New Delhi: The son of a civil engineer long settled in Kuwait, property back home in Hyderabad, his degree in computer science from Collin College in Texas almost complete. Talmeezur Rahman seemed the stuff of the perfect matrimonial advertisement. Then, one summer morning in 2014, at the end of a visit home, he caught a flight from Mumbai to Istanbul — and disappeared into the Islamic State.
For at least the past three years, government and intelligence sources told ThePrint, Rahman has been held without trial at the al-Shadadi prison camp near Hasakah, controlled by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along with some 600 other Islamic State cadres.
At least 40 other Indian nationals — overwhelmingly members of the diaspora in the Middle East, and around half of them children or women — are now thought to be held in al-Shadadi and other SDF-run camps like Ghweiran and al-Hawl, as well as jails in Turkey and Libya.
Like several other countries, India has chosen to provide no diplomatic assistance to Islamic State prisoners — a policy helped by the lack of formal recognition for the SDF regime.
“For families like mine, the situation is extremely painful,” says elderly Hyderabad resident Mohammad Moizuddin, who learned in 2018 that his son, Mohammad Ikramuddin, had been slain in combat, and that his daughter-in-law, Arjumand Banu, had been held in al-Hawl along with her small children.
“The government’s view is that there is no realistic prospect of securing convictions against these individuals,” a senior intelligence official told ThePrint, “and the potential of returning trained, battle-hardened jihadists into the community is just too high”.
Islamic State’s Indian technocrats
Few details have become available on the Indians held in the region, but some seem to have been highly educated, providing the Islamic State with valuable technological and managerial skills. For example, electronics engineer Syed Muhammad Arshiyan Haider — born in Ranchi, educated at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University and now imprisoned in Turkey — is believed to have helped design the Islamic State’s suicide-drone systems, as well as short-range rockets.
Long a resident of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, Haider is believed to have been linked to a network run by Bangladeshi-origin, Glamorgan-trained computer engineer Siful Haque Sujan and Pakistani national Sajid Babar, both slain in drone strikes on the Islamic State in Raqqa.
Haider, the source said, is believed to have sourced electronic components for the Islamic State’s drones through a network of front-companies run by Syrian-born Ibrahim Hag Gneid — revealed, last week, to have been one of several foreign jihadists given Turkish citizenship under opaque circumstances.
There is no word on Haider’s Belgian-national, ethnic-Chechen wife, Alina Haider, or their two small children. ThePrint was unable to contact Haider’s relatives; their home in Ranchi is shuttered and neighbours said they were unaware of the family’s whereabouts.
Another key Islamic State technocrat now believed to be in an SDF-run camp is Adil Fayaz Wada, the son of an affluent Srinagar contractor and supermarket chain owner, who joined the Islamic State soon after completing an MBA in Brisbane. Wada is believed to have been recruited to join the Islamic State by the Australian Islamist Hamdi al-Qudsi, who was later sentenced to eight years in prison for his activities.
Wada did not appear to have pro-jihadist views while he lived in Kashmir. In 2010, he wrote a stinging open letter to Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, accusing him of organising “useless strikes”. “Nobody cares, nobody listens,” the letter went on, “it starts in Kashmir and ends up there, no where in the world cares [sic.].”
There are several similar stories. Thayyib Sheikh Meeran, a Canadian permanent resident whose family comes from Vellore in Tamil Nadu, was working for Hewlett-Packard when he left for the caliphate with his family in 2015. Shoaib Shafiq Anwar left an engineering position at a university in Saudi Arabia to join the Islamic State, along with his wife Soufia Muqeet. Both are now believed to be in prison.
In an official Islamic State video released in 2016, several Indian jihadists in the caliphate — including Talmeezur Rahman, as well several members of the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group, who had fled to Pakistan in 2008 — announced their intention to return home to fight. “To those in the Indian state who wish to understand our actions,” says an unidentified jihadist, “I say you have only three options: To accept Islam, to pay jizya [religious tax], or to prepare to be slaughtered.”
Families of the Islamic State
That fantasy collapsed in the ruins of the caliphate, under relentless attack from Iraqi, Syrian, and multinational forces. Ikramuddin, Moizuddin’s son, had held a high-paying job in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade, when he moved to the Islamic State with his wife, Arjumand Banu, and two children. The circumstances of his decision remain unknown. Arjumand and the children, intelligence sources said, are now in al-Hawl.
Al-Hawl, a sprawling prison that houses thousands of families from around the world, has been described as a kind of Islamic State mini-state, with women who held high positions in the organisation enforcing its codes, indoctrinating children, and assassinating those believed to be collaborating with authorities.
The Indian prisoners there, government sources said, include Amani Fatima and her son, who followed her husband Naseem Khan into the Islamic State. An engineering graduate from Thane, Naseem Khan worked on the Delhi Metro before moving to Bahrain. Family members declined to discuss the case, but one said off the record that they had received periodic messages from Amani.
Fabna Nalakath, who followed her husband Muhammed Mansoor Perunkalleeri into Islamic State territory, along with their 2013-born daughter Hanyya Perunkalleeri, is another possible survivor who may now be in a camp, according to sources.
There are several other cases where families are even more unclear about what happened to their loved ones. Living and working in Qatar, Ritika Shetty met, and married, Mohammad Kamil Sultan — an Indian-origin man with a stellar record as a school athlete. In December, 2013, both ended up travelling to Syria, through Turkey. Now, the pair are suspected to be in separate SDF-run prisons.
Early in 2017, Kannur-origin Rizwana Kalathil similarly shut her Dubai home, and left for the Islamic State with husband Mohammed Zuhail, and children Rayan, Raihan, and Bint Zoha. Kalathil and the children are now believed to be in al-Hawl, said sources.
A flawed policy?
India’s decision not to seek the repatriation of prisoners is, however, becoming a cause for growing concern, amidst jihadist attacks on prison camps in Syria designed to free captives. Last year, the Taliban freed at least 22 Islamic State-linked Indian nationals held at the Badam Bagh women’s prison in Kabul, and the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi jail — among them, Aijaz Ahanger, a Kashmiri jihadist believed to have run a network of Indian-origin suicide-attackers.
Last month, an Islamic State assault led to days of armed clashes at the Ghweiran jail — a short distance from al-Shadadi, where Talmeezur Rahman is held — allowing several top jihadists to escape.
“The worst-case scenario is that Indian nationals now in prison are freed in jihadist attacks, or buy their way out of these prison camps and then obtain travel documents under false pretences,” an Indian intelligence official said. “Even if we can’t convict them successfully, it’s possible to keep an eye on their activities.”
In some cases, such as that of Hyderabad-origin, Qatar-based Zeba Farheen, police forces have sought to rehabilitate individuals who travelled to the Islamic State, rather than initiate prosecutions. “There has been no case of recidivism so far,” the intelligence official said.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)