, who was based out of West Asia, used to quarrel with him too. Amid all this arguing, his mother says she noticed how quickly her son had picked up the Quran. To the best of her knowledge, he didn’t go for any classes. “But he was hooked on to his phone. He would listen to all sorts of teachings on the Internet,” she added.

Two months before he left to join ISIS, Hafisuddin got married. “He had no job. He had dropped out of college. We still arranged a match for him thinking he would mend his ways. But then he left,” says his mother, controlling her tears. He told them he was going to Sri Lanka. A few days later, he informed his mother that he had lost his phone and gave her a number in case she wanted to get in touch. “But a few days later, that number too was unreachable. Now when I think of it, they must have been on the way to join ISIS and hit a point of no network,” she says. “He took everything with him.”

Her husband had to shut shop in West Asia and keep a tab on the investigation into his son’s disappearance. When the reporter met Hafisuddin’s mother, his father was in Japan, hunting for a job.

Multiple reports have trickled in ever since their disappearance on deaths. Ashfaq has been, for long, the only source of information for the police and intelligence here. He has sent across photographs, audio clips and texts to reveal a few things about the group – a few of them had been killed and the pregnant women had given birth. He has repeatedly quashed requests of coming back. Jannatul Firdous (Paradise) is where, he states, he will meet his family.

A few kilometres away from their homes, in Udumbunthala, is where Rashid used to live. A few days ago, reports surfaced of his death in Afghanistan from US bombings. When News18 visited Rashid’s home in September, the gate was locked from inside. A light on the ceiling of the covered porch was switched on but there was nobody. Ask around and you’ll find people saying just one thing—the family hardly interacted. The neighbours describe him in one sentence: “An engineer who had worked in the Gulf.” While nobody has the answer to how Rashid entered the town and got in touch with the group that left from there, the best guess would be one common link – Rashid is said to have trained teachers at Peace International School, where Ijaz is said to have worked.

More than 500 kilometres away, in Thiruvananthapuram, Bindu K is sure that her daughter will come back from wherever she is. Nimisha embraced Islam and became Fatima. It was in 2015, when she didn’t answer Bindu’s phone calls while in college when the mother found out from Nimisha’s friends that she had converted to Islam. Nimisha then married Bexen, a Christian who converted to Islam and became Eesa. Nimisha moved to Eesa’s house in Palakkad and told her mother about the marriage. Despite the conversion, Bindu stood her ground – she would never let go of her Chinu, as she lovingly called Nimisha. After two months of multiple attempts to get in touch with her daughter following the wedding, Nimisha finally told her mother that she was going to come home with Bexen.

“She did not want to use the main road to come to the house since she was wearing a burkha. But I told her I had no problems and she shouldn’t either,” Bindu added. The mother-daughter bond grew stronger and later when Nimisha got pregnant, she and Bexen visited Bindu again. This time they told her they would be travelling to Sri Lanka to set up a carpet business. That was the last time she saw her daughter. “I protested that she should not go in this condition. But Bexen assured me there was nothing to worry,” she says. When she didn’t hear from Nimisha for a long time, she told the police. Her relentless efforts to trace her daughter, who had by then been named as one of the people who had left to join ISIS, got Bindu contacts good enough to connect with Rashid and Ashfaq over Telegram. Bindu finally got hold of her daughter on the app as well. In August 2016, Bindu got news from her daughter over Telegram that she had delivered a healthy baby girl. Telegram conversations analysed by News18 show that Nimisha had shared photographs of her daughter, Ummakulus, with her mother.

Nimisha even shared an audio clip where Bexen can be heard telling his mother-in-law that everyone was alright. After three years of multiple messages to her daughter, Ashfaq and Rashid, Bindu waits at home for the day she will take her granddaughter, whose photo she has framed and keeps on her bedside table, to the mall that she frequented with Nimisha. She has even shopped for her granddaughter and has left Nimisha’s room the way she left it when she last visited. Bindu, however, is now worried. She last spoke to her daughter in November 2018 and the Telegram account now appears ‘deleted’. She doesn't believe Rashid is dead. The Telegram account she used to talk to him indicates he last saw visited it in June this year. Reports say he died in March. "How is that possible?” she asks. Despite multiple theories that she has thought of about why the group would “appear to be dead”, she says all that she wants is Chinnu and Ummakulus, even if it means them living in an Indian jail for the rest of their lives.

