BY ALIA ALLANA
Areeb Majeed and three other young men from Doodh Naka in Kalyan at the north-eastern edge of Mumbai, the nowhere land that is part of the extended suburb of the metropolis but far from its imagination, left for Iraq on the night of May 25, 2014.
They left ostensibly for pilgrimage in the war-ravaged country. The plan, however, was to join the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, a decision that involved months of interaction with the online handlers, financiers and recruiters of the terrorist organisation. Areeb was particularly taken up with a “recruiter” who went by the name Tahira Bhatt on Facebook. He fell in love with her, she spurred him to IS, they even married online, and he dreamt of the glorious fidayeen way with a loving wife to mourn him.
Three months later, Areeb’s father heard the news of his death in an airstrike from Saheem Tanki’s uncle. There was seldom any news of Saheem, Aman Tandel, or Fahad Shaikh, the three other young men from Kalyan who went with Areeb, though unconfirmed reports said Tanki was killed in a separate operation while Fahad sporadically tweeted using the @magnetgas handle.
Tandel, however, was last seen in an IS propaganda video released on May 20.
News of Areeb’s death, widely reported at the time and believed by his family to be true, turned out to be false. He had been injured and presumed dead in an operation, but survived.
What followed was an extraordinary turn of events: Areeb took part in another failed operation, eventually tired of IS and his own failures wanted to return home, somehow convinced IS to allow an exit, crossed over to Turkey, from where Indian security agencies brought him home.
Since his return to India on November 27, 2014, Areeb’s case is being overseen by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) who are charging him under section 125 of the Indian Penal Code among others laws for waging war against an Asiatic Power in Alliance with the government of India.
Areeb has been in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail since December 17, 2014.
The NIA have interrogated Areeb for hundreds of hours, have a dossier containing transcripts, records of interviews, excerpts from his Facebook messages, and the findings of their investigations.
Fountain Ink has learned from top NIA sources what Areeb told them, which includes details of his journey in Iraq, his life as a foreign IS fighter and his training programmes.
Fountain Ink independently confirmed and corroborated significant parts of the details Areeb gave to NIA through interviews with former ISIS fighters, Kurdish military commanders active in sectors where Areeb was deployed, from the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) responsible for operations in the Middle East, the governor of Nineveh Province who lived in Mosul at the time it was overrun by IS, and other sources in Iraq and Syria.
What emerges is an insight into life under IS, its war strategy, training modules and the existence of a bureaucracy and record-keeping, a story that echoes the notorious Stasi, erstwhile East Germany’s secret police.
Areeb’s account shines light on IS’s military strength and training, and its administrative nous. It isn’t as good as the myth—there are botched operations aplenty, fighters are poorly trained, and the command structure isn’t too strong despite appearances. What it has is an army of motivated young men ready to kill themselves for a cause. No military strategy can counter that. A tribal leader battling ISIS for 20 months called its soldiers “fucking crazy”, and always “ready to blow themselves up”.
As a fighter Areeb got $50 per month, lived in a shared apartment, had Coca-Cola on tap, and had the option of “sex slaves” after a successful operation by filling in a “female request” form.
Areeb’s time in Iraq and Syria coincided with IS’s most important period of conquest. He was there when Mosul was captured, when Raqqa transformed itself not just into ISIS’s capital but also the beachhead from where it would expand into Iraq.
This is the war Areeb Majeed witnessed.
Twenty-two years after he was born in Doodh Naka, Kalyan, Areeb Majeed was reincarnated in the deserts of northern Iraq as Abu Ali al-Hindi.
Seventeen days after his arrival in Iraq, in a small Bedouin settlement deep in the northern Iraqi desert, a man in ISIS uniform took Majeed’s baya’a, his oath pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of Islamic State. Majeed didn’t even know the real name (Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) of the man to whose cause he pledged to devote his life. Inside a desert mud hut on a summer’s day it didn’t matter. His oath-taker told him that from now on the past was “forgotten”.
Majeed was now the jihadi Abu Ali al-Hindi, a man in search of the eternal bliss that martyrdom promised.
Areeb entered IS’s war on June 7, 2014, by reaching Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in the Ninveh Province. He had broken away from his party of pilgrims to fulfill his life’s calling. Tahira Bhatt, his Facebook lover and online “handler”, as the NIA calls her, had guided him. She had sent him to the house of Abu Muhammad, an IS sympathiser in Mosul, where despite the American invasion in 2003, al-Qaeda roamed freely.
Abu Muhammad directed Areeb and his three companions from Kalyan to the Sabunji Mosque. He was three hours late picking them up, during which the four had been taken away by police for interrogation. Indians were not uncommon in Mosul, so after some questions the police released them. Abu Muhammad finally showed up in a battered white sedan and escorted them to his house in silence. Later he was merciless, taunting them, testing them.
