On October 4, Ahtisham Bilal Sofi, 19, was injured when a mob assaulted Afghani students at Sharda University in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. On October 28, the Kashmiri student disappeared after leaving the campus for Delhi. On November 2, he appeared online, a militant.

“By the grace of Allah, I, Ahtisham Bilal, have joined the ranks of Jundul Khilafah Kashmir and pledged my allegiance to Amiral-Mu’minin Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quraishi,” he declared in an audio message that has since gone viral on social media.

A picture of Ahtisham Sofi, dressed in black and a grenade vest strapped around his chest, holds the screen while his voice plays in the background. The Islamic State’s black banner forms the backdrop of the picture.

Ahtisham Sofi’s seemingly sudden transformation from a “sober boy who loved cricket” to a guerrilla fighter threatening to “spill the blood of infidels from Delhi to Kerala” has left his family and relatives reeling. They cannot fathom why he took “such a step”, his father said. “I was planning to visit him during the Diwali holidays,” Bilal Sofi added. “Only last week, he was pestering me and his mother to visit him in Greater Noida. I have no idea what happened during the last one week. God only knows.”

The family has now appealed to militant groups to help their son return home. “Whichever group my son is with, I beg them to allow him to return home,” his sobbing mother Irfana said in a video released on Saturday. “For God’s sake, please return my Ahtisham to me. We don’t have any other son in our family. I appeal to every militant group to help me in getting my son back.”

The police said they were trying to verify the veracity of the audio clip. “As per social media reports, yes, he has joined,” said the state police chief Dilbag Singh. “But we are still at it and trying to verify the clip. Further investigation is on.”

Asked what the police know about Jundul Khilafah, which was unheard of until it rejected the Ramzan ceasefire announced by the Centre in May this year, Singh said, “It isn’t a big group. They always float a new name whenever they have a new recruit. It’s like a one-man army. It does not make an outfit.”

Ahtisham Sofi is the latest in an expanding list of educated, prosperous youth joining the militancy in Kashmir. Just last month, security forces killed Hizbul Mujahideen’s Mannan Wani, who had abandoned his PhD studies at Aligarh Muslim University, to take up the gun.

Ahtisham Sofi was studying for a Bachelor’s in radiography at Sharda University.

Gone from campus

In his message, which runs to about six minutes, Ahtisham Sofi maintains that the assault on Afghani students at his university made him realise he could no longer “avoid jihad in Allah’s way.”

“I was already a soldier of Jundul Khilafah when I fought against more than 100 infidels for Afghani Muslims,” he says, referring to the campus violence. “The only difference was that I wasn’t aware of it. In my heart, I had already pledged allegiance to Jundul Khilafah but when infidel dogs came in hordes to attack me, I understood that I have avoided Jihad in Allah’s way for long enough. Not any more.”

Yet, his father said, Ahtisham Sofi had refused to seek punishment for the local students who had hurt him. “Even when the university’s officials and the police assured him of action against the students who had assaulted him, he refused,” Bilal Sofi said. “He only asked for his hostel to be changed.” He had enrolled in the university in September and was studying for a Bachelor’s in radiography.

After learning of his son’s injury, Bilal Sofi went to stay with him for a few days. “During my stay on the campus, all those students who had assaulted Ahtisham except two came to me and apologised,” he said. “They were afraid of being suspended. Ahtisham even accompanied them to the administration. I didn’t notice any change in his behaviour.”

On October 28, Ahtisham Sofi left his hostel, saying he was going to Delhi for sightseeing. “Every Friday and Sunday, we would go out and visit places,” said Mubashir Nazir Sofi, 19, his cousin and roommate. “I did not join him since I had exams the next day.”

Bilal Sofi recalled making multiple phone calls to his son that day. “He told me he was in Delhi visiting tourist spots,” he said. “At 4:30 pm, I called and he told me he was on his way to take the metro back to the campus. He also promised to send me pictures of the places he had visited. But when I called him again at around 6:30 pm, his phone was switched off. It still is.”

