“Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.”

—Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:216

“So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory. We will bestow upon him a great reward.”
—Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:74

Areeb (Arif) Majeed had to go. Even if took him to the grave. Majeed was embarking on a “spiritual journey”, one that took him from his mohalla in Kalyan to the battlefield in Iraq where he fought alongside his Muslim brethren under the banner of jihad. For he, devout and firm in his belief, viewed this life as a waiting room. It was merely a test for the hereafter where Allah watched over your conduct, conduct that would be assessed on the Day of Judgment.

He didn’t inform his family of his hijr on the night of May 23. Had his parents known of his imminent departure, perhaps they wouldn’t have let him go. The mundane could have got in the way—the third-year engineering student had an exam the next day; perhaps his sister’s impending wedding would have kept him home.

So he left without a goodbye. He left a remarkable letter peppered with language reminiscent of the English used in translations of the Quran. Concise and with a methodology, it is a manifesto that will resonate amongst puritanical followers of the faith anywhere.

He wrote: “O people of my house, including my father and beloved mother, I love you so I am going on a spiritual journey. And when Allah accepts my martyrdom, I will intervene for you because I love you … Inshallah we will meet in jannah (heaven).

“It is a blessed journey for me, because I don’t want to live in this sinful country,” he wrote. “I will always be in a crying state when I see you all singing, smoking cigarettes, taking an interest in TV, voting, illegal sexual intercourse, living luxurious lives, intermingling of sexes, not praying, salah, not growing beards, illegal marriages, backbiting, fashion (some members doing shirk).” Shirk refers to wrongdoing.

For jihadis, June 29 was special a day as the IS broadcast a message on social media: “So rush O Muslims, gather around your khalifah that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war.

Majeed died three months later, in an explosion in Mosul as US fighter jets and drones pounded the Islamic State (IS) strongholds. He died a member of the IS, the militant Islamist group that has exceeded al-Qaeda in ambition and notoriety. He is the first Indian to participate and be “martyred” in “Global Jihad”.

Three others, all in their 20s—Saleem Tanki, Aman Tandel, and Fahad Shaikh—from his mohalla in Kalyan accompanied him on this journey to Iraq, to what is now being referred to as the Islamic State.

For jihadis the world over, June 29 was special a day as the IS broadcast a message on social media websites: “So rush O Muslims and gather around your khalīfah, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war. By Allah, if you disbelieve in democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west, and rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you.”

On that day, the notoriously private—there are only two photos of him and one video clip—leader of IS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the Caliphate and setting up of a “state” of which he was the Caliph. His ambitions and success have made him a legatee of the global jihad franchise that Osama bin Laden helped create.

Baghdadi’s declaration was aimed at jihadis across the world. Thousands of foreign fighters have responded from England to China and fight under the flag of IS. The CIA estimates that the Islamic State has up to 31,500 fighters and that it has ramped up its recruitment campaign. The IS controls vast parts of Syria and Iraq, territorially as large as Britain. At the time of writing, an IS video threatening American president Barack Obama and his coalition has surfaced, and a gun-toting 17-year-old Australian recruit levies the threats.

Majeed, one of his teachers said, was a “good boy; shy, soft-spoken, devout.” [Editor’s note: Given the sensitive nature of the story, and the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, most of the people interviewed refused to be named.]

He was well-known and when his photo appeared in the paper, the teacher was taken aback. Indeed Majeed was religious; he was almost always in the front row of the prayer room. He never missed his prayers but that was due to upbringing: since he was a little boy, his father would wake him at the crack of dawn for fajr prayers.

A friend recalls the impact his Umrah pilgrimage had on him: “His eyes welled up when he spoke of the great mosques of Mecca and Medina. He was struck by how everyone was equal there: king and pauper bowed down together to one God.”

Majeed’s Facebook post was proof: “It is Truly Said, that MAKKAH and MADINA are the Holiest Cities Of The World. I Too Am A Witness Now …”

Those days, Majeed also identified himself as an Indian, sharing posts from the “I Love India” group. With time, he would identify himself less with the country of his birth and more as a global Islamic citizen ready for the holy war.

By late 2011, his updates were all religiously affiliated. “Allah closes doors; no man can open. Allah opens doors; no man can close,” he wrote. In October 2013, he uploaded the picture of a poster that read: “Ummah Bleeding, Ummah Sleeping.”

Ummah in Arabic means community and a hadith of the Prophet says: “The Muslim Ummah is like one body. If the eye is in pain, then the whole body is in pain, and if the head is in pain, then the whole body is in pain.” This implies that if one Muslim is hurt, all are hurt.

