How Five Telengana Young Men Who Were Ready To Give It All For ISIS Caught In Kolkata
Late on the evening of August 31, 2014, in Kolkata, four young men from Telangana made their way down from the second floor to the lobby of Hotel Krishna in New Market, where they had checked in earlier. They were filled with trepidation, hope and fear.
A journey awaited, a holy vow was close to fulfilment. They didn’t make it far.
Away from Syria, away from the promise of 72 virgins that the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) had assured them, right there on the battered brown sofa of the lobby sat an inspector of the Telangana police who had tracked their “radicalisation” for months. Now when they were a whisker away from Bangladesh—their route to Syria via Turkey started from Dhaka with fake passports—and far from Hyderabad, the officer stood up and looked them in the eye.
“Game over,” he said.
Amir, Armaan, Arbaaz, and Imran (names changed) were four Indian Muslims stopped by police and other intelligence agencies from joining the IS. They were radicalised—as the term goes—online, mainly on Facebook, had virtual handlers and one of them had as mentor, a man who claimed to be an IS sniper, according to the police investigation. The sniper cut a dashing figure for Amir, someone who could nail the eye of a fish at a furlong, and still discuss the Quran like a preacher.
The lure of IS among young Muslims is strong, as is the pull of the ummah, the Islamic community that unites Muslims across the world. According to reports more than 30,000 foreign fighters have made their way to the deserts of Syria and Iraq to fight and build the Islamic society that the IS espouses.
At least 50 Indians, including some working in the Gulf countries, are said to have gone to Syria and Iraq to join IS, and some—such as Abdul Qudus Turki from Bijapur, and Mohammad Umar Subahan from Bengaluru—have been killed there, according to a document prepared by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and reviewed by Fountain Ink. At least four Indians have been killed in the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, according to the MHA document.
Areeb Majeed, one of the four young men from Kalyan—the first known IS recruits from the country—returned after six months in IS-controlled Syria. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is investigating his case. A senior official of the MHA, who did not want to be named commenting on an active investigation, toldFountain Ink that Majeed, in confessions to the NIA, has said life under IS is not the pious activity it is projected to be. Majeed said that there was hardly any community life, he was paid $75 a month as wages, and that he shared a small barrack with three other fighters, the official told Fountain Ink.
According to Majeed’s statement there was an absence of religious activity, and no form of entertainment was permitted save the Internet, the official said.
The list of Indian nationals who joined IS includes an engineer, an MBA graduate, a journalist, and a religious scholar. Indians joining IS, according to the MHA document, have gone from places like Singapore, Bengaluru, Bijapur, Queensland (Australia), Doha, and Collins County (Texas), among others.
At a meeting held in Delhi in August this year, attended by heads of intelligence agencies, state home secretaries, and chaired by the Union home secretary, it was proposed that the ISIS threat be “consciously underplayed”, as undue publicity would be counterproductive. Fountain Ink has reviewed the minutes of this meeting.
The minutes reveal that the “ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) phenomena” is at an “incipient stage” in India, and that the organisation does not have the capacity yet to carry out attacks in the country. However, intelligence agencies say “lone wolf attacks” can’t be ruled out.
According to the minutes, the government should promote “counter-narratives” to radical propaganda, there should be “minimum publicity” of cases of radicalisation, and police forces should not take “reckless enforcement action” against innocents.
Social media surveillance is crucial to any anti-IS campaign but, according to the minutes, state police forces don’t have the capacity. Multiple sources in the Telangana police, which includes senior officers, and at least one senior MHA official dealing with the matter confirmed to Fountain Ink that Facebook has on more than one occasion refused the government’s request to grant access to profiles of people under investigation.
Facebook did not confirm nor deny this. A Facebook spokesperson told Fountain Ink that the company keeps a close watch on pages that promote terrorism and they are frequently taken down if they violate its community standards. The spokesperson said Facebook cooperates with governments when requests for sharing information are made through proper channels. The spokesperson said they “removed” comments that praised or supported terrorist groups and that they had specially trained employees who “remove any accounts associated with ISIS”. Facebook also added that they have in the past worked with law enforcement officials.
The story of the four young men from Telangana lifts the veil on IS’s methods of online recruitment and radicalisation, its appeal in India, the way online conversations morph into action offline, and IS’ global collaborative effort to radicalise and provide logistical support to those who want to join. For example, 19-year-old Amir’s online circle which included a Syrian sniper, a Dubai-based businessman, a Turkish-Syrian IS sympathiser, a Gujarati recruiter, and a former Students Islamic Movement (SIMI) of India member was formed on Facebook.
A seemingly disparate but united effort by these players resulted in the 19-year-old being a flight and a bus ride away from joining IS, barely weeks after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared the Caliph.
