India is investigating the whereabouts of dozens of its citizens who allegedly left for the Middle East to fight alongside Islamic State (IS), an official said Thursday, almost a week after U.S.-backed forces declared the “total liberation” of the terror outfit’s stronghold in Syria.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s top counter-terror unit, has launched an investigation to “ascertain the dead or alive status and locations” of more than 50 Indian nationals who joined IS in the Middle East after the group’s emergence in 2014, an official of the Ministry of Home Affairs told BenarNews.
“The NIA investigation is on to probe their whereabouts,” Deputy Secretary (internal security) S.K. Chhikara said.
Without divulging details of the investigation, Chhikara said the NIA must contact the families of those who left for countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to join IS, whose so-called “caliphate” was collapsing due to sustained military assaults.
Last Friday, U.S.-backed militias claimed a historic victory over IS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, saying the extremist group had suffered a “brutal defeat” in what was its de facto capital for over three years.
“The United States is proud to lead the 73-member Global Coalition that supported this effort, which has seen ISIS’s so-called caliphate crumble across Iraq and Syria,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement last week, using another acronym for IS.
“Our work is far from over but the liberation of Raqqa is a critical milestone in the global fight against ISIS, and underscores the success of the ongoing international and Syrian effort to defeat these terrorists,” he said.
Of the more than 50 Indians who left the country to join IS in the Middle East and Afghanistan, at least 10 have been killed in battle, according to intelligence agencies. But the Home Ministry said New Delhi had yet to verify this claim independently.
“As of now, we are not aware of how many of them are dead or alive,” Chhikara said.
Indian believed killed in Raqqa
A relative of Maharashtra state native Fahad Sheikh, who was one of the first Indians to join IS, said the family received an anonymous phone call on Tuesday that Sheikh had been killed in fighting near Raqqa last week.
“The call came from an unknown foreign number. The family is extremely distraught,” the relative, who did not want to be identified, told BenarNews.
Sheikh, an engineering student, was part of a four-member group – the other three being Shaheem Tanki, Aman Tandel and Areeb Majeed, – who left for Iraq in May 2014 to join the terror group. While Tanki was killed in a suicide bombing mission in January 2015, Tandel was killed in an airstrike in December 2016, according to their relatives.
Majeed returned to India voluntarily in November 2014 and has since been in jail while his trial continues. He is one of about 70 Indian Muslims who have been arrested and are facing trial for their alleged IS links.
On Tuesday, police arrested three suspected IS sympathizers from the southern state of Kerala following an intelligence report that claimed the trio had returned to India after failing to enter Syria through Turkey, security officials said without divulging the identities of the accused.
“Since the situation in IS-controlled areas is bleak, we expect more such returns. We have alerted the immigration wing and other agencies,” an unnamed officer told the Times of India.
New Delhi-based security analyst H.C. Malhotra, a former Indian Navy officer, said security forces should thoroughly investigate the reasons for the suspected IS recruits to return to India before taking action against them.
“We should allow those willing to come back and resettle in India to return home. We should investigate what made them go and what made them come back. If they genuinely regret joining IS and wish to return to the mainstream, we should give them that chance,” Malhotra told BenarNews, adding, “There needs to be a psychological and humane understanding of this.”
Another analyst disagreed with Malhotra’s view, saying India should be concerned about the threat from IS recruits who may return to India following the outfit’s defeat in its strongholds.
“There is still an imminent threat from those who have been recruited from India and is quite a cause of concern for security forces,” retired Maj. Gen. Satbir Singh, a defense expert, told BenarNews.
“The potential returnees are a threat to our internal security as the militancy-ravaged regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir, and the country’s northeast states are still vulnerable to possible radicalization,” he said.