“Islamic State of India”, read the luridly-colored sticker covering the upper half of the headlight on Ismail Sulthan’s Bajaj Platina motorbike, advertising his politics to anyone who was interested, as he made his rounds through the grimy streets of Tindivanam. The 20-something scrap dealer’s Facebook page dispelled any doubts his friends might still have had about his leanings: each day, almost, Ismail posted Islamic State videos, calls for jihad, and ugly invective against Hinduism.
There are parts of the world where that kind of public posture would invite a midnight raid by armed police. Tindivanam—chosen by Rajaraja Chola I to build a magnificent temple around 1000 BC, and by no-one for anything of significance ever since—paid not the slightest attention.
Perhaps it should have: in the wake of April’s carnage in Colombo, counter-terrorism investigators in India have been picking over Ismail’s story, and those of multiple other Islamic State-related cases to have emerged from Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Involving young people inspired by the same preachers and organizations as the Easter Sunday bombers, those cases are cause for satisfaction in the National Investigation Agency: evidence of a successful campaign of pre-emption.
But they are also reasons for concern. Education, the distinctive regional cultural milieu, and the absence of large-scale communal violence were thought by some to make southern India relatively resistant to jihadist mobilization. That assumption, it’s turning out, wasn’t a sound one.
The Islamic State in the Land of al-Shams might be dead—but in South India, it is giving jihad a new, distinctively regional flavor, blending local grievances and conflicts into its global ideology.
Twenty-eight seconds after 19:59, local time, 25 September 2015: from the digital fingerprints left behind on Mohamed Naser’s spanking-new Lenovo cellphone, it’s clear the very first thing he did when he arrived in Khartoum was text his anxious parents in Thiruppaladurai, in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. It’s unlikely, though, that the message did much to calm them. “I have reached the Islamic State,” the message read. “I know it must sound kind of crazy for [sic., throughout] you, but your son really had to take this bold step”.
“Pray for me”, Naser went on, “for I will never forget you in my prayer and it is my hope and prayer that we meet again, if not in this world then in Jannah [paradise]”.
From a distance, Naser’s life appeared to run to the kind of script middle-class Indians dream of for their dutiful sons. In 2014, he graduated from the MNM Jain Engineering College in Chennai, with a bachelor’s degree in information technology. In early 2015, he moved to Dubai, and began a well-paid job with information services firm Takmeel Global, designing web-pages.
Even early on, though, Naser had shown an interest in political Islam. In 2008, just 16 years old, Naser had begun attending meetings of the Tamil Nadu Tauheed Jama’at—the organization whose franchise in Sri Lanka was, for a time, led by Easter Sunday bomber Zahran Hashim. In TNTJ meetings, he encountered what would become foundational ideas: the rise of Hindutva in India was part of a global, existential threat to Islam.
Founded in 2004, the spectacular growth of the TNTJ—branches are now spread across the United Kingdom, United States, France, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—spoke both of the growing affluence of the Tamil Muslim diaspora and the depth of its anxieties.
The TNTJ’s neo-fundamentalist ideology preached an Islam excised of the syncretic practices which it had absorbed from the local cultural milieu—sharpening group boundaries and forging a deeper sense of communal solidarity.
Like many Tamil parents, two family members told Firstpost, Naser’s father, Packeer Mohamed, saw his son’s religious leanings as a good thing. Piety kept Naser away from pop culture, drugs and that great nightmare of Indian boys’ parents—girls.
Like Easter Sunday suicide-bomber Hashim, though, Naser found himself outgrowing the TNTJ. He began listening, investigation records show, to the speeches of figures like United Kingdom-based Islamic State ideologue Anjem Chowdhury. Even as he pursued his undergraduate studies, Naser set up a website which posted news on violence against Muslims.
Fearing government action, Naser shut down the site just as he graduated—but in Dubai, soon joined a WhatsApp group serving pro-jihadist Indian Muslims in the diaspora. He also made contact with Karen Aisha Hamidon, a Philippines-based Islamic State recruiter who acquired a certain notoriety for drawing young South Asian men to the cause.
In Khartoum, Naser appears to have found the life he was looking for. “Life here is wonderful,” he wrote in an e-mail to his parents on 5 October 2015, after two weeks in his new home. “I want you all to come to Dawlah [the Islamic State]”. His pseudonymous Twitter persona, Abu Khalid al-Hindi, had a similar message: “The way of life of Islam is back with a big blow to the kuffars [unbelievers]. The Khilafah [caliphate] has been established. Make Hijrah [the journey of exile], my brothers and sister”.
Packeer Mohamed reached out to Indian authorities for help but also continued to engage his son. In one e-mail, he asked how much it would cost to rent a room in Khartoum. “I’m planning to go on vacation earlier,” he explained, “so I can convince ur mum personally though I am not going to tell her the truth about u.”
Less than three months into their son’s jihadist journey, the Mohamed family’s efforts paid off: their son was deported from paradise.
From across south Indian, though, other Islamists still headed into the dystopia. In 2015, TK Mohamed Shameer, a one-time leader of the Islamist-leaning Popular Front of India, headed to Syria along with his children Salman and Safwan. KP Abdul Razak, Midilaj, MV Rashid, PP Abdul Manaf, Mohamed Shajil, and Abdul Khayoom followed into his wake, drawn by his descriptions of the earthly paradise he had found. Turkish authorities deported some, including Midilaj and MV Rashid; others have disappeared, perhaps forever into the bowels of Islamic State-held territories.
Even though the caliphate has fallen apart, the flow of those seeking utopia hasn’t ended. Shameer’s brother-in-law, Anwar Poothappara, left in 2018 for Islamic State-held territory in Afghanistan, along with wife Afsila, and their three children. K Sajjad, his wife Shahina, and their two children made the same journey.
The story of Shahjahan Velluva Kandy, the Chennai-born jewelry-bag manufacturer who eventually led Tamil Nadu investigators to Ismail Sulthan and other jihadists in the state, tells us that the lure of paradise is not a trivial one.
In the summer of 2016, drawn by his conversations with Shameer on Telegram, Kandy sold his Suzuki car for Rs 4 lakh, family jewelry worth another Rs 98,000 and withdrew Rs 1.5 lakh in savings: the price of passage to Syria for himself, his wife Mafseena, and their two small children.
Traveling through Kuala Lumpur and Teheran—and then helped across the Turkish border by a one-time Mumbai gangster they knew as ‘Muthu’—the family ended up in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district—the gateway, they hoped, to a new life.
But Turkey’s armed forces ruined their plans: though the Shajil family made it to Syria, the Kandys were deported to India. Indian authorities, though, were never notified the family had been planning to enter Syria—so no arrests were made.
In spite of the experience, Kandy tried again. In early 2017, he acquired a fake passport, paying Rs 1,10,000 to a Chennai travel agent for forged identification papers, including a voter card, school graduation certificate and bank statement. This time, he flew through Bangkok to Istanbul—only to be arrested, yet again.
From Kandy’s interrogation, the Intelligence Bureau learned for the first time of the fledgeling jihad cell in Coimbatore. Like the young man with the Islamic State sticker on his motorcycle headlights that had advertised to the world, this group wasn’t planning to travel it. They were determined to build it over the bodies of their enemies, beginning on the back-streets of Coimbatore.
Like almost every young person, Mohammad Ashiq seemed to spend more time than is healthy staring at his mobile phone. The world on his screen, it might be assumed, was somewhat more interesting than the one he inhabited from morning to night, chopping cuts of meat for fly-ridden, grimy AS Noor Ahmmad Mutton Stall, nestled deep inside in Coimbatore’s Marakadai neighbourhood. Facebook allowed him to transcend the limitations social class had imposed on him.
From his uncomfortable perch inside the shop, the butcher’s boy would bring together an electrician, a car parts salesman, two street-food vendors, and scrap-dealer Ismail, to plot violent revolution that would establish an Islamic State in India.
In the summer of 2018, court records show, Ismail began battling hardline Hindutva groups active in the area on Facebook. In response to the anti-Muslim polemic from groups like the Hindu Makkal Kaatchhi, Ismail would post inflammatory images of Hindu gods and goddesses, or abuse targeting local Hindu nationalist leader Arjun Sampath.
Though the members of the incipient jihad cell— S Samsudedeen, S Mohammed Salauddin, Jaffar Shadik Ali, Mohammed Husain, along with Ismail and Ashiq—all knew each other offline, the internet gave them the sense of participating in a wider movement. Facebook records show members of the group frequently shared everything from posts on Islamic State ideology to Al Qaeda bomb-making techniques.
