Hyderabad, the capital of the southern state of Telangana, appears to be another hotbed of Islamic State (ISIS), joining Kerala and Tamil Nadu in an alarming spread of terror across India.
In fact, Hyderabad has been linked to the idea of a caliphate state since the Ottoman era. In the early 1920s, several youths from Hyderabad had migrated to Turkey to defend the Ottoman caliphate during the Turkish War of Independence. For them, the existence of the Ottoman State was a matter of honor.
The Nizam of Hyderabad wanted Pakistan to be made Madina-e-Saani, the second Islamic state after Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad established the first Islamic state.
Recently, dozens of youths from Hyderabad were arrested or prevented from leaving India for joining the ISIS.
But the most significant arrest was of a woman from Hyderabad’s Tolichowki area, who used social media to radicalize youth by posing as a British woman.
Afsha Jabeen alias Nicole alias Nicky Joseph, then 38, was arrested in September 2015 at Hyderabad International Airport after being deported from the United Arab Emirates along with her family living in Dubai.
Jabeen came under the security radar after the arrest of a Hyderabad resident Salman Mohiuddin, 32, on January 16, 2015, as he was about to board a flight to Dubai to meet her on his way to Syria.
Police said the two had recruited several Indian youths to ISIS.
On July 12, 2016, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested the amir (chief) of Hyderabad’s ISIS terror cell Naimathullah Hussaini alias Yasir alias Abu Darda, 42, of Moghalpura and Mohammed Ataullah Rehman of Bandlaguda for their roles in planning terror attacks.
Hussaini was involved in radicalizing the group members. He also administered the oath of allegiance to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the group members.
In late June, the NIA arrested five suspects linked to ISIS who were planning bomb attacks in communally sensitive areas like Charminar, markets and malls, as well as important government buildings.
Among those detained were Mohammed Ibrahim Yajdhani, a young software engineer, and his brother Mohammed Iliyas Yajdhani, who is also a computer applications graduate.
Man behind ISIS Twitter account
In December 2014, Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka state and home to IT majors such as Infosys and Wipro, was rocked by the arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old executive with ITC, a fast-moving consumer goods giant, for running a pro-ISIS Twitter handle.
An engineering graduate, Biswas hailed from the eastern state of West Bengal that borders Bangladesh.
The arrest happened after Britain’s Channel 4 carried out an investigation and revealed the identity of the person behind the notorious Twitter handle @ShamiWitness. Until then, the Bangalore police were oblivious to his presence.
@ShamiWitness glorified the exploits of ISIS, aggregated news and collated tweets favoring the radical Islamic group.
This particular Twitter handle had a huge following among jihadis and other radical-minded Islamists, especially those in West Asia. The Bangalore police charge sheet stated that there were 122,000 tweets under @ShamiWitness.
The Channel 4 news investigation also revealed the other side of Biswas. He used to attend Hawaiian-themed parties, was obsessed with American superhero movies, adored Hollywood actresses and shared Western jokes and cartoons on Facebook almost every day.
In short, Biswas was more of a “clicktivist” and his radicalism did not go beyond the keypad.
Bhatkals and Armars
The real face of home-grown Islamic radicalization in Karnataka state is Zarar Ahmed Siddibaba alias Yasin Bhatkal.
Yasin, along with four others, was convicted in December this year by a special NIA court in Hyderabad for their role in blasts at Dilsukhnagar in February 2013 that killed 18 people.
It was the first such conviction of members of the banned Indian Mujahideen (IM) in a terror case.
Yasin is from the coastal town of Bhatkal in North Karnataka which has a sizeable Muslim population, many of them employed in Gulf countries. A trained engineer, he joined IM in the 1990s and soon earned notoriety as an explosives expert. Those were pre 9/11 days and terrorism did not invite as much media glare as it does now.
By the time Yasin was caught in 2013 by the Indian security forces from Nepal, he and his brother Riyaz had already indoctrinated and mentored many youths, who later went on to join ISIS.
One of the youths was Shafi Armar alias Yusuf al-Hindi, who too hailed from Bhatkal and started off as an IM operative. He and his brother Muhammad Sultan Armar parted ways with IM after visiting Pakistan and later joined ISIS.
They were responsible for setting up IS modules in various parts of India, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Hyderabad.
Sultan was reported to have died in Kobane, Syria, in March 2016. There were also reports in April 2016 of Shafi killed during a US air strike in Syria. However, the reports on Shafi turned out to be false.
Shafi is said to be close to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and is in charge of recruitments not only for India, but worldwide.
Meanwhile, in Bhatkal, a few terror operatives are still active as they keep traveling to Pakistan through Nepal or Dubai. More than the terror activities, it is believed that ISIS modules are trying to spread the group’s ideology.