Fountain Ink interviewed two of the four young men separately in Telangana over days, getting exhaustive details of their online activities and motivations. All of them, though not charged with any crime, are under police surveillance. They spoke on the condition that they not are identified with their real names. Another young man, Karim (name changed), who didn’t make the journey to Kolkata after his passport was impounded, was also interviewed.
“When we caught them, they were in a state of panic. Not because they had been stopped but because they didn’t want to keep their Caliph waiting,” says the inspector who found them in Kolkata.
The Telangana police team that investigated the case spoke to Fountain Ink on condition that they not be named.
This is the story of the journey to the Islamic State that almost happened.
Constable Akbar (name changed) was wrapping up for the day when his phone rang. The anonymous caller spoke in a hushed, hurried tone. “Certain people of interest have gathered outside Al Azhari Mosque, you don’t want to miss this,” he said and hung up.
By the time Constable Akbar reached the tall gates of the mosque, the Hyderabad sky was blushing with the hues of sunset. A small crowd congregated around a man that police claim to be a well-known “extremist” who was agitating about Israel’s war on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Minutes before the azaan signalled an end to a long day’s Ramzan fast, at a time when hunger dictated most thoughts, the “extremist” called upon those gathered to show their support for Gaza by attending the Battle of Badr commemoration two days later.
In the congregation was Amir, a close relative of the “extremist” and a person on the watch list. Amir was visibly excited, remarked Constable Akbar to his superior, Inspector Veer (name changed). It was then decided that Amir be watched for the next few days.
“There are certain groups that are always watched and within those groups are certain individuals. It is my job to watch those individuals online and offline,” said Inspector Veer.
On July 14, 2014, the evening of the commemoration of the Prophet’s most storied battle and one of the few battles mentioned in the Quran, Amir visited the local beauty parlour and had his cheeks waxed. A well defined, fuller beard would compensate for his dainty features and elegant frame, providing masculinity. Emboldened by the quick-fix, he swaggered down the street enveloped in the sweet scent of rose and oud itar, aware that people were watching.
He stopped and shook hands with a friend, and upon turning the corner, spoke briefly with another. The friend, Imran, looked nervous.
“I hear it’s going to be big,” he said. Imran had made a poster of the Palestinian flag but was uncertain about its debut.
“The bigger the better,” Amir replied convinced that a bigger crowd was safer than a smaller one, harder to monitor. He did not know that he was already being tailed by Constable Akbar.
The inspector recalls Amir chanting in support of Palestine, roaring when the demolition of Babri Masjid was mentioned and pledging support to the ummah. Some conversations, however, the officer wasn’t privy to.
“Are you ready to work for Allah?” asked a member of Ahle Hadees, a puritanical Islamic organisation.
“Gaza is the key through which you can unlock another world on Facebook but trust only those who bear the Prophet’s seal,” the Ahle Hadees man said. When Amir searched Facebook that night for information on Gaza, he came across a black and white logo and learnt of the Islamic State.
“The reason for meeting was Gaza, but it quickly spilled into ISIS from there,” said a senior Telangana police official.
“In a way ISIS used Gaza, just as radical groups have used Babri Masjid or Godhra to further their cause,” says a source in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
ISIS is at home on social media. It uses YouTube as a disseminator of news uploading videos of beheadings and massacres. It uses the 140 characters of Twitter as a ticker for news on military operations, and as a tool for recruitment. On Facebook, ISIS cadre pose as “friends” who sell carefully crafted propaganda to lost youths in the darker corners of the Internet.
ISIS is online, all the time. It wants Muslims from all over the world to join its fold.
Foreign fighter migration isn’t a novelty. Extremists have travelled from the West to the mountains of Afghanistan and onwards to the lawless plains of Somalia to be trained by Islamist terror groups. But the Syrian case is unique: war volunteers from all across the globe, spanning different races and ethnicities, men and women have traversed the Jihadi Superhighway to a single destination.
Syria is not just the first war to unfold on social media, it is also the first war where fighters document their experiences in real-time. These virtual diaries have caught the imagination of jihadists worldwide.
But jihadist use of media isn’t novel. Even before the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda utilised new media companies such as As-Sahab (the clouds) or Al-Malahem (the battles) to disseminate propaganda videos. Password protected Internet forums such as Ansar al-Mujahideen, al-Ekhlaas, Faloja, and Shamukh existed as early as the 1990s. Al-Qaeda’s first beheading, that of Nick Berg, a radio entrepreneur from Pennsylvania in 2004, had also been uploaded on to a jihadist web forum.
ISIS arrived at a time when technology has exponentially multiplied the power of propaganda. The beheading of James Foley, an American journalist, by ISIS was uploaded on YouTube, announced on Twitter and became the subject of Facebook groups within a matter of minutes. Soon it trended across the Internet and on the smartphones of four men in Hyderabad connecting them to a world far away.