“I’ll join her in prison. And if not, I’ll give Chinnu space in my house to offer prayers to whichever god she wishes to. But I want her to come back home. I know she will,” she says.

ISIS THROUGH THE EYES OF A ‘FIGHTER’, ‘BETRAYER’

A look at the families of those who have gone to wage jihad would probably throw nothing in terms of radicalisation or how they became extremists – most of them came from rich or upper-middle-class families who had never gone overboard with their religious practices. News18 exclusively accessed the interrogation report of Kerala native Subahani Haja, one of the NIA’s biggest catches from its ISIS investigation. His details on how he got drawn and further recruited by Islamic State sheds some light on the group’s modus operandi and how people are leaving from Kerala to join the terror outfit.

Born in Tamil Nadu, his family migrated to Kerala over three decades ago. One of the four children of textile shop owner NM Haja Moideen, Subahani’s mother passed away around 2001. A B Com graduate, he went on to do a few courses in computer science, worked in Bengaluru, Chennai and finally returned to join the family business in 2010. Subahani got married to Ayisha, the daughter of a building contractor, in 2012. Soon after the marriage, she forced him to leave alcohol and Subahani found himself on the path of reviving his religious identity and beliefs. He took to the internet to know more and has cited a website named ‘kalamullah.com’ which, he says, contained lectures, PDF notes, of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki (born in Washington and studied in Yemen). Awlaki had delivered a lot of speeches on Hadees (the Prophet’s sayings). Subahani found a book, “Constant On The Path of Jihad” on the website written by one Yousuf al-Ayeri in Arabic and translated by Awlaki to English. It was after listening to the audiobook that Subahani became interested in jihad.

“Around the same time, through media and newspapers, I came to know about ISIS in Iraq and Syria, got attracted towards ISIS and started to look for more about ISIS functioning. I started searches through Twitter…I used to see a lot of uploads on ISIS and its suicide bombers. Abu Naseeha al-Magribi (Morocco) was one Facebook account sharing a lot of ISIS matters,” Subahani told the investigating agency.

A year later, he got in touch with a Swedish man on Telegram, who had a Facebook page in the name of Abu Naseeha al-Magribi. Through Telegram and Kik messenger services, Subahani took his help “to do hijra”. The Swedish person, whose name ended with ‘Sweedi”, asked him to reach Turkey from where he would further help him. He contacted a travel agency in Ernakulam, which told him they would arrange for a sponsor letter from Turkey if he paid extra, which Subahani did. Also, he told his father that he wanted to travel to Turkey for Umrah. In March 2015, Subahani got his visa. He visited relatives in Tamil Nadu before flying out to Turkey from Chennai. He threw away his Indian mobile number as soon as he reached Istanbul. Upon arrival, he informed Sweedi who further told him one Imtiyaz would get in touch. Imtiyaz did get in touch and he asked Subahani to send a photo with the words “Lal Ila ha Illalla”.

His wife thought Subahani was in Saudi Arabia. He claims to have downloaded a picture from the internet and sent it to her to convince her she was right. Imtiyaz told Subahani he needed a ‘kunya’ (nickname) to get a ‘taskiya’ (reference) for ISIS. Subahani gave himself the nickname Abu Jasmine. Imtiyaz guided him like clockwork post that – Subahani was asked to book a hotel in Urfa, was dictated what he should cite as the purpose of visit to the state, and explained how to board the bus to Urfa. Once in Urfa, Subahani procured a SIM without any ID proof and got in touch with Imtiyaz. The latter guided him further on who to use as his reference (Abu Mohammed Al Shami) and that somebody named Raqqah would call him. After communicating with Raqqah, Subahani was taken to a house where he found “12-15 gents” out of which two were Pakistanis in their early 20s, two other Pakistani natives from the UK and the others were from African countries. There were three women also, with their children. Subahani stayed there for two days and he describes the condition of the houses nearby as “dilapidated”.

