New Delhi: India has faced an increasing threat of terrorism for a long time, with the state of Jammu & Kashmir being the flashpoint of Islamist terrorism and radicalisation for over three decades. Irrespective of the gradual pan-India spread of terrorism and radicalisation trends over the years, not much thought has been given to exploring the underlying dynamics and root cause of its emergence. The security agencies have worked on terrorist organisations, but we have not focused much on the role of Islamist organisations in the proliferation of extremist and radicalisation environment in India.
Over the last several decades, many Wahhabi organisations developed, flourished and survived in India. Most escaped the reach of our agencies and the strategic community, either because of lack of sufficient knowledge or lack of adequate political will to tackle them. The most prominent feature of such organisations is the legal umbrella under which they operate. They often work under the garb of rights ad charity groups, NGOs and religious institutions. However, internally they work to radicalise the demography selected by them, which is across faiths. This leads to polari sation, fuels hatred and causes germination of fundamentalist terrorist ideologies. A sophisticated network of organisations managed to thrive despite the heavy machinery of the Indian state.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF SO-CALLED CHARITIES
The role of external support to such organisations is the most potent driving factor in the spread of radical ideologies in India. For instance, the import of Saudi endorsed hard-line Wahhabi ideology in the 1980s sprouted the seed of extremism in the Kashmir Valley. In the most recent example, the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based organisation, came across a massive cache of documents associated with Qatar-based Sheikh Eid Bin Mohammad Al Thani Charitable Association, also referred to as Eid Charity. It is claimed that Eid Charity, perhaps out of ignorance of the nature of the donees, funnelled millions of dollars since 2008-09 into India, funding organisations associated with the Wahhabi school of thought that is in fact antithetical to Islam. Eid Charity came under global scrutiny in 2013 when one of its founders, Abd Al-Rahman al-Nu’aymi, was named as Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGTs) by the US Department of Treasury. He was sanctioned for providing financial and material support to Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia. The association also works with other charity groups in Qatar, such as Qatar Charity and Foundation Sheikh Thani Ibn Abdullah for Humanitarian Services (RAF). Donations made by these are under investigation in the US and elsewhere. Qatar needs to avoid falling into the FATF “Grey List” in the manner that its close allies Pakistan and Turkey have.
Investigation of documents revealed over 1,200 transactions made to India either directly under the name of Eid Charity or through individualistic contributions. A total of QR 28.492855 million (USD 7.82 million approx.) were transferred to eight organisations in India. The money was distributed for projects ranging from direct financial support within the Muslim community to other religious and community action programs such as building/supporting mosques and building handpumps.
The Kerala-based Salafi Philanthropic Society, registered as Salafi Charitable Trust Narikkuni, received the largest cache of funds, involving around USD 4.9 million between 2008-17. This charity group is run by another Qatar-based charity group mentioned earlier, RAF. The RAF is run by a royal family member of Qatar and was black-listed for terror financing by Arab nations in 2017. The Foundation has serious charges levied against it, including funding Al Qaeda affiliated groups Al Nusra in Syria and arming Muslim-Brotherhood-backed fighters in Sudan. It denies such charges.
A large part of the money received by Salafi Charitable Trust was meant to be directed towards individual financial assistance within the poor Muslim population. Money was also given for projects such as countrywide distribution/promotions of Hijab. Dr Hussain Madavoor runs the trust as its chairman. He is one of Kerala’s most prominent religious figures and vice president of one of Kerala’s largest faith-based organisations, Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), which has tried to project itself as a progressive group over the years.
In a video message posted on Facebook in 2018, Dr Madavoor supported Peace Education Foundation and its founder and managing director, M.M. Akbar. Peace Education Foundation has been on the radar of security agencies since 2016 when it came to public notice that several ISIS recruits from Kerala had an association with the foundation. Akbar is known for his controversial speeches and is often called “Zakir Naik of Kerala”, another Islamic preacher absconding from India on terrorism and money laundering charges. Akbar was arrested in 2017 while trying to fly to Qatar on the charges of radicalising school children through alleged radical content in Peace-funded schools.
In an audio message released by ISIS-KP, Abdul Rashid Abdullah, the mastermind behind the ISIS module in Kerala and former employee at Peace Foundation, claimed that there are ISIS supporters among the teachers and parents of Peace schools. He also alleged that during a public interview, the group tried to conceal the identity of at least two former employees of Peace Foundation who travelled to Afghanistan to join ISIS-KP.
