New Delhi: Once known in intelligence cirlces as the breeding ground of the homegrown Indian Mujahideen (IM) terror outfit, Karnataka's small coastal town of Bhatkal, a tourist destination with a lot of history, is unfortunately now being seen in the security establishment to be emerging as a possible incubator of the Islamic State's Indian terror module after a string of arrests from the town and nearby areas in the southern state.
Shafi Armar, who, intelligence agencies say is the main recruiter of Indian men lured to the IS ideology -- some of whom have even gone to fight alongside the Islamist terror militia in Syria -- also belongs to Bhatkal where he was born and lived with his two brothers, before leaving India in 2009.
Knowledgeable sources said Armar started as a member of the IM before fleeing from India to Pakistan with other top operatives of the outfit, Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal. Armar's elder brother Sultan, now dead, had also left India with him.
Armar, the sources further said, later went for training in Syria and is now believed to be a key member of Ansar-ul-Tawhid, a recruiting wing which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
He then formed an IS India module called Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind whose 14 members were arrested in a nationwide raid conducted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) last week. Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind has reportedly been active since April 2015, the sources said.
After Armar, intelligence sources said, some more IS sympathizers named Suhail Ahmed, Damudi, Mohammed Afzal, Najmul Huda and Muhammad Abdul Ahad - all in NIA custody - have their links with Bhatkal, which is otherwise famous as a tourist destination.
"All the arrested suspected terrorists having links with Bhatkal are being quizzed to ascertain their role in the module. Interrogators are also trying to find out the exact number of people recruited from the town," the sources said.
The sources privy to the investigation, however, said that the arrested IS suspects were not only asked to target Bhatkal to recruit members but to seek sympathisers across India for which they had organised several meetings in Lucknow, Mumbai, Mangalore, Tumkur (in Karnataka), Haridwar and Hyderabad.
Another official, close to the investigation, said that the main India-module recruiter of IS has been targeting his former IM aides who belong to Bhatkal and nearby towns in Karnataka.
Asked if Bhatkal town has become a "breeding ground" for ISIS's recruiters, Additional DGP (Internal Security) Karnataka Sunil Kumar said: "It's a matter of investigation."
"We are in constant touch with the NIA. Several people were recently arrested from Mangalore, Tumkur and Bangalore, but their role to recruit new IS members from Bhatkal or other states is a matter of inquiry and it cannot be shared," Sunil Kumar stated.