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 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 twenties and thirties. 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.

During this period, Armar, going by the alias Yusuf-al-Hindi was “Baghdadi” to these Indian groups. He made the decisions, developed strategies and was revered as the “eahil” in this part of the world.

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; however, the selected area was more than 400 km away from his hometown of Bhatkal. It is possible that Armar was also privy to Tumakuru during past travels, and knew the land, which helped him accept recommendations for this region to be chosen for the meet.

One Syed Mujahid (also known as Abu Saad), then a thirty-two-year-old small-time businessman from Tumakuru; Mohammad Abdul Ahad, a forty-eight-year-old resident of Bengaluru; Mohammad Afzal, a thirty-three-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 nineteenth 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.

While Deoband seminary itself is the nucleus of its namesake theology and its methodologies, it has come into disrepute as many Islamist groups in the region have had some sort of ties with it over the past few decades. The town itself has become synonymous with certain ideological bends, making a meeting in Deoband both symbolic and strategic from an Indian point of view.

The Deoband meeting, curiously, also took place on 11 September 2015, the anniversary of the New York terror attacks. Whether this was by design or not is anyone’s guess; nonetheless, it adds another possible dimension to the thinking that leads to the glorification of such ideologies.

The people attending the meet were, once again, found online. Mohammad Azhar Khan, born in 1993 and a native of Goharganj in Madhya Pradesh, Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, a then thirty-three-year-old private job holder from Mumbra, Maharashtra, then nineteen-year-old Rizwan Ahmed Shaikh (aka Khalid, place of origin remains classified) and one Mehraz ur Rehman along with two others were present. The identity of the other two is contested and speculative.

This meet was also organised to forward Shafi Armar’s vision of what he wanted to create in India via the JKH, and took place to improve coordination efforts to create a singular umbrella over the JKH through attempting to establish leadership and ranks.

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 attendees other than Mujahid were Abdul Ahad and Afzal, who were also present in the first meeting which took place in Tumakuru, along with three more people, one of whom is identifiable as Asif Ali, a then nineteen-year-old man from Bengaluru. The other two men were not identifiable although uncorroborated reports do suggest some names of youths from around Bengaluru itself. Along with certain physical training, the usual discussions on the development of JKH as a legitimate group and furthering the cause of the caliphate took place.

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 twenty-two-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 twenty-three-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.

Moving forward, the seventh meet was held in Hyderabad at the house of one Mohammed Shareef Moinuddin Khan, a then fifty-eight-year-old resident of Nizam Colony, Hyderabad. The crux of this meet, attended by Syed Mujahid who had organized the Tumakuru meets and others, was to discuss the hijrah to Syria, or the holy journey to the caliphate.

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.

This, again, has footprints of thinking that may have come directly from Armar. However, this was also the time when there was a lot of public scrutiny against social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to crackdown on pro-ISIS accounts globally, which in turn forced a lot of such chatter to other platforms that offered end-to-end encryption.

Most of the chatter moved to Telegram, while other lesser-known platforms were also used for the same. The fact that this was being thought of, but asked to be debated amongst people who were, at best, of average intellectual calibre showcases the seeds of failure right at the onset of JKH.

The ISIS Peril

Excerpted with permission from The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group And Its Shadow On South Asia, Kabir Taneja, Penguin Viking.