A radical cure

THE WEEK reports on India's first de-radicalisation programme

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Yasar Moideen of Malappuram in Kerala has boyish looks and a charming smile. Yet, for the past two years, the affable 31-year-old has been leading a somewhat friendless life. In June 2016, some of his friends left India on what he describes as ‘hijrah’—a religious journey to a land “where they could do more good, and sin less”. The leader of the émigrés, a group comprising 21 Malayalis, was Yasar’s best friend, Abdul Rashid Abdullah. Their destination: the ‘caliphate’ established by the Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Rashid was a learned man. We used to speak for hours on various subjects. Which is why, when he left the country and the police went through his call records, my number figured high on the list. —Yasar Moideen
If we do something for someone, it creates trust, security and stability…. Imagine an entire city doing that. It will not only reduce crime, but will also mean a decrease in violent extremism. —Tom Tait, Anaheim mayor
Developing national strategies is the key to countering violent forms of extremism. —Maqsoud Kruse, executive director, Hedayah, The International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism, Abu Dhabi
The criticism against counter-radicalisation is that it is largely tagged as an initiative to counter radical Islamism alone. mainstream Muslims perceive this as being discriminatory.

Rashid is now believed to be in Afghanistan, somewhere in the region that IS calls Khorasan province. He is now one of India’s most wanted men—the National Investigation Agency says he masterminded the recruitment of vulnerable Muslim youth to fight the war for IS. Of the 20 Malayalis shepherded by Rashid to Syria and Iraq, at least one has been confirmed killed in battle. The whereabouts of the others, including that of Rashid, remain unknown.

Yasar, however, is in denial. He draws a parallel between Rashid’s journey and the First Hijra—in which Prophet Muhammad’s followers fled from persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in the kingdom of Aksum, or modern-day Ethiopia, in the seventh century. “There was no Islamic State then,” said Yasar. “In fact, Ethiopia was Christian-dominated. But, since Meccans were cruel, Muslims went there. Later, when Islamic rule was established in Medina, they all returned.”

As per Islam, he believes, his friends did no wrong by leaving India, as they were only trying to protect themselves from sins, and gain spiritual rewards. “All [of the 21] were extremely good and peaceful citizens,” said Yasar, who has a master’s degree in psychology and is fluent in English. “You can ask anyone here how much they were loved, especially Rashid, my best friend.”

He first met Rashid six years ago, when he joined Peace Education Foundation in Malappuram as an English trainer. Rashid was a teacher there. “He was a learned man,” Yasar said. “We used to speak for hours on various subjects. Which is why, when he left the country and the police went through his call records, my number figured high on the list.”

Since he has not broken any law, Yasar has neither been arrested nor has any case been registered against him. He is, however, under the watch of multiple security agencies—the NIA, the Intelligence Bureau and state intelligence agencies, who have all questioned him for information regarding his emigrant friends. The occasional visits by the police apart, Yasar mostly leads a quiet life, working at Peace School in Malappuram and taking care of his three children.

A new chapter: Yasar Moideen, a 31-year-old English trainer in Malappuram, is a participant in the de-radicalisation programme. A new chapter: Yasar Moideen, a 31-year-old English trainer in Malappuram, is a participant in the de-radicalisation programme.

“If I can make a positive difference to the life of a single person, I hope to be rewarded in afterlife,” said Yasar, when asked why he did not join IS. At Peace School, he is focused on helping children learn technology and embrace modernity, the Islamic way.

Yasar is a participant in India’s first ‘counter-radicalisation’ programme, which attempts to wean radicalised youth off IS propaganda and let them live a normal life. Like him, there are hundreds of young men and women in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi who are taking part in the programme, which aims at liberating vulnerable youth from the ideological moorings that could drive them to break the law and put lives in danger.

At the heart of the counter-radicalisation programme is the understanding that the war on terror is fought not just on battlefields, but inside human minds as well. Rashid is suspected to have been killed in a drone strike last year, which Yasar feels could take his friend to jannat, or heaven. “The actual life of a person begins after death,” said Yasar. “The belief is that the best end one could meet is to be killed in battle, in the path of Allah….”

