How easy is it to spot a terrorist? Videos of hardened Islamic State operators with faces covered by black ski masks and loaded guns have become the symbol of terror the world over.
But back home, in the rural bylanes and the small towns of West Bengal, terror is hiding in plain sight.
They sometimes manifest in the unassuming next-door-neighbour with a 9-to-5 job, such as Mehdi Mashroor Biswas, an educated middle class youth from Bengal who handled the IS’ twitter handle from Bengaluru.
They also take the form of young housewives trained in using ammunition and making improvised explosive devices in unrecognised madrasas.
Thousands of such institutions, many located close to the Bangladesh border, form the base of the radicalisation, training and recruitment of potential jihadists in West Bengal, intelligence officials say. Trainers use video clips, indoctrination documents and short films in Bengali to indoctrinate the youth.
These terror schools often run low-profile training operations, specialising in putting out extremist literature in Bengali and posting such content on Facebook and other social media websites– helping jihadi recruiters lure youth in rural areas.
“Years back it was outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Hizbul Mujahiden that used Bengal as a conduit and safe haven for cadres to sneak into India from Bangladesh where they arrived from Pakistan. Now terror outfits are on a recruitment drive, both in rural and urban areas. New outfits are showing a kneeling towards organisations like the al Qaida and IS,” said a state CID officer.
The latest example was seen last week, when Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilal al-Hind (AuT) a terror outfit with links to the IS, initiated online propaganda in Bengali to woo Bengali speaking youths in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh.
The lid was blown off such home-grown extremism after the Burdwan blasts last year, where two people were killed while trying to make bombs in a nondescript household.
An alarmed national security adviser Ajit Doval met chief minister Mamata Banerjee and highlighted the issue but was told that the administration was watching the situation carefully and strong-arm crack down will have far-reaching political ramifications.
“In Bengal, the situation is critical. For years, a section of unrecognised madrasas have been the hotbed for radicalisation. But the Burdwan blasts and Masroor’s arrest exposed that the indoctrination and recruitment cells of terror organisations have dug deep,” said a senior Bengal Police official dealing with terrorism.
Intelligence sources say West Bengal -- which shares long and semi porous border with Bangladesh -- has been on the radar of Pakistani and Bangladeshi terror outfits for a long time and the radicalisation menace was spreading fast, stoked both by the 10,000-odd unrecognised madrasas and the proliferation of online terror posts.
“The situation is alarming not only in Bengal but also Assam. Huge population and the lack of education and employment make people vulnerable to indoctrination, which is used by Bangladeshi terror groups. One needs to have community development initiatives like the ones in Naxal-affected areas.
There should be awareness and penetration, so that locals inform the police,” said Basant Kumar Panwar, the army’s anti-terrorism and jungle warfare expert.
In many ways, Mehdi Masroor Biswas was the poster child of such new-age radicalisation. Born and brought up in the northwestern fringes of Kolkata, Biswas was the son of a retired state government employee.
His father was a progressive Muslim and didn’t believe in fundamentalism. Mehdi never went to any madrasa and was not taught in Arabic. After his arrest, his parents and his sister found it hard to believe that he was connected to such an organization.
The 2014 Burdwan blasts highlighted the radicalisation of young women.
Gulsona Bibi and Alima Bibi were both arrested from the spot of the explosions, and were found to be Jamat Ul Mujahidin Bangladesh cadres. The duo were among a group of women trained in different madrasas and knew how to bear arms. They were even ready to keep their children around while making IEDs to avoid suspicion.
Some printed material found from Burdwan blast site, apart from propaganda CDs, had references to al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahri, Indian Mujahideen and even the Chechen rebels.
But many minority community leaders say the terrorists are trying to corrupt Islam, which doesn’t permit the killing of the innocent.
“Quran Hadis and Islamic Sharia doesn’t permit killing on the innocent. We condemn it, like we condemn atrocities against Muslims. We are trying to sit with the government to maintain harmony in Bengal. There should not be an atmosphere of tension,” said Siddiqullah Chowdhury, general secretary of Jamiat Ulema e Hind that runs over 1,000 madrasas in the state and was one of the first to hit the streets condemning the Paris strikes.
Others drew a differentiation between Bengali-speaking and Urdu speaking Muslims, saying the former was not prone to violent activities.
“Show me one genuine case where a Bengali-speaking Muslim is involved in terror. Madrasas too are seen with suspicion for no reason. There are thousands of madrasas who are involved in parting knowledge and nothing else.
Police arrest innocent Muslim youths to fill their quota,” said Md Qamaruzzaman, general secretary of All Bengal Minority Youth Federation.