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ISIS and Its Shadow on South Asia

By Kabir Taneja

January 16, 2020

The nine meetings offer an interesting window into Shafi Armar's efforts to try and group together what after all were excitable keyboard warriors into an actual terror group, capable of handling weapons, organising recruits, cooking home-grown explosives, selecting safe training areas, safe houses and finally, committing strikes against Indian targets.

A revealing excerpt from Kabir Taneja's ‘The ISIS Peril: The World's Most Feared Terror Group and Its Shadow on South Asia’.

Junood-ul-Khilafa-e-Hind (JKH) was nothing; it registered nowhere, and made no dent in anyone's imagination as a feared homegrown terror group from India.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State was indeed much like a fable of the promised land.

Despite the fact that the geography that the insurgency retained was short-lived, its impact on the landscape of South Asia was sporadic yet present.

JKH was Shafi Armar's attempt to organise a group that would align itself with the so-called Islamic State, not online, but physically.

He tried to orchestrate like-minded people from around the country to try and develop a group capable of conducting attacks in India.

However, for Armar, the problem was not the lack of people showing inclination towards ISIS but the shifts that were taking place in the caliphate itself.

Despite being at a peak then, 2015 onwards, ISIS was heavily involved in battles with a kaleidoscope of entities ranging from the US-led Western coalition, Russia, the Syrian army, the Kurdish forces, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups, etc.

By 2016, ISIS had started to be challenged in its stronghold enclaves and had started to lose its grip in parts of towns and cities it called its own.

This led to more difficulties for foreign fighters to travel to Syria to join the caliphate, forcing online recruiters such as Armar to try and convince potential recruits to not travel to Syria, but conduct operations in the name of the caliphate in their home territories.

This was not necessarily the news many potential recruits wanted to hear, as they wanted to make this migration, or hijrah, similar to the one made by the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib (later renamed Medina by the Prophet).

The fact that this journey became difficult and was advised against by ISIS handlers themselves had an adverse effect on potential recruits -- who were more interested in living in this 'ideal' Islamic ecosystem and be one of the celebrated foot soldiers -- often leaving them frustrated and leading to a decline in motivation to join ISIS.

However, Shafi Armar did succeed to a certain extent in trying to orchestrate some level of cohesion amidst all those on Indian social media platforms looking to join ISIS.

JKH did exist, as an entity on a very crude and simple level.

Its members from similar geographies did get together and physically meet each other to discuss what next steps can be taken.

In 2015, a man named Mohamed Naser from Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, was arrested by law enforcement agencies as part of an online surveillance programme to look at signs of radicalisation in the name of ISIS.

Prior to Naser as well, there had been cases of arrests for pro-ISIS activities in various parts of the country.

However, the interrogations conducted in Naser's case revealed data which showcased a more organised attempt by micro-groups of pro-ISIS operatives.

In this case, investigations showed that the groups were working at the behest of Shafi Armar.

Naser's footprints opened a Pandora's box, with details of meetings being held in multiple cities across the country between people who wanted to get together and discuss the ideology of the Islamic State.

These meetings took place in different places including Lucknow and Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, Bengaluru and Tumakuru in Karnataka, Hyderabad and Vikarabad in Telangana, and Pune in Maharashtra.

In all, this grouping had organised nine meetings for themselves to demarcate various jobs and duties.

The people involved were all in their 20s and 30s.

The involvement of Armar in this attempted organisation of recruits was by most accounts deep and detailed.

He seemed to have kept a close eye on all the plans being discussed, and gave authoritative directions on what to do and how to go about it.

The nine meetings offer an interesting window into Armar's efforts to try and group together what after all were excitable keyboard warriors into an actual terror group, capable of handling weapons, organising recruits, cooking homegrown explosives, selecting safe training areas, safe houses and finally, committing strikes against Indian targets.

August 2015 was the month when JKH started some movement.

The first meeting was held in the same month, with Armar's blessings, at the Devarayanadurga state forest near Tumakuru in Karnataka, a sparcely populated piece of land littered with forests and shrub areas.

This was also Armar's home state.

One Syed Mujahid (also known as Abu Saad), then a 32-year-old small-time businessman from Tumakuru; Mohammad Abdul Ahad, a 48-year-old resident of Bengaluru; Mohammad Afzal, a 33 year old also from Bengaluru, along with one more person whose identity remains unknown, attended this first conference.

The agenda was to discuss the ideology of ISIS amongst them, what they wanted to achieve, what drew them towards the group and arrangements of finances for JKH.

The second meeting for JKH was held in Deoband in Uttar Pradesh.

This is significant in light of the fact that Deoband is home to the revivalist Sunni Islam movement and the often controversial Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic seminary.