Drones cannot kill the dogmas of faith. And that is why the government’s counter-radicalisation programme becomes all the more relevant. The strategy began taking shape after 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed former IB chief Syed Asif Ibrahim as special envoy for counter-terrorism and extremism at the National Security Council secretariat. The idea was to develop a counter-radicalisation programme on the lines of what was being implemented in countries like Saudi Arabia and United Kingdom (see graphics). In 2017, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh set up the Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Radicalisation Division (CT-CR), the first-of-its-kind initiative to help state governments, security agencies and communities in preventing young people from embracing extremism.

An integral part of the counter-radicalisation strategy is to mould a counter-narrative that would help in defusing the social media tactics of extremists. With the help of Islamic organisations and religious leaders, efforts are on to ensure that religious texts and teachings are not misinterpreted. A key aspect of this is to reinforce the syncretic nature of Islam in India, which has been influenced by varied cultures and beliefs.

Radical outfits like IS, Al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba subscribe to Al-Wala’ Wal Bara ideology—which advocates loving those who follow Allah and hating those who do not. India’s counter to this is the Sufi concept of Wahdat al-Wajud, or the unity of being. Its essence is that if you love the creator, then you love all his manifestations. Today, thanks to the counter-radicalisation programme, this message is being spread through websites and sermons, and discussed at madrassas and community gatherings.

Happier times: Yasar with his best friend, Abdul Rashid Abdullah, before the latter left Kerala to join IS in 2016. Happier times: Yasar with his best friend, Abdul Rashid Abdullah, before the latter left Kerala to join IS in 2016.

Loknath Behera, Kerala’s director-general of police, said a robust policy is being implemented to prevent people from being misled in the name of religion. “This is being done by energising the community, involving families, religious leaders, teachers and the youth under the social policing scheme to reinforce the secular fabric,” he said. “Our aim is to build strong minds which do not fall prey to any propaganda. The results have been positive and we are constantly building on our efforts.”

In Kerala alone, the spread of the programme is huge. Maulvis in Kannur, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Malappuram and Kasaragod districts are coordinating with superintendents of police to dispel doubts and misbeliefs about Islamic tenets. In Kozhikode, Islamic scholars and activists have joined hands with their network. Senior citizens are being roped in to share their experiences and words of wisdom with vulnerable youth.

The police are also focusing on rehabilitating young people who have been jailed, and have upgraded their cyber policing capabilities. Parents who notice their children indulging in suspicious online activities are also becoming part of the programme. “The efforts are both preventive and curative in nature,” said Behera.

According to the Anti-Terrorism Squad in Maharashtra, 114 youth, including 10 women, have been de-radicalised in the past two years. The eldest among them is 28 years old, while the youngest is 16. The social background of these youth contradict the conventional notion that it is madrassas that churn out terrorists—they hail from middle- and upper middle-class families, and have studied at secular institutions. More than 25 of them are engineers or trained technical experts, while others are graduates or have completed school education. Most of these young people were radicalised through online group discussions, before some of them began attending seminars organised by radical preachers and meeting other radicalised youth.

“Incidents like the Dadri killing, lynchings and beef ban are being projected by radical preachers as a conspiracy against Islam, and the youth are being galvanised to fight back,” said a counter-terror official. “A lot of radicalisation activity has been traced to the dark web.” NIA spokesperson Alok Mittal said the enormity of the radicalisation threat demands that society participate in counter-radicalisation efforts.

Messenger of peace: Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim in California, during his visit to Mahim Dargah in Mumbai as part of the Strong Cities Network initiative. Messenger of peace: Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim in California, during his visit to Mahim Dargah in Mumbai as part of the Strong Cities Network initiative.

Rehana, 25, is a trained aircraft maintenance technician who is employed with a reputed airline in Mumbai. Two years ago, she came under the radar of the Maharashtra ATS, after she converted to Islam and began taking to IS propaganda. Educated abroad, Rehana had been in a state of mental agony after her marriage broke down. She had turned to Islam for solace, and had friends working at Islamic Research Foundation, founded by the controversial preacher Zakir Naik. For security agencies, the fact that Rehana was working in the airline industry was a cause for concern.

She is now part of the counter-radicalisation programme. “I am happy that my identity has been kept confidential, which has helped me keep my job,” she said. “The ATS ensured that there are only minimum disturbances in my day-to-day life. I think I am more balanced in my outlook towards life today, and I owe it to my parents’ support.”