His cousin also recalled calling Ahtisham Sofi at around 5:30 pm. “He said he would be back by 8:30 pm,” Mubashir Sofi said. “When I tried calling again at around 6 pm, his phone was off. I thought his phone might have run out of battery.”

The next day, Mubashir Sofi lodged a missing persons complaint at Greater Noida’s Knowledge Park police station, while Ahtisham Sofi’s family filed a similar complaint at Srinagar’s Khanyar police station.

Ahtisham Sofi's room at his home in Khanyar, Srinagar. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

Flight to Srinagar

Arvind Pathak, head of the Knowledge Park police station, said they traced Ahtisham Sofi’s last location to South Kashmir’s Pulwama before his phone was switched off. That was on Sunday evening. “He took a GoAir flight, G8 223, from Delhi and landed at Srinagar airport at 3 pm,” Pathak said. “When he told his father on the phone at 4:30 pm that he was at a metro station, he was lying. He was already in Srinagar.” His flight had been booked two days earlier.

The Kashmir police, though, traced Ahtisham Sofi’s last location, through his phone, to the Srinagar airport. Asked why the Noida police had found him at a different place, Sajjad Ahmad Shah, superintendent of police, North Srinagar, explained, “He might have turned his phone on during the flight as a result of which his mobile might have latched on to some location in South Kashmir.”

The police said their investigations have found Ahtisham Sofi was friends with Faid Mushtaq Waza, the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant who was killed in a gunfight with the security forces in Srinagar last month, barely a few months after taking up the gun. Waza was 18. “They lived in the same locality and knew each other,” said Shah. “Ahtisham was also involved in stone-pelting and has an FIR registered against him at Nowhatta police station.”

His family, however, denied that Ahtisham Sofi was friends with the slain militant. “Faid was from another mohalla and used to offer prayers in our mosque,” said Ahtisham Sofi’s paternal uncle Farooq Ahmad Sofi. “Since Ahtisham was also regular at the mosque, they often came across each other. It never went beyond the usual salutations and greetings. By their logic, Waza was friends with everyone he met or saw at the mosque. Even I knew him.”

After learning of Waza’s killing on October 17, his cousin said, Ahtisham Sofi was sad. “It’s natural when someone you know gets killed. But the next day, he was normal and attended his classes. There was no change in his behaviour.”

A picture of Ahtisham Sofi from his school days.

‘Fed up of violence’

Since the audio clip emerged online, Ahtisham Sofi’s relatives and neighbours have been crowding his family’s home in Srinagar’s Khanyar locality. “He is the only son in our entire family,” said Farooq Ahmad Sofi. “We are four brothers, three of us have only daughters. If anything happens to him, his parents will die.” Ahtisham Sofi himself has a school-going sister.

Bilal Sofi said his son never showed any inclination towards militancy. “He was fed up of the daily violence and strikes because they were affecting his studies,” he said. “It was Ahtisham who expressed his wish to study outside the state. I spent nearly six lakh rupees on his and his cousin’s admission in Sharda University.”

His aunt Shabnam said Ahtisham Sofi was a “sober boy” who loved cricket. Pointing to a portion of his house’s compound wall with chipped paint, she said, “Ahtisham didn’t go out much. He and Mubashir grew up together and they would often play indoors. When he was alone, he would bowl a plastic ball against this wall. It was his companion.”

In the days before he disappeared, Bial Sofi said his son had been constantly asking his mother to visit him. “He really wanted to see her,” the father said. “Ahtisham wanted me to hire or buy a flat in Delhi on my next visit so all of us could stay together there. Save for that incident of violence, he was really enjoying his stay at the university.”

Bilal Sofi runs a sanitaryware store in Khanyar and the family also owns a shopping complex. “Ahtisham is the lone heir to this property,” Shabnam said. “Who else is it for?”

But Ahtisham has entered a different life. “Do you think this world won’t end?” he asks in his message, addressing his family. “Do we have to stay in the world all our life? I have taken my decision so that I could pray before Allah in the afterlife to seek paradise for you.”