Screenshot from a video of IS training in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, in 2015
Screenshot from a video of IS training in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, in 2015

Kerala, a state on the southern tip of the Indian coast overlooking the Arabian Sea, has been a role model for other areas of the country in literacy, social harmony, health care and land reform. It’s now drawing attention for more potentially violent reasons.

In June 2016, it was reported that 21 people – 12 men, six women and three children – from Kerala’s predominantly Muslim northern districts had gone missing and were said to have joined Islamic State (ISIS).

More recently, the National Investigation Agency detained six youths who were allegedly planning attacks on Israeli tourists in neighboring Tamil Nadu state, while a newspaper reported that fresh ISIS recruits from India were heading for training camps in Afghanistan.

The arrests and newspaper reports are “disturbing,” said retired Professor MN Karaserry, a writer and social commentator living in Kozhikode, one of Kerala’s largest cities.

Retired professor Hameed Chennamangaloor, another social critic also from Kozhikode, was guarded in his response.

“So far, there has been no clue about their (21 missing) whereabouts, no proof they joined ISIS. The number of ‘ISIS recruits’ mentioned in the reports too is very small compared with those joining the terror group from Europe or the US,” he told Asia Times last year.

Many people question the news reports by arguing that Yemen could be the possible destination of these youths. Mujahid Muslims of Kerala have been going to Yemen to practise puritan Islam.

They argue that Arab traders brought Islam to Kerala and Muslims in the state have been leading a peaceful life unlike those in northern India where Muslim invaders from foreign lands spread Islam by sword.

One reason could be their revulsion toward what they see as a hollow society steeped in materialism

However, immigration records indicate that some of the missing young people traveled to Afghanistan and then to Iran on their way to Syria.

They may have taken the Iran route to escape detection as India enjoys warm ties with that country. They may have thought that the presence of women and children in their group will ensure them a safe passage to Iraq as “Shia pilgrims.”

Rebels against a hollow society?

Most of the men and women among the missing were educated and from middle-class families. Among them were couples who recently converted to Islam. They had ample opportunities to join their family business or take up jobs as professionals. It is unlikely they faced any social discrimination or alienation in a pluralistic and highly literate state like Kerala.

What made them reject the bright future ahead? How did this radical change happen in them?

One reason could be their revulsion toward what they see as a hollow society steeped in materialism. Another could be their exposure to speeches, literature or CDs on Salafism that exhort the faithful to return to the way Prophet Muhammad and his followers lived.

The change in them could have come from the realization that only Islam is the true religion and all other religions are false – a lesson some of them might have already learned as children in “madrassas” (Islamic religious schools).

Read: ISIS recruit from India killed in Afghan drone strike 

Or it could be the ideal environment for such radical thoughts to flourish. Seventeen of those missing belonged to Kasargod district where Muslims constitute 37.24% of population, according to a 2011 census. Most Muslim families in Kasargod have at least one member working in the Arabian Gulf and some of these migrant workers try to replicate the strict Islamic lifestyle they see there, back home.

When his response was sought on the radicalization of Muslim youth in the Malabar region, Karaserry drew attention to the bigger picture – the “social, moral and cultural decay destroying Kerala.”

Affluence and moral decline

According to Karaserry, the decay began soon after the formation of the state (in 1956) when the Catholic Church, Nair (a Hindu sect) Service Society and the Indian Union Muslim League launched Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle) to bring down the first elected Communist government of the state in 1959.

The second blow came when communists themselves played the same religion card to return to power in 1967. Since then, successive coalition governments have been playing the card to cling to power, he said.

The affluence triggered by the Gulf boom in the 1970s, despite some positive effects, led to more greed, consumerism, the display of opulence, crime and erosion of social values. Religion, politics and money power formed a dangerous cocktail and most people of Kerala, who were once admired for their plain living and high thinking, were soon hooked to it, he said.

“The question of Muslim youth getting radicalized has to be viewed in this context. Let’s also not ignore another threat we face now – the rise of Hindu fascism, which is equally worrisome and dangerous,” Karaserry said.