“Return to India,” he often said. But after observing them he agreed to offer a recommendation, a tazkiya, a letter fighters wanting to the join IS require.
Later Abu Muhammad shifted them to the house of a friend, another Mosul resident and ISIS sympathiser. They were told to not go out. From inside, they heard the sounds of a city collapse around them.
By the time Areeb arrived in Mosul, Etheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh had begun to lose sleep. Unlike most of the world that woke up to the news of IS’s stunning assault on Mosul, Nujaifi had watched the militant organisation gradually take over his city. Trouble started at the end of 2013 in the desert, about 150 km from Mosul in the largely unpopulated expanse known as al-Jazeera where nomadic Bedouins had returned to find their mud huts occupied by ISIS fighters. When they staked ownership, ISIS threatened a blood bath so the Bedouins fled with bad news. The governor was quick to alert the Nineveh Operations Command who owed allegiance not to the largely Sunni province but to the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad led by Nouri al-Maliki.
“The Nineveh Operations Command said they didn’t have aircraft or machinery to wipe out the camp. Can you believe that?” he said over the phone from Amman, Jordan. A couple of months passed. The governor survived an assassination attempt in February 2014 as “IS-allied local armed militias” targeted his motorcade with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). After the incident, Nujaifi was restless, paralysed by the recurring nightmare of losing Iraq’s second largest city.
“I made several calls when ISIS arrived in the city on June 4,” said Nujaifi, but the Nineveh Operations Force which was supposed to have 60,000 men had only 20,000. He knew more would be required, and asked for assistance. On June 6, 2014, he was on the phone to Baghdad pleading for reinforcements, but none came. On June 7, when ISIS was charging towards the city the Nineveh Operations Command made a line of defence halfway inside the city. That’s when Nujaifi lost his cool.
He yelled, “You have given away half the city to Daesh (ISIS).”
On June 9 the force caved in. Some guards stripped off their uniforms while others fled leaving millions of dollars worth of American weapons in ISIS hands. Nujaifi pleaded with them to stay.
“They promised they would return in an hour but they were gone,” he says. Local police fought “valiantly and courageously”. The governor tried one last time on June 10, “begging” Baghdad for help. ISIS was pretty much in control but Baghdad, 418 km away remained unaffected. That morning, around 9 a.m., the governor fled to Erbil. Around the same time Areeb was being taken across the desert of al-Jazeera to the camp Nujaifi had warned the Iraqi government about.
The Abu Al Ansari Takah Training Camp was until recently a Bedouin settlement of about 12 mud huts. It is focused on physical training. “There is light weapons training as well,” said the governor. In the first week of June 2014, there were about 30 trainee fighters in the camp. According to IS training manuals, among other things, they had to do 50 push-ups at one go. It was in this barren desert that Areeb fired his first shot, took photos with other fighters and spoke to an Englishman whose job was to film life in camp and upload it on Facebook, according to his statement to NIA.
Despite the excitement, he messaged Tahira whenever he could. She promised, as she had done before, that they would meet in Raqqa. With the fall of villages and towns along the Syria-Iraq border Areeb was edging towards her.
On June 18, Abu Muhammad ran his Toyota HiLux through the desert. There were seven men in the back of the truck. Three IS fighters with their faces covered carried AK47s and walkie-talkies. The pick-up cut across Nineveh and for hours there was nothing but the desert and the sound of silence occasionally shattered by a fighter jet.
These deserts were home to nomadic Bedouin who escape the heat of June for cooler pastures but each hill, each valley had a man who would stake tribal claim to the land. In June 2014, as ISIS overran settlements, took over villages, towns and cities it wiped away old histories as well as a line drawn in the sand, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Northern Iraq and northern Syria would be united as the Islamic State just 20 days later.
The desert gave way to the fertile plains of Deir Ezzor, which prior to the war was the centre of cotton cultivation in Syria. The HiLux skirted towns and villages on the banks of the Euphrates. Many had been abandoned. Seven hours later, Areeb read the graffiti on a road sign: Wilayatal Raqqa. He was in the heart of ISIS-controlled territory, a provincial city that would become the capital of the Caliphate.
Someone broke into a nasheed, poetry glorifying the Islamic State:
“The Islamic State has arisen by the blood of the righteous,
The Islamic State has arisen by the jihad of the pious.”
Areeb knew this song well. The truck pulled over opposite a three-storey building, a former school with two floors of basement. It currently houses one of ISIS’s main bureaucracies, the “Hudood Centre” according to Areeb’s account to NIA. The existence of a foreigner registration centre has been independently verified by Fountain Ink through interviews with former fighters, activists in Raqqa,and a reporter in Baghdad, though the name “Hudood Centre” isn’t used. This is where foreign fighter registration and job allocations take place. There were over a couple of hundred people there and the sheer number of languages being spoken boggled Areeb, he told his interrogators.