For Amir, this online connection with ISIS came when he was feeling disconnected from his real world. He had failed 11 subjects in his last exam at the engineering college. Fights with his father had become more frequent and violent. His father had once hit him with a chair for performing poorly. A second time, he had been hit with a belt.
“College didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to be a part of some other unit,” he says.
As a teenager looking to rebel he started chain-smoking. Two days after he turned 19, he rented a cheap room in a hotel where he lost his virginity. In the month that followed he slept with two other women.
“I was on the wrong path,” Amir said. “I had all the vices in the world but no satisfaction.”
Amir had grown up in Medina, one of the holiest cities in Islam where his father ran a company that provided services to hotels. Medina, with its stringent rules, and his father, with his harsh temper, meant Amir always had a desire to run away. After he shifted to India at the age of 14, the openness of the society appeased him somewhat. When his father relocated to India, Amir again felt claustrophobic.
“There was no freedom at all. Not then and not now,” he said on a rainy day in Hyderabad.
While the real world and his father’s rules had him trapped, he felt free online. His father, in his late 40s, had only heard about Facebook but for Amir, Facebook became life. He started spending more than eight hours a day online, consuming real-time information about the war in Syria via ISIS mouthpieces. He would lie in his darkened bedroom surfing page after page, updated every couple of minutes. The more pages he liked the more he commented, the more information he craved. Soon there was video after video of mutilated bodies, of mothers crying, of mass graves, and of a child’s coffin.
One video posted on a public page stuck with him. In the video, “infidels” drag a young woman into a mosque and rape her. Her screams made him feel like his brain would explode. At the end, the narrator asks, “If this was your sister what would you have done?”
“The sheer amount of information had me hooked and after a certain point, I felt as though I was a part of it,” says Amir.
Amir thought he was consuming news and not propaganda.
Did you ever think about verifying the information? I asked.
“No. I didn’t read newspapers nor did I watch TV news. I believed what I saw. It all seemed very real,” he said.
As his online activity increased, so did his conversations with like-minded people. At a point when he felt distant from his world in Hyderabad, he found kinship among IS supporters.
Amir only informed his cousin Arbaaz and best friend Imran about what he had discovered. Then he showed them. The three men were sitting in Amir’s bedroom when he typed “Al Malhama al Kubra” into YouTube. Narrated by Imam Alwaki, the video mimics a Hollywood blockbuster with end-of-the-world scenarios as buildings collapse and deserts become scenes for epic battles between Arabs on horses and Roman gladiators in chariots. An impressive soundtrack is interrupted by Imam Alwaki, who draws upon religious text to place the current conflict in Syria. “Do not miss this golden opportunity to be remembered,” the imam urges.
Soon, the three men were spending hours on Facebook, spellbound by an imam, wired into a war far, far away.
Amir was addicted to Facebook and the jihadi Web. “After a certain point, I wanted more,” recalls Amir. He had identified a group of individuals deeply involved with ISIS and Syria and tried to make contact. He had been noticed by a few people, many of his comments were liked and so he sent a friend request to someone he had begun to look up to. His name was Abu Aziz al-Andalusi and his comments yielded hundreds of likes.
“I didn’t expect it to go any further,” he says but on the fourth day after he sent the friend request, his mobile beeped with an alert while he was in class. Andalusi had accepted his request.
Soon they began exchanging messages. Andalusi claimed he was a sniper with the Islamic State in Idlib, a particularly restless Syrian governate. Years of fighting has brought the north-western city to its knees. He had images to prove he was there: there were pictures from the destroyed city of Aleppo, of him with an assault rifle, and of the beautiful rolling hills in Turkey where jihadis took a break from the theatre of war.
“They looked like they were brothers in arms, it looked fun,” says Amir.
Over a month he followed Andalusi’s posts in a state of rapture. Andalusi shared stories from the battlefields, about victories, and often heartbreaking posts about “brothers” lost on the way. Soon Amir was aware of the operational details: the location of the last round of fighting, the weapons used, the kind of assault the Syrian army had launched. Over time, Amir says, he began to feel like he was there, at the side of the sniper who had brought the war to him. Andalusi was his news anchor at a time when war correspondents had been kept at bay.
“He often asked me to pray for them. He kept saying the losses were great and how the ummah needed all the help they could get,” recalls Amir. Though most of the conversations were in English, Amir spoke a fair bit of Arabic and this impressed Andalusi.
From the night of July 27, 2014 Amir and Andalusi exchanged messages all the time, first on Skype and later, Andalusi told Amir about Telegram, a more secure free messaging service.
Each had questions for the other.
One night Amir wrote: “I am lean and of a small build,” implying that he would not be able to fight.
