The new face of terror

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Sujina was allegedly recruiting jihadis from the Bengali Muslim community. Photo: Ujjal Deb
Headhunter Sujina was allegedly recruiting jihadis from the Bengali Muslim community. Photo: Ujjal Deb

On the night of 6 November, life seemed normal at the busy Inter State Bus Terminus (ISBT) on the outskirts of Guwahati, the largest in the northeastern region. Overnight buses from every nook and corner of the Northeast made a beeline to the terminus, which caters to thousands of passengers every day. Hidden among them were members of the Assam Police’s special operations unit. They had one particular target: a 30-year-old woman.

Going by the dance of death that has ravaged Assam for more than three decades, one would assume that the undercover men were on the lookout for a female cadre of the Paresh Baruah-led faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom or any top catch of the several banned ethnic militant groups operating in the troubled region.

But they were, in fact, waiting to nab an operative of a new terror network that has been silently spreading its tentacles in the region. They knew that there was no room for error because they were on the trail of a woman, perhaps Assam’s first fully trained female jihadi.

Soon, a clueless Sujina Begum, wearing a burqa and holding her 18-month-old toddler, arrived at the ISBT and walked into the trap. For the team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), supported by the Assam Police and the CRPF, Sujina was a prize catch.

Sujina is the wife of hardcore Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) operative Sahanur Alom, who is among the 12 most wanted in the sensational Burdwan blast case in West Bengal that the NIA is investigating. After the first phase of investigation, the NIA announced a Rs 5 lakh bounty for anyone giving information leading to Alom’s arrest.

The blast had blown the cover off a new Islamic terror module in eastern India spread across West Bengal and Assam, which had strong links with the JMB and its top operatives in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Alom, who is absconding, was a key operative of the module and was involved in recruiting cadres for the JMB from the Bengali Muslim-dominated areas of lower Assam. He was a village quack who lived in Chatala village of Barpeta district. Sujina was not only his wife but also his deputy in creating sleeper cells of the JMB in Assam as well as sending money to the outfit’s operatives in West Bengal through hawala channels.

It was after the initial investigation of the Burdwan blast that the NIA got to know about Alom. Over the past week, the NIA conducted several raids at Alom’s residence in Chatala village of Barpeta and seized several items, including some documents that established links between the jihadi couple and the JMB. The NIA sleuths suspect that the couple are part of a larger international terror network, which maintained links with similar terror cells in Bangladesh and West Asia.

“We seized several illegal documents, coins of West Asian origin, bank passbooks and money collection receipt books of madrassas in Bengal,” reveals an NIA officer on the condition of anonymity. “We suspect that the couple was trained and indoctrinated at a madrassa in Bengal and were instrumental in developing a money transfer channel and recruiting cadres for the JMB.”

The Assam Police have also got hold of Alom’s brother Jakaria Ali on charges of helping create JMB sleeper cells in Barpeta. “Sahanur and his wife received jihadi training from the Simulia madrassa in Burdwan district,” adds the NIA officer. “This madrassa has been the hub of jihadi training in eastern India and the JMB’s backyard. The JMB had set up bases in India after the crackdown on the banned group in Bangladesh, whose Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been the terror outfit’s prime target.”

Once the couple returned to Assam, they developed contacts with several youth, including women, from various conflict-prone areas of lower Assam to sow the seeds of jihad. While Sujina is under custody, Alom is still absconding. A manhunt is underway to catch Alom, who is suspected to be hiding near the international border in Meghalaya, waiting for a chance to sneak into Bangladesh.

“On leads from the NIA, we started our own operations and got a specific input that Sujina was in Guwahati along with her baby and two other women,” says Assam Police Deputy Inspector General Apurba Jiboon Baruah. “We tracked her and followed her. Then we got the input that she would be coming to the ISBT to take a bus to lower Assam. We thought it to be a good moment to nab her.”

After the arrest, the Assam Police realised that Sujina is actually a far bigger catch than expected. There were several inputs that jihadi elements were recruiting women from the Bengali Muslim community of Assam. Sujina, the first female jihadi to be arrested in Assam, now stands as a testimony to the fact that Assam has been on the radar of radical Islamist groups for a while.

“From initial interrogations, it is clear that she is a hardcore JMB cadre,” says another source from the NIA. “She is highly motivated. She had been visiting various remote islands on the Brahmaputra to recruit girls as well as spread the ideals of jihad. She was also developing a module of female cadres who were to be used for carrying money and later for smuggling explosives.”

A few days ago, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said that the JMB was trying to raise a women’s wing in the state and that he was also their target. Earlier, two female cadres of the outfit were arrested from Burdwan, exposing how Muslim women from rural areas of eastern India are joining the Islamic terror module, one of the newest challenges to India’s internal security apparatus. The NIA has announced cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of the 12 key conspirators in the Burdwan blast, including Rs 5 lakh for Alom’s arrest.

The sleuths are also trying to bust another JMB module that is operating from Dhubri district in lower Assam. Dhubri district shares a 134-km border with Bangladesh, of which a 34-km riverine border is still unfenced.

“Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been a major issue in eastern India, especially Assam,” says Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a senior journalist based in Guwahati. “This has been at the root of several conflicts and riots in lower Assam. Now, if jihadi elements try to radicalise people, Assam would be bracing for a tough time and its impact will obviously be felt in the neighbourhood.”

As the NIA investigation continues to unravel more layers of the terror module, the most alarming reality is how innocent rural women are becoming soft targets and being turned against their own people, their own nation.

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Special Correspondent

A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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