Shariq, a 21-year-old engineering student in Mumbai, would have gone to Syria last year, if not for the intervention of Maharashtra ATS. With his father working in the Persian Gulf, Shariq was under the guardianship of his uncle, and had been sharing an apartment with his friends. From online chat groups, he was drawn to platforms that had discussions about IS’s declaration of the caliphate. He started spending time reading about the terror outfit, and slowly began wanting to join the caliphate.

One day, his uncle got a call from the ATS. “I had no idea what Shariq was up to,” said Ajmal, the 50-year-old uncle. “I am relieved that his cyber activities were noticed at the right time. After all, it was my responsibility to take care of the boy.” Now, every time Shariq goes out of Mumbai, he reports his movements to his case officer.

A few months ago, the Maharashtra ATS rescued another engineering student. Nadeem, 24, who was studying in Pune, had been radicalised through social media. Under the ATS’s watch, he was counselled into dropping his plans to go to Syria. The ATS also helped his younger sisters to enrol at a rural self-employment training institute. “Earlier, I was the sole breadwinner of my family. Now, there are three of us,” said a happy Nadeem.

Combating terror: A counter-radicalisation session in progress at Nadapuram, Kerala. Combating terror: A counter-radicalisation session in progress at Nadapuram, Kerala.

Complementing the efforts of state governments and security agencies are the contributions being made by religious institutions. Mahim Dargah in Mumbai, for instance, has long been at the forefront of counter-terror initiatives. In February, it invited two mayors from the US—Tom Tait of Anaheim in California and Greg Fischer of Louisville in Kentucky—for an event spearheaded by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which develops and implements counter-extremism programmes globally.

The ISD is leading an initiative called the Strong Cities Network, launched at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. According to the SCN website, it is the first-ever global network of mayors, municipal-level policymakers and practitioners “united in building social cohesion and community resilience to counter violent extremism in all its forms”. Mumbai, Peshawar, Oslo, Los Angeles, Dhaka and Paris are some of the cities in this network. The visit of the American mayors to Mahim Dargah was part of the networking efforts.

Suhail Khandwani, who oversees the functioning of the dargah and is managing trustee of Pir Makhdum Saheb Charitable Trust, said Mahim’s was the first ISO-certified dargah. It has considerable social media influence, thanks to its Facebook and Twitter accounts and a mobile app that helps the faithful listen to muftis interpreting the tenets of Islam and legal experts explaining the laws of the land. “Fanaticism is never limited to a particular religion,” said Khandwani. “But, when religious platforms are used for political stunts, it polarises society and gives rise to the problem of radicalisation.”

Tom Tait, the Anaheim mayor, talked about his brainchild—an initiative called ‘Hi Neighbour’, which encourages neighbours in his city to get to know each other through acts of kindness, thereby helping build a stronger, more resilient community. “If a city has a culture of kindness, there will be less chance of people doing extreme acts,” Tait told THE WEEK. “If we do something for someone, it creates trust, security and stability…. Now, imagine an entire city doing that. It will not only reduce crime, addiction, bullying in schools and neglect of senior citizens, it will also mean a decrease in violent extremism.”

At the dargah, the US delegation met with representatives of various religions. “It is important that all communities find reasons to live together and build relations. We celebrate festivals, share spiritual and life experiences and encourage communities to help each other,” said Fr S.M. Michael, secretary of the Bombay Archdiocesan Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

In good faith: Suhail Khandwani (left) of Mahim Dargah says fanaticism is not limited to a particular religion. In good faith: Suhail Khandwani (left) of Mahim Dargah says fanaticism is not limited to a particular religion.

Sister Anjali of Brahma Kumaris said we could transform the world only through transforming ourselves. Dr Zahir I. Qazi, president of the Mumbai-based Anjuman-I-Islam, said focusing on the education of have-nots played a key role in countering extremism. “Out of 1,00,035 students enrolled [at institutions run by Anjuman-I-Islam], 60 per cent are from slums,” he said.