“A Muslim need not be tall but have big taqwa/imaan,” came the reply.
“Do you go the dargah?” Adalusi asked in one message.
“No,” replied Amir.
Not once did Andalusi mention jihad but instead presented him with verses from the Quran, quoted hadith (collection of traditions that contain sayings of the Prophet) which gave credibility to ISIS’s claim that the Caliph had arrived and that the Caliphate was legitimate.
“He encouraged me to join the fight in whatever capacity I could. We spoke non-stop for two days but on the third he disappeared,” says Amir. He felt a strange sense of loss and wondered if Andalusi had been killed.
He searched several days for him, trawling the ends of the jihadi Web, liking whatever came his way on Bilad al-Sham (the Quranic name for the area IS occupies), adding person after person bearing the flag of the Islamic State.
Constable Akbar had shadowed Amir for two days and found nothing. “The boy just goes to college and back. He often goes to the mosque,” he reported to his boss. The inspector was at a loss. Informers kept mentioning a group called ISIS and he kept repeating, “There is no ISIS in Hyderabad.”
Then one night, something clicked.
“This is a young boy from the digital age. I was looking in the wrong place,” he says.
ISIS was not in Hyderabad, it was inside Amir’s smartphone. By the time the police realised this, the 19-year-old had a mentor in an ISIS sniper, and knew details of battles being fought in Syria.
During this period, a high-level meeting with various branches of the Telangana police discussed the issue of radicalisation on Facebook. It was decided that officials would contact Facebook for intelligence on the activities of certain “extremists” who had raised red flags.
Fountain Ink has learnt from senior Telangana police officers and the MHA that Facebook was contacted both by the Central and Telangana governments for information but were denied access.
By August, Amir was restless at home. Online he was part of IS, coached by its sniper. Offline he was just a boy failing 11 subjects and getting thrashed by his father. He wanted to be the person he was on Facebook: confident, smart, and with a purpose.
He changed his profile picture from his own to the flag of ISIS though he did not change his name. He started sharing videos sympathetic to ISIS, and downloaded popular songs and anthems of the Khilafa such as Dawlat al-Islam Qamat (translated as “Ummah, dawn has appeared”). He even set set one as the ringtone on his Samsung smartphone.
Amir’s friends list continued to grow and his knowledge of Islamic State had begun to impress online handlers, says a senior officer of Telangana police. Amir was invited to several closed groups where information was openly exchanged. It was there he learnt about the presence of recruiters and met one though he wouldn’t know this until much later. The man was called Abu Zakaria and he referred to himself as the Emir of Hatay, a Turkish province that borders Syria. Abu Zakaria, unlike Andalusi, was less open and a lot more paranoid.
“He kept asking me, ‘how can I trust you, how can I believe you are Momin, a true believer’,” recalls Amir. And when he finally stopped that, he wanted to get as much information about Amir as possible. “He wanted to know everything. How old I was, what I had studied, what I could do for the Islamic State.”
Late one night in the first week of August, Abu Zakaria said he was “tired of the child’s play”, and presented Amir with a verse from the Quran, from a surah titled “At-Taubah, The Repentance”. It reads:
“Say, [O Muhammad], ‘If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and jihad in His cause, then wait until Allah executes His command. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people.’”
“Then he asked me, ‘what do you think about that?’” Amir told him the first truth that came to his mind: “That’s the first time the word jihad has been mentioned to me,” he wrote in a message.
Though Amir had been online for well over a fortnight, much of his correspondence with sympathisers and IS fanboys had been about the fighting in Syria and the dire humanitarian situation and religion. Trained as an engineer, Amir claims, he had never imagined himself as a fighter—though intelligence officials disagree with his claim. Suddenly the prospect of fighting, to kill or be killed, of being one of the men he saw in videos seemed very real.
What do you think is the most attractive reward of jihad? I asked him.
“Seventy-two virgin whores,” he replied with an impassive face. That, and the belief that he could take 70 members of his family straight to jannat, according to a Bukhari hadith.
After that conversation, Abu Zakaria became more persistent about Amir joining the Islamic State. He would repeat again and again, “India is one of the safest places for a Muslim, your family is safe there, it is your duty to come here and help us and help your ummah.”
Amir had concerns and hesitations: “Why do they call ISIS terrorists?”
“We aren’t terrorists, we are just imposing the rules of sharia’a,” messaged Abu Zakaria.
“How was Baghdadi chosen as the Caliph?” he asked.
“We chose the most capable man among us,” Abu Zakaria said.
Abu Zakaria started teaching Amir about Surah Qaf, about helping the ummah. “He kept telling me that it was my duty to help at this auspicious moment,” Amir says.