By October, the civil war in Syria had taken a sinister turn as rebels who had allied with militant Islamists were butchered in the name of God. Increasingly the flag of ISIS (as they were called then)—black with white writing that reads “There is no God but Allah” and a reproduction of what many believe to be the Prophet Muhammad’s seal (it reads: “Allah, Rasool, Muhammad”)—fluttered atop tanks on TV screens and on social media.

By March 9, Majeed’s radicalisation was complete. He changed his profile picture to the flag of the IS. He got rid of his identity—that of a third-year engineering student from Doodh Naka, Kalyan—and fashioned himself into a warrior of God, called upon to fight in distant lands.

Majeed’s journey from a small-town boy to mujahid—someone who strives or struggles in the name of Islam—was meticulous. According to a senior officer of the Maharashtra police’s Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), and someone who has direct knowledge of the case, Majeed created a fake identity on Facebook and much of his radicalisation took place online. His nom de guerre was Abu Ali al-Hindi (“Hindi” is Arabic for Indian) and spent months reaching out to like-minded jihadis. Two independent sources, including one from the ATS, told me Majeed attended a karate training camp in Panvel that also imparted classes on religion.

Records with the ATS suggest that Majeed trawled jihadi-affiliated sites even as he continued to remain on top of his studies. Soon a “handler” reciprocated and passed onto Majeed the password to a jihadi chat room and invited him into “closed” Facebook groups, according to the ATS. Handlers act as go-betweens for jihadis and the mujahideen in Syria and Iraq.

This password was the key that opened the door to this underworld.

The hijra was no longer an obscure religious or academic idea. Hijra is the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in order to escape persecution in 622 AD. It is also viewed as the start of the Islamic era. In his goodbye note, Majeed wrote: “So, at the time of death, the angel of death will ask me, ‘Why don't you make hijr (migrate to Mecca and Madina)? Allah’s land was spacious.’”

Majeed’s letter is striking, not just because of its clarity of thought but also because of the Quranic verses he chose to quote. Given that the quotes are Allah’s word, no Muslim will refute them but Majeed failed to provide the context in which they appear in the Quran.

Majeed viewed it as his duty to heed the call of Allah and migrate while his father, Dr Ejaz Majeed, a doctor of Unani medicine, claims his son was brainwashed to go and fight. He has demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice and has met Home Minister Rajnath Singh on this matter.

Neighbours pity the doctor’s condition. “He stopped eating for a while after Saleem Tanki broke the news of his son’s death. I’d seen him sobbing over his desks. He still cries often,” said a neighbour.

Unlike Majeeb, Saleem Tanki had limited prospects. He was a Class 12 Urdu-medium dropout. The only job he ever held, as an employee at a call centre, wasn’t for long. He had frequent nosebleeds and was sacked. Money was scarce. He only owned a ₹800 mobile phone, reveals a source close to the family, so indoctrination on the Internet was unlikely. The source traces it all back to his friendship with Majeed and their association that began at the Kot Bahar Ahle Hadees Mosque.

For Tanki, life revolved around the Islamic Guidance Centre, which aims to improve life for the Ummah while educating them, and the Kot Bahar Mosque at Doodh Naka. It is here that both boys came into contact with Adil Dolare, a volunteer at the Islamic Guidance Centre. (Repeated attempts to meet Adil Dolare failed.)

The ATS source says that while the exact link hasn’t been ascertained yet, authorities suspect that some amount of indoctrination and brainwashing occurred at Doodh Naka, and possibly at the mosque and the Guidance Centre.

The police zeroed in on Dolare, who owns a dried fruit business, since he was the last person to be in frequent contact with all four boys in the days leading to their departure. Of particular interest is Dolare’s acquaintance with two Afghans who had visited Kalyan. Dolare claims innocence and attributes work as the reason behind him visiting Afghanistan.

“The dried fruit business is seasonal. Why does he travel when there is no dried fruit season?” asks the ATS source. Another source at the ATS reveals that they suspect the business to be a front for illegal activities.

The night before his departure, Tanki informed his family of his plans to visit Mahabaleshwar with friends. Days passed but he didn’t return. His family tried calling him but his phone was switched off. The family asked friends who were vacationing there to be on the lookout but nobody saw him in markets or in tourist sites.

On May 26, the family filed a missing persons complaint at Bazarpeth police station in Kalyan. Every passing day took its toll on his mother. By the time news broke that he had joined the IS, she had lost her mind. She closed herself in her house, and a source close to the family says she started speaking to her son’s clothes. Tanki’s older brother would find his mother nestled amidst his brother’s clothes, mumbling into them.

