To outsiders, Afsha Jabeen seemed just another Hyderabad housewife taking care of her husband and family. But away from prying eyes, the 38-year-old was running a social media ring to lure young people to the dreaded Islamic State.
She created an alias — Nicky Joseph — and pretended to be a UK national converting people to Islam from Christianity. Using the online avatar, she spotted those responding to IS literature on social media and systematically bait them till they became radicalised.
Jabeen’s activities were so secret that even her husband had no inkling of her activities before the entire family was deported from the United Arab Emirates and arrested by the police on September 11.
She isn’t the only one. Once the IT capital of India, Hyderabad is now a hub for cyber terrorists using social media to radicalise the city’s tech-savvy young people and recruiting them for jihadist organisations, most prominently the IS that is slowly spreading its tentacles in India.
“The case of ‘Nicky Joseph’ is a classic example of social media being used for radicalisation and criminalisation,” said Anurag Sharma, Telangana director general of police.
Five days after her arrest, the police opened a swanky ‘Social Media Management Centre’ -- a first-of-its-kind in the country -- bang in the middle of Hyderabad’s IT hub.
Apart from running integrated social media operations– Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube etc – and acting on public grievances, the Centre is mandated to crack down on internet radicalisation.
“Internet has become an easy platform to propagate crime and ideology. We have seen recently there has been lot of talk about IS on the net and attempts to radicalise Hyderabad youth. So, we are mastering the same technology,” Sharma said.
A classic case of such radicalisation is 33-year-old Salman Mohiuddin, who was arrested in January at the Hyderabad airport on his way to join the IS.
Mohiuddin, an engineering graduate, was attracted to the IS when he was studying in the United States. He came back to Hyderabad last year but remained unemployed, stoking his interest in the jihadist organisation.
He met Jabeen online and chatted for hours with her, who also introduced him to other IS sympathisers based in Syria and Turkey.
“Mohiuddin was without work and his religious fanaticism made him move to join the IS. Jabeen, his cyber chat link, told him to leave for Syria and that she would join him soon,” a top intelligence official told HT.
“Youth like Mohiuddin are a serious concern but IS fanatics like Jabeen - using social media and false propaganda – to lure the youth to jihad, are more dangerous,” the official said.
In the past one year, police have detained about 16 young people suspected of breeding jihadist thoughts, and are keeping tabs on them after counseling them.
“Some boys showed this craze to join the IS and become part of a “holy-war”. However, the fad is fading now. Hyderabad has a large Muslim population but I can say the IS attraction is negligible here,” an intelligence official said.
Police have also been keeping a watch on young people taking flights to West Asia, in order to thwart any attempt to join the IS in Iraq or Syria.
But officials admit efforts to curb social media radicalisation will remain hobbled without community participation.
“We are taking the community leaders and parents along in our effort to nip the jihadi thought in its bud,” said a senior police official in-charge of old city of Hyderabad.
Islamic bodies in the city have criticised the devastating Paris attacks orchestrated by the IS that left over 130 people dead. And a group of Muslim youth under the banner – United for Justice – has launched a poster campaign near Charminar this week condemning the IS and are interacting with the youth to advise them against browsing IS related content on the net.
“Our effort is to ensure that no Hyderabadi joins the IS,” a volunteer said.