Truth vs Hype: Two ISIS Admirers From Hyderabad Had A Change Of Heart?

Zahid says he was drawn to ISIS because he believed that they were avenging Muslims, but later realised it was a mistake.

Hyderabad: In a dusty open ground in Hyderabad's Baba Nagar area, we meet Muwahid, 28 and Zahid, 24 (names changed). In 2014, the two young men - along with a third friend - made a failed attempt to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. They were discovered and turned back at Delhi airport. Instead of taking legal action, the government put them through counselling - part of its strategy to give a long rope to those suspected to be ISIS sympathisers.

It's a controversial approach, based on the government's assessment that the percentage of Indian Muslims attracted to ISIS remains miniscule relative to their population and there's little need to be heavy handed with the law, unless necessary.

But last week, the National Investigation Agency arrested 14 men in 7 cities across India, allegedly for operating an ISIS-style franchise in India to stage an attack on Indian soil. At least one of them - a software professional from Bangalore who was deported from Turkey last year - has been through a counselling programme.   

The case of Muwahid and Zahid, and the somewhat different outcomes of their rehabilitation, is an illustration of the challenges posed by this approach.

Both come from reasonably settled families, and are well qualified - Zahid studied engineering and worked as an IT analyst. Muwahid trained in biotechnology and went on to do an MBA.

Both were active on social networking websites, surfing videos and commentary on purported atrocities against Muslims the world over, where they met and befriended the men who would impel them onwards.

On Facebook, Muwahid says he met one Mohammed Ibnal Barah, who claimed to be a Syrian humanitarian aid worker from Australia, based in Turkey, and who encouraged him to travel to Syria. For Zahid too, the initiation was on Facebook. "One guy from India used to post every 5 minutes. He was from Gujarat. He used to regularly change his name."

But this is where there paths appear to diverge.

Muwahid, tall and heavily muscled, wearing a black woolen cap describes the violence in the Middle East as being perpetrated by "Western and Israeli terrorists on people of Gaza and Palestine".

When asked what he means by 'Western terrorists' he says he meant US President Barack Obama, "his country and his army who are terrorising Muslims."

Zahid, on the other hand says he was drawn to ISIS because he believed that they were avenging Muslims, but is quick to add that he realised it was a mistake. "ISIS were killing everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I realised they were not related to Islam."
Muwahid was more ambivalent when asked what he thinks of ISIS.

"My online links showed me that ISIS were helping the Muslims. They were fighting the oppressors and invaders," he said. When asked whether he condoned ISIS' killing of Muslims, he said most of the victims appear to be Shia. "Normally most of the Muslims don't consider Shias to be Muslims. Their scripture is different, their tenets are different."

Muwahid's handler had told him to fly to Istanbul, purchase a SIM card and a cheap mobile phone; stay in a small hotel with Wifi and use it to contact him. "Then, he would guide me from there."  But that was not to be. Security agencies were surveilling the young men, and held them before they could board the flight from Delhi.

Since then, they have undergone several counselling sessions with Telangana police with their parents present.

Zahid is eager to underline the success of these efforts. "The police counselled me. They told me this is all wrong. A sir told me, you stay here and take care of your parents, that is your Heaven," he said, adding that he did not have even a 1 per cent interest in making another attempt to go back.

Muhawid, too, says he doesn't plan to go back but his reasons are markedly different. "That step (to try and go) was wrong. I wouldn't have done anything individually... a single person from here going there."

Not everyone is convinced that the counselling programme is working. "The reality is that the motivations that have drawn to the Islamic State are a complex mix of the religious, the political and the adventure seeking tendencies of young people," Praveen Swami, the strategic affairs editor at Indian Express, told us. "I'm not sure the religious counselling the kind that some police forces are experimenting with, is in fact persuasive."

Before we left, we asked Muwahid if he still thought Obama is a terrorist. "Yes, a sane person with humanity in his heart will think the same," he said.