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Literate and lost: Extremists scout for Kerala’s educated youth

Extremist groups scout for well-educated youth from the state that has the country’s highest literacy rate and exports skilled workers to west Asia — a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2015 01:32 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times
Representative image(Illustration: Jayanto)

When 24-year-old Abu Tahir left his job as a journalist in Kerala to take up an assignment in Doha in 2014, he told his father his final destination was Syria.

He often talked about the ‘heroic deeds’ of Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni militia fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime but his relatives thought he was joking.

They were in for a rude shock in September that year when he called up his ailing mother and asked her to see the latest Facebook photos of him dressed in trademark fatigues and ski masks that dreaded Islamic State (IS) fighters wear in Syria.

Shocked family members informed the police and the page disappeared soon, but not before learning that Tahir was among the 24 active IS fighters from India in Syria.

“We have no information about him. But we are sure he’s not dead. During his last call he told his mother she would be informed if he attains ‘martyrdom’,” said a relative.

Tahir is one of the many young people who have fallen to extremists on the web radicalising youth in Kerala, a state that is fast becoming a favourite recruiting base for terrorists despite not having witnessed any major terror attacks.

Over 2.5 million people from Kerala live and work in West Asia and consequently get easily exposed to extremist literature put out by the IS and other terror groups on social media.

“Youngsters who go abroad in search of jobs are sitting ducks. We are helpless on such occasions. Relatives and social organisations there will have to keep a tab on them,” a senior police officer in Malappuram said.

The tactic employed for radicalisation is also vastly different. Unlike other states where the targets are often unemployed and illiterate youth, terror operators focus on well-educated young people in a state with the country’s highest literacy rate.

As a result, intelligence agencies have a tough time in tracking down digital evidence that is often expertly erased by the highly-qualified recruits. Posters and CDs carrying extremist messages are available widely and the crumbling World Trade Tower frame occupies prominent place on the walls of several homes in the Malabar region.

Read | Chatting away to jihad: Hyderabad becoming hub for cyber terrorists

Two month ago, Kerala Police detained four young people deported from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for alleged links with the IS.

Based on their revelations, police registered a case against a youth from Kozhikode in north Kerala named Riyab Ul- Rehman — believed to be in Syria — for radicalising many youngsters, including Hindus.

The four detainees told police they were in touch with Riyab through social media and he approached at least two dozen other Indian youths working in West Asia, luring them with not only ideology but also money.

“Intoxicated with radical ideology, Riyab is an expert in brainwashing innocent youths. Besides money and better living conditions, he even promised that the recruits’ families back home would be taken care of in case of any mishap,” the officer said.

Fundamentalist indoctrination is not new to Kerala with commanders from the state controlling the banned Students Islamic Movement of India for many years. It conducted two secret camps in the state that finally led to the formation of the Indian Mujahideen, a terror group that orchestrated a series of blasts across the country.

The worried state is now planning to float a special cyber cell to monitor IS-related activities on the web and has prepared a list of missing youth to seek the help of central agencies to trace them.

Topping the list is CAM Basheer, a resident of Ernakulam district, who has been missing since 1998. A former SIMI president, he may have been instrumental in placating radical elements and getting them closer to extremist organisations, police feel.

But many Muslim community leaders feel certain fringe elements are misguiding the youth.

“See religion is always spiritual. When the youth feel a spiritual vacuum, there is no one to guide them. Belonging to affluent families, they succumb to suicidal adventurism,” said Muslim reformer and writer Prof MN Karassery.

He squarely blamed the pan-Islamic Maududi (Jamat founder) cult for the growing intolerance in the community. Many reformist organisations have issued fatwas against jihadists, saying their activities would only help in alienating the community from the mainstream.

Read | Threat from radicalised Mumbai youths, says Centre

First Published: Nov 27, 2015 00:22 IST