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Saturday, 22 October 2016

The arrest of a group of men in Kannur in early October raises questions about the influence wielded by the Islamic State on misguided Muslim youth in south India.

The arrest of a group of men in Kannur in early October raises questions about the influence wielded by the Islamic State on misguided Muslim youth in south India. “My son hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s not that kind of a boy. He’s been working and supporting the family for the past 15 years, and now they have taken him away,” says Hasina, mother of Manseed Mahmood, one of the six men arrested from Kerala recently for alleged terrorist links. Standing in the sit-out of their single-storey house in Aniyaram, some 25 km south of Kannur, Hasina opens up about her 30-year-old son with tears in her eyes and folded hands. Manseed, who was working in Qatar as an office assistant, came home with his wife on September 30, two days before he and his friends were arrested from Kanakamala, a hilltop location some 3 km away from his home. “He told us some friends would come home and that we should prepare food for them as well. We never knew who was coming. He went out in the morning and then what we heard was that he got arrested from Kanakamala,” says Nafiza, Manseed’s grandmother. Arrests on a hilltop Kanakamala is a small village on the border of Kannur and Kozhikode districts. The eponymous hill, part of the Western Ghats, is revered by the locals because they believe it possesses spiritual powers. It takes at least 10 minutes by foot to reach the hilltop where an ashram of Nataraja Guru, the successor disciple of social reformer Narayana Guru, is located. The hilltop is usually deserted unless there are some events being held at the ashram, the only building existing there. Local police say Manseed may have chosen this place for a meeting because it might escape the attention of the public. But intelligence people say Manseed and others were under surveillance for almost a year and the Kanakamala meeting was the third of its kind. A local police officer involved in the operation says he got a call on October 2 from his superiors to get ready for an important raid. He and other police officers joined officials from the Intelligence Bureau and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), who flew in from other parts of the country. When they reached Kanakamala, Manseed and others were standing in a circle next to a telephone tower on the hilltop discussing something. “They didn’t run when we approached them. Nor did they resist when we detained them,” says the police officer. According to the NIA, Manseed and four others were arrested from Kanakamala, while an accomplice of theirs, Ramshad Nageelan Kandiyil, was picked up from Kuttiady in Kozhikode district. The NIA terms them an Islamic State (IS)-inspired module that has “entered into a criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist acts by collecting explosives and other material for targeting important persons and places of public importance in various parts of south India”. All in the team are youngsters from different parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Manseed being the only local. Abu Basheer came from Coimbatore, while Swalih Mohammed, a native of Chelakkara in Thrissur district, was living in Chennai. The two others in the team are Safwan P., who is from Tirur in Malappuram district, and V. Jasim Nageelan Kandiyil, Ramshad’s cousin, who’s also from Kuttiady. From Kanakamala, they were taken to the Armed Reserve Police Camp in Kozhikode for preliminary questioning and after registering the case, to the NIA office in Kochi, says the aforementioned police officer. An NIA court later sent them to police custody. Shock and disbelief “We visited him in Kochi,” says Hasina, Manseed’s mother. “He asked us not to believe what appears in the media and stay strong.” Other parents also share the same views. Abdullah N.K., father of Jasim, said he never noticed anything amiss about his son. Jasim is a B.Tech student in Bengaluru who usually comes home during the weekends. On September 30, Friday, he was home, and on Sunday, he told the family that he’s going to Vadakara, a municipality town in Kozhikode district, for a friend’s party. “He didn’t tell us anything about the Kanakamala meeting. We don’t even know who this Manseed is. He just said it’s a party and that he’ll be back by the evening, but in the evening we got to know that he was arrested,” says Abdullah, standing in front of his two-storey house in Kuttiady. Dressed in white mundu and shirt, Abdullah, a short man with a neatly trimmed white beard, speaks in a soft voice that’s barely audible, his hands trembling as he