So Amir did. It was mid-afternoon on August 18 and a small altercation took place between a boy and a girl. Determined to defend the girl’s honour, Amir walked over to the boy and pulled out a knife. Terrified, the boy ran to the principal who suspended Amir.
Without college, Amir got sucked deeper into Facebook. When the college tried to reach his parents, the phone didn’t connect. Amir had given an incorrect number and he was too afraid to tell his parents and more desperate than ever to leave.
“Can I come?” he messaged Abu Zakaria the following day.
“You never need to ask,” he replied. “This is your home.”
For the next couple of days, they spoke about the journey. Abu Zakaria calmed Amir, often speaking to him as an older brother. The handler assured Amir that he would have emotional support the entire way and sent a list of instructions to be followed strictly:
“Wear haram clothes,” he messaged. Amir understood this to mean “yo-yo type” clothes. He had already picked an outfit: black jeans and a black T-shirt like the fighters in the video he had seen.
“Anything but that,” Abu Zakaria said. “Do not carry a mobile, it can be traced,” he added.
Abu Zakaria presented him with the most direct route: Delhi to Istanbul and onward on what has been dubbed the Jihadi Superhighway. In Istanbul he was to purchase a TurkCell SIM with lira that he would change at the airport. From the airport, Amir was to take a taxi to the Buyuk Istanbul Otogar, and message Abu Zakaria from there. Abu Zakaria would have a handler who would take him into Syria, waiting for Amir in Gaziantep.
Later that evening, Amir, who had appointed himself as the Emir (a title bestowed on rulers) of Hyderabad, called an urgent meeting after the prayers after sunset. His two followers met in an empty lot used as a cricket ground behind his modest house.
Amir was visibly sparked as he recounted the incident. “It’s finally happening, praise be to Allah,” Amir said. The young men smiled and embraced. “Praise be to Facebook,” he added, “without which none of this would have happened.”
Travel along the Jihadi Superhighway was a pipe dream and for days Amir lamented on Facebook about not having a passport. “He told just about anyone who would listen,” says an intelligence officer monitoring public Facebook groups related to Islamist extremism.
“I don’t have a passport. Nor do I have any money to get a visa or to travel,” said Amir hoping Abu Zakaria wouldn’t lose his temper and might help him.
“We are in the middle of a war, I can’t fly people out here, this is not a holiday at my farm house,” he said at first. Later that night, he messaged about getting in touch with those who are “in the business of bringing people here,” Amir recalls.
So Amir started searching earnestly. He already had a group of friends online who were guiding him from page to page like a student graduating from one class to the next. They introduced him on a page called “Dawlat al-Islamiabil Iraq-ul-Sham” (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS) as a “brother”. On that page, IS sympathisers told him to remain steadfast in his search for finances, assuring him that for the pious God would create a way.
By mid-August, Amir received a message from a man named Anand Gowda.
“You have what it takes,” read the first message.
Amir didn’t bother to reply. He didn’t know Anand Gowda.
“Let me help you,” read the second message.
Anand Gowda’s profile picture, of a burly South Asian man with a heavy moustache didn’t match the ISIS profiles he had become accustomed to seeing. “The profile and its content were unlike anything I had seen. He was a normal businessman,” Amir says. It would take Gowda a couple of days to convince Amir that he was genuine, and he even produced a certificate that attested he had converted to Islam.
While Gowda and Amir were in conversation, Telangana Intelligence were studying the activity of a well-known ex-SIMI operative in Dubai. Senior sources in Telangana intelligence believe Gowda is the fake profile of the outlaw they are investigating. They even shared intelligence with the UAE authorities and were awaiting his deportation when Gowda got in touch with Amir.
To Amir, Gowda was a knight, a man with money, and a heart that belonged to theummah. “Without him my plans would have remained just plans,” says Amir. Gowda promised to send Amir a total of ₹1.5 lakh in a couple of weeks and kept his word.
“This is a gift for your service to the ummah,” he said.
But police couldn’t act. They couldn’t prevent the men from engaging further. “No crime had been committed,” said Inspector Veer.
“Again, we tried to get in touch with Facebook to get information but they flat out refused. It would have been crucial to figure out who else was transferring the money because more than one person was involved in the money trail,” says a senior source in Telangana intelligence. Facebook refused to comment on this request of the police.
Half an hour from Amir’s house, down an unpaved alley, Karim sat under a broken chandelier playing online poker with opponents from all over the world. Dissatisfied with life in a small mohalla, bored with his job in foreign exchange, apprehensive about becoming a father, angry about the war in Gaza, the 24-year-old started playing online poker in June 2014 and escaped for a couple of hours every day, alone with his Sony Experia smartphone. Though gambling is haram in Islam, after a particularly exciting match he received a message from one of his opponents.
“Are you Muslim?” asked Ibn Muhammed.