At first, Areeb relied on Google Translate to communicate but soon an English speaker came over to assist. An interview followed and Areeb was asked several questions. Among the ones he recounted to the investigating officers was,“What do you want to do for the Islamic State?”
“I’ve come here to die for ISIS,” Areeb said but that wasn’t the only reason. Majeed had also come to the Caliphate because that’s where Tahira had promised they would meet.
The man opposite Areeb demanded his passport and put it in a drawer. Then he spoke to him in Arabic so fast that Areeb couldn’t keep up in Google Translate. “Name,” that’s all he understood. Soon after, a man of about 30 appeared. He said his name was Abu Rami, and Areeb remembered speaking to an Abu Rami introduced by Tahira. It was the same person. He proceeded to ask from a list of 23 questions that ISIS requires all new recruits to answer. The answers go to the “Mujahid Data Form,” also known as the “Hudood Form” processed by the General Border Administration of Islamic State. The questions include “name,” nickname (“kunya”), “the personal connection” that introduced the mujahid to Islamic State as well as a “letter of recommendation.” Areeb had a tazkiya from Abu Mohammed in Mosul. Other questions are: “Level of listening and obedience”, “knowledge of shariah: basic or high,” previous work experience and whether the new recruit has “participated in jihad, if yes, where?”, whether the mujahid is a “fighter (muqatil), or martyr (istishhadi) or a member of ISIS’s shock troops (inghimasi)” and finally, “date of killing and place”.
The architect of the blueprint for a paranoid intelligence state that IS was striving to create was a colonel in the intelligence services of Saddam Hussein’s air defence force. So elusive was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi that even his best known alias—Haji Bakr—was largely unknown. He was known as the “Lord of the Shadows.” Few knew Haji Bakr had pulled ISIS strings for the past few years. In 2010 it was he and a group of former Iraqi intelligence officers who appointed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the “Caliph” of the Islamic State. After his death, 31 pages of notes were unearthed, consisting not just of battle plans that could be put into place in the anarchic rebel held territories of Syria, but could also serve as an elaborate manual for the invasion of Iraq.
His hand-written notes contained a precise plan for the creation of IS and his actions were driven solely by this goal. Christopher Reuter in Spiegel writes, “There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr’s writing of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory.”
By the time Areeb arrived in Raqqa, IS was taking over buildings that once housed ministries in this former provincial capital. The Mayer building became the main headquarters. The Equestrian Building was a homeland security building, al-Tabqa airbase was used for training purposes and the national hospital treated injured militants.
The Governorate building was the IS command post, the Raqqa Armenian Catholic Church the police HQ, the municipality building a detention facility, the horsemanship building a training centre and the vanguards camp the ammunition warehouse. The 93rd brigade was a training station and a warehouse for weapons and ammunitions. ISIS set up an Islamic courts system; there was a consumer protection office. Not only did it flog and behead people, ISIS also enlisted jihadists to fix potholes.
Raqqa was no longer just a Syrian town and the Syrian Uprising to unseat the government of Bashar al-Assad was no longer the motivating cause. The war for ISIS had moved from Syria into Iraq.
Abu Rami banged on the door twice. It was nearing dawn and the boys rose to pray. They were given fruits, a packet of juice, and rushed downstairs. Two buses awaited them. About 60 men filed into the bus which took them on a 15-minute ride to a building with a large backyard. Areeb spoke to a few of the gathered men. He was told the largest number of recruits in the foreigner camp came from Tunisia, followed by Egypt. There were a few Europeans, too. Areeb was relieved to speak a few words of English with them.
That was Camp Farouk, one of the many sharia camps (Areeb refers to these as “Sharia Moaskar” during his interrogations) that had opened around Raqqa. There was a mosque abutting the compound where the men were required to pray. Two former IS fighters who had served time in a sharia camp, and whom I interviewed, said in these camps IS offered its perspective of jihad and outlined the basics of the Islamic faith.
“They kept telling us that Islam had been tarnished by Muslims and religious leaders across the world. They were so convincing that we couldn’t help but believe them,” one of them said.
Camp Farouk was a place for an intellectual rebirth into the IS way of thinking for fighters. One book was mandatory reading: each mujahid has to read a second grade textbook, Al Tawhid, which details the duties every Muslim must know. Despite the sanctity of sharia (Islamic law), fatwas were issued to back claims that suited the war.
The modules in each class were based on a strict reading of Takfiri ideology—which al-Qaeda is well known for—that viewed any other interpretation of Islam as apostasy. ISIS teachers relied heavily on the word of Ibn-i-Tamiyyah, a 13th century scholar who was one of the founders of the ultra-orthodox Salafist school that proposes a return to the original ways of Islam. Literature by Muhammad-ibn-Abd-al-Wahhab, the 18th century Salafist scholar, the Saudi founder of Wahhabism, featured prominently and his Book of the Unity and Unique Oneness of Allah is an essential text for jihadis worldwide.
Trainers kept tabs on recruits’ understanding of the philosophy of Islamic State and presented them with an IS manifesto titled “The Management of Savagery/Chaos” by Abu Bakr Naji written a decade ago for the Mesopotamian wing of al-Qaeda that would become IS. Classes on contemporary politics offer comparisons and lessons from Chechnya and Afghanistan. The sharia camps are even stocked with English encyclopedias of jihad that the mujahids of Aghanistan have prepared, such as the journal al-Battar. Present in the camp are writings from Salafi jihadist military thinkers such as Abu Ubayd al-Quraishi.
Interactive classes on Islamic creed (aqida), rules of interpretation (usul at tafsir) and jurisprudence (fiqh) are held in the afternoon and books published by an IS ministry in Raqqa serve to explain the imperative obligations upon Muslims and fighters.
Areeb recalled the lecturers being charismatic. He was convinced by their rhetoric. There must have been a couple of hundred people at different stages of training, Areeb told the NIA. “Different people used to give different lectures on different topics of sharia,” and the day before Camp Farouk concluded there was an exam. Areeb passed despite most of the lectures being in Arabic, he told the NIA.
At the end of the day, on June 2, 2014 the group was moved to Camp Fallujah, 15 minutes away (he told the officers it was called “Moaskar Fallujah”). The days were spent in relative peace. There were programmes where religion was discussed and the camp lay near the Euphrates so fighters were free to swim in the day. This was ideal since water supply was limited and the mujahid were allowed to shower only on Friday prior to prayers.
Soon after the last prayer of the day, in the dead of night, out came the guns. Camp Fallujah, the second stage in the making of an IS fighter, was a place for military training (tadrib askari). Areeb learned how to handle an AK-47 and was given machine gun training. The recruits were taught about vantage positions and other war exercises. This is the combat, engagement, movement, camouflage and military plans phase.
The physical training would start at 10 p.m. and conclude at 3 a.m. In between classes there were small breaks for fruit and juice. This ended on July 15-16.
Areeb was then taken to the third place, another 15 minutes away, Abd Azzam Camp in Tabqa on July 16. Sources in the Syrian Ministry of Interior told Fountain Ink that about 25 miles from Raqqa, near Tabqa Dam is a “foreigners’ camp”. Recruits are separated according to language and different sheikhs (leaders) take turns to speak to the fighters. According to Areeb’s account people from the US, Tunisia, Europe, and Chechnya are among those present.
“It is easy to know who is European and who is Syrian even if the faces are covered and they don’t utter a word. The foreigners get the best deal,” says a former ISIS fighter. The battle-hardened Chechens and Kazaks form the elite special force leading regular cadres into battle. “They are seen as the real mujahid and command respect,” said the former fighter.
At Azzam Camp, Areeb was taught about land mines, IEDs, handling of snipers and close combat. His instructor was a masked man. Areeb once saw him without the mask: a slight man with a small beard and no moustache, no taller than 5’6”, Areeb told investigators. Most of the trainers came from Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan.
On the last day of training Areeb wore blue jeans and a black scarf and was given his own AK-47 and 30 rounds. He was also given a walkie-talkie that he was required to carry at all times. There was a lot of excitement as recruits awaited the arrival of Abu Nasir, the emir of the training camp. He gave a concluding speech and held closed-door meetings with the trainers to decipher which of the new recruits was suitable for war and who would be a part of civilian arm of the Islamic State. Fahad, Saheem and Areeb initially decided to be martyrs (fidayeen) but Fahad got cold feet and backed out. Saheem, who didn’t know how to drive, wasn’t a part of the fidayeen who are required at times to drive explosive-laden cars. Areeb was the only fidayeen.
He was as ready as ISIS could make him, a graduate from a crash training course from the Islamic State School of War. When he reported to the Hudood Centre on July 29 he spent four days living in the old school until he was assigned living quarters. Life in the Islamic State was mundane. He continued to Skype call Tahira, and when she didn’t respond he messaged her on Facebook frequently. He had been moved to an apartment block which he shared with four other people. Upon graduation each fighter gets a walkie-talkie that he can use to call for whatever he needs. The kitchen and fridge were almost always stocked and Coca Cola was on tap. It could be delivered at any hour.
He was assigned to assist an American who had a plan to make Raqqa a free WiFi city. Saheem was sent to Rabi’a, on the Syria-Iraq border for guard duty and walkie-talkie repair, Fahad went to Tabqa in northern Syria to work in a garage as a mechanical engineer, and Aman remained in Raqqa working in the electrical department. The plan for a free WiFi city was abandoned as it made little sense to take away one of the last sources of income for the people of Raqqa. “There were Internet cafes every few metres,” according to Areeb’s account to the investigators.
All this while, he sent Tahira regular messages. Just a month earlier, they would talk for hours on end, the messages so frequent that he struggled to understand her disappearance. Days went by without a word and when it finally came it was short: Tahira said she was going to Palestine on a suicide mission. He heard nothing from her after this. Areeb began to worry that she had died. He messaged her saying he was ready to die, too, but Romeo and Juliet in the Islamic State isn’t quite as poetic; even the ultimate sacrifice had to wait. There was a long list of people ahead of him who wanted to die.
Islamic State has a “martyrdom operation” form issued by the mujahideen affairs department. It includes the date of the operation, and reason for the attack at that particular place. There is a section dedicated to the person’s will. Another form includes the distribution of gain, booty from the battle, with information on the mujahid’s mission in “the invasion” and the place of battle. For the mujahid there is even a sex slave application the fighter is entitled to after an operation. For this he must submit a “female request” form. He has to specify the number of women he wants and it must be signed off by the battalion Emir, according to a source in the Syrian Ministry of Interior.
Areeb occasionally spoke to his family in India. “They regularly pleaded with him to return home,” says a family friend. His sister would soon be married, his father said. The constant barrage of reporters had tarnished the family’s reputation in Doodh Naka, they said. But Areeb remained steadfast, desperate to die for the cause.
There was a long list of istishhadi (suicide bombers) ahead of him. To blow oneself up in the name of Allah in Syria was of greater value than to die elsewhere, Areeb told his interrogators, but the waiting list meant he would have to live for months. An alternative had opened up, though. As Syria became a war of attrition with ISIS, rebels and Bashar al-Assad, a new front had opened. Iraq was heating up and so he chose to be a martyr in Iraq largely because the line to heaven there was shorter.
“Be ready after Fajr (dawn prayer),” was all the Emir of his battalion ordered the night before. On the night of August 3, 2014, Areeb packed a small bag. In the morning he sat in the back of a bus with six Iraqi fighters. That’s when he learnt they were returning to Iraq, back to where it had all started for Areeb.
Since his departure, ISIS had gone from victory to victory. It was the most violent demise of the Sykes-Picot line. For ISIS, control over Nineveh province as well as northern Syria was crucial in order to legitimise its claim as a state with territory. It did not matter that large parts of Nineveh were uninhabited.
In June 2014, ISIS’ propaganda and media arm went into overdrive, posting videos of fighters clad in black racing across the desert unhindered, taking control of village after village on the border. Videos circulated of fighters burning passports, reducing nationalities to ashes. But guarding parts of the border were men and women from the Kurdish Army. The storied fighters of the Peshmerga had been agitating for a state of their own for decades. They put up a fight ISIS never expected. Soon they were all over the news, their successes televised on al-Jazeera and their online campaign #TwitterKurd trending for weeks. Little did Areeb know he would face them in battle.
The bus came to a halt at a sparsely populated town. Once he’d been taken to a safe house he learnt its name, Ba’aj, the ideal base as it lay on a transit point between Mosul and Raqqa. Right on the border with a population of no more than 5,000, it was small enough to be monitored. There are reports that Baghdadi used this as his primary hideout and was even injured in a raid there.
In the evening, after the men had dinner at the safe house and readied to sleep, it was hit in an airstrike. Areeb was hurt in the leg but it was just a flesh wound. A few hours later, he and the other fighters were on a bus to Mosul.
Two months after he had first arrived, Areeb returned to a different Mosul on August 4. There were check points every few metres and the black and white ISIS banner hung on the facades of damaged buildings. Posters prescribed proper attire for women, and women on the streets were covered from head to toe. Areeb learnt that the popular Friday market had been moved to Thursday and schools were shut. Areeb and the others were taken to a temporary residence for fidayeen near Mosul University. It was then he learnt of the long queue to die, even in Iraq. On August 8 a sense of doom prevailed in the fidayeen barracks: the Americans had entered the war.
This changed things. People started accusing each other of being a spy, and on one occasion even Areeb was asked if he was gathering intelligence to sell. The emir started acting erratically. On August 14, Areeb was moved to another location, a villa in the city. Mosul reeled under ISIS paranoia as universities remained shut. A new curriculum without history and arts was in place. Thousands of people dashed out of the city to the relative security of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.
ISIS carried out a bloodbath in Mosul. People were indiscriminately rounded up and shot. ISIS ruled through fear and terror. Any association with the government in Baghdad brought a person automatically into the crosshairs. Mingling with the opposite sex was no longer an option. Men and women caught together were flogged. Often Areeb thought of Tahira and he continued to try to contact her while waiting for his suicide mission.
