The Radicalisation of Indian Muslim Youth in the Age of ISIS


Leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance at the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014

INSIDE AN OFFICE at the packed Mahim Dargah in Mumbai, people are drinking water and nibbling bananas as they break the customary fast of Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan. M Suhail Khandwani is usually there at sundown for the occasion, but today he is at home less than a minute away, a few turns beyond the narrow, swelling streets of this densely populated part of India’s commercial capital which saw much Hindu-Muslim violence some decades ago. “We are businessmen. We are one of the first families to settle in Mahim. We want peace and communal harmony because each life is precious,” declares this prosperous Muslim builder, serving meat dishes and sweets along with cups of kahwah.


He is home because he has had an eye operation a day earlier, but the man is forever watchful. Khandwani, vice-president of the Memon Chamber of Commerce, has hired cyber security experts and joined hands with official agencies to monitor the ‘online’ behaviour of fellow Muslims. They especially observe the youth who he thinks are likely to be led astray these days by self-styled jihadists preying on the gullible to wage a war against the country—or to die in conflicts abroad in places like Syria and Afghanistan.

His anxieties are not the misplaced insecurities of his community’s affluent who have far more to lose, he offers. The need for vigilance is greater than ever now, he says. He has company. Dr Abdur Rahman Anjaria, who heads the Islamic Defense Cyber Cell of India, has volunteers across the country scanning social media—from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and beyond—for objectionable content, jihadist appeals and hate speeches on ‘kaffirs’ (infidels). Anjaria, who, like Khandwani, is a resident of Mumbai, has enlisted to the cause young volunteers across India who report seditious and religiously provocative comments on social media platforms, including encrypted WhatsApp groups of which they may be members.

Like Mohammed Rashid in Hyderabad and Suhail in Kochi, who have set up similar tracking ‘systems’ to watch erring youth, Khandwani and Anjaria know only too well that remote recruitment is what the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does best. About a tenth of the world’s Muslims live in India. Though the ISIS so far is reported to have recruited less than 70 people from among India’s 172 million adherents of Islam, the group’s targets are mostly from relatively privileged backgrounds, triggering fears within the community and without that terrorist activities in places where Muslims are socially, financially and politically empowered could rise. More importantly, the involvement of educated young men in terror plots is expected to have a cascading effect, given their potential to inspire more foot soldiers to join the slippery slope called jihad (or their wrong interpretation of it), according to at least three Home Ministry officials.

What bothers some key officials as well as politicians who have tracked religious terrorism are two main issues: primarily, India is part of what noted historian and University of Arizona academic Richard M Eaton has called ‘the demographic fatherland of Islam’. While it is the Middle East that is often identified with the faith, it is South Asia that is home to the largest number of Muslims. India has the world’s second-largest population of those who follow Islam, after Indonesia. Some surveys forecast that India will have the largest population of Muslims by 2050. According to a recent Pew Research Center projection, by then, the proportion of Muslims in the Hindu-dominated nation will rise from nearly 14.4 per cent currently to 18.4 per cent—representing upwards of 300 million followers.

Conrad Hackett, senior demographer at Pew Research Center, tells Open, “In India, as in many countries of the world, Muslims are the youngest religious group and the group with the highest fertility. This is the fundamental reason why we project significant Muslim growth.”

Government officials in Delhi feel that when more and more Muslims become educated and wired with the rest of the world, the challenges of tackling Islamism would multiply. “It is a tough statement to make. This is not something that is black and white. Yet, one can say that higher awareness—cable TV to the internet—besides physical links with the Gulf has resulted in significant radicalisation among the Muslims of Kerala. This trend might be repeated in other states as well when Muslims reach comparable degrees of social growth and mobility,” notes one of them, cautioning that the ‘Muslim bashing’ that has become “common in some politically powerful circles” will only aggravate matters.

For his part, Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, feels that there is certainly a cause for worry that the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba could try to exploit the Hindutva policy of the BJP Government and use it in their propaganda to engender grievances among Indian Muslims as a way to rally them to their militant cause. Azamgarh-based former SIMI chief Hakeem Shahid Badr Falahi cites this as an “area of major concern because Muslims in this country are often thrown in jail and freed many years later for lack of evidence”.

