It’s the “ISIS hub of South India”. That’s the tag that’s been foisted on the coastal Kerala village of Padanna since July, when 11 of its residents went missing, along with 10 men from other parts of the state, and were suspected to have traveled abroad to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Ten months later, media attention has returned to Padanna, following reports that three of those young men died recently while fighting for ISIS in Afghanistan’s Nagarhar province.

News of the first death came on February 27, a day after 23-year-old Hafizuddin, a resident of the village, was reportedly killed in a drone strike. Ashfaq Majeed, one of the missing residents, sent a message via the Telegram app to BC Abdul Rahman, a social worker and a relative of the dead man. “Hafees was killed by a drone strike on February 26,” it read. “He became shuhada [martyr]. We are all waiting for our turn to become martyrs.”

On April 13, Majeed sent another Telegram message reporting the death of 25-year-old Muhammed Murshid, also from Padanna.

A screen grab of the Telegram message sent by Ashfaq Majeed with news of Muhammed Murshid's death.

The latest message from Majeed came on April 29 with news of the death of Yahya alias Bestin from Palakkad district. “Yahya [Bestin] whom you consider a Jew was martyred today while fighting American Kafirs,” read the English translation of the Malayalam message.

With the United States intensifying aerial strikes on Islamic State-controlled regions in Afghanistan – it dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Nangarhar province on April 14 and reportedly killed 36 suspected ISIS operatives – the families of the missing youth in Padanna seem to have steeled their hearts to prepare for the worst.

Waiting for the worst

In fact, some of them want the nightmare to end soon, even if it means losing their children. “I hope the American bombs kill my sons soon,” said Abdul Rahman Hamza, whose sons Ijas Rahman, 34, and Shihas Rahman, 28, and nephew Ashfaq Majeed, 26, are among those who have allegedly to join the Islamic State’s ranks.

“Their misdeeds have put many people in trouble,” the 66-year-old told outside the Salafi mosque in Padanna, where he had come to offer afternoon namaaz, on Tuesday. “It should not happen anymore. That is my prayer to Allah these days.”

He lamented that after all his struggles to give his sons a good education, this was “what I got in return”.

Ijas Rahman was a doctor and Shihas Rahman a management graduate. Ashfaq Majeed graduated in commerce. Like them, the other eight missing youth from the village were engineers, accountants and management professionals. Padanna itself is a wealthy village, having made its fortune with enterprising traders setting up profitable businesses across India as well as in South East Asia and the Gulf region. Hamza has been running a business in Mumbai since 1976.

Hamza said he did not want to see his sons and nephew any more, though his voice wavered. “It is not possible for them to come back to Padanna,” he pointed out. “They went to Afghanistan to kill themselves. I don’t want to see them again.”

The constant worry has taken a toll on his health. He suffers from high blood sugar and is insulin-dependent, and also takes medication to keep his blood pressure and cholesterol under control.

“These youngsters are not pursuing real Islam,” he said. “They are treading the wrong path, and they don’t know a thing about Islam.”

A devout Muslim, Hamza makes it a point to visit the Salafi mosque to offer prayers whenever possible.

Many hold the view that Salafi teachings drove the missing youth towards the Islamic State. Credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Salafi connection?

The Salafi movement – a conservative branch of Sunni Islam that advocates a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” – has faced a lot of flak in the wake of the developments in Kerala. Many hold the view that Salafi principles drove the 21 youth towards the Islamic State.

Last year, the Kerala Police even arrested a Salafi preacher of the Padanna mosque, Haneefa Moulavi, after Ashfaq Majeed’s father Abdul Majeed allegedly complained that his son was radicalised by the cleric’s speeches. But Abdul Majeed later denied having made the complaint and accused the police of writing it themselves and forcing him to sign it. Moulavi was released on bail in February.

At the Salafi mosque on Tuesday, less than 20 people, including Hamza, had gathered for the afternoon prayer. Most of them expressed concern about the fate of the missing youth from Padanna and elsewhere. “It will be very difficult for them to come back to a normal life,” said Mohammed Ashraf, the uncle of Hafizuddin, who was reportedly killed in Afghanistan in February.

About the criticism of the Salafi movement, he said, “No youngster from Padanna was radicalised before or after the disappearance of the youngsters. It showed that the case of missing youngsters was an aberration.”

The messages

While the group of missing youth are far from home, their families do get regular updates about their lives. All of this communication happens through the high-security messenger application Telegram.

Ashfaq Majeed has been sending messages to an acquaintance, BC Abdul Rahman, in Padanna at regular intervals. “I had met Majeed a couple of times at the mosque in Padanna,” said Rahman. “After I downloaded the Telegram app, I pinged Majeed once. Since then, I have been receiving his messages.”

Rahman was the first person in Padanna to know of the deaths of Hafizuddin, Muhammed Murshid and Yahya. “I get messages immediately after any major happening and I pass them on to the relatives,” he said. He also receives updates about child births and attacks on members of the group.

The message in Malayalam of the death of Yahya, the third of the missing youth, in Afghanistan.

Rahman has tried to persuade the youngsters to come back home but has received a cold response every time: the group says they are happy with the lives they are leading. “You won’t get the peace that we are getting here anywhere in the world,” reads one of the messages.

When news of Muhammed Murshid’s death came in April, Rahman once again asked Majeed if they could return. “We are fighting for Allah,” came the reply.

Rahman said he believed Majeed might be sending him messages from time to time to inform the world that they are all doing well. “It is an attempt to show that they are happy about their decision and they don’t mind losing their lives for a noble cause,” he said.