In June last year, a flurry of newspaper reports sent a chill down the spine of Malayalis, who nurture the comforting notion that their state is something of a paradise, blessed by nature, history and politics, whose religious harmony and advanced human development indicators have invited comparisons with developed nations.
Within days of the initial conflicting reports, a consensus emerged among the press and the officials: 21 young people, all under 30, had left the state practically overnight. They had all messaged their families to say they were safe and had joined the Islamic State, or Daesh.
The incident and media reports in subsequent months left a deep impact on Kerala society. All 21 had been regular upper middle class folks, indistinguishable from colleagues and neighbours. Some of them had shown somewhat confounding behaviour, like snapping the cable TV connection at home and requesting a wedding bereft of celebration (a request that was immediately turned down). But most others hadn't, going about their lives like millions of Malayalis every day.
Just how did they get indoctrinated enough to leave their families and life as they know it to join a dangerous and murderous cult thousands of kilometers away, taking along, into certain danger, pregnant wives? And if this has been reported, how many more disappearances have gone unreported, how many are being indoctrinated at the moment? If ISIS can motivate people to flee Kerala, can it also get people to do its bidding in their communities, like spreading the message or carrying out or supporting attacks?
These questions have possessed top intelligence officials, cops and the state's community and political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, since then. The National Investigation Agency, India's elite terror-fighting unit, has taken over the case. Not much has been known publicly about the progress in the case or the whereabouts of the departed.
This is a three-part series about the disappearances and its aftermath for the families, communities and the state.
A history of violence
While the incident has alerted people about the influence of ISIS in Kerala, radical Islamic terror has a long history in Kerala, dating back decades.
In fact people networked in intelligence circles have long known the problem. British author and former MI6 spy Frederick Forsyth in fact might have had a quiet laugh had he followed the news about the ISIS disappearances.
In The Afghan, a thriller published a decade before the disappearance, Forsyth made an explosive observation on radicalisation in Kerala.
Terror can come in different forms and there is a real fear that orthodoxy is seeping back into the very fabric of the state.
When Captain Pablo Montalban, one of the characters in the book, is introduced to two eager matelots from the state, Forsyth writes, "He was not aware that the radicalisation of Indian Muslims had been just as vigorous as in Pakistan, or that Kerala, once the hotbed of Communism, has been particularly receptive territory for Islamic extremism."
There is little doubt that terror truly raised its ugly head in Kerala after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists had a role to play in what led to the Marad Beach Massacre in Kozhikode in 2003, where nine people were brutally murdered.
Around this time, members of a radical Islamic outfit in Kerala scared movie-goers by setting alight what the police called "cigarette bombs" in a theatre owned by a Hindu. The perpetrators, reportedly Islamic fundamentalists, told those present that watching movies went against their religious beliefs.
"There has to be an inherent puritanical rite for communalism to turn into terrorism. This is when the normal is prohibited and fundamentalists seek a change in lifestyle and behaviour," said Jacob Punnoose, former Director General (DG) of Kerala police, who witnessed the advent of terrorism in the state first-hand.
The cigarette bomb episode was considered a one-off incident, until Kerala's tryst with potential terror groups became public knowledge in 1995, with the discovery of homemade bombs, called "pipe bombs" by the police, under Koomankallu Bridge near Kadalundi in Malappuram district.
Punnoose, who investigated the Kadalundi case, said he hadn't seen anything like it before.
"The explosives were hidden inside a pipe and so we decided to call it a 'pipe bomb'. Over the next few years, over 100 such pipe bombs were discovered in the state, many of which exploded. The man who masterminded the attack, E.T. Sainudheen from Malappuram, managed to evade the law and went on to mastermind more terror attacks across the country, in Bengaluru, Gujarat and Hyderabad," he said.
Babri Masjid and its aftermath
In 1997, the role of Islamic fundamentalists in Kerala—backed by militant outfits from outside the country—came to the fore when a blast ripped through a train compartment of the Chennai-Alappuzha Express at Thrissur station. A part of a pamphlet, called Dec 6th: An Unforgettable Day in Indian History, was found at the blast site. The date refers to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.
In 1998, Kerala's intelligence agencies received reports that the controversial Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Abdul Nasser Madani, had hatched a plan to assassinate then Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar, allegedly with the help of pipe-bomb-maker Sainudheen, alias Sattar, who was a follower of Madani's radical Islamic Sevak Sangh, which was later christened Peoples Democratic Party.
