Fate of 10 Indian widows of Islamic State terrorists, imprisoned in Afghanistan, casts new light on movement that led dozens from Kashmir to Kerala into Nangarhar

Praveen Swami and Neethu Reghukumar

New Delhi: Ten Indian women, the widows of Islamic State terrorists killed in combat in the mountains of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, are now being held in Kabul's Badam Bagh prison, highly-placed government sources have told Network 18. The government is still debating whether to seek their extradition to face trial on terrorism charges in India, or leave them to face prosecution and punishment under Afghan law, the sources said.

From mother-of-four Nafisa Atiakkam, whose Dubai-based husband Anwar Atiakkam led his family to Nangarhar from Kerala's Kannur, to Kashmir resident Rukhsana Ahanger, who saw her daughters married to jihadists and her son die fighting for the Islamic State €" the women are part of a global cohort of thousands of women and children left behind after the destruction of the short-lived jihadist empire.

For these Indian widows of Islamic State now in Afghan prison, though, there's no window opening out to life ahead. The dramatic-and sometimes deeply tragic-stories of the women cast new light on the multiple currents in the jihadist movement which led dozens of Indian nationals from Kashmir to Kerala into the bowels of the Islamic State's base Nangarhar.

Forty year old >Rukhsana Ahanger's journey into the Islamic State's Nangarhar redoubt was shaped by events that took place when she was still a child. In 1990, her father, Abdul Gani Dar, also goes by the alias Abdullah Gazal, formed the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, a jihadist group with close links to Kashmir's Ahl-e-Hadith neo-fundamentalist movement.

In 1996, Dar arranged for his daughter to be married to one of his lieutenants, Aijaz Ahanger, a long-standing Ahl-e-Hadith follower from Srinagar's Gawkadal neighbourhood, who he first met when both men were in prison in 1992. The marriage, police sources said, took place in the Dar's family home in the village of Russu, near Budgam in central Kashmir.

Facing growing pressure from police, the Ahangers travelled to Pakistan through Nepal, using false passports. Living in their new home in Islamabad, the couple had two daughters €" >Sabira, born according to her travel documents on 13 September, 1997, and >Tooba, born on 27 December, 2001 €" and a son.

Ahanger, however became increasingly frustrated with Pakistan's intelligence services, which he came to believe had betrayed the Kashmir jihad. In 2014, he travelled to Afghanistan, to help set up the islamic State in the Khorsan Province €" the transnational terrorist group's regional affiliate for Afghanistan and Pakistan, under Tehreek-e-Talihan jihadist Hafiz Saeed Khan and Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza.

In February 2015, though, Aliza was killed in a drone strike, followed in short order by Hafiz Saeed Khan, in the summer of 2016. Dar took charge of the organisation-committing his teenage son, Abdullah ibn Aijaz, to combat. Aged just 15, Abdullah Ibn Aijaz was killed fighting rival Taliban jihadists in the summer of 2017.

His older sister, Sabira Ahanger, was married to Amir Sultan, a resident of Sialkot in Pakistan, who was killed in a United States drone strike near Nangarhar on 17 September. Like her younger sister, Tooba, she has never seen her homeland, India.

Facing trial for his role in the assassination of Shaukat Ahmad, a prominent Kashmiri Ahl-e-Hadith cleric killed for his efforts to engage in a dialogue with Indian authorities, Dar was released on bail in 2015. He did not respond to messages from Network 18 seeking comment.

Like Rukhsana Ahanger, 1986-born mother-of-four >Nafisa Atiakkam was recruited into the Islamic State by her husband, Dubai-based businessman Anwar Atiakkam. Anwar Atiakkam, killed in a United States drone strike earlier this year, is thought by investigators to have been drawn Islamic State by online propaganda, along with his brother, Sameer.

Nafisa Atiakkam, pregnant with her fourth child, left for Afghanistan along with her in-laws-also parents to three young children-five years ago. She is now the only survivor of the group.

Indian government officials declined to discuss the fate of the children with Network 18, with one saying "absolute clarity and confirmation is needed before any public disclosure is made on this sensitive question".

Nimisha Kumar, the wife of Bexin Vincent-the son of a middle-class Kerala family who discovered jihadism after joining an millenarian Islamist cult run by Abdul Rashid-is also among the Indians in prison. 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.

The young dental student and classical dancer, court records show, 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 fugitive Mumbai-based preacher Zakir Naik, who has advocated for a rigid moral order opposed to pre-marital sex and individual romantic choices. Her attraction to Naik led her to an proseletysing order called Sathya Sarani, where she made contact with Abdul Rashid's cult.

In Afghanistan, Nimisha Kumar €" now using the name Fatima €" and Bexin Vincent had a child, whose fate is unconfirmed.

Merin Jacob Palath, who adopted the name Maryam after joining Rashid's circle, married Bexin Vincent's brother, Bestin Vincent, and joined the group headed to Afghanistan. Following her husband's death in combat, she married Rashid-only to be widowed again, along with the preacher's earlier wife, Ayesha, earlier known as >Sonia Sebastian.

Abdul Rashid's first wife, Bihar-born Yasmeen Ahmad, was detained on in New Delhi, while attempting to catch a Kabul-bound flight in 2017, hoping to join her husband.

Ejaz Purayil's wife >Rahaila Purayil, mother of child who was two years old when they left for Afghanistan, is also now being held in Badam Bagh prison. The inmates include her sister-in-law, >Shamsia Purayil, the wife of Ejaz Purayil's brother, Shiyas Purayil, also also the mother of an infant at the time of their departure.

Abdul Rehman, Ejaz Purayil's father, says his two sons, Ejaz and Shiyas, were indoctrinated by the Abdul Rashid through classes preaching individual jihad. "I shouted at him once and told him to get out," Rehman told local media.

The tenth Indian woman in prison is >Shaheena Kanden, the wife of slain jihadist Sajid Kanden.

Last month, intelligence officials arrived at the home of Bindhu, Nimisha's mother, asking her to point out her daughter among a group of women. Nimisha Kumar, she insists, only travelled to Afghanistan to further her knowledge of Islam, not to join the Islamic State. "I've heard nothing since the officers visited me", she says, "but I have my intuition, and it tells me my daughter will come home soon".

Bindhu, however, blames her daughter's roommate at the hostel of the dental college where she was studying for her daughter getting involved.

Merin Jacob's father, KA Jacob, is more stoic. "We've had no information from the government at all," he says. "We hope our daughter returns, but we're trying to put all this behind us".

Faced with similar cases, countries worldwide have have struggling to balance humanitarian concerns with worries over whether members of families now held in camps from Iraq to Afghanistan might engage in terrorism again.

New Delhi, the sources said, is concerned for the well-being of the Indian wodows, but, based on interviews conducted last month by officials from the intelligence services and the National Investigation Agency, assessed several of the women remained ideologically committed to jihadism.

"This is going to be tough call", a senior government official said. "It's true these women were not all combatants, but they facilitated and enabled savage crimes by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, including large-scale torture and executions".

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