speaks. “We believe Jasim and Ramshad are innocent. We have approached an advocate. But if they are proven guilty, they deserve to be punished. Because Islam is a religion of peace. We are peace-loving people. IS has nothing to do with Islam,” he says. Fassil, a childhood friend of both Jasim and Ramshad, says he was shocked when he heard that they were arrested. “I have known them for many years and I have never noticed anything unusual about them. It was difficult to believe that they were arrested on charges of terror,” says Fassil, who works in a shop in Kuttiady. The cousins don’t have any criminal background either. T. Sajeevan, Circle Inspector of Kuttiady, says there was no case registered against them and that the local police had not noticed any terror-linked activities in the area earlier. But intelligence officials claim otherwise. “We have a dedicated cyber team to monitor suspicious online activities. This group fell under the radar a year ago and since then we began closely watching their discussions. It’s only after we got credible information that they are meeting in Kannur that we got the NIA involved to arrest them,” says an intelligence official. Four days after the Kanakamala incident, the NIA arrested Subahani Haja Moideen from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Originally from Thodupuzha, Idukki district in Kerala, Moideen had got military training at IS camps in Syria and Iraq, claims the NIA. The intelligence official says Moideen was also part of the online groups of the IS and in touch with the youth held from Kanakamala. Some family members and co-workers of the arrested agree that they were involved in IS-related online groups and discussions. Haris Ali, younger brother of Abu Basheer who hails from Coimbatore, says his brother was a member of a Facebook group and a Telegram channel that discussed IS-related issues. “But he was only a passive member. We don’t believe he was in any way involved in extremist activities,” Ali says. Like others in the Kanakamala team, Basheer told the family on October 1 that he’s going to Kerala for a programme; they came to know about the arrest only when NIA sleuths landed in their house at 8 p.m. the next day for searches. Social media propaganda K.H. Nazer, State secretary of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a hard-line Muslim organisation, says there are dangerous propaganda groups and pages on social media. One of the arrested youth from Kanakamala, the 30-year-old Safwan, was a member of the PFI and working as a graphic designer at Thejas, the Malayalam newspaper run by the organisation. PFI members have been involved in a number of cases related to violence, of which the most sensational was a professor’s hand being chopped off in July 2010 in Muvattupuzha near Ernakulam for “insulting the prophet Muhammad” in an examination paper. Thirteen PFI activists were found guilty in the case. But Nazer says the PFI is in the forefront of the campaign against the IS, and had warned its members to stay away from IS-related online groups. “We expelled Safwan from the PFI after the arrest. There are concerns in the organisation that he was involved in some social media discussions on the IS. We find it a breach of organisational discipline,” Nazer says. Thejas has also suspended Safwan from his job after the arrest. There are a number of Facebook pages and accounts that propagate the IS’s messages in Malayalam. There was a Malayalam blog, Muhajir, that had at least 40 articles on issues such as the life in ‘Caliphate’ (in Syria and Iraq) and the “responsibility” of Muslims to fight for ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS. Wordpress took the blog down after complaints from Indian security agencies. It reappeared last month as muhajiraun2016, but vanished again after the Kanakamala arrest. Ashabul Haqq is a Facebook page which also has pro-IS posts. One article on the page says it’s obligatory for Muslims to go to the ‘Caliphate’. Another one slams Muslim organisations in Kerala for not taking up arms and fighting the “opponents of true religion”. Yet another post, titled “Shed a Kafir’s blood”, says “unless there’s no peace agreement with Muslims, a Kafir’s (non-Muslim) life and property won’t be protected”. Yunus Saleem, Amir Ali, Abdullah Ibn Abdullah are some other Facebook accounts that have declared loyalty to Baghdadi and spread IS propaganda in Malayalam. Even when Muslim youth went missing from Kasaragod and Palakkad districts of Kerala a few months ago, investigation agencies and Muslim organisations had claimed that they were drawn to extreme ideas through online groups. The IS has over the years built an online ecosystem to draw people into its fold and inspire others to carry out terror attacks, from around the world. The number of Indians believed to have joined the IS ranks is low compared with other nationalities. According to a December 2015 report by The Soufan Group, a U.S.