ABDUL RAHMAN HAMZA, 66, is haunted by an image he received from his nephew Ashfaq Majeed, who he had seen grow up as a peace- loving, humble, philanthropic and pious boy. It was a picture of an AK-47 rifle, a rebuke he got in response to a Malayalam voice message he’d sent the 27-year-old. In anguish and anger, the uncle had told the nephew to go get lost along with 34-year-old Ijas Abdul Rahman and 26-year-old Shiyas Abdul Rahman—his own sons—for doing what they had done and upturning everyone else’s life in the family.
Their deed was dire. They had joined that dreaded terror outfit, the Islamic State (IS). Hamza’s wife Hafsath has been in poor health ever since the disappearance of their sons, thought to have left India to join a battle the parents disapprove of, in May last year. They have had no word of consolation, nor apology. Ashfaq, at least they could reach by phone, and they hoped he would have some news. Instead, they got silence. And then that spine-chilling gun.
The parents cannot believe that their sons could go to such an extreme. “Both of them were very good, God-fearing and calm,” says Hafsath, “their wives too.” Ijas was a doctor and Shiyas was employed at a school, and nobody in the family had found any unusual change in their behaviour. Hafsath and Hamza say they were like any other young men, fond of family life. Both Ijas’ wife Rufaila and Shiyas’ wife Ajmala were pregnant when they vanished along with their husbands. Ijas and Rufaila had a two-year- old son, Ayan, who they took along.
According to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), it was a group of 22—13 men, six women and three children—that had left Kerala’s Kasargod and Palakkad districts to pursue IS causes that involve fighting forces it considers inimical to the ummah, the global Islamic community. The NIA has gleaned this information from messages received by various family members.
Of the nearly two dozen who have left, four are converts to Islam from Christianity, and one from Hinduism. Eleven of them are from Padanna, a backwater town of around 20,000 people in Kasargod that has hardly any history of communal violence and is known for its relative wealth, seen in large houses built with money earned in Gulf countries. Secrets are hard to keep in such semi-rural settings, but the 11 took care not to make space for suspicion over what they had in mind. They departed in smaller groups on different dates, citing various reasons.
Their families back home took about a month to realise that something had gone drastically wrong. With the help of local politicians, they lodged a complaint directly with the Chief Minister, asking for those missing to be traced. By June 2016, the families had begun to get calls and text messages telling them that they had gone on a mission to study Islam in greater depth. Their destination: ‘Dar Ul-Salam’. In a few weeks, the senders’ cellphone tower locations had been identified by the authorities. The missing persons, they discovered, had reached Afghanistan.
As of now, those messages are the NIA’s only source of information. Ashfaq Majeed is a key link in the intelligence gathering, since he keeps in regular contact with another uncle in Kerala, BC Abdul Rahman, who is now the point of contact for the police as well as the media. “I try to chat whenever I see him online, and I deliberately keep chatting in Malayalam to test whether the person sending messages is Ashfaq himself,” he says. In one such chat on April 19th held via an app called Telegram, his nephew told him that the news a few days earlier of 13 Indians killed by America’s Massive Ordance Air Blast—‘mother of all bombs’—aimed at an IS cave network in Afghanistan was fake. The same day, Marwan Ismail, a member of the group from Thrikkaripur (a village near Padanna), sent his mother a voice clip saying that there had been no casualties among them and everyone was safe.
There had been tension in Padanna. Reports from a war zone, the families are well aware, can be grim. On February 26th, Ashfaq appeared online to convey the news that TK Hafisuddin, a 24-year-old who lived next door to Ijas and Shiyas, had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan. Murshid Mohemmad, another native of Padanna, was similarly killed by an aerial attack device under US command on April 13th. The others, as Ashfaq has let on, await their turn as martyrs.
The messages, mostly in Malayalam mixed with English and some Arabic, are enough to assume the group of youngsters who left Kerala to take IS’s bloody warpath have made nothing of their lives. Yet, the families are having a hard time getting them to admit their grievous error and reverse course. In a recent reply to a text message from BC Abdul Rahman asking them to return home, if only for the sake of their depressed parents, Ashfaq is categorical that there is no question of it. Rahman has conveyed how sad and helpless he feels when their parents ask him whether and when they will come home, but his nephew’s tone remains distressingly emotionless. Here is a sample of one such piece of communication from Ashfaq (translated from Malayalam): ‘Why do you keep silent? Show them this message and let them know that we would never come back. Tell my father that we have pledged our allegiance to Abubaker al-Baghdadi, tell him that we would meet up in Jannatul Firdous (Paradise). You people can never understand the kind of peace we enjoy here.’
In another conversation, Rahman asked Ashfaq which school of Islam they had chosen: Saudi Salafism, Kerala Salafism or any other. Neither of the two mentioned, he replied, since those support democracy, which he considers ‘shirk’ (idolatrous), a sin for a true Muslim. Instead, they follow Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama. According to Dr Ashraf Kadakkal, a scholar of Islamic Studies at Kerala University, “This is a pristine form of Islam as interpreted by puritan revivalists like Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab [from whom Wahhabis get their name].” Another of Ashfaq’s opinions is that Muslim lands are under invasion and so it is every Muslim’s duty to resist it and establish Islamic rule. ‘Jihad is the only way to establish Khilafat,’ in his radical words. He is also given to quoting Anwar al-Awlaki, the slain Al-Qaeda ideologue who was an American citizen.
