More than Rs 125 crore raised illegally from foreign countries and remitted through hawala channels, deposited and projected as legal money, raised the hackles of investigating agencies, who unearthed how funds were not only coming in illegally but also being pumped into radicalising youth across several states.
The Centre's unprecedented crackdown and coordinated action against the Popular Front of India (PFI) by multiple security and intelligence agencies was an outcome of this funding and distribution pattern.
The agencies had already told the union home ministry that the targeted minority youth were either falling victim to extremist ideology or being motivated to join proscribed terror outfits like ISIS.
The IS threat was closer home than imagined, with the outfit's modules, particularly in the Gulf, allegedly eyeing the network of the PFI as a front to recruit and carry out terror acts.
Investigators said that the PFI, with its vast network spanning more than 15 states, was being used as well-oiled machinery not only to disturb social harmony and incite communal tensions but to provide arms training in terror camps.
Whether lone wolf attacks (as seen in Rajasthan and Maharashtra) or coordinated terror strikes, central agencies found the threat was bigger than previously understood when some PFI members were found fuelling the anti-CAA protests in 2020.
The crackdown by ED, NIA, Intelligence Bureau and state police forces against the PFI was overseen by Union home minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who closely monitored the situation as raids were carried out at more than 100 locations in 15 states. Over 100 top leaders and cadres were arrested through the night into the morning hours on Thursday.
NIA chief Dinkar Gupta, additional DG Atul Kulkarni and his team of 300 officials monitored the action by staying in the office the entire night. Thursday night was also spent finding lockups for the 18 accused in Delhi, with Delhi police and NCB offering their premises.
The crackdown on PFI comes only second to the clampdown on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned in 2001. At that time, the SIMI leadership went underground overnight, only to resurface in a new avatar that officials believe was more radical and potent.
The metamorphosis of terror outfits isn’t a new phenomenon. The rise of PFI has remained a thorn for successive governments at the Centre and states as they saw ex-SIMI members slipping in and using the platform to feed extremism and carry out their nefarious designs.
Investigators said the domestic crackdown became necessary given the surge in ISIS and Al Qaeda modules in the Gulf where the PFI's well-oiled network was becoming a lucrative option for these outfits to recruit more cadres and carry out terror acts.
Intelligence officials said the decimation of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and even Afghanistan led to their dispersal and most of the cadre chose Qatar and Turkey as their landing bases. It’s here they got a chance to engage closely with PFI's front organisations and, in turn, tap the Indian diaspora to spread its tentacles in India, said a senior security official.
The primary charges on terror funding against PFI and frontal organisations will be probed by the ED - the first central agency to crack down on the alleged hawala networks of the outfit.
On Thursday, Shafeeque Daru Rahima, accused of collecting funds from Gulf countries; Mohammed Parvez Ahmed, PFI Delhi president; Ilyas Ahmed, PFI Delhi general secretary and Abdul Muqeed, PFI office secretary, were arrested by the ED on money laundering charges. These four top functionaries are in the ED's net while the remaining leaders and cadres are either in the NIA custody or with respective state police forces following their arrests.
Shafeeque, hailing from Kannur, has been charged with collecting money from abroad, especially the Gulf countries. Investigators said he has links with Rauf Shareef, national general secretary of Campus Front of India, who was arrested in 2020 in a money laundering case. In 2021, a can of worms was opened when the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force (STF) decided to interrogate him on charges of inciting communal tensions in Hathras following the brutal assault and death of a woman there.
A popular leader of the PFI's student wing, Shareef's case drew a lot of attention and resistance from the outfit, but investigating agencies like the NIA and ED smelled a larger conspiracy where links ran not just from Kerala to UP but touched states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Puducherry and even foreign shores.
During the last two years, financial trails and common links between various cases registered by different agencies were identified that gave an idea of the pan-India threat by radical elements, said an official.
The challenge, however, will be to interrogate all arrested in different parts of the country, confront them with each other, and produce the evidence in courts to substantiate the charges without allowing the cases to drag in court for a long time. A time-consuming exercise for investigators, but senior government officials said the tough part is over with the raids, allowing the collection of a lot of material evidence to build a strong legal case.