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Cover Story: Exclusive

The Caliphate Files: Inside the Islamic State Modules of India

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“Yeh Us Bhai Ka Threema Id Hai Jo Aapko Message Karega. Inshallah.
Unka Pehla Message Hoga: Bismillah.
Aapka Jawaab Hoga: Alhamduillah Asalam-U-Walaikum Wahrehmatullahi Wabarakatuh.

ON NOVEMBER 30TH, 2018, this message flashed on the mobile phone of 30-year-old Mufti Mohammed Suhail, a resident of Jafrabad in Northeast Delhi. The message came from a handler of the Islamic State (IS), Akhi Umais alias Abu-Huzaifa-Al-Bakistani, from his Telegram ID (*****0636). Umais shared with Suhail a Threema ID (****7FMX), which belongs to another IS handler, Al-Bangali alias Abu-Junaid-al- Bangali (Threema and Telegram are encrypted, instant messaging applications).

From November 30th till his arrest along with his several accomplices on December 26th, Suhail received detailed instructions from Bangali on how to make explosives and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from commonly available items like potassium nitrate, sulphur, charcoal and sugar.

A team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), acting on a tip-off by a local source in December, oblivious to Suhail and his accomplices, had been monitoring their mobile phone conversations. Though the men used code language while conversing, the NIA team realised that the group had amassed enough explosives and their triggering mechanism to carry out a major terrorist attack. It acted swiftly and raided Suhail’s house in his native place in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, where the group had been putting together these explosives. They recovered 5 kilos of potassium nitrate, one kilo ammonium nitrate, sugar paste in two plastic containers, sulphur, a pistol, and explosive- triggering devices such as alarm clocks, batteries, and remote switches. In subsequent raids at more than a dozen places, around 100 mobile phones, 12 memory cards, 65 SIM cards, 12 country-made pistols, cartridges and an improvised launcher were recovered.

The NIA team also found a video clip in the mobile phone of 22-year-old Zubair Malik. This, NIA sources say, was to be released after Malik and one of his accomplices, Anas Younus (21), would have died in a suicide attack the two were planning to carry out. The group had plans to carry terrorist attacks in Delhi and target prominent ‘Hindu’ supporters.

From one of the houses the NIA recovered packs of sutli bombs (Indian firecrackers made with jute twine wrapped around explosives). These, interrogation of the accused has revealed, were purchased to get the address of the manufacturer (from the label) so that explosives could be purchased from him in bulk.

From the analysis of the recovered data in the seized phones, the NIA has established that the Amroha module’s kingpin Suhail came in touch with an IS handler through Facebook in May 2018. His first handler was Al-Peshawari alias Abu-Malik- al-Peshawari, who subsequently handed him over to Umais and Bangali. It is Peshawari who guided him on how to remain anonymous through Telegram, Threema and Turbo VPN (mobile-only based system out of China that gives free access to nine servers across America, Europe and Asia). He also sent him books and IS literature to radicalise him further. Among the recovered data are elaborate chats between Suhail and his IS handler on various aspects of making bombs, such as in what ratio to use kalmi shora (potassium nitrate), gandhak (sulphur) and other material. The handler also sent him e-books (The Mujahideen Explosives Handbook, among others) that contain details about things like how to extract explosives from firecrackers, or how to use a bulb as a detonator).

Among the recovered data by NIA are elaborate chats between Suhail and his IS handler on various aspects of making bombs

NIA sources reveal that Suhail’s two other accomplices, Absar and Saqib, had gone twice to Kashmir in a bid to get in touch with terrorist groups there. In July 2018, two of them travelled to Tral in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district and stayed at a friend’s house. The friend was told to arrange a meeting with terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed for getting weapons and training. “They told him (the Kashmiri friend) that they will not return without meeting the Mujahideen,” says a senior NIA officer. Upon being promised by him that he will establish contact with two of his childhood friends who had become terrorists, the two returned to Delhi. According to the timeline put together by the NIA, they met Suhail and three others at the Pacific Mall in Ghaziabad (on the outskirts of Delhi) and told them that they will soon have help from Jaish.

For their operation, Suhail’s IS module had collected about Rs 6 lakh from voluntary contribution. Suhail, investigation has revealed, had befriended two sisters from Lucknow on Facebook, who sold their jewellery and contributed about Rs 3 lakh for their operation. One of the other group members, Rashid Zafar Raq, a resident of Seelampur in Northeast Delhi had sold off his iphone and contributed Rs 70,000. The group also had plans to loot a store in Shahdara nearby, which Suhail had been watching and which he believed had a daily turnover of Rs 4-5 lakh. He justified it as Maal-e-ganeemat (spoils of war). But the heist did not materialise.

Suhail is a former student of Dar-ul-Uloom, Deoband, and had been since 2013 trying to put a group together that would help him in converting India (which according to him was Dar- ul-Harb or un-Islamic) to Dar-ul-Islam (Land of Islam). They had named their group Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam (Movement for war of Islam). He told his interrogators that he considered democracy un-Islamic and that it was only under the Islamic State that Muslims could live peacefully.

On June 21st, the NIA filed its chargesheet against Suhail and nine others.

ON APRIL 29TH THIS YEAR, the Islamic State’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a video appearance. He told his followers that the ‘Caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq had fallen but that the ‘battle’ was long. He urged his followers to continue hitting their enemy with all their might. In an audio message appended to his video, he claimed that the Sri Lanka Easter bombings (on April 21st, which killed over 250 people) were a revenge of the IS defeat in Baghouz, Syria a month earlier. It was his first appearance in five years. In 2014, Baghdadi had appeared in a video celebrating the birth of the Islamic State.

And, now, despite being the world’s most wanted man, why did he risk an appearance?

According to Joshua A Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism in the US National Security Council, Baghdadi wanted to send a message: “We’re still here, and we’re still fighting—and killing.” IS analysts believe that the so-called caliphate may have lost its territory, but now will use modules like the one in Amroha to keep its name alive. In that sense, like Geltzer says, the war with IS has just entered a new phase. Lisa Monaco, former US homeland security adviser, says that the international community should not mistake the defeat of the physical caliphate with that of the virtual caliphate.

There are estimates that 20,000-30,000 IS fighters from over 100 countries are now hiding in Syria and Iraq. Many of them, warn security agencies, will return to their countries, including India.

On April 29 this year, the Islamic state's chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made a video appearance. He urged his followers to continue hitting their enemy with all the might

This means that for thousands of people across the world, the Islamic State is still a reality, an achievable dream, for which they are willing to die. “Let me put it this way,” says a top NIA official, “ordinarily, a mortal would say: I need God. But IS handlers are reaching out to people from thousands of miles away and telling them: Hey, God needs you.”

The idea is to activate small cells and make them carry out violence in the name of the Islamic State—from lone wolves with long knives or trucks to those capable of creating shock- and-awe like in Sri Lanka.

In May, the Islamic State claimed to have established a new ‘province’ in India, ‘Wilayah of Hind’ (Indian province, in Arabic). Security agencies in India now fear that it will trigger a new wave of individuals, or group of individuals, getting virtually motivated by IS handlers from far away, to carry out small and big attacks on Indian soil. The director of the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that online radicalisation is becoming a “bigger and bigger problem.”

But how does one get initiated online? A security analyst in Delhi (who chose to remain unnamed) explains: “Think of online chat rooms frequented by IS sympathisers and handlers as Russian doll. Once you are a regular, you get to enter into closed groups hidden one after another till you reach the inner circle where they know you are ready to die for the cause of the Islamic State.”

A SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICER based in Kerala said that initially, two states, Maharashtra and Telangana, were put by agencies as IS hotspots. But in the last three years, active monitoring has kept activities in these states under check. Now it is Kerala and Tamil Nadu where IS activity is high. “The biggest headache for us is Kerala,” says the officer. With its connection with Gulf countries, a significant number of people from Kerala are getting extremely radicalised (about 10 per cent of Kerala’s people work in the Gulf). “The Salafi influence has increased a lot in Kerala, especially in the north districts, like Malappuram,” reveals an NIA officer based in Cochin. Since 2017, Qatar, with its active support of the Muslim Brotherhood (as competition to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism), is also becoming a focal point of radicalisation for many Kerala immigrants (estimated to be over 300,000 in Qatar).

In May 2016, a group of 21 people left Kerala for Afghanistan under its ringleader Rashid Abdulla to join IS. Abdulla has reportedly died there last month, along with a few others. The police now believe that over 100 people from the state have joined IS, while over a dozen have already died in Syria and elsewhere.

Around 3,000 people in Kerala have been ‘deradicalised’ and are currently under surveillance. Last month, the Union Home Ministry revealed in the Parliament that so far 155 IS operatives had been arrested from all over India.

NIA sources reveal that Suhail's two other accomplices, Absar and Saqib, had gone twice to Kashmir in a bid to get in touch with terrorist groups there

The first case of Indians joining IS from Indian soil was reported in 2014 from Kalyan, Maharashtra, when four men from here left for Syria. In May that year, the four flew to Baghdad on the pretext of visiting holy shrines there. From there, they finally sent a message to their parents that they were fighting for IS. In August, one of the four, Areeb Majid, was rumoured to have died. But in November, he contacted his family and revealed that he had escaped to Turkey with bullet injuries. Later, he was deported to India. In custody, he told NIA that the IS leaders did not allow him to join any battle and was instead asked to perform menial tasks like cleaning toilets. The three others who went with him are believed to have died in Syria by 2017.