Kugelman, of course, sees such provocations as only one of many factors that could radicalise Muslims in India. He explains, “There’s no one single profile most prone to radicalisation—so it would be wrong or at least premature to suggest that the hardships of Indian Muslims, whether brought on by poverty, unemployment or discrimination, will heighten the prospects for recruitment to militant causes. Some people are radicalised by economic hardship and dire privation, but on the other hand there are plenty of well-educated, well-fed, and wealthy terrorists out there. At the end of the day, we just don’t know.”

Still, he has no doubt Indian Government policies have at best put the Indian Muslim community on the defensive and at worst turned it apprehensive about its well-being. “The vulnerability of Muslims is particularly compounded in regions like Uttar Pradesh, where you have top leaders that are explicitly anti- Muslim,” he says.

After ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the group’s so-called caliphate and grabbed hold of Iraqi and Syrian territory in June 2014, Indian agencies got wind of its association with local operatives. One of them was Areeb Majeed, a Mumbai-based engineering student who, along with three associates, had joined ISIS the same year and later returned to the country, only to be captured by the police. They had gone to Iraq on a Ziyarat tour, but slipped out and joined ISIS. Only Majeed returned, wounded and devastated; during his interrogation, he admitted that he was trained in guerrilla fighting and made to participate in the region’s ongoing civil war.

Other such cases soon emerged. So far, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the premier anti-terror wing of the Centre, has handled 20 ISIS- related cases, starting with that of Majeed and the three other Mumbai youths. In connection with such cases, NIA officials disclose they have till date arrested 66 people and declared 37 absconding.

Karnataka-born Mohammed Shafi Armar, the chief recruiter for the ISIS for India who was described last week by the United States as a ‘specially designated global terrorist’, had lived with his prosperous family in a well-off part of Karnataka’s Bhatkal town, Nawayath Colony. He was part of the Indian Mujahideen and also Ansar-ut-Tauhid, an outfit that had claimed responsibility for the 2008 murder of US envoy John Granville in Khartoum, Sudan.

His older brother Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar too had joined the ISIS and was killed two years ago in Syria along the Turkish border. An announcement on the Twitter handle @magnetgas12 had said that Sultan’s last words were: ‘Don’t forget to liberate India from Kuffars’. The 30-year-old Shafi Armar, who is known to be tech-savvy, has groomed dozens of ISIS sympathisers across India and elsewhere to plot attacks, procure arms and identify locations for terrorist training camps, said the US Department in a statement.

Such observations on the threat to India from Islamists make for a grim picture and highlight the unpreparedness on the part of our agencies to meet such challenges. Says a former Home Ministry official: “We have made some steps in the right direction, but when we have to face people who are pursuing a murderous cause, we need to be far more prepared. Much more work in tracking terror is in order.”

According to a military intelligence officer who has served in many conflict-hit areas of the country, acknowledging that there is such a problem is the first step towards fighting the menace.

Khandwani and others advocate intensive deradicalisation programmes to bring ‘deviant’ youth back on the right path, an experiment he and his team have tried with young people in association with the Maharashtra Police and opinion leaders in the community. “Yes, it is true that family values are the major factors that hold our community together. And it is with the help of relatives and religious leaders that we counsel them,” says Khandwani.

Dr Anjaria and his team of volunteers—like several others across various cities—keep tabs on 7,000-plus websites. “We have got at least 100 websites that spew venom on non-Muslims removed so far. One such was,” Anjaria says.

TERRORISM IS A hydra-headed monster that can’t be tamed through quick fixes, analysts agree. After all, the experience of Islamic radicalisation in India—and elsewhere—shows that there is no simple pattern that can be spotted in the activities of recruits to jihadist causes. In effect, what we have is a jumble of observations but no single explanation for the phenomenon.