“Yes,” replied Karim.
“Sunni or Shia’a?” he asked.
“Sunni,” he said.
“So we are brothers,” he responded and sent a friend request. Before going to bed, Karim accepted his request. A week after their first conversation in June 2014, Ibn Muhammed invited Karim to a page on comparative religion. He accepted the invitation.
The page was a sort of debating club where people showed off their knowledge of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Karim thought himself knowledgeable about Islam and was commenting frequently which meant that his Facebook wall showed him more and more news from the page.
People in the group would often talk about the Khilafa and a place called “al-sham”. Karim had only ever heard of these in history textbooks. In Islam, it is predicted that at a time when the world is in chaos, a new Caliphate will be declared, a new Caliph will emerge from the ranks of the Muslim fighters.
“I knew the history but these people were talking as though it was actually happening,” Karim told me under the broken chandelier.
One night, after a nasty duel with a commentator who alleged that Karim didn’t know anything about “political Islam,” he began to research and came across ISIS for the first time. He began searching for information on Facebook by typing “al-sham” into the search bar. He tried to seek out information on Google news, but Facebook was more compelling, he says. Soon, his two-hour nightly poker became an alternative education about politics and religion that took more than five hours every night.
Many videos appealed to the adventurer in him. There were videos in which men just like himself were training to be fighters, learning to aim a machine gun, riding black horses in the desert to ISIS anthems. When his pregnant wife finally nagged him into bed, he would lie next to her imagining himself in the back of a truck with the men in black riding towards the next battle.
It wasn’t until he came across a man named Mohammad Ibn al-Barra, an Australian of Syrian origin, that he truly wanted to be a part of that world. Through Barra’s page, Karim saw an intimate portrayal of life in a country ravaged by years of war. Barra became a real-time anchor, a war correspondent embedded in the theatre of war that most journalists were too wary to cover. But this anchor wasn’t like the ones on CNN. Barra was engaging and informal, he was real and approachable and soon Barra and Karim became “friends.”
There were similarities between the two: both liked the gym and had strong bodies, both had warm hazel eyes and dimples. However they led different lives. While Karim traded foreign exchange in Hyderabad, Barra had quit his job in Australia to help the thousands of Syrian refugees who had gathered on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Soon Karim began to spend most of his time checking Barra’s page. Barra shuttled between Syria and Turkey with bags of medicine that he dropped off at schools that were now makeshift refugee camps, he delivered band-aids and milk powder at places even the UN couldn’t reach, and he captured almost every step of the way on a camera. There were images of mothers greeting Barra with embraces, of rebels greeting him as a long-lost brother, and of children running to him. Barra became a hero to Karim.
When Barra’s Facebook account reached 5,000—the maximum number of friends allowed on Facebook—he started a Facebook page that had thousands of followers as well. In a way he offered an alternative to the darkness that has come to embody the Syrian war. In one photo, Barra is smoking shisha with fighters, in another he is posing with anti-tank missiles, and in another he is running, cigarette in hand, away from an explosion.
“It seemed exciting and he was doing something good,” recalls Karim.
Would you say this was like reality TV of war? I asked.
“I felt I was there, like I knew this man, like these were my people. It was all very real,” Karim said.
Along the way, as people lauded his efforts, Barra began asking for donations to fund his work and the money came rushing in to an Australian bank account, says Karim. Since he had been an early follower, Barra would often update Karim personally on events and at times even confided in him.
”Money is pouring in from all corners of the world and there is so much of it that I didn’t know what to do. I can buy out all the pharmacies on the Turkish border with the money I’ve raised,” he once said.
Over the course of six months, the conversation moved from war to life. Barra had met a beautiful green-eyed Syrian girl and they had married. The men shared another similarity: both would be fathers in the coming year. Late one night after a particularly tense day at work, he acted upon an urge that had been building up for weeks and sent a message to Barra.
“I want to come join you,” he wrote. “I want to help the ummah like you do, he wrote. Karim added, “I don’t want to fight, though.”
In our conversations in Hyderabad he told me that he wanted to create an account like Barra’s and provide an avenue for sympathetic Indians to provide monetary assistance as well as “old clothes” to the war-weary people of Syria.
“Why can’t I live an exciting life, while serving Allah, our ummah and earn good money?” he asked.
Days after he had expressed his desire to journey to Syria, Barra issued a set of instructions, similar to what Abu Zakaria had told Amir. He told Karim to get a visa from Turkey and purchase a TurkCell mobile. Karim was to make sure he had US dollars with him, and was not to speak to anyone or tell anyone where he was going. When he arrived, he was to check into a hotel with WiFi in Istanbul and inform Barra. Then he was to make his way to Reyhanli in Hatay where he would find a guide. The guides would ask for a fee and take him across the border.
