More than forty-five cases of pro-ISIS activities, ranging from online propaganda to travelling abroad with the intention of joining Islamic State, have been recorded in Kerala, more than any other state in India.
Kerala has a large diasporic community, starting from the 1950s and 1960s when Malayalis from the state started to migrate to the Middle East illegally in dhows (small boats). Fast-forward all these decades, and nearly three million of Kerala’s citizens work in the Middle East, and this relationship with the region has brought the state both fortunes and political complexities. According to some, this migration for labour and the financial upticks that come with it have kept Kerala grounded, and away from troubles of communalism and so on. ‘At any point in time, the Gulf countries provided jobs to nearly 10 per cent of Kerala’s working population. Without the Gulf migration, high levels of unemployment and poverty would have made Kerala a hotbed of terrorism, communalism and social tensions,’ Professor Irudaya Rajan was quoted as saying a few years ago, during the peak years of pro-ISIS migration to the region from the state.
Kerala’s northern parts, which are predominantly Muslim, have been in the news for the number of pro-ISIS activities recorded both officially as per court documents and unofficially as far as media reports go. Dozens of people, including in some cases women and children, made their way to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to join ISIS and during this period, many also made it back to Kerala and successfully assimilated into normal life.
Kerala’s regions such as the coastal areas of Kannur saw significant spikes between 2014 and 2016 in youths travelling in attempts to join the so-called Islamic State.
In April 2017, the USA dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (known as MOAB, or the ‘Mother Of All Bombs’) in the rugged and mountainous regions of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province targeting ISIS Khorasan Province (ISKP) and its fighters also caught a few Indians from Kerala. Earlier, drone strikes against ISKP in the same month had also killed some people from Kerala, according to calls received by family members to inform them of their deaths.
One of the first questions that comes up here is, why Afghanistan? Two reasons. First, ISKP and the ecosystem that people like Armar tried to develop here from Afghanistan, as discussed earlier, still existed at some level. Much of these decisions of movement were made on convenience, and whether the radicalized travellers knew others in those areas. The total number of Indians reportedly killed in the April 2017 bombing raid is thirteen, which included a doctor and school employee, along with a two-year-old child and wives who were pregnant. Many of these people from Kerala are in fact from a similar region, in and around Kannur, and adjoining northern parts of the state. It is hard to underplay the big role the Middle East, its financial centres, job markets and by association, politics, perform in Kerala.
However, as far as ISIS and its ideological marketing in the state is concerned, the fact that there is little to no data available of Indians living in the Middle East who may have been radicalized or may have joined ISIS from there itself creates a grey area. The distinction, and perhaps the challenge as well, that Kerala creates compared to, say, Kashmir or other parts of the country is that radicalization offline may be a bigger concern than online.
Abdul Rashid Abdullah is one example of a preacher who was directly radicalizing people in Kerala and pushing them to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Abdullah was, like in many cases that have come up around ISIS, an educated man. Abdullah, an engineer, left his private sector job and took up preaching a hardened line of Islam after the death of his firstborn. He started teaching the Quran based on these tenets, which aligned very well with Islamic State’s ideological bent. Ijas Abdul Rahman, a doctor in his mid-thirties, and his younger brother, Shiyas Abdul Rahman, in his mid-twenties, grew closer and closer to the ideology of ISIS through Abdullah’s teachings, and left for Afghanistan, family in tow.
Abdullah almost justified these movements from Kerala. ‘Today, it is impossible to wage offensive jihad in India. First, we have to consolidate the Caliphate, and then expand its frontiers,’ he told a reporter from his hideout in Afghanistan in 2017. ‘We have lots of people in India, and we tell them: wait, we’re coming. The Islamic State is growing far faster than you can imagine. The aim is for the whole world to be ruled by the law of Allah, so he alone is worshipped, not false gods,’ he said.
And so, like some other cases, Abdullah too evoked the political dispensation in India of the nationalist pro-Hindu BJP government of Prime Minister Modi. Abdullah called the election of Modi as a blessing in disguise, highlighting the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist tenor as a background to justify his own, and others’ radicalization.
‘This is because while, in some parts of India, Muslims face visible oppression, in many others, they really do not recognise the reality of their oppression. The hypocrite scholars misguide them. The Modi government is planning to change the constitution and once that happens, the real oppression will begin,’ he said.
The rise of the nationalist Hindu discourse in Indian politics has not gone unnoticed in the pro-ISIS discussions online. Right-wing Hindu organizations such as the RSS and and VHP are often discussed as examples of why an Islamic state for Muslims is necessary, to protect themselves and the religion. In 2015, when VHP’s leader Ashok Singhal died from a heart attack, pro-ISIS handles on Telegram, allegedly from India, celebrated his death. ‘Good news!’ one user commented. These channels also discussed about creating secure and safe zones for Muslims as they expect further strengthening of the pro-Hindu environment in the country in the time to come. While these are sporadic mentions on social media platforms, these cannot be ignored as one-offs. It ultimately, as we have seen in the examples illustrated before, takes one person to be sold a story well enough for him or her to commit an act of terror against a particular community or state.
Ultimately, theologically, ISIS propagators see one of their tasks as installing monotheism, meaning there is only one religion, that of Islam, and all others are either to be wiped out or converted to Islam. This interpretation is a driving factor of radicalization, and it is specifically dangerous in countries such as those in South Asia where secularism and globalism are precariously balanced on thin floors of religions, creeds, castes and communities living with each other. This provides an ideal canvas for organizations to create a wedge in the social fabrics of states such as India, and even Sri Lanka.
According to reports, the mastermind of the Sri Lanka terror strikes also spent time in southern India. Much of the radicalization taking place in southern India, specifically in areas such as northern Kerala, has a lot to do with the historical and current ties with the Middle East itself. These ties are not superficial, but go into the ethos of Islam, specifically Sunni Islam, as it is preached, practised, observed and distributed according to the ethos of how assimilation of Indian Muslims within the Gulf has taken place over the decades.
The ties between Islam and the people of Kerala in fact predate Islam itself, with trade between the two regions via the Arabian Sea being a prominent fixture for thousands of years. This two-way trade brought the idea of Islam to northern parts of Kerala, which embraced the same over time with locals giving land for mosques for the incoming traders. This embrace of Islam by the locals of the region was contested by both Hindus and later on the colonialists, from the Portuguese to the British. All this led to the Muslims of this region to even support Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. These historical events helped develop a general Muslim-solidarity between the Gulf and this region, which has only been integrated much more intricately with the daily life of these parts of southern India.
Two major takeaways from the above studies of India, its pro-ISIS cases, and the people who fell for the marketing of the caliphate help provide some answers not as counterterrorism methods but to understand the ecosystem that ISIS wants to tap into better.
This excerpt from The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia by Kabir Taneja has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.