-based private intelligence company, some 40-50 Indians are expected to have joined the IS in Iraq and Syria, compared to 330 from Pakistan and 250 from the United States. “The number of people getting inspired by these extremist ideas may be very few. But still, it’s happening among a few Muslim youth. We can’t live in denial,” says N. Ali Abdullah, secretary, Kerala Muslim Jamaath, the mass organisation of the “A.P. Sunni” faction led by Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliyar. Innocent or guilty? The NIA has so far arrested at least 25 Indians only in south India for alleged IS connections. In June this year, the agency arrested 11 people from Hyderabad and later let off four of them as there was no evidence. The Kanakamala incident is the latest crackdown on “IS-linked modules”. Asked if the NIA version would sustain in court, Kaleeswaram Raj, an advocate practising in the Supreme Court, says, “In general, when the UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] is invoked, the judiciary takes it very seriously since national security is involved. The accused will be put under stringent judicial scrutiny,” adding, “but we should also keep in mind that it’s a draconian law. And draconian laws such as TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act], POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) or UAPA have a history of being misused and several individuals in the past have been victimised.” “We can’t just accept the police version as it is,” says P. Koya, editor-in-chief of Thejas, “We have seen police cases related to terror crumble in the court several times in the past. We should wait till the court finds them guilty before arriving at a judgment on the accused.” Reasons for radicalisation But for the Muslim organisations in Kerala, the real problem lies beyond this specific case. “Why is that the youth are being attracted to these extreme ideas? Because they don’t learn what real Islam is. They don’t understand the message of mercy and forgiveness which the Prophet showed,” says Ali Abdullah, who’s also the managing editor of Siraj, the Malayalam newspaper of the AP Sunni faction. Sitting in the dimly lit air-conditioned conference room in the ground floor of the Samastha Islamic Centre, the Kozhikode office of the AP Sunni faction, Ali Abdullah speaks of the virtues of Islam and the dangers of radicalisation that Muslim youth face. “Those who got arrested, or those who get inspired by IS-like ideologies, may not have any direct link with any of the organisations here. But clearly there are ideological links between these youngsters and Salafi groups and political Islamists such as Jamaat-e-Islami [Hind],” he says. Salafism is a conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam which urges its followers to emulate Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. The Mujahid movement in Kerala, spearheaded by Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, is a Salafi movement. Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other side, is a political Islamist organisation founded by Pakistani religious scholar and Imam Maulana Ala Maududi. There’s little consensus among Kerala’s Muslim organisations on the cause for radicalisation. The conventional sociological theory that poverty and lack of education breed extremism has been called into question by the recent cases. The people who went missing from Kasaragod and Palakkad are highly educated and hail from well-off families. Those arrested from Kanakamala are also from middle-class families. In an earlier interview, O. Abdurahman, editor of Madhyamam, the newspaper run by the Jamaat-e-Islami, said the problem is the textual interpretation of Islam which Salafis do. But there’s a large spectrum of people, from Ali Abdullah of the AP Sunni faction to K.M. Shaji, an MLA of the Indian Union Muslim League, the largest Muslim political party in Kerala which has the backing of the E.K. Sunni faction, who believe Jamaat-e-Islami’s “extremist” ideals are also influencing the youth negatively. Asked if there’s an alarming trend of radicalisation among the Muslim youth, Shaji says that’s not the case. “But at the same time, the community has to remain vigilant. There is extremism. It can’t be called spiritual extremism as there’s no extremism in spirituality. The problem is imbibing religion madly,” he says. “This problem can’t be solved by the government and investigating agencies alone. Only responsible Muslim organisations can address the real issue of radicalisation,” he adds.

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