The police suspected that around five bombs were meant to be hurled during a rally in which the CM was supposed to participate and that Madani had the help of a few people to carry out the attack, including suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operative, Thadiyantavide Nazeer. Madani and Nazeer are currently in the custody of Karnataka police for their involvement in the 2008 Bengaluru serial bomb blast case.
We cannot possibly stop radicalisation happening via the Internet, in the comfort of people's homes. It is the duty of the people of the state, friends and parents to be vigilant. KK Shailaja, Kerala health minister
"There were conflicting reports in the media about the assassination attempt on the CM," Punnoose said. "Just because there was no bloodshed, doesn't mean the conspiracy to assassinate the CM wasn't real. It was such a security nightmare that I personally saw to the safety of Nayanar by installing sliding metallic grills in and around his office at the Secretariat, so he could be cordoned off, if necessary."
In 2007, Kerala was once again a destination for terrorist activities when intelligence agencies discovered that members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had held training camps in Vagamon, at the border between Kottayam and Idukki districts.
On Independence Day the year before, 17 people had met at a nondescript location in Panayikulam near Aluva.
"A police sub-inspector who landed at the spot found them discussing Kashmir and making inflammatory speeches. Seditious and pro-Pakistani books and literature were recovered from there too," Punnoose remembered. "These 17 people were let out on bail after being photographed. But the kind of police intelligence gathered from there became a game-changer as we later connected these people (thanks to the photos) to the SIMI training camps at Vagamon."
In 2008, five youth from the state joined the LeT. Four of them were killed in Kashmir, fighting against the Indian Army, reportedly after receiving training in Pakistan. Investigations into the recruitment, allegedly carried out by LeT, led the National Investigation Agency court in Kochi to sentence 13 people in the case, including one youth who managed to escape from the LeT attack with minor injuries.
According to data from enforcement agencies, flow of counterfeit money to Kerala has also seen a 360% increase in 2015 compared to 2014, with Kozhikode and Malappuram districts of North Kerala topping the highest-seizure list. Total seizure value of the Fake Indian Currency Note (FICN) was estimated at ₹35 lakhs last year, which, sources in the state's intelligence warn, is just the tip of the iceberg.
The intelligence agency suspects the FICN operations carried out in Kerala are the work of one man, KP Sabeer, supposedly living in Pakistan, who played a role in recruiting the five youth to the LeT and was also the key accused in a bus-burning case to protest against PDP leader Madani's incarceration.
"Terror cases have always proved challenging because often a group or individuals, once under police radar, will simply change their names. Also, the time taken to investigate terror cases can sometimes deter justice. It was only in December last year that the sentencing for the Panayikulam case was completed," Punnoose said.
Back on the map
In July 2016, Kerala was back on the terror map, with the missing 21, who allegedly joined the ISIS. Of them, 17 are from Kasargode district. Investigating agencies believe that all of them had been specifically recruited to join the ISIS.
There has to be an inherent puritanical rite for communalism to turn into terrorism. This is when the normal is prohibited and fundamentalists seek a change in lifestyle and behaviour. Jacob Punnoose, former DG of Kerala police
All of them knew each other, and were either friends or relatives. They were well-educated, from affluent homes and followers of the puritanical Islamic Salafi movement which believes that Muslims should aspire to emulate the ethos of the time of Prophet Mohammed's stay in Medina.
Missing person cases were registered under Section 57 of the Kerala Police Act against 15 people and two toddlers from Kasargode, while two couples who converted to Islam, along with a third person, were booked under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Terror can come in different forms and there is a real fear that orthodoxy is seeping back into the very fabric of the state. Kerala seems to be standing on the precipice of losing much that had worked for it, such as its successful healthcare model.
Recent cases of children dying in Malappuram after being prevented from receiving vaccination shots have created a diphtheria scare in the state. Orthodox Muslim clerics in the area have declared vaccinations to be un-Islamic since they may contain animal-derived substances forbidden by Islamic law.
"This is not about hurting the sentiments of a community but rather a strange superstition that can only be fought with common sense," said Kerala health minister KK Shailaja. Only social policing can help change the society for the better, she added, reflecting Punnoose's opinion as well.
"Around 3 million people travel to the Middle East from Kerala every year. So it is impossible to keep track of all the missing," Shailaja said. "We cannot possibly stop radicalisation happening via the Internet, in the comfort of people's homes. It is the duty of the people of the state, friends and parents to be vigilant."
This is the first in a three-part series on ISIS-linked disappearances from Kerala and its aftermath.
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