Little but fragments remain of the story, stored in police records, in intelligence files, and inside the minds of two elderly couples who are still struggling to understand what happened, and why. In September 2013, Mohammad Ikramuddin left his family home in Hyderabad’s Mehraj Colony, along with his wife and their two small children, to board Saudi Arabian Airlines fight SV873 to Riyadh.
Then, the entire family disappeared into the ugly dystopia Ikramuddin had imagined to be an earthly paradise, the so-called Islamic State. Mohammad Moizuddin, Ikramuddin’s elderly father, recalls that a message then came in 2018: Ikramuddin had been killed, and his wife Arjumand Banu was in a prison camp in Syria along with her children—part of the human detritus left behind by the collapse of slain jihadist Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri’s caliphate.
Forty more Indian citizens—half of them women and children—are missing, government records show. Intelligence officials who spoke to News18 believe many may be in the camps, registered with camp authorities under false names and identities in the hope of evading eventual prosecution.
These numbers are on top of 22 Indian citizens—most of them women and children, as revealed by News18 early this year—held in Kabul’s Badam Bagh prison.
“I’ve written letters to politicians, ministries and the police,” 69-year-old Moizuddin told News18, “and I’ve knocked on every door possible, but I haven’t had a single reply from anyone. Even if my son was a terrorist, why should my grandchildren suffer? I want them to come home, and live the kind of life every child should have”.
In New Delhi, government sources have told News18, intelligence services and officials have debated how these cases should be handled—but, like governments across the world, remain divided on the right course of action. Police officials handling counter-terrorism cases, though, have begun warning the delay could have dangerous consequences.
Families of Jihadists
Like Ikramuddin, many of the Indians in Middle-Eastern camps ended up there after their husbands decided to resettle in Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq.
An engineering degree from the Rizvi College; a career that began with helping build the metro system in New Delhi; a high-paying job in Bahrain; marriage; a son: Naseem Khan appeared to be living the middle-class dream. Then, for reasons his relatives insist they do not know, Khan left Bahrain and disappeared.
In the summer of 2016, a call came from the bowels of the Islamic State: Khan’s wife Amani Fatima, and her child, Khizar Huzaifa Khan, were in the al-Hawl prison camp in Syria. Family members declined to discuss the case, but one said off-record that periodic messages have arrived, suggesting Fatima and her child are still there.
Former Islamist political activist Shajil Pallikkal Chirattantakath, similarly, left Kerala with his family in 2016, telling kin that they intended to go on a pilgrimage, before he took up a job in Dubai. His family was told, soon after, that he had been killed in an air strike. Hafziya Puthen Puryil, and her children—one a year old when the family left, and the other just three months old—are thought to have survived the fighting.
Fabna Nalakath, who followed her husband Muhammed Mansoor Perunkalleeri into Islamic State territory, along with their 2013-born daughter Hanyya Perunkalleeri, is another of the possible survivors now in a camp.
Like Nalakath, Shazia Ahmed Tabassum lived in the Islamic State with her three small children. Her husband, Muhammad Thayyib Shaik Meeran, originally from Vellore in Tamil Nadu, had immigrated to Canada over a decade ago. He held a well-paid position at Hewlett Packard when he decided to migrate to the Islamic State in 2015 with his family.
Although no conclusive evidence of the Meerans’ whereabouts is available, two separate police sources told News18 that the Canadian intelligence services believe that the Meeran family is now in a prison camp.
There are several other cases where families are even more unclear about what happened to their loved ones. Living and working in Qatar, Ritika Shetty met, and married, Mohammad Kamil Sultan—an Indian-origin man with a stellar record as a school athlete. In December, 2013, both ended up travelling to Syria, through Turkey. There has been no confirmed news on their whereabouts, though intelligence services believe they may still be alive.
Early in 2017, similarly, Kannur-origin Rizwana Kalathil shut her Dubai home, and left for Turkey with husband Mohammed Zuhail, and children Rayan, Raihan and Bint Zoha. Like in many other cases, there is no verifiable word on the family’s whereabouts, but a police official familiar with the case told News18 the silence suggested Kalathil might have survived the fighting.
“Families have usually been told about the deaths of kin by their associates in Syria,” the officer said. “Not hearing anything might well mean they’re alive”.
In 2016, for example, relatives of former PFI activist Mohammad Samir received text messages reporting his killing in an air raid, along with wife Fousiya Samir, and their children Salman, Safwan and Naziya.
For dozens of relatives, not receiving such a message has led to just as much pain as getting one.
Like many countries across the world, New Delhi has been reluctant to bring home its Islamic State detainees, fearing they could form the nucleus of jihadist mobilisation and online propaganda back home. In addition, highly-placed intelligence sources say, the Indian government believes their crimes will be hard to successfully prosecute, given the near-impossibility of finding evidence and witnesses.