Sabir Jamal Sayed, director of information technology at Mahim Dargah, said the dargah was organising workshops to help madrassa students use social media in an empowering way. “We teach them to develop counter-narratives and handle hate speech,” he said. The aim is clear: To prevent online spaces from being turned into recruiting grounds for violent extremism.

But, like all laudable efforts, the counter-radicalisation programme also has its share of challenges. It has been unable to quell the “fear of the other” in people’s minds, and to prevent them from stereotyping and stigmatising certain groups. A case in point is the situation at Athikkad colony, a few kilometres away from the heart of Malappuram in Kerala. A serene residential area surrounded by teak forests, it is home to followers of Dammaj Salafism, a branch of Salafism noted for its ultra-conservative tenets.

The Dammaj Salafis here comprise around 15 families that moved in together several years ago, so as to practise their faith and create a homogenous community. They rear goats for a living, and seldom step outside the colony. In 2016, when 21 Malayalis left for Syria and Iraq, this colony drew global attention for its extreme ideology and suspected links to IS. The fear, apparently, persists—even the postman does not venture into the colony.

Today, there are only 10 Dammaj Salafi families in Athikkad. Shihab, a member of the community, was initially reluctant to speak to me—not because he was radicalised, he said, but because he was not allowed to look at any woman other than his wife. Later, he reluctantly agreed, but took care to look away when he talked. “We do not support the IS ideology,” he said. “Just because we wear clothes differently or grow our beards long does not mean we are radicalised. We are Indians, and we believe in peace and harmony. I only want the freedom to follow my religion.”

Maqsoud Kruse Maqsoud Kruse

A.T. Mujeeb, who lives near the area but is not a Dammaj Salafi, says he has never noticed any suspicious activity in the colony. “It is partially true that they follow extreme ideas,” he said. “Initially, some did not cast their votes and children went to a school inside the colony. No outsiders were allowed in. People started calling it the Taliban colony.”

Removing the stigma remains a challenge. Counter-radicalisation efforts also have to grapple with the problem of distinguishing radicals from deeply religious people. “Notably, the most number of fatwas against terrorism have been issued by Indian ulemas. Even the Jamiat Ahle Hadith, seen as the ideological underpinning behind violent jihadism across the world, has issued a fatwa against terrorism in this country,” said the Delhi-based Islamic scholar Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi.

In June this year, security agencies went into a tizzy after 11 Malayalis were reported missing from Dubai since June 15. They feared that the group, which included children as well, had followed in the footsteps of the missing 21 persons from Kerala. The fears, however, have now been allayed. “The 11 missing persons have been traced,” said K.G. Simon, superintendent of police in Kasaragod district in Kerala. “They are in Yemen, where they are pursuing religious studies. All are safe and we have not found anything anti-national or unlawful in their activities. These people have also assured us that they will return once their studies are complete.”

Religious centres in Yemen, which has turned into a hub of Islamic studies, deny any links with Al Qaeda and IS. They say that their focus is on counteracting the misinterpretation of Islam. Apparently, Yemen does not treat those who come to study Islam from abroad as foreigners. Any Muslim who goes there and studies Islam is considered to be “at home”. “The 11 persons have told us that they are willingly pursuing religious studies there,” said Simon. “They are happy and want to be free to pursue their studies further.”

The NIA, however, is keeping a close watch on their activities, even though it has ruled out any links between them and the 21 who went missing earlier. “So far, there is no evidence to prove that they were in touch [with the 21] or that they have any common link,” said a senior police officer.

Security agencies insist that the counter-radicalisation initiative is based on the precept that “religion does not radicalise people; instead, it is people who radicalise religion”. Still, the criticism against counter-radicalisation is that it is largely tagged as an initiative to counter radical Islamism alone. Many Muslims who are part of the mainstream perceive this as being discriminatory. “I have a problem with the de-radicalisation programme,” said Harris, a Mumbaikar who is aware of the government’s new initiative. “Why do we always discriminate against the minority community? The mindset [in battling extremism] needs to change before we alienate an entire community.”

The sentiments within the Muslim community, however, largely reflect cautious optimism. Javed, who runs the anti-IS portal, said the counterterrorism initiative is a step in the right direction, but suggested that it should not be tagged with a particular religion alone. “All we need to do,” he said, “is to create an enabling atmosphere that rejects all forms of extremism.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities.