24/01/2017 6:13 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2017 9:21 PM IST

Six Months On, No Answers: Just How Did 21 Regular People From Kerala Vanish Overnight To Join The ISIS?

Parents, communities and state intelligence are grappling for answers as extreme strains of faith, spreading through the internet, seems to have lured away young men and women to distant battle fronts.

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In Padanna town, near Kasargod district in North Kerala, boys zoom around, three to a motorcycle, splashing through puddles on their way to college. There isn't a policeman in sight. The town is in the Chandera Police Station's jurisdiction, which is about five kilometres away. The nearest railway station, at Charvattur, is about the same distance.

The first time visitor to Padanna will immediately notice that its residents are relatively well-heeled. The homes that jut out from palm-fringed boulevards are massive, with a built-up area of at least 5,000 square feet and mostly unkempt frontage.

The private buses that drive through hill-country roads to nearby Kannur district are brightly painted with fluorescent icons of Mozilla Firefox, Twitter and Facebook. For a hilly area, Internet penetration here is high and most hotels offer free Wi-Fi with good signal strength. Mom-and-pop shops aside, there are many establishments selling smartphones, hijabs and burqas near the entry to the town.

Mohammed K opened one such clothing store in Padanna, noticing the demand. He imports material for hijabs from China as they are of better quality.

"Women's attire has undergone a real change over the past decade and a half. I don't remember my mother wearing a hijab or burqa when I was in school," he says. "She used to cover her head with a shawl or the edge of a sari, but mom now prefers a readymade burqa because she can just slip it on. Maybe she was influenced by our relatives in Saudi Arabia," he adds.

Slow Change Coming

Underage marriage of girls was prevalent in Padanna until a decade ago. Till about 2003, most of the girls were educated only up to high school, as the nearest college was some 40 km away. Parents weren't comfortable sending their daughters far away to study.

This unremarkable north Kerala town was thrust into unwelcome spotlight last year after news emerged that many of the 21 suspected to have left Kerala to join ISIS belong to this town.

Some of those who left, attended the Sharaf Arts & Science College here, which was established in 2003. Its principal, V. Gangadharan, says the establishment will move to a ₹5-crore campus shortly, funded by donations from the parents. "Money is not an issue in this town," he adds.

When a much-awaited India-Pakistan cricket match takes place, the youth here tend to celebrate Pakistan's victory with firecrackers and bike rallies.

Located in the northern-most part of Kasargode district, Padanna was never communal, locals say, although when a much-awaited India-Pakistan cricket match takes place, the youth here tend to celebrate Pakistan's victory with firecrackers and bike rallies.

Sunil Babu, the Deputy Superintendent of Police of Kanhangad, a small town near Kasargod, who is investigating 17 missing cases from Padanna and Trikaripur, dismisses this allegation.

"Celebrating Pakistan's victory in a cricket match against India is not indicative of anything," he says. "It's standard practice in certain areas of North Kerala. They also burst crackers when a Mohanlal film is released."

Populated by a majority of Muslims, the town prides itself in living peacefully with its Hindu neighbours. Even when untouchability was prevalent among lower castes in Kerala, the Muslim families here were progressive in their outlook. They engaged Dalits to work in the paddy fields and gave them free access into their homes and kitchens.

The people of Padanna have always been international travellers. According to the author of Padane Peruma (Pride of Padanna) and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) office bearer, BCA Rahman, the men of Padanna started as deck hands to seafarers going to Sri Lanka and later migrated to work in Irani hotels in Mumbai, where they were adept at making Ceylon parotta.

"We have always been a business community at heart, welcoming and hospitable. So, for our children to turn to a nomadic life and shunning the company of people of different faiths, is troubling," he says.

"Despite being the minority, Hindus have never felt threatened here, and if there is any discontent among various Muslim denominations in this town, we turn a blind eye to it," says Balakrishnan, a former committee member of the Mundeya temple, one of the two places of Hindu worship in Padanna.

Around 40 families in Padanna worship at the 200-year-old Mundeya temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and goddess Bhagavathi. Once in three years, when the temple comes alive with the Theyyam festival, donations of rice and money are made from the oldest local mosque.

"When adjoining communally sensitive areas like Kannur and Kozhikode saw spates of violence during the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Muslims of Padanna didn't react," says Jajjauddhin, mudarris (teacher) at the oldest and liberal mosque in the area, the Jamma Masjid.

He, too, is troubled by the exodus of youngsters and their families from the town. "I don't believe they have joined the Islamic State. Though I understand lots of deviant material is available on the Internet that can lead people astray if they are not careful."

He goes on to explain that the various splinter groups in Kerala and their interpretations of the Holy Book within Muslim religious movements -- the Tabligh-e-Jamaat, Kerala Nadvathul Mujahidheen, Jamaat-e-Islamia, Salafi -- can confuse anyone looking for a coherent understanding of the Quran and Ahadith.