Once in Syria, Karim was to make contact with Barra and join him, join them.
Karim, unlike Amir, had a passport and had been informed that authorities were wary of giving single men visas to Turkey so he applied for a visa for his pregnant wife, mother and himself. He succeeded in getting it. Despite getting the visa in July 2014, Karim didn’t want to journey alone.
“I wasn’t going there to die, but I was afraid,” he says.
In the beginning of August, Karim went to the al Azhari mosque, one that he usually didn’t frequent. It was afternoon prayers and the mosque was relatively empty. On that very day, another boy had been running late for his prayers and had left his mobile on ring as he prayed. Mid-way during prayer, an ISIS anthem cut the quiet of the domed mosque. Excited by the tune yet devoted in his prayers, Karim didn’t look up but finished his devotions. Then he scanned the room to see if anyone was on the phone. There was a small skinny boy talking on the mobile. That boy was Amir.
“I want to talk to you about an issue,” Karim said.
“Is that issue Syria,” Amir asked.
Karim looked down. “Kya, dar gaya? (Why, are you scared?)” he asked. And they agreed to talk later.
They met that evening and began to talk in code.
“Are you planning on performing hijrah?” Karim asked Amir. Hijrah is a Quranic phrase that deals with the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina, and here refers to the journey to ISIS.
Amir nodded and explained his predicament. Everything was in place, he said, the route had been planned, a group had been organised but Amir was awaiting a “parcel” from Dubai. Karim, who was afraid to travel alone, offered Amir money from his foreign exchange business which Amir promised to pay back.
Several days later, after the passport application had been made, Amir informed Karim about a “parcel” that needed to be transferred to a bank account in India. Karim lent his back account details. But when Anand Gowda got nervous that the money trail could be followed, he asked for a pickup in Dubai. It was Karim’s cousin who went and picked up ₹1.5 lakh in Dubai, according to a source in intelligence.
More people sent money in the form of gifts: Umar-al–Kalai, another sympathiser, Western-Unioned him ₹1.5 lakh to cover travel expenses. Amir not only had enough money to buy a passport but more money than he had ever had. Four days after Amir applied, he got his passport.
In the third week of August, while Amir got busy finding an agent who would get him a Turkish visa without asking too many questions, Karim travelled to Delhi to meet his in-laws and then returned to Hyderabad. Amir and Karim were in conversation about leaving together through this period.
On August 26, the day Amir was due to get his visa, there was a knock on Amir’s parents’ door. The police had come to inform Amir’s parents about their son’s impending travel.
Karim’s passport was also impounded on the same day. That was the end of his plan to join IS.
How did you know whom to watch? Are you watching private individuals’ Facebook accounts? I asked a senior member of Telangana intelligence.
“Most Facebook pages are open to the public. There are a few in particular such as the Indian Muslim Media Facebook Page where there is a lot of information on Babri Masjid and the Godhra incident. Pages like these are monitored. There are other pages, some related to Kashmir, there are a few with a Gulf connections such as the Emrati Islami Hind. We watch these pages and these men weren’t smart enough to cover their trail,” he says.
Amir, who was browsing public pages of jihadi propaganda, was easy for the police to track.
Did you not think of adopting a nom de guerre, I asked Amir.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was doing anything illegal,” he said.
After his plan to travel on August 28 had been busted and his ally Karim had dropped out, Amir didnt’t return home. His parents were furious and devastated. The police informed them that Amir’s passport was being impounded immediately. Amir was outside his college when he received a phone call from his hysterical mother. She had already been on the phone yelling at the travel agent, who was ordered to stop processing the visa application.
“What have you become a part of,” she shouted. Amir stayed at a friend’s house. He still wanted to run away, to be a part of IS more than ever. He messaged Abu Zakaria and updated him.
“I had a passport. I had money. I almost had a visa. Now I have nothing again,” he wrote.
Abu Zakaria suggested he speak to Abu Hamza al-Muzahir, an IS sympathiser in Surat on August 29. Muzahir wasn’t the friendliest of people he had met online. His instructions were short and trite: “Get in touch with the Emir, a boy name Armaan. He will lead you to where you need to be,” he messaged.
Nineteen-year-old Armaan, the true Emir of Hyderabad lived in Karimnagar, a three-hour bus ride away.
Armaan was the youngest of the group and according to the police, the most radical of the four stopped in Kolkata. A short boy with spiky hair and rimmed glasses, he was also the least imposing. Armaan’s radicalisation was the quickest: a day after he turned 19, his father bought him a Samsung S4, in part a birthday present and in part a gift for excellent grades.