The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to a request for comment from News18 on whether consular officials have met Indians held in prison camps in the Middle-East. However, a senior government official said, “The government is aware of the situation, and is working on an appropriate strategy”.
Imprisoned and missing jihadists together make up about half of the 135 individuals — not counting children — believed by the government to have joined Islamic State formations in the Middle-East and Afghanistan. Ninety came from a single state, Kerala, court records, First Information Reports, and interviews with officials show.
New Delhi’s reluctance to bring home imprisoned jihadists is in line with the course several countries have taken; some have even moved, controversially to strip them of citizenship.
Fearing social stigma and legal consequences, perhaps, few families have used formal legal means to push the government for the return of their kin. In Kerala and Telangana, some families have lobbied Members of Parliament and police, but to little effect.
Experts like Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg, though, are warning that the camps like al-Hawl are the universities in which the next generation of jihadists are forming new networks and learning their craft. There has, moreover, been a steady stream of escapes from the underfunded camps, where guards can be easily bribed.
“Leaving Islamic State prisoners in this camp is inviting disaster,” notes a senior Maharashtra Police official. “The bottom line is we have no idea who they are meeting, what they are being taught, and how active they are online. At home, we can at least keep an eye on them”.
Telangana and Maharashtra officials, who have run de-radicalisation programmes for jihadists who have returned from abroad, note that there has not so far been any case of recidivism.
Zeba Farheen, a Hyderabad-origin nurse, was recruited to join the Islamic State while working at Doha’s Hamad Hospital in 2013. Farheen, police records show, was brought back by her family the next year, with discreet official assistance.
Gufran Kaleemuddin, recruited by the Islamic State while working at the Bin Bin Fahad Engineering, in Saudi Arabia, was released without charge after being deported by Turkish authorities while attempting to cross into Syria. Mohammad Hamed-ur-Rehman, similarly, was released without charge after being deported from Turkey.
“These cases,” a senior Telengana Police official said, “are proof that the informal de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes some states have been running can work. If there was a national rehabilitation programme, backed by a proper law, we could achieve a great deal more”.
Inside the government, though, there is no unanimity on the issue. “The truth is it’s next to impossible to build a prosecutable case against people who might be brought back from prison camps,” one official at the Ministry of Home Affairs said. “How do we prove that somebody committed a crime somewhere in Syria five years ago,” the official asked? “And do we really have the resources to monitor dozens of people for indefinite periods of time”?
“The sensible thing”, he concluded, “is to wait this out, because there is no good option available right now”.
A Grim Future?
Fears have been mounting among police officials that time for cogitation is running out. In 2016, Tabrez Tambe volunteered to serve in the Islamic State along with his friend Saudi national Ali al-Shehri. The family heard nothing from Tambe until 2018, when he messaged them to say he was held in a prison camp in Libya, on charges of fighting alongside al-Qaeda. The family reached out to the Mumbai Police for help, but hasn’t been in touch for months.
“There’s some reasons for us to believe the family eventually secured Tambe’s release through friends in Libya,” an officer familiar with the case said. “We can’t, for obvious reasons, prove it, and even if we could, it would make no difference”.
In response to queries from News18, Tambe’s brother declined to make any comment.
“The lesson from this story is an obvious one,” one intelligence official said, “which is that we need to keep our enemies closer than our friends”. “The status-quo is the worst possible one, in the sense that we have threats to our country at large which we are in no position to do anything about”.
Evidence of the threat emerged this year, when Kerala residents Kallukettiya Purayil and Muhammad Muhsin reportedly became the first Indian nationals to participate in Islamic State suicide attacks overseas, hitting a prison and a Gurdwara in Afghanistan.
Large numbers of other young men remain in prison camps, facing an uncertain future. Adil Fayyaz Waida, a Srinagar resident who was in the second year of his studies for a Masters in Business Administration when he was recruited by the Islamic State, remains in a Syrian prison camp six years after his arrest. Talmeez-ur-Rehman—a student of engineering at Collins College in Texas, and the son of a Kuwait-based engineer—has also been held since 2016.
Taha Muhammad, the son of a Mangalore family who was born and brought up in Doha, is another of the dozens of Indian nationals suspected to have survived the fighting, and ended up in prison. Locally well-known as a cricket player—and reputed to have played for Qatar’s under-19 team—Muhammad is believed to have been recruited at a mosque he used to regularly attend.
London-based computer science student Abdul Rahim, who disappeared into Syria with his wife and child during a visit to Turkey in 2016, is another of those now thought to be in detention.
“The one thing we don’t want is for people like this to disappear from the camps,” a police officer said. “We should be doing our utmost to bring them home, if only to effectively monitor their activities”.