During our investigation, it was found that Eid Charity funded an organisation named Peace Education Centre. It is hard to ascertain the identity of this organisation, which almost received all the funds in the name of financial support to an orphanage. However, the only possible link could be with the Peace Education Foundation mentioned above, which runs several educational and charitable institutions for orphans. If Peace Education Foundation received money from Eid Charity, it would be the most direct evidence of Eid Charity funding organisations in India that are alleged to be involved in radicalisation activities.
Eid Charity’s second-largest reserve of funds to India is transferred in the name of Symposium Educational Charitable Society. This organisation received around USD 2.01 million, yet our investigation disclosed no traces of any organisation with such a name in the public domain. Following the transactions, it came into notice that the money was transferred for projects mainly in the Siddharthnagar district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. A large sum of this money was given to Al-Farooq Group based in the Itwa area of the district. This group is directly funded by Eid Charity and is known for its dismissive stand against Sufi Islam, which is widely practised in India. The Itwa area also harbours other organisations with foreign backing, propagating fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretations that are intolerant towards non-Wahhabi Muslim sects.
Another organisation named Al Safa Educational, Industrial and Islamic Charitable Society received funds from Eid Charity. Another controversial preacher runs it from Kerala, Maulana Sheikh Meraj Rabbani, who was also arrested in 2010 over hate speech against other Muslim sects, including Barelvis and Sufis. Rabbani was also amongst several radical preachers in Kerala whose speeches allegedly aided the radicalisation of ISIS recruits. Rabbani is also involved in a high-profile Heera Gold fraud case, where he is alleged to have urged people to invest in a Ponzi scheme.
Most interestingly, a large amount of Eid Charity money is transferred to Al Safa in the name of supporting the operation of the Salafi Charitable Trust mentioned above. It shows that money from Qatar is circulated within these Salafist organisations. Many groups may only exist to work as proxy organisations to escape the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies and tax regulatory bodies. This could also be true since other recipients in the Eid Charity list, such as Al-Habib Educational and Charitable Foundation and Relevance Charitable Foundation, are publicly ghost, and our investigation couldn’t find any traces of their existence. These groups may be shell organisations, the most common practice amongst institutions funding global extremism and radicalisation.
SOWING THE DANGEROUS SEEDS OF EXTREMISM
The whole investigation shows that this funding mechanism has evolved and acquired a sophisticated form over the last several years. The non-uniformity of transactional patterns makes it almost impossible to ascertain the actual purpose for these funds. The money comes under small heads for small-scale undertakings, which are extremely hard to trace and makes it almost impossible to link this money with any nefarious anti-national activity. Most of these organisations have almost no online and popular media presence. Our investigation also couldn’t find any public records of using these funds or any social media promotion of any of the projects, a standard practice of other mainstream charity groups.
Another major cause of concern is the financial support for certain organisations in Kerala. Over the past years, this southern state of India has become the hub of radicalisation and recruitment ground for several transnational extremist groups. Some organisations in Kerala have constantly been accused of supporting violent extremism, and several ISIS recruits from the state have been associated and radicalised through them. Banned Kerala-based Islamist terror groups such as the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and groups like Popular Front of India (PFI) have used hardcore teachings to radicalise youth and recruitment. The fact that raises alarm is that these transactions also match the period when radicalisation and extremist trends in Kerala acquired a steeper trajectory. India has a rich history of progressive Islamic practices for centuries, and an external targeted design promoting extremism could disrupt the social fabric and become problematic for India’s national integrity. The recent decision by Government of India to tighten the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) is a welcome step in this direction. However, much more comprehensive tracking of suspect organisations is needed at the grass-roots level. Indian security and strategic community need to build a holistic approach to eradicate such networks, including through extensive involvement of civil society. Authorities in Qatar need to be made aware that without their knowledge or involvement, the kingdom may follow Turkey and Pakistan on the FATF grey list, given the extensive international investigation into the doings of several of its citizens.
Abhinav Pandya is the founder and CEO of Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitics and security think-tank. He has authored “Radicalisation in India: An Exploration” (2019, Pentagon). He writes for Haaretz, The National Interest, Usanas Foundation.
Akshay Kumar is Head of Research and Program Operations at Usanas Foundation. His interest areas include geopolitics, strategic and security affairs and foreign policy issues.