On closer examination, variations can be seen at the geographic level. From Kashmir to Kerala and from Maharashtra to Assam, the trend and pattern of radicalisation, jihadism and terrorist violence is very different. In Kashmir alone—if one considers a thin strip of territory from north to south—violence varies by the origin of perpetrators. In the northern districts of Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipore, most terrorists are of Pakistani origin. These districts form a fan-shaped area that is surrounded by Pakistan.

In the southern districts of Pulwama, Anantnag and Shopian, most terrorists are home-grown jihadists who are part of groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM). While the former group is motivated, trained and funded in Pakistan, the latter group, for many years now, rarely ventures out of Indian territory: it has stayed put in the thickly forested areas of southern Kashmir.

Something similar can be observed in other parts of the country, too.

Take India’s western coast, from Mumbra on the outskirts of Mumbai to Bhatkal and all the way to Kasaragod in Kerala. Here, three trends are visible. One, of youth leaving Indian shores for the warzones of the Middle East, notably Syria and Yemen, for jihadist activity.

Then, there are groups like the now largely defanged Indian Mujahideen whose operatives such as Yasin Bhatkal—who used to live in the same neighbourhood as the Armar brothers before he went to Pakistan—go overseas and then return to engage in terrorist activities on Indian soil.

Finally, in Kerala, the trend has largely been to simply pack up and leave for foreign shores, never to come back or carry out attacks back home. The best example are the dozens who left Kerala and ‘settled’ in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan—a bleak part of that country which is under the control of ISIS, which competes with Al Qaeda for influence in Eastern Afghanistan. Their sojourn in ‘paradise’, as they described it to their families back home in Kerala, often ends after American drone strikes that often kill people by the dozen in one go.

Open had reported earlier that Kerala has been an attractive hiring turf ground for Islamist groups. The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s former representative in south India, Thadiyantavide Nazeer, was from the northern district of Kannur. Nazeer and his men were accused of recruiting youths from Kerala for the LeT. The likes of Mohiyuddin Nadukkandiyil Karassery, a Kozhikode-based scholar popularly known as MN Karassery, has attributed such a trend to the “perverse assertion” of Muslim identity and the outcome of a decades-long indoctrination campaign unleashed by the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The religious group has over time radicalised Muslim youths of the state through hardline teachings of “Abul A’la Maududi and Hassan al- Banna, who are divisive and purveyors of monotheism and the Muslim nation theory,” as Karassery had told Open in an interview (‘Going Radical in Kerala’, October 16th , 2015). Besides, Kerala was in the spotlight after the NIA disclosed that the 22 people who had reportedly left the country to join the ISIS—among them 13 men, six women and three children—were from this high-literacy-boasting state where Muslims are relatively prosperous. Of this group, 11 were from a small town in Kasaragod called Padanna. Among the 22, four were converts to Islam from Christianity, and one from Hinduism (see ‘The Call of Jihad’, April 28th, 2017).

Then there are places such as Assam that have a large Muslim population (34 per cent of the state’s people, according to the 2011 Census), but are yet to witness any major jihadist act of terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Assam shares a border with Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country with radical movements of its own, and has had an influx of illegal migrants from the latter for a long time. Many of the border districts of Assam have a majority population of Muslims—for example Dhubri in Lower Assam and Karimganj and Hailakandi in Barak Valley—but so far no major terrorist incident linked to Islamic radicalisation has been reported from these districts.

All this leads to a ‘puzzle’, so to speak. First formulated systematically by Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in a 2013 study, the ‘Hegghammer puzzle’ asked an important question in the Western context: ‘If jihadists have similar aims, why the different travel patterns?’ Sifting through a mass of data, the Norwegian found that jihadists in the West prefer foreign fighting, but a minority carried out attacks at home after being radicalised. He also found that most foreign fighters did not return home, but those who did were more effective in terrorist tasks as compared to the home-grown.