His turn came on August 22, 2014, just two days after ISIS was kicked out of Mosul Dam by an offensive launched by the Peshmerga, Iraqi forces and the US Air Force. Areeb’s emir rushed to him twice that night and was very excited, Areeb recalled to his interrogators. They stayed up late and the emir briefed him about the plan three times. “Recapturing Mosul Dam was the main topic of conversation in the barracks,” recalls a former ISIS fighter interviewed for this story.
Areeb’s mission as an istishhadi (suicide bomber) was to drive an explosive-laden car close to the Peshmerga who guarded the entrance to the dam and blow himself up. He spent a large part of the night thinking about the drive and planning his route. There was no space for failure, no option to make a mockery of his uniform. He would drive 45 minutes from where the car stood to the guards at the dam.
That night as he dozed off Areeb heard the sound of jets. In the morning he heard an important news: The car he was to drive to his death had been “destroyed in an American airstrike,” Areeb told his interrogators.
The Americans were watching as vigilantly as possible, as they had done in the past. Years of engagement in Iraq had given them a better understanding of the enemy and the importance of a tight network of informers.
“If the American generals saw weapons being loaded, if they had a locator on the car bomb factories where explosives are packed into cars, they would attack. This can be as small as a garage but these sorts of locations are high on the list of intelligence targets so it is highly possible they see a vehicle emerge from one of them,” says Peter Mansoor who served as the executive officer to General David Petraeus during the Iraq war, particularly during the troop surge of 2007.
Based on the information Fountain Ink received from CentComm, in charge of Operation Inherent Resolve, there was activity on August 22-23. On both days the US military conducted airstrikes around Mosul Dam with the support of “Iraqi Security Force operations, using fighter and attack aircraft,” according to a CentComm spokesperson.
On August 22, “The strikes destroyed two ISIL armed vehicles and a machine gun emplacement firing on Iraqi forces. All aircraft exited the strike area safely. And on August 23, the US military carried out one strike. It destroyed an ISIL vehicle and all aircraft exited safely, ” the spokesperson said in an email reply.
It is not possible to verify if one of the “ISIL vehicles” hit by the US airstrikes was Areeb’s car.
Life in the barracks had toughened Areeb and there was no time to spare. So his emir decided to send him to Tal Afar, an Iraqi town on the road to Raqqa, on August 23 to train as inghimasi, (the elite special forces/suicide squad).
On the third day of fighting in Anbar province in August 2014, Abu Muhammad, a fighter from the storied Jughayfa tribe, thought he was losing his mind. Running towards him were five fighters, dressed in black kurta-pyjama, a style known as the Kandahar look, like “ninjas on steroids”. They wore balaclavas and a cloth around the head with the Islamic State slogan. All carried automatic weapons, a number of magazines, hand grenades and wore an explosive belt. That was the first time he saw the dreaded inghimasi IS shock troop suicide bombers.
“Those fuckers aren’t afraid to blow themselves up when surrounded or captured,” he said. That was the first he contemplated throwing his weapons and running away. He saw them twice after. The aim of the inghimasi is simple: inflict the largest number of losses and not fall prisoner.
Abu Muhammed said:“The inghimasi, they give me the creeps,” on a WhatsApp call from Hadita, Iraq. He saw the war morph over two years of fighting and just when he thought he had “seen it all, gut eating and beheadings”, the inghimasi appeared. His first encounter was in the second half of 2014.
We spoke late one night after he had returned from a three-day fight against IS. “Some say they’re courageous, the bravest men ISIS has but I think they’re foolish,” he said. The more he spoke about them, the angrier he got, accusing them of violating the most basic practices in battles.
“They fight without tactics, without a care in the world,” he said. The inghimasi are armed with as many weapons as they can carry and just “shoot, shoot, shoot, they don’t even look to see where they aim,” he said.
Their role is to create a bridge head within enemy territory and then to storm the fortified positions. The inghimasi usually operate in a group accepting death as a possibility and the truly motivated “perform a martyrdom operation”, during the course of the raid. Unlike the istishhadi, who are suicide bombers, the inghimasi are highly trained in the use of weapons or are more capable behind the wheels than “F1 drivers”, he said.
Unlike Abu Muhammad, Lt. General Jabar Yawar, secretary-general in the Ministry of the Peshmerga felt the same about the inghimasi as he did about pests. He had studied their strategy: “Inghimasi come first as a diversion and then the main ISIS forces come in.”
The inghimasi were increasing in number. More and more suicide shock troops appeared on the scene. In the conversations Yawar, who spoke to me on the phone from Erbil, was keen to point out that despite ISIS’ lazy tactics, progress in the field had been made. The Peshmerga had managed to repel them. They had strengthened their battle lines with long-range anti-tank guided missiles. They dug trenches, used night vision binoculars and trained snipers, gathered accurate intelligence and were able to thwart the inghimasi.