Fugitive Islamist televangelist Zakir Naik, wanted in India on charges of inciting religious hatred and financial malpractice, was among the popular ideological sources for this new group, their social-media posts show. Tamil Nadu Police, who discreetly monitored the fledgeling group, also encountered the speeches of suicide-bomber Hashim for the first time—apocalyptic rants, calling of violence against all non-believers.
Tamil Nadu Police’s discovery would lead on to a transnational operation against Hashim and his associates, revealed by Firstpost, ending with a prescient warning they were poised to stage suicide attacks against “popular Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission”.
When members of the group met up at a goods shed near the Variety Hall Road junction on 31 August last year, the same surveillance showed exactly what they were up to.
For their first operation, the Coimbatore cell’s members had decided to assassinate the Hindutva leader Sampath, and his associate Anbumani. In Sri Lanka, similar low-grade operations by Zahran’s group had been ignored by police and intelligence services, allowing it to gather both sophistication and ambition.
In India, the story ended in a decrepit shed.
Except, the story almost certainly hasn’t ended. Indeed, jihadism in south India has proved remarkably resilient. In 1998, Tamil Nadu’s al-Ummah came close to assassinating former home minister LK Advani, in a bombing which killed 50 and injured over 200—an act of vengeance, its cadre said, for his role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Tandiyantavide Nazeer, an al-Ummah activist, recruited five Kerala men to train with the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir back in 2008—an effort to build a fighting core of jihadists.
In 2016, the Base Movement, an Al Qaeda inspired jihadist group led by Chennai-based information technology specialist Dawood Suleiman, staged multiple bombings across the state.
The Indian Mujahideen, India’s most successful urban jihadist group, also had several figures drawn from Kerala and Karnataka. Indeed, the Indian Mujahideen held training camps in Kerala’s Vagamon and Karnataka’s Bhatkal.
For an understanding of why jihadism has proved so seductive to some, we need to understand jihadism is embedded in the region’s culture—not a recent import. Following the arrival of Portuguese power in Malabar after 1498 AD, the work of the contemporary chronicler Zayn al-Din al-Ma’bari tells us, Muslims responded to their assaults by initiating “a jihad against the worshippers of the cross”.
In other parts of south India, too, the pre-colonial warfare led to a hardening of religious identities—a process that is yet to be reversed. In 1325 AD, a copper-plate recording the fall of the Kakatiya dynast lamented killings of Brahmins by beef-eating, wine-drinking Turkic invaders. “Tortured in this way by the demon-like Yavana soldiers”, the inscription reads, “the land of Tilinga [Andhra] suffered terribly without hope of relief, as if it were a forest engulfed by a rampaging fire”.
The work of historian Cynthia Talbot notes that pre-colonial contestation saw new Hindu leaders “draw on earlier Brahmin images of the struggle against demons and the godless, while the Central Asian Turks could present their activities within the paradigm of the Islamic jihad”.
Stephen Dale’s scholarship work shows how ideas of jihad and martyrdom defined what he calls a cultural-ideological “Islamic frontier” along the Malabar coast. In their imagination, the Islamic State’s southern recruits are inheritors of a glorious tradition of resistance.
Education and access to opportunity—particularly in the Persian Gulf—have engendered unprecedented affluence among south India’s Muslims. This new Muslim middle-class, though, is yet to be integrated within its wider social milieu; discrimination in housing and access to opportunity remain widespread. Traditions mediating the relationships between religious communities have disintegrated—and in their place, a kind of uneasy apartheid emerged.
Fearing Hindu nationalism could threaten their fragile, recent gains, south Indian Muslims have responded by severing their relationship with the local, and seeking refuge in a wider, global religious identity. The adoption of the all-enveloping abaya; the borrowing of West Asian cultural practices and customs; the growing influence of neo-fundamentalist televangelism: these are all symptoms of a wider malaise.
This is an ideal enabling environment for political Islam—an ideology that, at its core, posits that the religion and a secular, democratic order are irreconcilable. India’s politics and culture need to find a language with which to engage—and break—this cycle of hate.
Originally published in the First Post