Is there an Indian variant of that puzzle? It is hard to say, as there are few, if any, studies available in the public domain. Then there is the issue of data availability. There is no systematic collation of data and its dissemination. But a cursory look at anecdotal data—from the ‘migrations’ in Kerala and Mumbra to the returning terrorists trained by groups like LeT—would suggest that something similar is at work in India. The policy puzzle, as Hegghammer spelt it, is how to assess the domestic terror threat posed by those who leave. But in comparison to the West, where this is a real problem as local terrorist training is hard, India has plenty of domestic outfits to worry about.

SEATED INSIDE HER breezy apartment in a tony suburb of Mumbai, Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who taught Islamic History at St Xavier’s College, states that “Islam is living in the world of medievalism”. A believer who strictly observes the Ramadan fast, she is frequently at odds with clerics who hold regressive views on women’s rights, often citing the Qur’an to argue against them. In conversation with Open, she hops from one subject to another with ease, elaborating why clerics should not be allowed to have a say in matters of the state and why the fatwas they issue border on the frivolous.

The rigidity of the religious practice that Ali disapproves of is often pointed out by scholars as a key reason why violence is often condoned, if not encouraged, by many Muslims. To a large extent, the absence of a separation between religious and political authorities makes it structurally inelastic and formidable in countries where men hold power in the name of Islam, and it is this characteristic that sometimes gives a social sanction to groups that attack non-Muslims and non-conformists among Muslims.

The internet has made it all the easier. Kugelman feels that “offline factors” in India that point to the unlikelihood of large- scale jihadist recruitment can be thrown out the window, given the powerful online recruitment tools used by ISIS and its ilk. Professor Eaton adds, “People get radicalised more by the internet than by where they happen to live.” Which is why, reasons Kugelman, that India does not, at first glance, come across as the kind of place that would offer fertile ground for recruitment to Islamist terror causes. “The problem of Islamist militancy is not as pronounced in India as it is elsewhere in the region. Also, India is parked in a neighbourhood that is not particularly friendly to ISIS, given that most regional terror groups are loyal to Al Qaeda, ISIS’s rival, and most embrace Deobandism, which the Salafist ISIS rejects.”

But then appearances could be deceptive, Kugelman agrees. According to him, there are Indian links to terror groups in the region that go beyond alleged ISIS recruiters. “The head of the South Asia branch of Al Qaeda, Asim Umar, is rumoured by some to be from India. He has often issued statements calling on Indian Muslims to join jihad. Also, given ISIS’s ability to recruit members remotely through the power of social media, anyone regardless of where they are in the world can be radicalised online,” he says.

The efforts by the ISIS to set up a module in Hyderabad highlight the inherent dangers of electronic jihad. After facing glitches to get at least one of its five recruits from the city to Greece, ISIS handlers told the group to set up base within the country itself and launch terror attacks. The plot was uncovered after the NIA arrested the five men with arms, explosives and ammunition. Their main handler, Abu Isa al Amriki, was killed in an air strike in Syria last year along with his wife Umm Isa. His wife, an equally ardent follower of al-Baghdadi, had reportedly used a highly encrypted platform called Telegram to stay in touch with her recruits from around the world. Isa al Amriki had instructed his Hyderabad boys to carry out ‘Brussels and Paris style’ terror strikes in Hyderabad, according to state agencies.

Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, one of the five men, was first indoctrinated by a Jordanian national who is now dead. They were both colleagues at a Saudi Arabian company from 2012 to 2013. Notably, Hyderabad has increasingly come under the scanner of agencies: early this year, the Khorasan module of ISIS—covering Iran, Afghanistan and India—was busted by security forces in Hyderabad and Kanpur.

True, as a proportion of India’s Muslim population, its jihadist-inspired terrorists are among the fewest globally. Compared to the violence-ridden Middle East and the increasingly-at-threat Europe (think Paris, Nice, London, Manchester), India seems to be a haven of religious harmony. EM Abdul Rahiman, member, National Executive Council, Popular Front of India, is right when he says that Indian terrorist recruits are not even a microscopic segment of the number of Muslims in the country.

He also regrets the media hype around educated followers of Islam joining the ranks of outfits such as ISIS. It could be out of personal dissatisfaction with life much more than for motivations of religion, he argues.

