Security experts are not taking any chances, especially after the police busted a module affiliated to outlawed Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in Barpeta recently
Will Pakistan look to avenge Kashmir through the millions of the stateless Muslims that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is going to throw up after the publication of the final list on August 31?
Pose this question to anybody who is somebody in Assam's security dispensation, he or she will invariably say 'yes'. In the next breath, he or she will also say, "They will try but will not be successful.”
However, hardcore security experts are not taking any chances; especially after the police arrested several cadres of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in Barpeta and Chirang districts and busted a module affiliated to the outlawed terrorist organisation.
In a series of operations lasting for a week, the police arrested seven functionaries of JMB in two separate raids following receipt of intelligence about their presence in the region. While Mustafizur Rahman(25), Safikul Islam(29) and Danesh Ali were arrested from Barpeta on August 5, Hafizur Rahman, Yakub Ali, Sharfiul Islam and Hanif Ali were later apprehended from the neighbouring Chirang district.
“All of them were associated with Shahnur Alam, who was a key figure of the module responsible for the blast at Burdwan in Bengal in 2014. They had gone underground for a long time moving from place to place until they landed in the district some time ago. They were functioning as sleeper cells," Barpeta SP Robin Kumar had said,
The just-retired head of the Special Branch of Assam Police Palllab Bhattacharrya, also agree that radical elements would grow from the pool of the Muslim people that would be made stateless in NRC and Pakistan would certainly like to take advantage of it.
"There must be a separate bloc of the Assam police which has to be set up and go after these elements without much noise and media focus. It is a serious situation, but we must not panic and work with complete determination," he said.
A similar sentiment is echoed by security analyst Jaideep Saikia. "Although the ISI is currently overrun by the events surrounding Jammu & Kashmir and would consequently remain busy with what it considers to be its number one preoccupation, it would have certainly activated its Dhaka desk and drawn out an anti-India plan. One must recall how it wants to 'bleed India with a thousand cuts', and to that end, it will not let even a remote opportunity to achieve that objective go by. The post-NRC scenario might provide such an opportunity," said Saikia.
The Barpeta police, meanwhile, are convinced that JMB was operating in the district. They are in the lookout for the sleeper cells of JMB who have gone cold and waiting for post-August 31 when more than 2 lakh people are expected to be stateless in Barpeta district alone.
What is JMB?
Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen is an Islamic terrorist organisation operating in Bangladesh and India. It is also listed as a terror group by the UK. It was founded in April 1998 in Palampur in Dhaka division by Abdur Rahman and gained public prominence in 2001 when bombs and documents detailing the activities of the organisation were discovered in Parbatipur in Dinajpur district of Bangladesh.
The organisation was officially declared a terrorist organisation and banned by the government of Bangladesh in February 2005 after attacks on NGOs. But it struck back in mid-August when it detonated 500 small bombs at 300 locations throughout Bangladesh. The group re-organised and committed several public murders in 2016 in northern Bangladesh as part of a wave of attacks on secularists.
The JMB was believed to have contained at least 10,000 members and have an extensive network of organisations, including connections to legal Islamist organisations.
In two separate incidents in 2015, it was discovered that JMB had been receiving financing from officers at the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka. Visa attache Mazhar Khan was caught red-handed at a meeting with a JMB operative in April 2015, who said that they were involved in pushing large consignments of fake Indian currency notes into West Bengal and Assam.
Second secretary of Pakistan, Farina Arshad, was expelled by Bangladesh in December 2015 after a JMB operative admitted to having received 30,000 takas from her.
The Pakistan connection
Sabir Ahmed of Dhaka Times wrote that Mohammad Mazhar Khan, attache at the consular section of Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka, was detained on January 12, 2015 for allegedly running an operation to smuggle fake Indian currency notes (FICN) across the border.
The objective was to undermine India’s financial system and fund terrorist groups. Samina Mahtab, first secretary in Pak High Commission in Dhaka, rushed to the Banani police station to take away Mazhar Khan and arrange for his deportation.