"The understanding that the missing were all followers of the Salafi movement has left people questioning the veracity of what is being taught here and who is responsible for it. There are no secret classes being held in the mosques in Padane. The men and women who left have surely received their instructions from the web. No one here is radical, Salafi or otherwise," the mudarris says with conviction.

Hafeezudin TK, one of the 17 missing from Kasargod district, wanted to travel to the Islamic nations to better understand his religion.

"He used to attend a Salafi mosque in Padanna regularly for the past two years, but was unhappy with the discourses offered there. He had expressed a desire to go to Egypt to study Islam, so we took away his passport as a precaution," his uncle, Salim, says. "Over the past year, Hafeez began shunning our traditions. He finally left home on 28 May, saying he wanted to attend Quran classes in Kozhikode. On 6 June he said he was in Sri Lanka. We were worried, but didn't suspect anything until the families of the missing received a common message--that they were safe and had joined the IS."

The Quest For The 'True Path'

The Muslims of Padanna continue to be traditional in their outlook. Even today families here follow certain traditions associated with marumakkathayam (matrilineal system of inheritance). After marriage, the men in Padanna and Trikaripur leave their parents' home to live with the wife's family.

"Money has brought about a small change in this tradition. The men now prefer living in their own homes close to the wife's, rather than in her house, as it used to be in the past," says Parambath Abdul Rahman, 60-year-old father of Dr Ijaz and Shihas, both of whom are missing. "I won't say I wasn't close to my sons, but after marriage, they would occasionally visit with their wives and children. Maybe because of a disconnect with my family, my boys lied to me when they decided to leave. I feel it's because the men are traditionally closer to the wife's family that my heavily pregnant daughters-in-law decided to undertake the arduous journey," he adds.

Devika Jayakumari, historian and associate professor of Women's Studies at the Thriuvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies, has a different perspective.

"If the women who left homes with their husbands had adhered to the tradition of marumakkathayam, I feel they would have stayed back with their parents. What they did was the opposite because the Salafis tend to shun such forms of kinship and want their followers to return to a simpler time, when the Prophet Mohammed was alive," she says.

Parambath Abdul Rahman is ailing, not only physically but more from the agony of having lost contact with his two sons and their families -– Dr Ijaz (34) and Shihas (27), their wives Rafeela and Ajmala, who were both in their third-trimesters when they left, and his two-year-old grandson. Both Rafeel and Ajmala are mothers of healthy baby girls now.

Rahman's family was busy with preparing for Eid when they received a voice clip stating that the brothers and their wives were safe and in Dar al-Islam (land of Islam) and have moved from Dar al-Kufr (land of unbelievers) for good. They messaged insisted, chillingly, that Islamic State isn't a terrorist organisation.

Subsequent messages received by around nine families in Padanna and Trikaripur -– only 18 km away from the country's prestigious Ezhimala Indian Naval Academy –- in North Kerala worried Abdul Rahman enough to approach Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with a petition to trace his missing children and their families on 8 July 2016. The fact that most of the 17 missing from Kasargod were friends, or related to each other by marriage, made it easy for their kins to exchange notes on messages received and register cases at the nearby Chandera police station.

Join The Dots

The policemen at the station were perplexed as well as the missing are from affluent families and well-educated. There are graduates, engineers and doctors among them.

"We cross-checked the names of the missing and none of them had any prior cases at this station. They are practically unknown to us and weren't on our radar for any unlawful behaviour. This could be because they weren't bothered about what was happening in their little towns but more concerned with a global problem," says Abdoul Salam K, senior civil police officer.

"Initially, we weren't sure if the social media messages were part of a common template, some kind of a prank. But soon we started receiving individual messages of a more personal nature. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that so many people left home within months. The whereabouts of the missing are anyone's guess and only what can be divined from the messages," Rahman says with disbelief.

Telegram Messenger, a free messaging platform, has been the mobile application of choice for communicating with the 17 missing persons from Padanna and Trikaripur. Many of them have urged their parents and siblings to download the app, as it is the only way to get in touch with them in a secure manner.

Launched in 2013, the App is a big hit with the youngsters at Padanna, as unlike WhatsApp, one can destroy messages on Telegram with a timer and create up to 200 groups to chat with.

"The app is heavily encrypted and there is no restriction on the size of the media messages and chats that can be sent via the platform," says Sauvad, a 26-year-old shop owner at Padanna.

The relations of the missing persons have all downloaded the app. Abdul Rahman says he is technologically challenged but felt it necessary to download Telegram on 24 July to communicate with his sons. Not that he has heard from them since one of them sent him a message on Eid: "Sorry, I lied to you. We are safe."

"Ever since I downloaded the app, I have been abusing my sons every now and then, but I've got no response," says a frustrated Rahman. "What right did they have to mislead my daughter-in-laws?" he asks with an edge in his voice. His uncertainty is baffling, and rightly so.

Launched in 2013, the App is a big hit with the youngsters at Padanna, as unlike WhatsApp, one can destroy messages on Telegram with a timer and create up to 200 groups to chat with.

Almost everyone in Padanna town describes the men as gentle people. There is disbelief that they would knowingly sign up with a terror organisation.

Hafeezudin told his family he didn't want to use WhatsApp because "it is from America", a country he believed was "a land belonging to non-believers". Ashfaq, whose Telegram profile picture shows a tranquil image of a resort with a hay cabana and blue waters, had been messaging his sister on and off in the weeks after he disappeared in June. "He enquired after the health of his mother. His sister gave him an earful. He stopped messaging after that," says a family member.

Ashfaq wrote to his family saying he will come back to help the Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar, who are living and struggling in India. "Quran ayats are applicable for mankind till the world ends. Inshah Allah, I'll be back working in India soon. Now it is necessary to work here because it is war 24x7. Alhamduillah you people are safe there."

The men who have gone from Kasargode prefer to send voice clips timed to auto-destruct, making it harder for investigating agencies to trace them.

"There is no way but to record the voice message from an external device by playing it on speaker. The other way to record a written message would be to take a screen shot before they self-destruct," says a police officer from Kanjangad who is entrusted with the task of keeping the files updated.

Strangely enough, before these men and women were overtaken by faith, most of them had a past that gave not even the slightest indication of what the future held for them.

Hafeezudin, for instance, came to Padanna under duress from his father to be weaned off his decadent lifestyle and bad company in Dubai. He enrolled at the Sharaf Arts & Science College for a course in computer application. The principal of the college, Dr V Gandharvan, remembers him as a bright young chap who just fell off the grid one day.

"He scored 68% marks in Plus Two and was keen to learn computer application. He joined college in June 2013. He attended the first semester and passed it with 50% marks. Then he refused to show up. This is very common with our students. Of the 450 students studying in the college, around 20% drop out and leave for various jobs in the Middle East or Mumbai," he says.

Three of the missing studied at the college, but the principal cannot accept any suggestion that his former students are with the ISIS. But he sounds worried about the bad reputation they will bring to his college, and to the town, if it really turns out to be the case.

Three of the missing studied at the college, but the principal cannot accept any suggestion that his former students are with the ISIS

"I've banned the use of cell phones during college hours. The college administration will hold awareness programmes with the help of political groups to discuss the dangers of religious extremism," he says grimly.

BCA Rahman, the IUML office-bearer, who is also Hafeezudin's uncle, confesses that his nephew had turned to extreme ideology in less than two years' time.

"He refused to trim his beard and felt his family members were moving away from true Islam. He didn't fight or argue with us, so when, one fine morning, he decided to get rid of cable TV, we thought it was just a phase. The real trouble began when he requested that there be no celebration at the wedding," he says.

Rahman remembers Hafeezudin's father turning down the boy's request to have a Salafi cleric bless the nuptials. "Three months later, the boy was gone. He tried to get his wife to go with him. She couldn't be persuaded, but she never told anyone because nobody wanted to take him seriously." For months afterwards, she was getting messages from him, trying to persuade her to join him. She has now moved to Saudi Arabia and asked for a divorce.

While some of the messages received by the family members hint at the kind of life the missing are leading, most portray a pro-ISIS sentiment, extolling the virtues of the banned outfit.

Dr Ijaz's wife, Rafeela, who skipped her final exam at a dental college to join her husband, writes:

"We've led such a luxurious life back home, here people are struggling. There aren't any affluent homes or flashy cars on the streets. Forget air conditioning, they don't even have fan, fridge, washing machine... because these are areas without electricity and clean drinking water. But the people here are resilient, they live in harmony. I believe that Allah will watch over me. I also want your blessings. I am sorry if I hurt you, but I am doing this because I want to be true to my God. I won't commit a single act that will lead me to hell."

"Yes, I am terrorist. I am fighting against the rapists of my sisters, the people who bomb little children, and my brothers who languish in jail. If that makes me a terrorist then I am one," goes another text message, sent by 23-year-old Mohammed Marwan Beckar Ismail from Trikaripur to his family after he went missing in June.

Another missing, 30-year-old P.K. Ashfaq M, worked as a purchase manager at Peace International School in Trikaripur. A cousin of Dr Ijaz and Shihas, Ashfaq left with his 24-year-old wife, Shamsiya, and their two-year-old daughter a couple of months ago. His message to his family sent few months is clear but also hopeful of their return to India.

"I have not been brain-washed or recruited by anyone. I am very aware of my actions. Don't try and get in touch with the police to bring me back," it said. "I will come back once the problem here is settled. I haven't gone away because I don't love you or care about you, but because I want to be true to Allah. Russian fighters killed four young children belonging to one family, how can I console their father?"

NIA sleuths have information that the 21 missing from Kerala are currently residing in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. Dr Ijaz is running a clinic there and Ashfaq has opened a pharmaceutical shop. Dr Ijaz has been calling some of his family members by paying local Pashtuns to use their phones, according to the intelligence with the NIA. The families believe that their children have not received any training in active warfare and are living peacefully by their faith.

This is the second in a three-part series on ISIS-linked disappearances from Kerala and its aftermath.

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