Since then, many Indians have died while fighting under the banner of the Islamic State.

In January this year, leaders of the Kerala-based extremist Muslim organisation, Popular Front of India (PFI), in Kannur received a message on Telegram from one Abdul Khayoom who is with IS in Syria. Khayoom told them that a man called Abdul Manaf, 30, also from Kannur, was killed in November last year while fighting. He had fled with his wife in 2017 using fake passports. Manaf and a few others were motivated by a PFI leader, Mohammed Shameer, to come to Syria and join IS. Shameer had shifted to Syria in 2015 itself along with his wife, Fauzia, and two sons, Salman and Safwan, and daughter, Sajitha. Shameer, who ran a furniture shop in Kannur, was killed in 2017. His son, Salman and three others from Kannur, also died later. Shameer had last contacted his brother Rahim on July 5th, 2016, from Saudi Arabia from the number 00 966582056104.

Before Shameer left for Syria, he had motivated Manaf and four others to go for Hijra (holy migration) to Syria and join IS. One of them happened to be Shahjahan Velluva Kandy, 32, who ran a jewellery bag manufacturing business in Chennai. Once Shameer reached Syria, he stayed in touch with Kandy and others through chat platforms. He guided them with possible routes and the names of agents that could help them in their journey to Syria.

According to NIA, Kandy flew to Malaysia in June 2016, acting on Shameer’s advice. There, he realised that he could procure a visa for Iran. He immediately returned to India, and in October, he travelled back to Iran with his family. From there, he helped Rashid MV also to move to Iran, taking care of his finances, etcetera. Soon afterwards, two others, Mohammed Shajil (and his family) and Midilaj, joined them via Mangaluru and Dubai. From there, all of them went together to Istanbul, Turkey.

In December, the Turkish authorities apprehended Midilaj and Rashid MV and deported them to India.

In February 2017, Kandy along with his family and Abdul Manaf tried to cross over to Syria through the Turkey- Syria border. Here, the Turkish agencies apprehended Kandy and his family and deported them to India. But Manaf managed to cross over (and subsequently died while fighting in Syria in November last year).

But Kandy was so motivated to join the IS that he did not give up his efforts after one failure. NIA investigation has revealed that he went to Chennai and purchased a second-hand Micromax mobile bearing mobile number 9940358628. On it he installed the Telegram app to get in touch with Shameer and Manaf in Syria. He used the services of a travel agent called Mustafa to forge himself a new identity by the name of Mohammed Ismail Mohideen. Thereafter he took a flight from Bengaluru to Bangkok, and from there he flew back to Iran. There, two other men, Abdul Khayoom and Abdul Razak, both residents of Kannur, joined him. They had taken a separate route via Calicut- Sharjah to reach Iran. As they tried crossing over to Syria, Kandy was caught again along with Razak. But Khayoom managed to cross over and is now in Syria. Kandy and Razak were deported to India in July 2016 and are now undergoing trial.

AMONG THOSE WHO left Kerala to join the IS include a 29-year-old dentist, Nimisha Sampath. In Palakkad, she fell in love with a man called Bexen Vincent. Later, both converted to Islam and are now believed to be living with their daughter in Afghanistan. They are now called Fatima Isa and Abu Isa, respectively. According to the police, Bexen’s brother Bestin, who also joined IS with his wife, has died in a drone attack.

Now from Syria and Afghanistan, men like Bexen and Abdul Khayoom are motivating others to join the IS. In April this year, the NIA arrested Riyas Aboobacker from Palakkad. According to NIA, he was in touch with Khayoom and others and was planning suicide attacks at popular tourist places in Kerala.

On June 12th, the NIA arrested Mohammed Azarudeen, who they say is the mastermind of an IS module in Tamil Nadu. Azarudeen was friends with the main Sri Lankan suicide bomber, Zahran Hashim. He maintained a Facebook page named KhilafahGFX and had plans to carry out attacks in Tamil Nadu, especially on temples and churches. Azarudeen and his two associates were arrested after NIA conducted raids at seven places in Coimbatore.

A senior NIA investigator says that most people he has interrogated believe that Muslims in India have got dealt a bad hand. He gives the example of Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, a native of Hyderabad, who held an engineering degree, and got initiated into the IS fold while working in Saudi Arabia. After his arrest in June 2016, he told investigators that he had grown up while listening to his grandmother’s story of how Hyderabad was annexed by the Indian Government in 1948 and how they lost their status.