Two months passed and at the end of July, Tanki called his brother’s mobile. It was a six-digit number from a Voice over Internet Protocol phone. He spoke briefly, saying that he was fine and his work would take his entire family to heaven. Then he hung up.

The police had ordered the family to keep him on the phone for as long as possible so that they could trace the call. But the call was short.

The family had already become the talk of the Choudhary mohalla. Friends turned into strangers overnight as a sense of panic spread, reveals a source close to the family. The ATS had already picked up people for questioning, he said, and residents feared that even speaking to Tanki’s family mark them.

As I walk down Choudhary mohalla looking for their house, a boy chases after me. “Don’t go there,” he says. His mother had told him djinns lived in the Tanki house.

Oddly enough, the house is on Google Maps as Tanki Mansion. I see an unfinished home where, in the second floor, pieces of cloth are tied where window panes ought to be.

“It’s taken me months to calm her. Just leave us alone,” Fayyaz Tanki shouts. He is hysterical.

I just want to know where your brother is, I say.

“Raqqa. He’s in Raqqa,” he yells.

He wants to know what was wrong with that. “Why does everyone in the media want to paint us as terrorists? Thousands of Indians work in the Middle East,” he says. His brother was just another of them.

But Raqqa is the headquarters of terror, the home base of IS. It controls the bakeries, the shops and provides all the services.

“He works in a hospital. He doesn’t kill people,” he says and slams the door in my face.

The police have traced Tanki’s calls to Raqqa.

For Tanki, reaching Raqqa must have been a sort of homecoming. A friend recalls a conversation they had in mid-2013. The call to prayer had just sounded as the three boys made their way from Tanki’s house. They passed the mosque opposite the port and talked in hushed voices. There are 13 mosques in Doodh Naka so the call to prayer drowned out their voice.

“Is the Islamic Army making headway?” Tanki asked?

Majeeb nodded and showed the boys a picture of the clock tower in Raqqa.

In the picture, the clock tower has the black-and-white IS flag on display. Raqqa fell into the hands of the rebels, as they were then known, after a four-day-long battle. Other Islamist factions competed for the place but within a year, IS prevailed. It evicted other groups and established for itself a base, a capital for the Islamic State. The IS then began imposing its puritanical ideology upon the city, bringing about its rapid transformation from a little known moderate town to a de facto capital lost in time.

The clock tower—with statues of a man, woman and child holding a torch—was vandalised. The heads of the statues were broken off. This was indication of what was to come. The clock tower square is the site of some of IS’s most brutal crimes. They have placed decapitated heads on spikes here. The images have been broadcast through social media sites as IS carries out a powerful propaganda campaign online with the aim of radicalisation and recruitment.

This extremely puritanical interpretation of Islam must have struck a chord with Majeed who laid out a “methodology” for good behaviour in his letter. It read:

“Say no to:
1. Shirk (such as visiting babas)
2. Politics (democracy is shirk), voting (haram)
3. Backbiting
4. Shaving beards
5. Leaving pants down (wearing pants below the waist and letting pants touch the ground)
6. Illicit sexual intercourse (avoid incest)
7. Leaving salah (praying)
8. Gambling
9. Cigarettes, hookah smoking
10. Fashion
11. Shaving off and many things.”

“The vision of the flag made Tanki go wild,” his friend recalls. He was determined that the flag of IS be hoisted atop Kalyan’s clock tower.

Kalyan sits two hours away from Mumbai. Mumbai’s consumerism and malls have come here, looking for new untapped business. Stores sell the latest fashions; a shiny shopping mall abuts a Domino’s outlet. A giant poster with a scantily-clad woman announces the arrival of Zumba Fitness Master Class for the “First Time in Kalyan.”

In the centre of all this activity stands an orange and yellow clock tower. Around it are Internet cafes and pani-puri salesmen. To the east lies Doodh Naka. Entering it is like crossing an invisible boundary that demarcates the Muslim section from the rest of the town. A proud auto driver says that the mohalla is “100 per cent Muslim”.

The wide lanes of Kalyan give way to unpaved roads in Doodh Naka. Narrow lanes advertise tours for Haj and Umrah. Hindi is replaced by Urdu on the sore façades, and neighbouring buildings are unpainted and crumbling. It’s a ghetto of both space and mind.

There are mostly men on the streets and the few women out are covered head to toe. Many wear black gloves to conceal themselves completely. Girls as young as seven wear the headscarf.

A heavy-set man opposite Tanki’s house blames this segregation for Tanki’s radicalisation. “Many here never felt totally integrated with the rest of the society, we are the others,” he said. There are 1.5 lakh Muslims in Kalyan East, out of the total registered voting population of 3 lakh. In this two-kilometre area, there are 13 mosques and religion pervades all forms of life. Pious living has become a competition, says Tanki’s neighbour.

In the house next to Tanki’s, a woman comes to the window. I ask her about Tanki.

Did you know him?

“I’m not allowed to speak to anyone,” she says.


“I need permission to come to the window. My husband wouldn’t approve,” she says and rushes back inside.

Two houses down, it’s a similar scene. Women aren’t allowed to come to the windows. Almost all the women I spoke to weren’t allowed to study. They are married early and spend most of their lives inside their homes, seeking permission to be by the window.

Do you go out much, I ask.

“With my mehram sometimes,” she says. A mehram could be the father, husband or son.

How do you pass your time?

“Prayer and Colours TV,” she says.

In his goodbye note, troubled by such behaviour of women who were on the wrong path, Majeed wrote: “To all my sisters and cousins. TV is a professional way to prevail over nudity, lewdness, obscenity, disbelief and shirk. If you all are attached to it for three to four hours a day, you are destroyed.”

Walking westward from Tanki’s house, a cool gust of wind blows in from the dormant port. A boy balances four cups of tea from Sahil Restaurant on a silver tray and gives one to each of the four elders sitting on benches. One of them tells me that the whole mohalla knows about the boys’ participation in jihad, for the mohalla is that sort of place, nothing remains private here.

Another wants to illuminate me. “There is a difference between a terrorist and a mujahid,” he says. “A terrorist destroys his state and a mujahid fights for Islam which is a divine instruction.”

So these boys are on the right path?

“Allah is the judge of right or wrong,” he says. “But here’s the strange thing. I’ve been sitting in this spot everyday for the past 15 years. I see everyone who goes by. We all do. But none of us have ever seen the four boys together. Where were they meeting?” he asks.

The online “handler” hatched the travel plans for the boys, the ATS source says, refusing to divulge details as this is an ongoing investigation. “It was meticulously planned. The timing was impeccable.”

Majeed and Tanki purchased four tour packages, each priced at around Rs. 59,786, to visit the holy sites in Iraq. The source of the funding is not known yet. The tour would take them to Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad along with 38 other pilgrims.

It didn’t matter that most of these were important in the Shia branch of Islam. Nor did it matter that the boys prayed with the Ahle-Hadees sect which disallows visits to shrines.

The tour operator met the four at Mumbai International Airport just after midnight. They looked calm, he recalls. They stayed together during the tour and slept on the ground next to each other in the rest houses around the shrine. On the third day, the boys visited Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala. On the morning of the fourth day, they boarded a taxi bound for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. They didn’t take anything with them, their bags have been scrutinised by the ATS.

“It isn’t a freak case that they landed up in Iraq as the battle was picking up pace. It’s almost as though they got out of the taxi and into the battle,” says the ATS source.

Nine days after they reached Mosul, the battle for the city was underway. From June 6-9, around 800 IS fighters clashed with roughly 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, many of whom threw away their uniforms and fled. The IS freed over 3,000 prisoners, overran key military installations, and took control of Mosul International Airport.

The capture of Mosul was a cause for celebration due to its strategic location at the vital intersection of routes connecting Iraq to Turkey and Syria. Coupled with the gains in Syria, Baghdadi presided over one large, borderless, Islamic state and the international community watched in shock as the IS marched onwards to Mosul Dam. A few foreign fighters who had come to fight with IS set their passports on fire.

Pronouncements were made from IS trolls on the Internet that the next step was Najaf and then Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said they were witnessing one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory. “The majority of Iraqis fleeing Mosul had to escape in a matter of minutes,’ said a spokesperson.

Then America intervened, both to protect the integrity of the Mosul Dam and to prevent the possible genocide of the Yazidi community. U.S. F/A-18s and drones flew over IS strongholds and by the end of August, IS was on the run as the US bombed its headquarters.

It was in this fight that Majeed is suspected to have died.

News of Majeed’s passing first reached Fayyaz Tanki. His brother had called from another untraceable number. He was hysterical and asked his older brother to pass on the message. Though the ATS had given orders to keep the boys on call for as long as possible to trace the call, this conversation was also short.

