Until he committed suicide in 2013, Muhammad Abdul Razzak Masood was an oddity for India’s intelligence community. He intrigued Indian officials tasked with Counter Terrorism because between 2005 and 2013, Razzal was the lone Indian who had signed up to participate in an international jihadi cause.
All that changed dramatically when 27 Indians signed up with the Islamic State last year. At the Directors General of Police conference in December, Telangana police chief Anurag Sharma created a buzz when he made a presentation about the number of young Indian men and women joining the IS.
Before the IS came along, there was the Al Qaeda, and yet, no Indians seem to identify with their cause. Between 2005 and 2012, the scores of Indian youth crossed over to Pakistan to train with various jihadi outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba were responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in India. This period also saw so-called home-grown outfits like the Indian Mujahidin striking across major cities through serial bomb attacks. Like these young men, Razzak too had crossed over to Pakistan some time in 2005 to meet his Inter Services Intelligence handlers, who handed him over to the Lashkar-e-Taiba for training.
But Razzak was different.
Haunted by Babri
A resident of Hyderabad, Razzak was from Nizamabad in undivided Andhra Pradesh. Born in 1974, he acquired a degree in commerce and a post graduate diploma in computer applications and would have taken up a job like anyone else. But the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 Gujarat riots had sparked a feeling of alienation that continued to haunt him for years.
But unlike the other youth who had crossed over to Pakistan to wage war against India, Razzak had no grouse against his country of birth. He identified the US as the fountainhead for the alienation of the Muslim community across the world and wanted to take it on. Hoping that the Lashkar-e-Taiba would identify with his cause. Razzak first pleaded and then argued with the LeT leadership to help him join an outfit that could fight the U.S., several Indian intelligence officials familiar with his case told me.
“But the LeT’s focus has always been India,” a senior counter terrorism official said. “They refused to accept his pleas and isolated him. They were worried that if they encouraged Razzak, than their Indian focus would be diluted, which was also unacceptable to the ISI.”
There is no credible account of what happened next. But Razzak did manage to establish contact with some people who helped him move to the Middle East. He remained there for a while and ultimately escaped to Iran and returned to India and surrendered to the Indian authorities.
Intelligence officials told me that his case left them in a quandary. While he had crossed over to Pakistan, he had steadfastly refused to wage war against India. He also didn’t participate in any major terror activities, as far as they could gather. They let him be, but Razzak was a much disillusioned man by then. In 2013, frustrated that few shared his angst against the U.S., he committed suicide.
The rise of the IS in the latter part of 2013 and 2014, as it swung into Iraq, stunned security agencies across the globe. IS also became the first jihadi outfit that appealed to young Indians, who, like Razzak before them, identified with a global cause.
As concerned families of these young men and women began contacting the authorities, Indian intelligence began to witness a new phenomenon. “This time the ISIS has sent out a message that they would set up a Caliphate where Muslims from across the world are welcome – a kind of an appeal that Jews across the world have for Israel,” another Indian intelligence analyst told me. “The use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and You Tube is unprecedented for us. They have been able to impress a lot of youth through their videos, and as recently emerged analysis tells us, their use of the internet is very methodical,” the official added.
One such young man who was interviewed by a senior intelligence official told him that he was constantly surfing the internet for material on ISIS. This young man, hailing from Tamil Nadu, was deeply influenced by a lecture by the U.K-based Al Muhajiroun preacher Anjem Chowdhury, a man known to publicly praise the men behind the 9/11 attack on the U.S., calling them “magnificent martyrs”. Chowdhury was charged by the British authorities in August 2015 for his lectures encouraging youngsters to join the ISIS.
Online recruitment networks
Others like Areeb Majeed, who left Kalyan in Maharashtra to join the IS in 2014, were inspired by the speeches of Akbaruddin Owaisi, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen MLA from Hyderabad. The 24-year-old man reportedly told them that he was deeply influenced by the online lectures of Anjem Chowdhury as well as of Owaisi.
The case of Afsha Jabeen is equally intriguing. Arrested as an “online ISIS recruiter” in September, she was deported from the UAE after Emirati intelligence contacted their counterparts in India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing. The 38-year-old from Hyderabad, a mother of three, came in contact with fellow-Hyderabadi Salman Mohiuddin, who had returned from the U.S. Together, they allegedly floated several online forums and established contact with the ISIS to help them raise recruits. She was active on Facebook and was part of a cell that had members from the Popular Front of India in Kerala as well as others from Delhi and Mumbai.
According to Telangana DGP Sharma, the indiscriminate arrests of innocent Muslim youth and the community’s feelings of alienation is a key contributor to their attraction for the IS. The lack of a counter-narrative was a major discussion point at the DGP’s conference, after Sharma made his presentation according to several senior police officials I spoke to. However, there were no clear answers on how to move forward. The ability for Indian security agencies to monitor or use social media is woefully inadequate. This is compounded by absence of a thoughtful and credible narrative that could counter the radicalisation that seems to be taking place. It is an issue that has been discussed at length at the DGPs' conference for the last three years but no clear road map seems to be emerging. It seems that they are still groping in the dark.
Saikat Datta is a former Editor (national security) with The Hindustan Times. He is currently a Visiting Fellow with ORF, Delhi. His Twitter handle is @saikatd.