The movement was founded in the late 19th century British India as a result of a crackdown against Mughal emperors by the British forces, and by association, Muslims in cities like Delhi were also targeted.

The crackdown meant that the British took over religious sites, forcing scholars to move to other places to preserve their way of religious life, away from the revisionist and occupationist British Empire.

Deoband, an already thriving centre of Islamic thought and preaching, came up as one of the main alternatives and extended-neighbour to what was to become the erstwhile capital of the Mughals, Delhi.

The Darul Uloom seminary in its contemporary history has come into controversies over the Deobandi school's effects on extremist activities observed in parts of South Asia.

Clerics, graduates, and members of both past and present emerging from the Deoband seminary are often observed to have ties with groups such as Taliban in Afghanistan, and other smaller groups involved in terrorism in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The people attending the meet were, once again, found online.

Going forward, these meetings took place in no particular design, with the third one happening in Karnataka again, in the Tumakuru Hills region, but this time the agenda was significantly different.

It was Syed Mujahid once again who was taking the initiative, and leading the group towards the next step, that of assessing the physical fitness of the potential cadres, similar to a boot camp, most likely inspired by the plethora of video footage from both ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda videos showing similar camps in remote geographies where Mujahids train in warfare and physical preparedness.

The fourth meeting took place in Bengaluru, the nerve centre of India's great story of economic rise, giving its diverse population a common purpose of development and political stability.

It took place in the house of one Suhail Ahmad, a then 22-year-old stone-polishing worker from Bengaluru's Mysore Road area.

This meet was again mostly to discuss potential increase in recruitment and furthering the cause of Khilafat.

The fifth meeting as well, the very day after the previous one in October 2015, was held at the home of Ahmad itself.

Here, moving forward from the day before, some members were assigned more specific roles to move towards a more organised structure -- the insistent pressure on the narrative that the meets were largely designed to create structure.

By a general assessment of the trend of why and how meetings were held up to this point, and the arguments being presented in various charge sheets, one can assume an increased pressure from Armar himself to find a person who could potentially take responsibility on the ground to rally the development of JKH.

The sixth meeting, as per accounts, perhaps showcases why Armar would have been pushing for a more structural development of the organisation, as initial cracks within the groups and mismanagement started to show, also highlighting the general inadequateness of talent in the people that Armar was trying to handle remotely, mostly via the Internet.

This meet was held in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, the second meet in the state after Deoband.

The Lucknow gathering was organised by one Mohammed Aleem, a then 23-year-old resident of Indiranagar, Lucknow.

It took place at Aleem's uncle's house and was attended by one Mohammed Nafees Khan from Hyderabad, Mudabbir Shaikh and Mohammed Hussain Khan from Mumbai, Rizwan Ahmed, and two others.

Mohammad Azhar Khan, from Madhya Pradesh, arrived at this meet with two other unknown people who were willing to join ISIS and JKH.

The group turned away the two unknowns and did not allow them to participate.

The final meet, in this particular series, was held in Pune, Maharashtra, two months later in December.

This meet saw Abu Anas from Jaipur, Nafees Khan and three other people, along with one of their wives also in attendance.

Curiously, one of the main points of discussion here was the development of a personalised JKH app for communications between recruits and members of the intended group.

Nafees, responsible for money, also was tasked to collect materials to try and make IEDs to be used in terror strikes.

During this trip to Hyderabad, Nafees also visited the Narsapur forest area carrying a pipe bomb, a crude IED he had made at home.

The trip to the forest was to find a suitable and empty space to actually test it out without raising alarm.

However, thanks to India's robust population of more than 1.3 billion citizens, Nafees was unable to find a suitable location and the intended test did not happen.

Nafees abandoned his immediate plan to test the IED, and boarded a train, leaving Hyderabad behind and headed towards West Bengal, where he met another unknown person in Durgapur, about 170 km north of the capital Kolkata, and then onwards to Burdwan where he met one Ashik Ahmmed.

Nafees handed over a Smartphone to Ahmmed with the necessary apps so that he could communicate safely with them and others.

Armar had told Nafees precisely what he had to do on this trip, and that was, to scout for weapons.

During one of the conversations in the region, initiated with people that Ahmmed knew, someone said that they knew a mason who lived near the border with Bangladesh, a popular gunrunning area, who could get some weapons.

The mason informed Nafees and Ahmmed that weapons were not a problem, and if they wanted, he could get them guns such as the AK-47 rifle as well, a weapon of choice for terrorists, insurgents and states alike.

Knowing that weapons would be available for purchase in the region, Nafees announced that he intended to build a base camp in the area for future activities.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin India

Original Headline: When ISIS found home in India

Source:  Rediff .com