Leaders’ silence shocking

When asked whether youths drawn to terror groups can be reformed, Karaserry said: “Political and so-called cultural leaders in Kerala won’t speak up. They always play safe. They don’t want to create enemies. We have painfully felt their silence after Chekannur Moulavi (a progressive Islamic cleric from Edappal) was murdered in 1993 and Professor T.J. Joseph’s hand was chopped off in 2010 (by Muslim fundamentalists as punishment for setting a question paper that was deemed to be blasphemous).”

B. Menon, a resident of Irinjalakuda town, told Asia Times: “What is shocking is that even the so-called progressive poets, novelists and other creative writers remain silent on terror groups. Only social critics like Karaserry and Hameed have the moral courage to comment on such issues without fear or favor.”

As elections in Kerala are often won on a wafer thin majority, most political parties remain silent on issues like the case of the 21 missing. They don’t want to antagonize Muslims who form a big chunk of the electorate.

Kerala’s incumbent chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, a communist whose home district is next to Kasargod, tries to generalize whenever his attention is drawn to such issues.

Nangarhar connection

The arrest of six youths from Kannur and Kozhikode on October 3 for allegedly plotting terror attacks across southern lndia and an Indian Express report on October 20 of an international manhunt for a key ISIS recruiter from Kozhikode have deepened fears that Kerala may be coming under the shadow of the dreaded group.

The Express reported of new ISIS recruits from India heading for training camps in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan and named a
key recruiter from Kozhikode, Sajeer Mangalachari Abdullah.

A graduate from National Institute of Technology-Calicut, Abdullah is said to have recruited the six youths to kill Israeli tourists visiting Kodaikanal and also target pro-Hindu leaders and judges in Kerala for their “anti-Muslim” views or verdicts.

He is said to have facilitated the travel of the 21 missing to Afghanistan.

Responding to the report, Abdullah’s siblings said he was a loner and they did not know what had happened to him.

National Investigation Agency report

A National Investigation Agency (NIA) report released in late October reveals that more than 30 youths from Kerala had attended ISIS training camps in Afghanistan. Some of them may have already returned to India to set up sleeper cells.

Many educated Muslim youths from Kerala working in the Gulf and some non-resident Indian businessmen are supporting or funding terror activities, the report said.

Some of the religious groups in Kerala regarded as secular are backing or inspiring these youths, it said.

Before the NIA took over the case of the missing 21, the Kerala state police had arrested Yasmin Ahmed, a 29-year-old Bihari woman, suspected to be working for Abdullah.

Yasmin was taken into custody just as she was about to board a plane to Kabul to join her husband Abdul Rashid, a native of Kasaragod and one of Abdullah’s key operators.

Terror plot foiled in Tamil Nadu

ISIS interest in southern India became all the more evident with the arrest of Subhani Haja Moideen, 31, in Chennai in neighboring Tamil Nadu state early October.

He was charged with planning attacks against foreign tourists under the guidance of ISIS operative Muhammad Sultan Armar based in Syria.

Moideen, a native of Thodupuzha in Kerala and living in Tiruvelveli, Tamil Nadu, told NIA he had received combat training in Mosul, Iraq, for five months last year and served the group in the war zone for two weeks.

Moideen also told them he met a couple from Maharashtra state at a public place but was not sure whether they were fighting for the ISIS. Investigating agencies are examining the records of missing people from Maharashtra to see whether the woman Moideen met with went from India or reached Iraq through a third country.

Moideen decided to leave ISIS after witnessing the death of a friend in a shell attack but he was jailed by an ISIS court and released later. After returning to India via Istanbul, he continued working for ISIS.

Before his arrest, Moideen was planning to gather explosives from Sivakasi, the center of India’s firecracker industry, and meet some handlers in Chennai and Coimbatore to coordinate terror attacks in the state.

According to NIA, Moideen also met with members of the Kerala module of the group which included the six youths arrested.

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