The day following Majeed’s death, all the mosques in Doodh Naka offered Janaza-e-gayabana (prayers for the departed soul in the absence of the body). Majeed’s father, it is said, cried during the prayer. Nothing could assuage him. “He’s a broken man,” said Majeed’s younger brother.

Two days later, a poster surfaced on the Internet. Posted by Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (AUT, translated as Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India), it changed the legacy of the boy. AUT—an Afghanistan-based jihadi group that encourages Indian men to participate in jihad both in Afghanistan and Syria—posted a picture of Majeed on social media sites. In the poster there are two photos of Majeed: in one he looks like a boy from anywhere in India, looking away from the camera and smiling in a T-shirt with a funky haircut. In another, he is carrying an assault rifle and has his head covered in a keffiyeh, just like IS fighters. His index finger is upright, indicating that there is only one God. IS fighters have increasingly hijacked this notification that all Muslims practice.

The AUT eulogy in Urdu is addressed to “those who are searching for paradise”, and celebrates Majeed’s martyrdom though it refers to him by his nom de guerre, Abu Ali al-Hindi. The flowery tribute reads: “We gave meaning to the ritual of love (for God), though it hurt our hearts and cost us our lives; our sacrifice adds glory to the assembly of martyrs, attained after sacrificing many dreams.”

A source close to the family says it was the poster that brought the family some respite. Overnight, Majeed morphed from terrorist to legend. A Muslim preacher, well-known nationally, reached out to the family and offered to host and pay for Majeed’s sister’s wedding. Majeed became a martyr. His death became a source of pride for his family.

A source in the ATS confirms that forensic analysis of computers seized from the homes of the four men show that they did visit AUT-affiliated sites. AUT has broken its ties with Indian Mujahideen and has pledged allegiance to IS.

According to ATS officials, the investigation has now gone beyond the four boys from Kalyan. A senior ATS officer confirmed that cells have been identified in Mumbai that are recruitment and training grounds for those who want to fight for the Islamic State.

AUT, like many other militant Islamist groups, has pledged its allegiance to IS. Through its media arm—Al Isabah Media—it uploads propaganda videos that highlight the suffering of Muslims at the hands of Hindus. The aim is to overthrow Hindu supremacy with the eventual goal of establishing a Islamic caliphate.

One such video surfaced in mid October and begins with a quote:

“And what is (the matter) with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah and [for] the oppressed among men, women, and children who say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and appoint for us from Yourself a helper?’”—Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:75.

The camera zooms into an iPhone that shows a movie. In the movie, two men ride on a motorbike. Other men join the two and then walk across hilly terrain. They pause to pray with bulletproof vests on. They then gather together in a cluster to perform a dua and pray to Allah in Urdu. Their faces are covered with white balls of light.

“Please help us create a big opposition in India so that the crimes by the Hindus upon us are over. Oh Allah, please help us. India is biggest home for shirk (idol worshipping), send the world’s mujahideen here … Please accept our prayer.”

They then march forward into gunfire and engage with their enemy.

The video had 10,834 views at the time of writing. It had been posted two weeks ago by Ansaralmujahideen. The profile picture of the user is Majeed’s.

IS cheerleaders share this video on Twitter and Facebook. Despite social media sites’ attempts at removing the videos, online jihadis have sought novel mediums of communication. An app has been created that receives messages from the host and displays tweets on other app users’ Twitter accounts. The aim of their propaganda campaign is to radicalise and recruit.

I had met Abu Waleed, a rebel, on the Syrian-Turkish border in the early days of the conflict in 2011. He was a moderate Muslim, driven by secular ideas. Over the course of three years, this rebel metamorphosed into a hardline Islamist. At times, he refused to engage with me because I am a woman.

Majeed espoused something similar in his letter.

“Listen to the call of Fatimah,” he wrote. “The best women are those who don’t see men and who don’t let men see them.”

Abu Waleed and I spoke again because of this story, and I enquired after Abu Ali al-Hindi (Majeed) and the other three boys.
“There are more than three. The operation is much bigger. ISIS has created a state and we need manpower to build this state. We have engineers from China, fighters from Russia, and the South Asians, Indians, will come to build our country. Just like they did in Dubai and Doha.”

(Attempts to reach the family of Fahad Sheikh have failed though a source close to the family has said that Sheikh is working in an oil refinery and is earning a “very good salary”. There is no information on Aman Tandel and his family refused to be interviewed for this story.)

Update: On November 28, Majeed, who was believed to have been killed, returned to India. He has been arrested and the case is now under investigation by the NIA.