When Areeb finally faced the Peshmerga on August 26, he carried “AK47, 300 rounds of ammunition, PKC machine gun, RPG, 1,000 rounds of PKC ammunition, Glock 19 (pistol), 50 cartridges of 9 mm and a knife”, according to an officer at the NIA. He was part of a group of 11 who charged upon Mosul Dam. He was shot in the battle and fell unconscious, according to his statement to NIA. When I asked about fighting between Peshmerga and ISIS on the day of Areeb’s injury, Yawar said they did face foreign fighters near Mosul Dam. “Peshmerga faced foreigner militias and fighters but since they didn’t have IDs we couldn’t check who we were fighting. But it was obvious they were from different countries,” he said.
Foreign fighters and native recruits, then, receive different assignments. According to senior officials engaged in battle with IS in northern Syria who spoke on condition that they not be named, “Foreigners are seen fighting during the first wave of attacks. They are of less value militarily. Local Arab forces, meanwhile, are used to shore up defensive positions. Pushing them out to die isn’t a wise strategy as it alienates the locals.”
A general in the Iraqi Army said something similar of fighting in Nineveh province. “We often see foreign fighters in the first wave. Arab fighters come in after an area is cleared.” Suicide bombers play a “critical role” in IS attacks and are “dominated by foreign fighters.”
Areeb’s memory of the fight is hazy. He doesn’t remember when he got shot but he recalls he’d been fighting for a while. “Some brothers” picked him up and carried him to a hospital in Tal Afar. When they left his body, they thought he was dead. When they reconnected with the other three Indians the fighters told them Areeb was gone.
News of his death travelled fast and wide. Banners online celebrated him as a martyr; ISIS fanboys called him a “brother from India,” while his family broke down in Kalyan. “What is left to say?” his father once asked me in his clinic in Doodh Naka.
Just a few hours after the news, Tahira Bhatt reappeared in the guise of a widow. “My husband, Abu Ali al Hindi, is shaheed,” she stated on her Facebook. She wasn’t dead after all.
Tahira, however, wasn’t sure of her widowhood. She messaged Areeb on September 2, 2014: “Are you in the heart of the green bird or in Mosul camp?” The green bird reference is romanticism of martyrdom. A hadith (a saying attributed to Prophet Mohammad) goes: “The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers.”
Tahira wanted to know if her “love” was dead or alive. That was her last message to him.
Areeb lay unconscious in Tal Afar Hospital and woke to chaos around him. In those days it was operating at maximum capacity and the head doctor had declared a state of emergency as the Peshmerga, assisted by US airstrikes, took territory back from ISIS. All hospital staff were ordered to report for duty everyday as the injured kept mounting and the morgue had no more space for the dead, according to local sources in Tal Afar. Areeb remained at the hospital for eight days. For one month he was inactive, recuperating.
That month saw ISIS lose large chunks of territory and crucial supply routes closed down. ISIS had gained control over Rabi’a, on the Iraq-Syria border,in May 2014 and used the highway between Rabi’a and Mosul, 70 km away, to transport fighters, weapons and supplies between the two countries.
ISIS control over Rabi’a was threatened, and as soon as Areeb was fit to fight he was ordered to drive a car laden with explosives to Rabi’a on 23 September and kill some of the Kurdish forces. As he neared them, the Kurds realised he was a fidayeen and started firing. So relentless was the stream of bullets that Areeb was injured in the upper arm and his car battered. Yet he kept driving, away from the Kurds and towards an ISIS check point. They gave him basic treatment and moved him to Tal al-Hawa, a hamlet along the border to which ISIS had retreated, on October 3, 2014.
When he returned to his base beating himself up about the failure, his emir said, “There is no point in detonating the bomb unless he (Areeb) is sufficiently close to the target,” he told his interrogators.
At Tal al-Hawa, ISIS continued to hold considerable presence. It was quiet, nondescript and had only become relevant because of the fighting around it. As ISIS retreated, it clung desperately to what it could. Areeb received treatment in the hospital in Tal al-Hawa and upon his release was put under the command of Abu Sadiq, a local warlord. On October 9, several days after his arm had healed the Kurds launched a surprise attack. Abu Sadiq fled leaving 13 fighters. They kept firing until they ran out of the ammunition and were then just waiting to die.
“That was a turning point for Areeb,” says one of his principal interrogators. He felt deserted. The fighters waited for help, but got a message from Abu Sadiq on the walkie-talkie, ordering them to retreat for there was no winning this fight.
Areeb was taken to a small clinic on the road to Mosul, and finally admitted to Mosul General Hospital on October 10, 2014 to treat a wound that had festered. He was there seven days. Once he had recovered the emir ordered him back to the fighters’ accommodation near the university.
By now life was getting desperate in Mosul. There were severe shortages of food and water, and the local economy had collapsed. The private sector had all but stopped and government-funded projects were on hold, reported the Guardian in October 2014. Just four months had passed since Areeb had signed the “hudood form” but the price of kerosene had trebled.