An ISI operative, Mazhar Khan was in the midst of a secret meeting at Banani at the time of his detention with his accomplice Mujibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi national who has been arrested. The Pakistani diplomat tore down some documents at the time of detention. From the pieces of papers, the police found some Bangladeshi passport numbers and names of three persons actively involved with the militant Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Mujibur Rahman, who was arrested by the police, revealed that he was introduced to the Pakistani diplomat through the latter's predecessor. He further disclosed that he and another Bangladeshi national, Jalal Akhter, took part in collection and distribution of FICN supplied by the Pakistani diplomat and pushing the same through West Bengal and Assam border into India. He also disclosed details of the Pakistani diplomat’s involvement in various anti-India subversive activities. Over the last two years of his posting in Dhaka, Mazhar Khan was busy implementing ISI’s various anti-India agenda.
According to Bangladesh intelligence reports, Mazhar Khan had close ties with some former military and police officers, some teachers of Dhaka University, businessmen, officials of Pak International Airlines and a section of Bangladeshi nationals living near India-Bangladesh borders. Bangladeshi nationals having links with Mazhar Khan were associated with various militant organisations in the country.
The detective branch has information that JMB is associated with smuggling of fake Indian currency notes for a long time in India. The group was responsible for the blast at Bodh Gaya last year besides the incident at Burdwan five years ago.
That blast opened the Assam connection when a name, Shahnur Alam, came up. Later, it was found out that the group was engaged in “radicalisation and recruitment of youths” for terrorist activities in the country with a focus on the border region.
The curious case of Shahnur Alam
Shahnur Alam first came into the radar in 2013 when in Sotloa, a village near Doulasal, he tried to lead the Eid namaz in a different fashion. This led to a clash between two groups, and it reached police. The police settled the matter without realising that was the first seed of radicalisation in search of “true Islam”.
Shahnur and his group wanted to carry on the Eid namaz through the Wahabi way -- something the other Muslims did not want and instead opted for the traditional Sunni style.
The Wahabi movement was a revivalist movement which tried to purify Islam by eliminating all the un-Islamic practices which had crept into Muslim society through the ages.
"Had the police known that the Wahabi style of prayer is the first indication of radicalisation, Shahnur and his gang could have been neutralised way back in 2013 when Shahnur was also in the Daulasal police station. But the police had no clue about the Wahabi movement.
Shahnur after that slipped into the movement completely, spread its message in Barpeta district and quietly joined the bigger network till the Burdwan blast accidentally took place.
Initially assumed to be a gas cylinder blast or explosion of crude bombs, investigations revealed that the two people who were killed were using fairly sophisticated improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
Interrogation of two women arrested from the blast site revealed that a network of terror was spread across several districts in Bengal.
The NIA quickly took over the case and went after Shahnur Alam, who had managed to slip, although two of his colleagues, all JMB, died in the explosion and two women were arrested. He was later picked up from Nalbari district.
The NIA eventually picked him up in 2014 from Guwahati.
Two years later, another (JMB) activist Asad Ali alias Asadullah was arrested by Assam police while he was trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India at Sutarkandi in Karimganj district in March 2016.
The accused is close to Burdwan-blast accused Shahnur Alam, who was charge-sheeted by the NIA in the case. Ali, who hails from Mukalmua police station area in Nalbari district, was remanded to 10-day police custody after he was produced in a court recently.
An investigation conducted by the NIA revealed that Ali was given arms training in a JMB hideout in lower Assam. "He had visited the Simulia madrasa in Burdwan on several occasions, where young boys and girls were given motivational training with radical speeches and arms training. Ali used to visit the Burdwan madrasas as a teacher to train young people in handling weapons and firing at targets," said an NIA officer.
He had fled to Bangladesh following Alam's arrest in November 2014 and since then was hiding in the neighbouring country. "He, however, decided to come back to India after security forces in Bangladesh stepped up the heat on the JMB," the source said.