Padanna has a long record of trade-linked affluence, with many of its people having migrated elsewhere over the decades in search of opportunity. “Migration started even before World War II,” says MK Thaslim, author of a locally-published history of the town. “A large number of people migrated to Burma and Sri Lanka.” In the 1950s and 60s, many went to Bombay and entered the hospitality business. With so much interaction with others, the town’s residents do not consider themselves ghettoised.
Many of them are in denial of the deadly path some of their townsfolk have taken. The group’s members had no sign of fanaticism that they can recall. In their observation, the IS recruits were pleasantly disposed to everybody around, irrespective of faith. Why they took up arms against ‘infidels’ is beyond their understanding, say locals.
“I don’t think my son is capable of killing someone or joining an extremist group,” says Saru K, mother of Mohemmad Sajid, a 26-year-old who went missing from Abu Dhabi last year around the same time as the other 21. She has reason to believe, she says, that Sajid was abducted. “He promised to come home for Bakri Eid. He called us and asked what all things we wanted. He purchased gifts for every family member and sounded very excited,” she says, before breaking into tears.
Saru K expects her son to come home some day, but seems ignorant of what IS actually is and what fate would befall him if he were to return. The last call she received from him was from Sri Lanka (at least that was what he said), saying that he had gone there to attend Qur’an classes. Later, it was found that Sajid had left home to join his friend Murshid Mohemmad (who eventually died in a drone strike) in Abu Dhabi, after which they were not heard from. Sajid’s Dubai-based cousin Muzammil Ishaque, who visited the other UAE city to investigate, found a stack of gifts in Murshid’s room and had them delivered home.
Another suspected IS recruit is Marwan Ismail of Thrikkaruppur. On reaching his house, Open finds his mother Saira Banu basking in the reassurance of recent contact. Just the previous day, she says cheerfully, she got a voice message from Marwan saying he was doing well and so were the others he was with. Before he left, he was working at Peace International School with Abdul Rashid Abdulla, a consultant trainer there who is now suspected to be the group’s ring leader, and had turned rigid on matters of religion, as his mother recollects. “He used to tell me that he wanted to go to Yemen to study Islam,” she says, “I strongly disagreed and never allowed him to go, so he left without giving me any hint.”
Saira Banu says she has neither slept nor eaten anything after she learnt of the mid-April US air attack on Afghanistan. “I was very worried when the bombing started. The police didn’t have any information. We were relieved to know that nothing happened to Marwan.” By the time our conversation ends, her cheer is gone. “I have neither slept nor eaten since my boy left,” she revises her words as she begins to weep.
Not only are the recruits educated, they belong to families that can afford enviable levels of material comfort. On further probing, it seems that some of them did show signs of a sudden turn to extreme observance. Watching TV and movies was deemed unIslamic, and, in some cases, vehicles taken on loan stopped being used on the ground that Islam forbids the payment of interest. Their parents took these as indicators of piety and even welcomed them.
Today, their houses are shrouded in invisible palls of gloom. In Padanna, Hafisuddin’s 11-year-old sister hasn’t yet recovered from the shock of her brother’s death in a drone attack. She starts crying at the very mention of his name. The brother was a happy-go-lucky boy who did not seem concerned about his faith. “He had a lot of friends, had all bad habits,” says his mother Khadeeja, referring to the life of luxury her son lived till he was about 20. When he first began taking an interest in religious issues, she was pleased. “He changed a year ago, as he was influenced by Ijas and Shiyas,” she says of the neighbourhood siblings. And then he started making demands of the women at home, asking them to wear a burkha even indoors. “We often had fights over it,” says Khadeeja.
As a family, Hafisuddin’s has been well exposed to cosmopolitan life. His grandfather was among the early residents of Padanna to open a hotel in Bombay. “He was the first man to own cars in our village. He also owned a flat in Mumbai,” says Rahman. “You have to see the irony in it. The grandfather was a man who was urbanised in the 1960s, but the grandson [fifty years later] went back to conservative values and wanted the life of a jihadi.”
Radicalisation, however, may have little to do with such exposure. Or even geography. “It is certain that the seeds of extremism are sowed somewhere else, and not in Kerala. I think they got their wrong understanding of Islam from the internet,” says Rahman, “They are educated and exposed to foreign countries.”
Ashfaq Majeed’s messages suggest significant global influences. “The references to Ahl Sunnah Waljama and Anwar al-Awlaki indicate that they have been influenced by radical groups outside India,” says Dr Kadakkal. “These ideas are quite unfamiliar to Kerala’s Islamic groups,” he adds, but he believes that the state’s own brand of Salafism is not without blame. The seeds of radicalisation may have come from elsewhere, but they found fertile ground.