Guided by a notorious IS handler (Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani, a Sudanese national, who died with his wife in a bomb explosion in Syria in April 2016), who worked on him for almost one-and- a-half years, Yazdani created a small IS cell, comprising seven others among his family and friends. All eight were made to sign a bayah (oath of allegiance) to the Islamic State’s leader, which they did by signing with their newly-acquired Arabic names.

In June 2015, a man from West Bengal attended the Friday prayers at downtown Srinagar's main mosque. Later, the man, now masked, took out a flag of the Islamic State

It was later when they were trying to put together a bomb for carrying out a terrorist attack that the police raided Yazdani’s house and arrested him and others. The police found raw material for bomb in the form of a paste lying in the refrigerator of his house. From one of his accomplices, Yasir Naimatullah’s mobile phone, the investigators found a speech of the IS spokesperson, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani (killed in Syria in August, 2016):

“Do not let this battle pass by you wherever you may be. You must strike the soldiers, patrons, and troops of the ‘non-believer’… kill him in any manner… do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict… if you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the American, Frenchman or any of his allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him… if you are unable to do so, then burn his home, car, or business, or destroy his crops. If you are unable to do so, then spit in his face.”

ON MAY 24TH THIS YEAR, the Indian Government banned the Bangladesh-based terrorist organisation, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JUM), which is now a part of the IS umbrella. On June 25th, the police arrested four IS operatives with links to JUM. It is the JUM which the police hold responsible for the bomb blast in Bodh Gaya in Bihar in January last year. Intelligence agencies believe that in the last few years, over 3,000 terrorists belonging to JUM and its allied outfits have entered India. A secret communique of Telangana Police suggests that JUM has established two girl madrasas in West Bengal along the Bangladesh border. Here, the note says, young women married to JUM militants are taught how to prepare IEDs with locally available material.

In June 2015, a man from West Bengal attended the Friday prayers at downtown Srinagar’s main mosque. Afterwards, as young Kashmiris spilled out on the street, the man, now masked, took out a flag of the Islamic State and waved it in front of the media men. The man, Mohammed Mosiuddin, was on a mission. He had been sent by an IS handler called Abu Sulaiman in Bangladesh to do a reconnaissance in Delhi and Srinagar to see if foreigners, especially from America, Russia, and Britain could be targeted. He had also been in touch with JUM operatives in Bangladesh.

Mosiuddin also chatted regularly with another IS operative, Mohammed Shafi Armar, a resident of Bhatkal, Karnataka, who is believed to have died in Syria recently. Sultan Armar, alias Abdul Rehman al-Hindi, Armar’s brother, had founded an outfit called Ansar-ul-Tawhid, and IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had received his allegiance. He had also died in Kobani in Syria a few years ago, according to investigative agencies. The two brothers had fought for the IS both in Afghanistan and Syria. The US designated Shafi Armar a global terrorist in 2017.

As his plans of going to Syria were not materialising, Mosiuddin and two others planned to attack some Hindu families in West Bengal’s Birbhum district in order to signal the presence of the Islamic State. Acting on a tip-off from a source, the police arrested Mosiuddin from the D1 coach of Howrah- Viswabharati train at Burdwan railway station on July 5th, 2016.

“We are lucky that we have a friendly government in Bangladesh right now,” says a senior police officer based in Delhi who monitors IS modules. “Otherwise, West Bengal’s situation could have been disastrous.” The challenge, he says, is that Indian security agencies need to exponentially increase their knowledge about cyber-domain technologies.

The officer also spoke about how certain prominent people “in their ignorance” have been downplaying the threat of the IS modules and the ease with which these can put a bomb together. In December last year, as they cracked the Amroha module, the NIA was criticised by some for putting up ‘ridiculous things’ like sutli bombs as evidence. “We did not react to such accusations on social media because we know how serious the situation in Amroha could have turned to be,” says a senior NIA official. He spoke of the case of “Base Movement,” an Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist organisation that is responsible for at least five bomb blasts in court complexes in south India. “We found out that the cadre of the organisation was trying to put together a bomb by scrapping off material from the striking head of matchsticks [typically consisting of red phosphorus, potassium chlorate, among other material],” he says.

The NIA official insisted that the situation was serious but under the control of security agencies. “But it would be a mistake to dismiss the threat,” he says.

In a recent piece in the London Review of Books, after he accessed the Islamic State files, the writer Tom Stevenson writes: ‘IS files show that dismissing its adherents as irrational or, worse, nihilist, would be an error. They had a vision.’

That vision is to see the whole world turn into an Islamic State Caliphate.

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