After two days, the group was asked to leave its luggage behind and driven about 35 km away from the house. From there on, after a walk of about 3 km by foot, the group crossed over to Syria. The crossing over and walk happened in the night and a person in military uniform met them, called for a car and took the group to another house. Subahani says he kept Imtiyaz in the loop about the development who told him this was his last chance to make any phone calls. Subahani made no further calls. From Syria, the group made a move to Mosul, Iraq where the group, which grew to 22 people including a Maldivian family, was put up in a house. No one was allowed to go outside the premises, food was only served twice (in the morning before 10am and after sunset), classes were taken about Tawheed (unification or oneness of God) for about two hours in Arabic. A German and three other UK citizens joined the group too, Subahani revealed.

After clearing oral tests following the religious study classes, the group was asked to take baith (oath), pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The next day, Subahani and the group were moved to the Mosul training camp. The training equipment included AK rifles, Bushka MMG and grenades. Training sessions, which lasted 21 days till June, included running, stripping and assembling weapons, and war tactics classes. Subahani added that there were no firing practices as “American drones kept flying overhead”.

Subahani’s interrogation reveals that soon, the group started getting a “salary” of $100. He has further given details on his conversation with someone called Mohammed Kamal and a Keralite named ‘Malabari’. Malabari, according to Subahani’s confession, claimed that he joined the war group in Syria in 2014. Malabari, Subahani revealed, told him that he had helped an Indian family get to Syria and further invited him to get to Raqqa since “maximum Indians who had joined ISIS were in Raqqa”. Subahani told him that “he’d try”.

According to Subahani’s accounts, in the second week of June, his group was directed to join the war. Subahani, however, was declared unfit for battle because of a knee injury. A month later, he moved, along with his group, to Baiji in Iraq.

Subahani, however, soon turned out to be what ISIS would call a “betrayer”. In the fourth week of July, as he took two of his injured fellow fighters to the hospital, he was deemed as the man who fled the war zone. He was produced before a ‘judge’, to whom Subahani states that he confessed he did not want to fight the war anymore and wanted to go back to India. He was imprisoned for a month and, going by his confession, he, and other prisoners, were shown motivating videos along with Quranic references and verses to get them to fight. The inmates were also tortured.

Fight he did, but for his way back home. Subahani was denied his passport but was given his mobile phone along with his luggage. Subahani’s confession on how he got back home shows the route that he took. He started from Al-Bab and went further to Al-Rai, Gaziantep and finally to Istanbul by road from where he flew back to India. He worked at his father’s shop for a year before he was arrested.

BEING ‘RADICAL’ IN GOD’S OWN COUNTRY

Let’s look at a couple of instances that have taken place in the state in the last few years. In 2017, authorities arrested Thalasseri Hamsa, who was alleged to be the mastermind behind preaching Islamic State ideology in Kerala. Documents assessed by News18 show that authorities believed Hamsa was personally in touch with the international leadership of ISIS while he was working in Bahrain. In Bahrain, Hamsa, known to be well-versed in the scripture, is said to have trained youngsters to join ISIS.

Years before Hamsa’s arrest, in 2009, the government confirmed the arrest of Thadiyantavide Naseer, alleged to be the south India commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and someone who was on the run since the 1990s. The years between these two cases have seen multiple assumptions and presumptions being made by those within the state and outside about one thing: how radical is Kerala? As scholar Mohiyuddin Nadukkandiyil Karassery puts it, the two people might come with different “tags” but there is not much difference in how they think. But where did it begin? It’s a debate.

News18 accessed Naseer’s interrogation report and the reason for his interest towards religion spiralled after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. He also lays heavy influence on Abdul Nasser Madani, whose organisation Islamic Seva Sangh, Naseer joined. Speaking to News18, Kerala University professor KM Sajad Ibrahim weighed in by adding that Madani tried to make Islam a prestige issue and propagated the idea of an armed revolution to safeguard the interests of Muslims. Karassery notes how the roots of the growing religious extremism in the state can be traced back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Post the revolution, Karassery adds, Jamaat-e-Islami began propagating the idea of an Islamic state in India. The group, founded by Maududi, preached the idea of only one God and, as per Karassery, that was the tipping point for a majority of the Muslims in the state. Karassery says the organization is responsible for having set up the theoretical base of Islamic extremism in Kerala.

