“Welcome to prosperous Malnad known for people of sadbhava (good thoughts) and sajjanike (good conduct),” reads a board at an autorickshaw stand in Thirthahalli, a picturesque town in Shivamogga district in Karnataka. Nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats and located on the banks of the river Tunga, Thirthahalli is known for its contributions to literature and the socialist movement. Residents of the town say Hindus and Muslims have always enjoyed an interdependent social life. But over the last few weeks, Thirthahalli has been in the news for the wrong reason — specifically, for being the place from where the majority of a group accused of devising an “Islamic terror module” hail.
On November 19, more than 130 km away from Thirthahalli in the coastal city of Mangaluru, a moving autorickshaw caught fire, causing serious injuries to both the driver and the passenger. The fire began in a pressure cooker, rigged with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that the passenger, Mohammed Shariq, was carrying, said the police. Shariq, 24, the suspect in the case, is a wanted terror accused from Thirthahalli. While the intended target of the IED is not known, the blast was accidentally triggered, perhaps because the explosive material heated up. Earlier this week, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case. Shariq is being treated for burn injuries and is not in a position to speak.
Shariq was earlier arrested in November 2020, along with his friend and classmate Maaz Muneer Ahmed, for scribbling pro-terror graffiti in Mangaluru. While Maaz, 24, who is also from Thirthahalli, got bail in two months, Shariq was released after eight months. This year, the Shivamogga Police again arrested Maaz and his classmate Syed Yasin, who is from Shivamogga. They alleged that the two men had carried out a trial blast of an IED on the banks of the Tunga and burnt the tricolour in September 2022. Shariq, by then, had fled Thirthahalli.
According to the police, Shariq’s “immediate handler”, Arafat Ali, is in Dubai. Ali is also a native of Thirthahalli. Besides Shariq, Maaz, and Ali, two others from Thirthahalli — Abdul Matheen Ahmed Taha and Muzabbir Hussain — accused in the ‘Al Hind Islamic State Bengaluru terror module case’, have been on the run for the past three years. The NIA has declared a reward of ₹3 lakh for information on Taha, who is suspected to be the kingpin of this alleged module.
“All the six men seem to be influenced by the ideology of the Islamic State. They were radicalised via the Internet. We have evidence to show that at least two young men were members of an Islamic State group on Telegram. We have recovered several DIY (do it yourself) videos on making IEDs, videos of a test blast they carried out, and a photo that Shariq took of himself with the IED rigged cooker before leaving for Mangaluru,” said a senior police official overseeing the probe.
The Karnataka Police and the NIA have been conducting intensive searches in Thirthahalli, which is Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra’s Assembly constituency. The police and sections of the media now refer to the accused in the case as “Thirthahalli Boys”, similar to how the “Bhatkal Brothers” once dominated the narrative of Islamist terror.
Families bear the brunt
Those who knew Shariq’s family well in Thirthahalli spoke of his humble background. Shariq lost his mother early. He dropped out of II Pre-University (Class 12) and began helping his father in the cloth shop he had in town. Shariq often visited Mangaluru, where Maaz was studying engineering. “When he was arrested for pro-terror wall writing, his father was devastated. He tried hard to get him out,” said a person known to the family for years.
Shariq’s father died of cancer in July 2022. The last time he left home, in August, Shariq claimed to the family that he was going to Delhi to replenish stocks for the shop. “There was a property dispute. Shariq went missing around the time a deal to sell his father’s house was to be completed. Everyone assumed that he had fled to avert the deal,” said a resident of the neighbourhood. But the next time the neighbourhood heard of him was when the police arrested Maaz and Yasin. The police named Shariq as the brain behind the trial blast on the banks of the Tunga.
The NIA and the Karnataka Police said Shariq was hiding in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He later returned to Karnataka and rented a room on the outskirts of Mysuru with a false identity for nearly two months before turning up with the IED on November 19, they said. His stepmother and sister, who identified him in the hospital, reportedly told the police that they had advised him to desist from criminal activities, but he paid no heed.
Like them, family members of the other accused spoke of the brunt they have had to bear. Maaz’s father, Muneer Ahmed, a fish merchant, died of a heart attack on September 23, four days after his son was arrested. He had moved his family to Mangaluru from Thirthahalli to be with his son. Maaz’s mother and sister said they still hope that he will be released with no charges against him one day.
Arafat Ali’s father, Ahmed Bava, did not find enough driving assignments during the pandemic. That is when his son, who had completed a diploma in electronics at the Sahyadri Polytechnic College in Thirthahalli, left for Dubai looking for a job. The allegation against Ali is that he funded Shariq to carry out acts of terror. However, his father has a different story to tell. “I had borrowed a loan from a bank. I avoided receiving money directly in my account, as the bank could credit the amount towards the pending loan. My son had not opened an account in Dubai. With the help of a friend there, he sent money to Shariq’s account. And Shariq handed me the money a couple of times,” he said.
According to the police, the roots of this alleged module in Thirthahalli lie in the Al Hind terror module that was busted in January 2020. Charge sheets filed by the NIA allege that Mehboob Pasha, who ran the Al Hind Trust in Bengaluru, joined hands with Khaja Moideen, who is from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu and who served a jail term for the murder of Hindutva leaders, to form a module that aimed to “establish an IS (Islamic State) province in the jungles of South India.” The charge sheet alleges that the module was “in the advanced stages” of attempts to establish camps in the forests of Karnataka near Shivanasamudra.