He said the accused, along with Alam, were also involved in recruiting youths from Assam for the outfit. They were helped by another accused, Shaikul Islam Khan alias Abdullah, and the trio motivated youths from Assam, particularly lower Assam districts like Barpeta, Nalbari and Dhubri, to participate in "terrorist training camps". "In view of the above evidence, his active participation in terrorist activities of JMB is established," the source said.
Now, this recently arrested persons were all friends of Shahnur Alam and the police suspect that these people have returned to Assam as sleeper cell and more are coming.
Terror links between Bangladesh and India’s Northeast
Bangladesh or East Pakistan has always been sanctuaries of Northeast militants. Ethnic insurgent outfits from India’s Northeast like the Naga National Council, Mizo National Front, and United National Liberation Front had established camps and hideouts in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) years ahead of the War of Liberation (1971).
These facilities came to an end after the war but were revived in a small scale in the 1980s. They received a tremendous boost after the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) swept to power in 1991.
Taking the lead in the early 1990s was the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which established close ties with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Small batches of rebels began to be trained in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and the trail blazed by the ULFA was soon traversed by other separatist groups from the region as well.
But the ISI activities did not succeed in the region although a section always wanted to paint a terrifying picture. It is mostly due to push their own agenda.
The ISI backed Islamist outfits were hamstrung by manpower shortage, local Muslims’ reluctance to embrace Wahibisim and more importantly, the funds. But between 1999 and 2004, as many as 363 militants from these groups were apprehended and another 120 surrendered in Assam and Manipur.
Why have Muslims of Assam rejected militant Islam?
According to security analyst Jaideep Saikia, unlike NSCN or ULFA, Muslim outfits in the region do not carry the clause of secession from India, but their West Asian trainers and Pakistan's ISI goaded them into having an altogether different set of objectives such as shahadat for the cause of Islam, assassination of leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and institution of a sovereign Islamic state.
Such instructions meant nothing for the Assamese Muslim youths and disenchanted; they returned to the mainstream. An important Harkat-ul-Mujahideen leader, Abu Bakr Siddiqui, told Saikia on December 27, 2002 that they were simply asked to enter Assam, take shelter and wait for their strength to grow.
The PFI angle
Meanwhile, there is also the Popular Front of India (PFI) — an Islamist organisation–that has rolled out an ambitious plan to extend its reach to more areas in Assam. Its optimism in Assam stems from the quick success it has achieved in less than five years – as many as 19,000 of its functionaries are active across 21 districts of the state. Besides Kamrup and Goalpara in western Assam, it has been growing rapidly in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley. In the Northeast, the PFI is also working on expanding its base in Manipur.
Although there is no illegality of their activities and they have done great service during recent Assam floods it looks like the RSS of Muslims. There is something radical about the organisation, said Suman Barthakur alias Ruby Bhuyan, a former ULFA spokesman who spent years in Pakistan and Bangladesh and well versed with the ISI tentacles.
The PFI is not a banned organisation but in all likelihood another face of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), he said with predicting that the PFI would have much deep reach among Muslims of Assam.
Founded in 2006, the organisation has now spread to 24 states in the country with headquarters in Delhi. Recently, PFI celebrated its 13th foundation day all over the country wherever the organisation has a presence with the theme "Defeat Politics of Hate."
Some government officials claim that PFI is a radical Salafist outfit whose organisational structure is similar to the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan-al-Banna in 1928 and later streamlined by Sayyed Qutub to overthrow governments in Egypt.
Its goal was to establish a puritanical Islamic rule in the Middle East and gradually spread to other countries in the world. They said that after the SIMI was banned, its leaders continued with their radical agenda under the Kerala based National Democratic Front (NDF). Years later in 2006, PFI emerged after the NDF joined hands with two more organisations – Manitha Neethi Pasarai (Tamil Nadu) and Karnataka Forum for Dignity.
In Assam, the the police had prevented the PFI on at least three occasions from conducting its programmes at different venues in the state. The PFI is going to play a very central role in handling the vast majority of Muslim people that are going to be excluded on August 31.
"It is not the time to panic but act with stealth," said Pallab Bhattacharya, admitting the dangerous road ahead.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)