From Kerala to Kabul prison: widow of Indian ISIS fighter tells her tale

Mariyam, formerly Merrin Jacob Pallath, is one of a group of young people who left south India for Afghanistan in 2016

A member of the Afghan security forces watches next to family members of ISIS militants who surrendered to the Afghan government in Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Parwiz
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Sitting in a dimly lit cell, Mariyam described her journey from growing up as a Catholic in the south Indian state of Kerala to languishing in an Afghan prison as a member of the ISIS affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan Province.

Mariyam and seven other Indian women who took the same path are being held by Afghanistan’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, in the far corner of a prison in Kabul. They were arrested after Afghan forces retook the eastern province of Nangarhar from ISIS in November 2019.

Nangarhar was where ISIS first gained a foothold in Afghanistan in 2015, establishing the reign of terror that it had become known for in Iraq and Syria. Since then the group has carried out scores of attacks on civilian and government targets while also fighting rival militants from the Afghan Taliban. Hundreds of people have died in its suicide bombings, mainly in Jalalabad, the provincial capital, and in Kabul.

“We came here because we wanted to live in a place with Sharia, and nothing else. We were happy here,” said Mariyam, speaking calmly in fluent English while nursing her baby.

A screen grab of the 'most wanted' listing for Maryam, formerly Merin Jacob, on the website of India's National Investigation Agency.

She is among the first known ISIS recruits from India, a country that has experienced an increase in religious polarisation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014.

Her departure for Afghanistan in 2016, along with a group of about 20 other young people from Kerala’s Ernakulam district, caused a national furore.

Nothing was heard of them until after their arrest, and Mariyam's interview with The National is the first time she has spoken to the press since then.

Born Merrin Jacob Pallath, Mariyam changed her name after converting to Islam to marry a childhood sweetheart, also a convert. Now 26, she has been widowed twice since coming to Afghanistan and has two children: a 10-month-old baby and another child, aged 3.

Asked why she chose to join a group with a history of extreme violence, she said: “I had some idea of the brutality, but that is not what was highlighted to us.”

A still taken from a video released by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan shows Hafiz Saeed, first leader of  the ISIS affiliate Islamic State - Khorasan Province, at an undisclosed location at the Pakistani-Afghan border. EPA

Her path to ISIS began when, as a 22-year-old working for IBM in Mumbai, she reconnected with Bestin Vincent, an old flame from high school who had recently converted to Islam and changed his name to Yahiya.

Yahiya and his brother Bexin, who also converted and changed his name to Esa, are believed to have been radicalised by Arshi Qureshi, a manager at the Islamic Research Foundation in Mumbai, according to India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA).

The organisation was founded by Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher now living in self-exile in Malaysia, and was banned in 2016 over concerns about “radicalisation of youths”.

Mariyam’s mother Mini Jacob believes her daughter and the others who went to Afghanistan were “brainwashed” into joining the group.

"They were misled with the promise of paradise for Muslims," Mrs Jacob told The National at her home in Ernakulam.

“Bestin visited her in Bombay and gave her a Quran. He told her she should be reading this and unlearn whatever she has been taught and to follow Islam,” she said, choking back tears.

“Merrin was always a very loving and religious child. We would go to church together. We did everything together.”

Looking frail and exhausted, Mrs Jacob was comforted as she spoke by Bindu Sampath, whose daughter Nimisha is also imprisoned in Kabul. The mothers have developed a strong bond in their struggle to bring their children back to India.

I used to be known as the mother of an Indian major; now I'm known as the mother of an ISIS terrorist

A few months after meeting Yahiya, Mariyam quit her job, moved back to Ernakulam, embraced Islam and married him. Around the same time, Nimisha converted to Islam, changed her name to Fatima and married Esa.

Mrs Jacob and Mrs Sampath said they saw very little of their daughters after that.

“Nimisha came to our house on April 16 [2016] and told us they were going to Sri Lanka to pursue a carpet business with the money Bexin's father gave them,” said Mrs Sampath, recalling her last meeting with her daughter. “She was dressed in a burqa and was seven months pregnant.”

She suspected something was wrong when she stopped receiving messages from Nimisha after two weeks. “On May 8, I tried to report to the police that my daughter may be in danger but they dismissed my concern,” she said.

She then went to see Yahiya and Esa’s parents. They told her their children were in Afghanistan – they had been receiving text messages from their sons.

That same evening, the parents were shocked to see their children’s faces on the news among 21 members of a group labelled as ISIS terrorists. “I knew that day, I had to put away my emotions and start the struggle to bring my daughter back,” Mrs Sampath said.

“My other child is in the army and I used to be known as the mother of an Indian major; now I’m known as the mother of an ISIS terrorist. You can imagine how I must feel.”

A photo of Nimisha Sampath before she married and joined ISIS in Afghanistan with her husband. Courtesy Bindu Sampath

Mariyam said the ISIS recruits took different routes from India to Afghanistan. She and her husband went to Iran and acquired Afghan visas before flying to Kabul. They then went to Nangarhar, where they joined an ISIS settlement in the Wazir district.

Early in the interview, she insisted that the group was not involved in battles. “We were told there were lots of killings and bombings here, but to be honest we did not witness that. We lived in an area where all that was not happening. I led a very peaceful life. My husband provided me with everything I needed,” she said.

However, as the conversation progressed, Mariyam slowly opened up about the harsh realities of life under ISIS.

She admitted that Yahiya and the other men of the group were involved in fighting Afghan forces. Afghan security officials said the fighters were paid an undisclosed salary and additional living expenses.

Within weeks of arriving their area came under fire from Afghan forces. “We had to leave behind everything and escape. We lost all our documents including my Indian passport,” Mariyam said.

Her next loss came a year later. Yahiya was killed in battle with Afghan forces.

But she was soon remarried to another member of the group, a step she said she took reluctantly. “It is difficult for a woman to be independent here, or live without a man,” Mariyam said. “The system is not like India or elsewhere, not even like Kabul.”

Her second husband, Abdul Rashid, was already married to Ayesha, formerly known as Sonia Sebastian, another Indian recruit who is in prison with Mariyam.

Rashid had played a key role in the radicalisation and recruitment of the group, according to a charge-sheet filed by the NIA.

“Rashid used to take classes for the group of missing youth… in Kasargod… on jihad as well as ISIS ideologies… videos propagating ISIS ideology and violence were shown to members,” it said, adding that Rashid had used the dark net to communicate with ISIS members in Syria, where he hoped to go.

He was killed in an attack in Nangarhar in October last year, after which the remaining members of the group surrendered.

Mariyam said the women, who have 15 children with them, just wanted “to go back home” despite facing charges which could lead to life terms, including supporting a terrorist organisation, criminal conspiracy and “waging war against Asiatic powers in alliance with the government of India”.

“It is a big concern that the children will be separated from us [in India]. But we prefer to go back because we don’t have anyone here. We came with our families but we don’t have them anymore. There is no point staying here.”

The Afghan authorities appear unwilling to devote resources to prosecuting foreign ISIS prisoners, who numbered about 1,400 in January. Instead they have been co-operating with various governments, including India, to send the detainees back to their home countries.

Mariyam said they had been visited by Indian officials in January, but had heard nothing further. Officials at the embassy and NIA did not respond to requests for comment from The National.

The NIA’s most-wanted list on its website still shows her as “absconding”.

As they wait to hear their fate, the women often ponder the decisions they made that brought them there, Mariyam said.

“There have been regrets here and there," she said, comforting the baby in her arms.

"But right now I am blank, I don’t know what my future will be."