From a sleepy Mumbai locality to Iraq battlefield, journey of four Indians who joined Islamic State

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Mumbai: He would drive past my hardware store, music blaring out of his father’s Santro,” says a young acquaintance of Areeb Majeed. “Of course, that was seven years ago. People change as they mature.”

Majeed changed in all the usual ways as he progressed from his teens to his early 20s.

He began to pray regularly, as does most of the sizeable Muslim population in Old Kalyan, a sleepy locality in a fringe suburb 42 km north-east of Mumbai. The inconsiderate blaring music stopped.

Then the music stopped altogether, and more drastic changes followed.

“Areeb began to lecture his family about how they should live a less indulgent life,” says a friend of the Majeed family, who agreed to meet, anonymously, at a restaurant not far from Majeed’s home. “He wouldn’t use his bed or the air-conditioner. He would sleep on the floor.”

He also became distressed by the fact that his mother and sister were working. “He urged his mother to shut down her beauty parlour. He said beauty treatments were un-Islamic,” says the family friend, eyebrows still rising in surprise.

A few months before he left to join ISIS, Majeed showed up at the hospital where his sister still works as a nurse. “He caused a scene, shouting that she should not be touching strange men’s hands,” the family friend says softly.

Investigations have revealed that these changes were sparked by communication with an ISIS recruiter who posed as a woman and befriended Majeed via social media in early 2014. A series of violent, graphic videos of doubtful authenticity, showing Muslim women and children being raped and tortured, were sent to Majeed from this profile. The recruiter followed up the videos with links to jihadist websites, then content on how the ideal Muslim should strive to live.

It was around this time that Majeed gave up his bed and began to lecture his family. They didn’t know it then, but a countdown had begun.

In a couple of months, the young man would leave home with three friends, each telling their parents only that they were ‘going out of town’.

They headed to Iraq with a group of 41 pilgrims. Once there, they took a taxi on their own, to a base in Mosul where they had been told to make contact.

They were now members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a militant organisation that seeks to enforce Sharia law and militant Islamic governance on an area that stretches from Iraq across what was once the Levant — Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and part of Turkey. Majeed asked to meet the ‘woman’ he had befriended, and was reportedly mocked and told there was no woman.

A day after they left their homes, each of the four boys called their families to say that they had started on ‘Allah’s journey’, creating a panic that eventually led the families to reach out to the police.

“We are all shocked by what they did,” says the hardware store owner.

The group of four

The four boys — engineering students Majeed, Fahad Sheikh and Aman Tandel, and high-school dropout and call-centre employee Saheem Tanki — left for Iraq last May.

All four were in their early 20s and had grown up in the same neighbourhood in Old Kalyan, in middle-class Muslim homes.

Majeed is the only one back. He was shot during a skirmish in Iraq and called his father from a hospital in Turkey, saying he wanted to come home.

He was brought back in November by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and is now in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, awaiting trial on charges of unlawful activities and waging war against allies of India, among others.

A fortnight ago, Sheikh called home to say that Tanki had been ‘martyred’ — and that he himself did not ever want to return.

“We have told the family to continue talking to Sheikh and gather information,” an NIA officer told HT, on condition of anonymity, last week.

“Whenever we urge him to return to India, Sheikh disconnects the call. We know he is in Iraq, but have not been able to trace the exact location.”

In Kalyan, the NIA is closely monitoring all calls from the boys. Not just the families but even friends and local acquaintances are having their phones monitored, just in case. Journalists and TV camera vans continue to troll the streets looking for leads, some of them sending out screeching, condemning headlines every time a local is questioned.

For the close-knit, peaceful community with its old homes in their narrow, winding lanes, amid mobile refill shops, grocery stores and buffalo sheds, it’s a level of scrutiny that is unusual and exhausting.

Visit the gray, single-storey structure where Tanki grew up and the windows are half shut, the main door barred. Ask for directions to a restaurant above which Sheikh’s family lives, and the response is a long quizzical stare.

Diagonally opposite is the relatively plush housing society where Tandel, an only son, grew up. Majeed lived in a housing society down a bypass road.

They were gentle, polite boys’

“Tanki was a nice, namaazi [devout] boy… no movies, no alcohol, no drugs, no partying,” says one of his uncles. “Pretty much like the other boys who fled. Saheem was the kind of boy who would massage his parents’ feet when they were tired. Aman Tandel was a gentle, well-mannered boy. He was like a friend to his father.”

Sheikh — the eldest of four siblings — had a quiet nature, says one of his uncles.

“Whenever he bumped into anyone in the locality, he would say salaam, greet them with a smile… He loved cricket. He would often join children in gully cricket,” says the uncle. “He was very close to his mother. She sobs every time he calls, but he asks her not to worry, and says he is doing fine.”

Sheikh’s uncle ends each sentence like a question. No one has the answers that the investigators and journalists seek. No one can explain why these boys turned. They had no criminal affiliations, no prior record, no history even of streetside tussles or youthful brawling.

Burhan Harris, executive chairman of the Anjuman-i-Islam board in Navi Mumbai, which runs Kalsekar College, clarified that Majeed was a Kalsekar student but not Tandel and Sheikh. “Majeed clearly got carried away,” Harris says. “He was an intelligent, quiet boy focussed on his studies. He would have had a good career.”

ISIS, say experts, is a rare example of a terror outfit that has leveraged online social media networks to target, incite, radicalise and recruit.

“The power of social media to promote interpretations of various beliefs founded on hatred can be phenomenal,” says Harsh Mander, director of the Centre for Equity Studies based in New Delhi. “The problem is how social media can promote hatred by targeting educated people.”

Of ISIS’s estimated ‘army’ of 30,000, many have joined from Britain, France and other parts of Europe. And though India and the US have seen relatively few recruits, investigating agencies hint at young men lured in small numbers from Uttar Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In February, three men of Indian origin were reportedly killed fighting for ISIS in Syria.

Going underground

The four young men never called out to each other from below their buildings or drove around together in the evenings, as other youngsters in the area do. Nobody even knew they were good friends.

Locals say they most likely bonded in the community and at the mosque. Eventually, they would meet only at the mosque, before or after prayer time. Or at a quiet restaurant close to their homes in Old Kalyan, where the bustling evening crowds would drown out the hushed conversations of a group of young men.

Here, according to Tanki’s uncle, they shared their disgust at their fellow Muslims’ increasingly selfish and materialistic ways, and their angst at the way Muslims such as those in Palestine were suffering unheeded.

“None of them had a criminal record. Our inquiry showed they would go to the mosque and to college. No brawls with neighbours, nothing,” says P Tayde, senior police inspector at the Bazarpeth police station, where a missing persons complaint was registered when the four first disappeared. “They simply got brainwashed,” says Tanki’s uncle. “Nowhere does Islam say that you should leave your parents behind for a misadventure like this. What these kambakht [wretched] boys did is no jihad. It is stupidity.”

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