In early September, the security establishment went into a tizzy after al Qaeda declared that it was making preparations to launch a new phase of jihad in the Indian subcontinent. In a video that went viral on social media, the dreaded terror outfit’s chief Ayman al-Zawahri was heard hinting at the formation of new Islamist terror organisations in Bangladesh and Myanmar, besides mentioning ethnic violence and communal riots in various parts of India. The Indian states he specifically mentioned were Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Assam.
A day after the video was released, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi went on record confirming that his government had inputs that al Qaeda was trying to set up base in the northeastern state. The inputs also suggested that the Islamist terror outfit had reached a tacit understanding with the banned insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). “We have some definite inputs that al Qaeda is trying to set up base here,” said the chief minister. “The police are looking for suspects and leads.”
Then, on 2 October, when people across West Bengal were busy with the Durga Puja festivities, a huge explosion took place accidentally in a nondescript locality of Burdwan (The terror after the blast by Ushinor Majumdar, 18 October). The blast blew the lid off a nefarious terror network that has been extending its tentacles into eastern India along the Bangladesh border. This network is said to be linked not only with Islamist terror outfits in Bangladesh, but also with al Qaeda and home-grown outfits such as the Indian Mujahideen.
The accidental blast in Burdwan killed Shakil Ahmad on the spot, while his associate Shobhan Mandal died at the Burdwan Medical College and Hospital a few hours later. An injured Abdul Hakim Sheikh alias Hasan Sahab was admitted to the same hospital in a serious condition, and was later shifted to SSKM Hospital in Kolkata. Ahmad’s wife Gulshana Bibi alias Rumi and Sheikh’s wife Amina Bibi alias Alima, who were in the house at the time of the explosion, were arrested and are being interrogated. The West Bengal Police found out that they were operatives of a sleeper cell of the Bangladesh-based terror group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
The JMB was formed in 1998 by Maulana Abdur Rahman and was banned by the Bangladesh government in 2005. It was responsible for no less than 500 bomb explosions in Bangladesh and is said to have very close links with al Qaeda. India has also designated the JMB as a terrorist organisation. In fact, top leaders of the JMB had revealed in several media interviews in 2010 that they had found recruits among Indian Muslims and the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.
After some initial dithering by the West Bengal government, the probe into the Burdwan blast was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Sources in the NIA confirmed to TEHELKA that there was a larger design to disturb Durga Puja and Eid in West Bengal and create communal discord. The Burdwan blast probe has led the NIA to Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, besides Assam.
Other security agencies are also involved in the gargantuan task of tracing the contours of the relatively new terror network that has silently spread its tentacles across the nation. Following the subsequent arrest of six suspected JMB operatives from Assam, the northeastern state has earned the dubious distinction of being the epicentre of the terror network.
The suspects were allegedly members of a sleeper cell of the JMB. Acting on specific inputs from Central intelligence agencies, the Assam Police picked them up from Barpeta district in lower Assam. The police suspect that the six men — Shaikhul Islam, Rafikul Islam, Shiraj Ali Khan, Jahuruddin, Golam Usmani and Sarbesh Ali — were hunting for new recruits in the Bengali Muslim-dominated lower Assam districts of Barpeta, Goalpara and Dhubri. They were reportedly also scouring the four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri that are part of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) region. The region has seen widespread ethnic violence in recent times with the Bangla-speaking Muslim settlers often finding themselves at loggerheads with the indigenous Bodo tribals.
Investigations by the Assam Police revealed that Shaikhul alias Abdulla is a close associate of Ahmad, who died in the Burdwan blast. The investigators have found out that Ahmad had made frequent visits to the lower Assam districts in the past couple of years. “We have also recovered leaflets and other documents that clearly suggest that the JMB has been targeting rural Muslim youth in lower Assam, particularly the Bangla-speaking Muslims, who are often labelled as illegal migrants from Bangladesh,” says a senior Intelligence Bureau official posted in Guwahati, who didn’t want to reveal his name. “The terror outfit has been trying to raise issues such as ethnic conflict, unemployment and Islamic identity in a bid to find recruits for jihad.”
“There is nothing surprising in the recent arrests. Over the years, fundamentalist and terrorist groups have forged connections across Bangladesh, West Bengal and Assam. What is worrying is that Assam has, perhaps, become the epicentre of the nexus,” says New Delhi-based journalist Sumon K Chakrabarti, who has extensively covered the rise of the JMB in Bangladesh. “I think even bigger modules will be busted in the days ahead.”
In Assam, operations to nab the other modules of the JMB are in full swing. “The Barpeta raid was very significant to the entire probe,” reveals a source in the NIA who is involved in the investigation. “Shaikhul is a big catch. He was indoctrinated in a madrassa in rural Bengal and was instructed to work silently and recruit jihadis. In the next phase, the recruits would have been trained and then sent back to Assam to carry out terrorist acts.”
A well-placed source from the Assam Police confirmed to TEHELKA that members of another important module active in Barpeta might have slipped into north Bengal after the Burdwan explosion.
In a state riddled by insurgency and ethnic riots, the rise of the JMB poses a major challenge to the battered government led by Gogoi. Sources say that the Union home ministry had sent an advisory to the Assam government some time ago, pointing out that the state was in the crosshairs of Islamist groups, especially after the campaign for the General Election that had reportedly polarised the electorate along religious lines.
Over 120 people died in the Bodo-Muslim ethnic clashes in the BTAD region in 2012 and more than 50 died in similar clashes this May in Baksa. The majority of those killed were Bangla-speaking Muslims. “The Bangla-speaking Muslims form the biggest vote bank in Assam, but they continue to be poor and backward,” says Kudus Ali, a college student from the Bangla-speaking Muslim community in Bongaigaon in lower Assam. “We have been butchered by the tribal rebels. It would not be very difficult for the jihadi groups to convince some of the youth among us that they should take up arms to protect themselves.”