Jamaat-e-Islami has been a controversial organisation from its inception. Minister KT Jaleel, in an interview to News18, said while the state did not need the school of thought that Jamaat-e-Islami propagated, there was a very small percentage of people from the state that actually followed the organization and its ideals. “Organizations like the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India) and Jamaat don’t have a lot of influence. They are basically ex-communicated from the community. Everyone keeps them away. The government doesn’t engage with them either. We also have to realise that in Kerala, there is fundamentalism but not extremism,” Jaleel said.

Karassery, however, has been critical of the Left also for ignoring the organisation purely for ‘vote bank’. “The Left criticises the murder of a Kalburgi or a Pansare,” Karassery says, “but stays silent when Islamic scholar Chekannur Maulvi is murdered.” Sajad voices a similar opinion and mentions the lackadaisical reaction given by various parties, including the CPI(M), when professor TJ Joseph’s wrist was chopped off by PFI (Popular Front of India) activists.

The PFI, too, has been known for its violent activities in the state and discussions have been on for quite some time about banning the organisation altogether. In fact, many of those who have joined the ISIS in Syria have been found to have some association with PFI. Interestingly, parties like the CPI(M) used to support outfits like the National Democratic Front (which PFI was earlier) in a hope of competing with its rival, the Muslim League. The League was and is still known as a secular organisation, in comparison to others.

League leader KM Shaji, in an interview to this reporter, said it was impossible to ignore the fact that most of the PFI leadership came from the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). “Take P Koya, E Aboobacker. They all have a history with SIMI. All the books that PFI has and uses are by Maududi. You can’t deny or underestimate the influence,” Shaji said, adding that in public sphere one would not find anyone ‘communal’ from Jamaat-e-Islami since those associated with the organisation masquerade as social workers or human rights activists. “But what they preach, teach and sell is highly communal content,” he said.

“Organisations like the SDPI practise a sort of religion which deals with violent methods. Truth be said, such organisations do play a role in this rise of extremist methods and ideas. To an extent, all these extremist ideologies being propagated in Kerala have some political connection,” Sajad added.

Not far from the radical movements and propagation of extreme ideas also lies one fact: Muslims in Kerala, the most literate state of the country, are financially, socially and politically at a higher pedestal than others in their community in the rest of the country. As per a study conducted by the Centre for Policy Analysis, from 2001-11, the Muslim population in Kerala grew by 10.10 lakh, Hindus by 3.62 lakh and Christians by 84,000. Further, the report also cited that literacy rate of Muslims in the state was higher than the national average.

The oddity here is it has also become the breeding ground for extremist ideas.

While Jaleel says those who do practise extremist measures are a microscopic percentage of the total population, professor Sajad says it’s because of the community being ‘one’ that it is easy for them to be heavily influenced.

“In Kerala society, Muslims as a community are one unit. You don’t find that anywhere else. In fact, in Kerala, it’s not just Muslims, but you’ll find Christians also like that. Elsewhere, it’s safe to say that minorities are divided. It’s easier to influence more people from the minority as a single unit than gathering people from a divided civic society,” Sajad says, adding that the quality of religious teachings in Kerala is unparalleled elsewhere in the country.

“Maybe in the upper-middle class or rich ranks of the rest of the country, yes, you may find quality education. But here in Kerala, it cuts across castes and economy. Everyone has access to quality religious teachings. Hence, interpreting it in the most convenient way is easier,” he says.

Sajad even points to those among the community for whom religion is something to be worn on their sleeves. Ask Karassery about his assessment on why Kerala goes radical, he nods his head. “I don’t know. It’s beyond me why someone would go on a suicide mission. It’s like finding logic to an illogical move,” he says. But he does have one argument to make when it comes to religion.

“Money. As you keep growing wealthy, your gratitude to whichever god you pray to keeps on growing. How do you thank someone you only believe exists somewhere? You give more time to prayers and give offerings to the said god,” he says, hinting at the fine line between people going overboard with their religion and those that don’t. “They want to live like the Prophet did but don’t want to follow his teachings. What these people (who think of extreme and violent ways of practising religion) are doing is living a sham,” weighed in Sajad.