While the NIA arrested 12 suspects in the case, Taha, wanted in the case, has been untraceable since January 2020. A senior official from the Karnataka Police, who probed the Al Hind module, claimed that Taha was radicalised, was high up in the hierarchy of the module, and was a catalyst in bringing together Pasha and Moideen. The NIA said he was “also associated with his online foreign handler.”
Taha studied up to II Pre-University in Thirthahalli before moving to Bengaluru for a BE course in a private college in 2014. He skipped the course after two years and joined a course on networking, besides taking up work in a private telecom company, according to his family members. His father, Manzoor Ahmed, 58, served in the Army for 26 years, including at the Siachen glacier. “I am aghast when the media refers to me as the father of a terror suspect. Throughout my life I have fought against terrorists and served this country,” said the former serviceman.
Ahmed suffered a heart attack when he got to know that his son Taha was accused of terror acts in 2020. The last time Taha spoke to his parents was in January that year. His phone was switched off and his mother had contacted him on his friend’s phone. “He told us to take care of our health, assuring us that he will come back. Those were the last words we heard,” Ahmed said.
Speaking to the media, Alok Kumar, Additional Director General of Police, Karnataka, described Arafat Ali as Mohammed Shariq’s “immediate handler” and Ahmed Taha as “one level above him.” Police suspect that after the Al Hind module was busted, Taha tapped into a network of radicalised youth from Thirthahalli in an attempt to put together a module of his own.
Claim of responsibility
Days after the autorickshaw blast, security agencies spotted a purported claim of responsibility for the blast by a hitherto unknown group, the Islamic Resistance Council, on a Telegram group. The group claimed that Shariq’s attempt was to attack a temple in Kadri, “a bastion of the Saffron terrorists in Mangalore.” The outfit offered a justification for the move, which read: “We are only retaliating because mob lynching has become a norm, because oppressive laws and legislations are passed to suppress us and interfere in our religion, because our innocents are languishing in prisons, because public spaces today reverberate with calls of our genocide and because as Muslims we have been commanded to wage Jihad when faced with mischief and oppression.”
A senior intelligence officer said the credibility of this claim is yet to be established. “But the rhetoric in the claim is consistent with the pro-terror graffiti that Shariq and his two associates were accused of writing in Mangaluru. The interrogation of members of the Al Hind module also revealed the same rhetoric,” he said. The Mangaluru graffiti read, “Don’t force us to invite Lashkar-e-Taiba and Taliban to deal with Sanghis and Manuvadis. #LashkarZindabad.”
The officer said that even if it is true that Taha is attempting to float a new outfit, the wherewithal of the module is “seriously limited,” as was evident from the rudimentary IED in the autorickshaw. “It is possible that the intended target was the Kadri temple, but there is no confirmation yet. During the recent campaign by Hindutva groups against the minority community in the State, there were calls to ban Muslim traders from temple fairs and the premises around temples,” said the officer.
Karnataka has seen several communal flash points and targeting of the Muslim community after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Beginning with two persons being killed in police firing at the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in Mangaluru, this targeting intensified with efforts to ban the hijab in educational institutions, an unofficial ban on Muslim traders at annual temple fairs, and calls for a ban on azaan, halal meat and even a complete economic boycott of the community. Two Hindutva activists were killed in Shivamogga and Dakshina Kannada, allegedly in at least one case by members of Popular Front of India, which eventually got proscribed. At least two Muslims were also killed in this cycle of violence.
A senior intelligence official said the nature of the security threat has changed, making monitoring a big challenge. “There are many closed groups on Telegram and several other encrypted messaging platforms where those associated with the Islamic State, or even those across the border with an Islamic State front, push propaganda material and DIY videos of bombs and explosives. The handlers of the groups do not give explosives, logistics or funds. Radicalised youth end up carrying out amateur acts like the one in Mangaluru. Even the Al Hind module, though it had a larger aim and was a bigger network with better resources, was essentially operating with a similar modus operandi,” said the officer.
A challenge for the community
That is a challenge even the community seems to be facing in Thirthahalli. “Never before had our boys in Thirthahalli been involved in any terror activities,” said Abdul Wahab Nadvi, a Moulana in the town. “All these boys were good and well-behaved when they were in the town. We don’t know where they were misled.” Religious leaders in the town masjids repeatedly promoted brotherhood and education, he said. “The recent developments have prompted religious leaders to work out plans to keep track of students when they go out of town.”
Hindu and Muslim community leaders are “sensible and respect each other,” a local police officer said. “The town has witnessed no incident of communal violence in the recent past. The death of a minor girl in suspicious circumstances in 2014 had led to tension for a few days. But it did not lead to clashes. When other parts of Shivamogga saw protests over the ban on the PFI or other issues, Thirthahalli stayed calm,” he said.
The way the recent incidents are being portrayed in sections of the media has upset the community. “A boy from Thirthahalli studying in a top college in a big city called up his parents to express his grief over the way his friends started treating him after the recent incident. When Shariq was absconding, we prayed for his arrest, so that at least to that extent, blame on the community is reduced,” a community leader said.
Taha’s father said in anguish, “Relatives and other members in the town try to avoid us. I feel I have lost the respect I earned being an ex-serviceman. If my son is left with any love for his parents, younger brother and sister, he should surrender before the police and face the court. That is my only wish.”