New Delhi: Baghdad suspects 20 Indian citizens are fighting on the side of ISIS, of which only four have been identified, Iraq’s ambassador to India, Ahmed Berwari, said. Berwari acknowledged that it would be difficult to stem the flow completely unless there was prior information about suspected individuals.
“Officially, there are four Indian citizens, one already dead, who joined the ISIS in Iraq. But according to reports of our agencies, there may be around 20. But their identities are not clear,” Berwari told The Sunday Standard in an interview.
While four Indian citizens from Maharashtra have been identified after their families went to the police, the identities of the rest are based on ground-reporting by Iraqi security agencies.
“Our agencies got information about Indians fighting with ISIS from secondary sources, tracing many from their nicknames,” he said, referring to the nom de guerre adopted by ISIS fighters which is related to their place of origin.
At the same time, he admitted that sources for the Iraqi security agencies themselves were not very reliable in distinguishing various nationalities in South Asia to positively identify if they were from India, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
So, another identifier was found to track their origin. Since most of the foreign fighters with ISIS do not know Arabic, they use rudimentary English to communicate within their flanks. “It is easy to know if it is Indian English from their accent,” he said.
This information has been passed onto the Indian government, with agencies here trying to trace them based on very sketchy information.
Meanwhile, Berwari tacitly acknowledged that it would be extremely difficult to plug movement of Indian nationals to Iraq to fight with ISIS, unless there was prior information.
Every year, Iraq sends 30-40,000 pilgrims to the Shia holy cities from India. “Our government has identified travel agencies in India… our embassy only gets list of names, name of agencies and dates of permission given by interior ministry. We cannot interfere with the process,” said Berwari.
If Indian agencies forwarded names of individuals who could travel to Iraq to join the ISIS, the Iraqi ministry of interior could withhold permission. But this is not an ideal situation, since most of the recruits who have travelled so far, had no prior police record.
On the other hand, the fatwa issued by top Iraqi Shia leader Grand Ayotallah Sistani for call to arms had activated certain Indian Muslim groups who staged public spectacles of people volunteering to go to Iraq to fight against ISIS.
“We receive requests to issue visa for 1,000 volunteers, many of them teachers and doctors. We have not issued visa. We don’t want to be responsible… so we asked them to send a delegation of 5-6 people to visit the holy places in Iraq to convey the solidarity of Indian Muslims,” said the ambassador.
The lightening speed of the ISIS advance from early June took everybody by surprise and posed the first important foreign policy crisis for the new government with Indians stranded in the territory conquered by the Islamists.
“It was difficult to deal with the situation, especially as foreigners were stuck in areas out of the control of the government,” Berwari, who said he had to exercise restraint while talking to the media to avoid provoking the net-savvy ISIS from monitering statements. There were about 200 Indians trapped in the conflict zone, which included two big groups of the 46 nurses in Tikrit and 41 construction workers—still in captivity in Mosul.
The nurses were eventually freed, but it was touch and go. “We believe the fighters who controlled the hospital were not from the ISIS. They were from the city and knew the nurses had no political leanings and came from a country not involved in the crisis,” he said, indicating that former Baathist elements, allied to ISIS were the captors of the Kerala nurses.
The period when the nurses were forced to abandon the hospital and board a bus, and their stay in Mosul, was an extremely tense time, with communication also being patchy.
“In Mosul, we knew that the ISIS faced shortage of professionals in every department to run the city... so we did consider it strange that the nurses were allowed to leave,” he said.