Armaan immediately downloaded the Facebook app. Though there was a computer at home, it was shared with his brother, and it never afforded him privacy. A couple of days after downloading Facebook, unaware of how to use the social media platform he began to search for inspirational quotes on Islam which he later updated on his public Facebook profile. Like the others, his online activity coincided with the attack on Gaza when posters such as “when one finger bleeds, the whole body hurts, the ummah is the body” were immensely popular. Soon his uploads began to get attention from Facebook users in Australia and the UK who were second generation migrants. Many were from Bangladesh, says an intelligence source.
They told him the only way to address the suffering of the ummah was to strengthen Islamic State, and invited him to a page called “Biladul Sham 2”. There was a great deal of activity on this page and the content was deemed too radical in nature to be tolerated on Facebook. The page was shut down and in its place another with the same title but different number popped up. In his five weeks online, Armaan frequented “Biladul Sham 2” to “Biladul Sham 17”.
Through this he attained knowledge which even mainstream media lacked: he knew where the ISIS army was advancing, he saw them travel from northern Syria and create mayhem in Iraq and when it conquered more territory he was surprised. Soon, Armaan was posting updates on battlefield successes as IS and its allies took more and more territory.
But there was more to their interchange than war.
“There was always someone to speak to. At any one time there were 15-30 people online to speak to and they welcomed me like no one else had done before,” he says.
He often asked what a slight boy like he could offer the Islamic State, and time and again he was informed that the state was not just a military unit but a body where all sorts of people were needed.
“We will assign you work based on your abilities,” read one message. There were many options for an educated boy like him.
“We will give you jobs in first aid, medical aid, or in ISIS accounts in the treasury,” they said.
“I felt as though I was there, that I belonged with the Khilafa. Those men were my brothers, like in a fraternity,” he says.
At the end of the second month, he was commenting on every third video and had earned a reputation as being a serious ISIS fanboy. Once when there was a particularly striking victory he wrote, “May Allah bring the infidels to their knees”, and when there were videos of atrocities committed by the government of Bashar al-Assad, he once wrote, “I’m going to cry”. The comment got over 500 likes.
Fountain Ink has reviewed the dossier with screenshots of these Facebook pages with comments by Armaan, prepared by the Telangana police. The pages have since been pulled down by Facebook.
“Amir was agitated to begin with, he had fashioned himself as the Emir and suddenly there was another boy who had genuine authority,” says Karim.
When Amir, Imran and Arbaaz reached Karimnagar, Armaan was firm. “There is no need to ask questions, just do as I say,” he said and asked them to form a row in front of the webcam. Then he called Muzahir, who had the support of several well-known IS sympathisers online. It was he who appointed
Armaan as the Emir of Hyderabad.
“Show me their faces,” Muzahir said on Skype, and Armaan walked from person to person asking them to introduce themselves. They later pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their Caliph.
“Are you ready to perform hijrah?” Muzahir asked.
They all said yes.
“Very well then, let Armaan be your guide,” he said.
Given Armaan’s active engagement, he soon got in touch with an Indian jihadi group known as Ansar ul Tawhid ul Hind, which the police claim was providing help to Indians seeking to join the IS. It is through contact with this organisation that Armaan got in touch with Muzahir, who put him in touch with Abu Barak, the recruiter.
Several other Skype sessions were held with Muzahir and the young men. “He kept asking us if we were certain we could live there, that life wasn’t easy,” recalls Amir. He didn’t just paint a rosy picture, says Armaan. We knew life in the Islamic State was dangerous but we were ready, he says. When Muzahir was convinced, he put Armaan in touch with Abu Barak.
Since Amir, Imran and Arbaaz’s passports had been impounded, Abu Barak suggested an alternative which the men took. On the evening of August 29, 2014, Amir, Imran, Arbaaz and Armaan packed a small backpack each and boarded a train to Kolkata. On arrival, they were told to stay at a lodge Abu Barak recommended. The following day they went to a café where they used the free Wi-Fi and got in touch with Muzahir.
“Everything is in place, you know what to do,” he said.
The men would make their way to Bongaon, a small village on the border of India and Bangladesh. Late in the evening they would cross over and a handler would be waiting for them. He would carry fake passports and papers that the boys would use to travel to Afghanistan. The password he would have to give the handler was “Khilafa”. On their way home, the four men whispered the plan once again. Everything was in place.
When Amir sent the message to Muzahir, Inspector Veer was watching his activity. He soon traced his IP address and got in touch with intelligence in Kolkata who found the men had checked into a hotel on Armaan’s ID. Inspector Veer boarded a flight to Kolkata and made his way to the hotel. He waited in the lobby while the men were in the room.
All he had to say to the four men when they came down was, “Game over.”
Postscript: The police claim the four men and Karim have been “deradicalised” and some of them are back to attending college.
By ALIA ALLANA
Source: Fountain Ink series
Cover image source: hinduexistence.org
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