There is indeed a paradox to all this: if one goes by the number of terror incidents alone, then the Muslims of India must be among the world’s most stable and well-integrated minority groups. Disaffection levels are presumably low. Yet, the community’s general quality of life has been found to be low as well.

More than a decade ago, the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee found a community that lagged educationally in comparison with other religious minorities in India. Despite forming 14 per cent of India’s population, Muslims make up only 2.5 per cent of the civil services—a significant barometer of a community’s status in national affairs. In terms of opportunities, it is no secret that Muslims fare poorly. “Apart from male-oriented, regressive schemes of Islam which are now being countered by political groups (Triple Talaq and so on), it is the backwardness of the members of the community that has to be addressed. Yet, social upliftment alone isn’t a guarantee that radicalisation will not spread. The Kerala example shows just that. India is in a catch-22 situation, where there has to be a holistic approach to fighting Islamism and that has to come from within the religion,” says a senior government official. Of the total number of ISIS recruits identified by the NIA, only a fifth had studied at madrassas; the rest went to regular schools.

Meanwhile, Shaukat Ali points out that Muslims are generally despised for being responsible for Partition. And then, among many, there is also a resentment of the religion that is said to have restricted the rights of Hindus for centuries when the subcontinent was under the rule of Muslim monarchs of Turkic-Persian and Central Asian lineages.

Instances of tyranny typical of the times did occur, but it is often forgotten that most of these minority rulers— from the Ummayid (who had invaded western parts of India in the 7th century CE) and Abbasid dynasties (who occupied areas further in) to those of the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals—adopted measures to accommodate majority Hindu interests.

UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS THAT in 800 years of Islamic rule, 60,000 temples were destroyed in India—which was then a collection of princely states and kingdoms—tend to rule right-wing imaginations over academic studies that put the figure below 100. “What we have to bear in mind is that radicalisation does not happen through creating a sense of wounded pride or an inferiority complex alone,” says the senior government official who has examined Islamist trends across countries. He concedes the grievances of the likes of Falahi as “rightful”.

Azamgarh-based Falahi has claimed that in India, organisations of the majority faith are not banned even though some of its members are found guilty of terror activities, while those of Muslims are banned at whim. “We all know that whoever came to India over the centuries has assimilated Indian culture,” continues the official. “The focus has to be less on history and more on pragmatism and a comprehensive approach to check and fight radicalisation, a task in which even European powers are failing. It is a Herculean task as more people get access to the global jihad factory.”

Global security experts and officials are betting big on Big Data to not only counter but also predict and avert terror activities that they feel follow a pattern. Various computer scientists and a few policymakers that Open spoke to state that a combination of information— and that includes shopping habits, smartphone locations, internet searches, social media signs, video images—can help crack global terrorism. After all, terrorists generate a lot of data through phones, appliances, sensors and so on, and all this could be used to track and identity potential sources of trouble, hope security experts of analytics. And this opens up a new branch of security: predictive policing.

There are some poster boys already; the American media has reported how Zeeshan ul-Hassan Usmani, a Pakistan-born techie based in the US, is on a mission to fight global Islamist terror. Ronen Horowitz, former head of the Israel Security Agency’s IT unit, too, has claimed that such data crunching has long been widely used by Israel. According to a CNN report, Usmani runs the Big Data company PredictifyMe and after poring over data on ISIS recruits the way he would analyse consumer data for major brands, as early as 2015, within a year of ISIS setting up its caliphate, Usmani estimated there are 71,000 people in the West alone who are ‘ready to radicalise’.

The ISIS may be on the back foot in Syria and Iraq in the face of relentless attacks by Russian forces, among others, but, by all indications, the ‘ready to radicalise’ are on the rise. This puts India in a tight spot. “Mind you, Islamophobia does not help us fight radical Islamism. We are not fighting a religion here,” says a senior intelligence officer. The enemy lies in the mindset. Lawmakers, enforcers and society have to introspect and root out the feelings of hatred and impulses of violence that lie at the core of it. Else, there could be more bloodshed.

With inputs by Siddharth Singh

First published in Open magazine

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