The loss of the border crossing at Rabi’a to the Kurds, in several battles—in which Areeb had been injured—meant a crucial supply route was gone. “When ISIS was in charge of Rabi’a the price of a kilo of tomato was 250 dinar. Two weeks on, the price had increased to 1,500 dinar,” the Guardian reported. There was just two hours of electricity every four days. For the first time since Saddam Hussein had introduced government rations of sugar, rice, cooking oil and flour, the people of Mosul were without.
Christians and other minorities had fled the city. It was when Areeb heard about the mass rape of Yazidi women that he first felt hatred towards ISIS. There were public beheadings and shootings and imams were forced to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi. All the while ISIS was attacked by US planes and over the summer Iraqi jets bombed its military positions. Fighters sought refuge in residential areas such as the Bab Nargal neighbourhood where it had a compound near Mosul University.
That’s where Areeb started asking his commanders to make arrangements for him to travel back to Raqqa. But they were too preoccupied with the war. He told them he would make his own way and boarded a civilian truck to Raqqa. Upon arrival, he registered at the Hudood Centre and went to work for the “Tasniya”, the Ministry of Defence and Development.
Other foreign fighter testimonies echo similar dissatisfaction as desertion became more common. With losses mounting, foreign fighters were getting disillusioned. Abu Musab al-Tunisi followed a path similar to Areeb’s. “I joined the leader of the border region so they could see my ‘recommendation’ tazkiya… When I arrived they took my personal details and asked, do you want to register as a fighter, inghimasi or suicide bomber?” He chose to be a fighter but was appalled at ISIS’ mismanagement. They didn’t tell him who he was fighting or where, and when a squadron was formed, only half the men were given weapons.
In the end it was the infighting and ISIS’ desire to be above all other fighters that led him to desert. “We went to the rooftop and started firing not knowing what’s going on. If I knew this was Nusra, (one of the main rebel groups fighting the Syrian government) I would not have fought. We are fighting our brothers and many of the brothers in ISIS are good but deceived by their leaders. Some of them want to tarnish the image of jihad,” he said.
Back in Raqqa, Areeb tried to settle into life in the Caliphate. He had work in the tasniya (ministry) but the leadership suspected everyone. People were being picked up on suspicion of spying. Even Areeb was accused. He was also devastated at being unable to die. When he finally ran into Saheem and Fahad, they were shocked to see him alive. He called his parents and they begged him to return. That night Areeb performed an istikhara, and in that period of intense devotion and prayer, he sought guidance from Allah on one question. Should he go or should he stay?
The following morning, he had made his mind up. He would return to India.
Areeb asked for a “dismissal”. His emir agreed and gave him an exit letter. His total pay as a fighter for ISIS from June-November, including “injury compensation” and an Eid bonus was $2,000. He stuffed the money and his belongings in a backpack and on November 25, 2014 turned his back on the Islamic State.
He took one of the main smuggling routes from Syria to Turkey with two other fighters: to Jarabulus and onwards into Gaziantep from where he took a bus to Istanbul. The Indian consulate waited for his arrival, his father had already told the Maharasthra ATS that his son was on his way back. The consulate issued an emergency travel certificate, and minutes after he landed at Chatrapati Shivaji Airport, he was picked up by ATS who handed him over to NIA that very night.
“ISIS just let you go?” the authorities asked. This was their first question and they couldn’t get their head around it. But Areeb had returned to be de-martyred.
“Kaun aa ra hai? (Who is coming?)” asked the constable on duty at the sessions court on Novemeber 29. Broadcast vans had lined around Oval Maidan in Mumbai and journalists waited outside to get a glimpse of Areeb Majeed. His arrival was unceremonious. The elevator went up to the seventh floor and Areeb emerged in the “Kandahar look”. A black veil covered his face. When it was removed in front of a room full of hungry reporters, Areeb looked like any other boy. Even after he put on his black beanie, like ISIS fighters wear, he betrayed no sign of trying to kill people just a few months ago. “He is thinner now and darker,” his uncle said.
By the time of his second visit, the crowd of reporters had thinned out and Areeb looked more withdrawn. He had a lawyer with experience representing terror suspects and the lawyer pronounced Areeb “not guilty” before the magistrate. When Areeb spoke in the courtroom, his voice was just above a whisper: “Please take me out of solitary confinement,” he said.
At the end of the hearing, the lawyer sought the judge’s permission for Areeb to meet his family. The judge agreed. Areeb’s mother, sister and father were sitting on the bench in the back of the room. Areeb shook his father’s hand and then they embraced. He then moved to his mother. She stood up, and as she looked at her son she cried. “Kis mein phas gaya tu? (What have you got yourself into?),” she asked.
(The cover story of June 2016 edition of Fountain Ink)