Thursday, October 28, 2004

Assam: The Islamist Shadow


As things stand today, however, there could be more than the ULFA's involvement in this episode. On October 15, a non-descript Islamist outfit, the Al Jehad-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the explosions in Dimapur. In an e-mail sent to a Guwahati-based vernacular newspaper, Janasadharan, Mohammad Salim Khan, 'North East Chief' of the group, claimed responsibility for the twin blasts. Nothing was known about this group before it made its claim. It is not clear, moreover, why the organisation (if it exists at all) chose a Guwahati based vernacular paper to claim responsibility.

The Northeast: Islamist Shadow

Bibhu Prasad Routray,
Director, ICM Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati

The real identity of the terrorist group behind the twin blasts in Nagaland on October 2, 2004, in which 27 persons were killed, will probably never be known. Each day unfolds different and confusing leads indicting different outfits. To begin with, one of the factions of the National Socialist Council for Nagaland (NSCN) was suspected. That possibility was quickly discounted after both condemned the blasts and one faction, the Isak-Muivah group (NSCN-IM), even announced a hefty reward for any information regarding the killers. After that it was the turn of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Soon after a non-descript Islamist outfit claimed responsibility for the attack. Police sources now suggest that even the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) or the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD) could be involved in the attack. Most recently, the National Socialist Council for Nagaland - Khaplang (NSCN-K) pointed to 'Al-Qaeda footprints' in the attack. Some pointers also indicate possible involvement of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), with Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee indicating an ISI role in the incident, though the ever-cautious Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, decided to play it safe, declaring, on October 7, "We are neither giving the ISI a clean chit nor accusing them."

Evidently, the investigation has a long way to go before its throws up any credible conclusion. What is, however, clear is that the blasts demonstrated the involvement of a force commanding superior firepower and tactical knowledge of explosives, which is why the first suspect was the ULFA, in spite of the group's somewhat unconvincing denials. The use of RDX, which the outfit has started using of late, and the subsequent arrest of two ULFA militants living in Dimapur, including a bomb expert, does little to quell suspicions. In its recent attacks, the most gruesome being the series of explosions in August in various districts of Assam, the outfit has put the plastic explosives to effective use, discarding the traditionally crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the less expensive gelatine sticks.

As things stand today, however, there could be more than the ULFA's involvement in this episode. On October 15, a non-descript Islamist outfit, the Al Jehad-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the explosions in Dimapur. In an e-mail sent to a Guwahati-based vernacular newspaper, Janasadharan, Mohammad Salim Khan, 'North East Chief' of the group, claimed responsibility for the twin blasts. Nothing was known about this group before it made its claim. It is not clear, moreover, why the organisation (if it exists at all) chose a Guwahati based vernacular paper to claim responsibility.

The Nagaland police chief has already discounted the possibility of the involvement of this particular group on the grounds that there is no intelligence on its activities. Such an assessment, however, runs the danger of ignoring a potentially significant transformation in the patterns of terrorism in the region, and the possible escalation of the role of external powers. As has been repeatedly emphasised, the ULFA's capitulation to the ISI's diktats has been complete. The Pakistan's intelligence agency, through its operatives in Bangladesh and in coordination with Bangladesh's Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI), now directs most of the ULFA's activities and has an overwhelming influence on its postures and functions. According to a statement by the Director General of Police, Tripura, on October 15, a meeting of some six or seven militant organisations in Dhaka preceded the strikes in Assam and Nagaland. Apart from the ULFA, other Indian insurgent groups based in Tripura, Manipur and Meghalaya, including the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) of North Bengal, took part in the meeting, which was held at the behest of the ISI and other anti-India forces.

ULFA's decision to join the Muttahida Jehad Council (United Jehad Council), an umbrella Islamic organisation of various groups engaged in militant operations in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), had come to the notice of security agencies in September, following seizures made from the hideouts of a slain ULFA militant, Lachit Rabha. Grenades recovered from the militant killed in an encounter at Jerdoba in East Garo Hill district in Meghalaya were found to be strikingly similar to those used during the attack on the Indian Parliament and by the Pakistan Army, indicating ULFA's growing proximity with the agency that sponsors terrorism in J&K.

The shadow of this subversive alliance appears to be strengthening over Nagaland. The State has been complaining of Bangladeshi migrants flooding areas like Niuland and Dimapur for some time. About a month ago, the Naga Students Federation (NSF) launched an 'oust-Bangladeshis' campaign targeting the migrants, after two migrants had allegedly raped a minor girl. However, the impact of the presence of such migrants on the overall security situation in the State is largely neglected in the public and policy discourse. Very little has been said or is known about possible linkages between migrants with a track record of criminal activities and the ISI, the DGFI and fundamentalist Bangladeshi organisations.

Little is known, moreover, of the vast and isolated areas the Bangladeshi migrants have now come to occupy in Nagaland, and the linkages they may have developed with local and regional militant groups or the support structure they provide to activities of covert agencies like the ISI. It is now probable that ISI cells have been created and are lying low among the estimated 200,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants who currently reside in Nagaland, lying low till their masters across the border ask them to execute specific operations. Army intelligence sources now suggest, "Bangladeshis trained in ISI camps are moving deep into Kohima, Peren and Wokha, besides Dimapur." Their sufficiently long stay in the area allows them the advantage of disappearing into the burgeoning migrant population without a trace after such incidents. Such cells within the larger migrant population can also play host to militants who cross over to execute terrorist strikes. As one intelligence official overseeing the investigations in Dimapur disclosed, "We had positive information about a group of 20 fundamentalist organisation-trained Bangladeshi jihadis sneaking into Nagaland through the Karimganj border. They had an agenda of carrying out large-scale violence in the Northeast, but nobody probably realised that it would be such a devastating attack in Dimapur."

The enormous quantities of finances required to execute an attack of this nature and magnitude also points a finger to active external involvement. According to preliminary investigations, between about 4 and 5 kilograms of RDX was used in the twin explosions, and the cost of the entire operation would run into millions of rupees. None of the militant groups in the Northeast, with the possible exception of the ULFA, possesses such financial capacities, and even the ULFA would be averse to investing so much into a single strike unless the costs are underwritten by its supporters in the Pakistan-Bangladesh Intelligence community.

For strange reasons, however, the dangers of Islamic militancy do not figure among the priorities of the State Governments in the region, despite the occasional voicing of misgivings regarding illegal migration from Bangladesh. In April 2000, the then Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Government had tabled a white paper detailing ISI activities in Assam. However, since the election of the Congress regime in May 2001, the issue has receded - or has been pushed - into the background. The State's Minister of Home Affairs, Rockybul Hussain, on August 9 this year announced in the State Assembly that his Government had 'no evidence of ISI activity' in the State. So great has been the political nonchalance, that the Chief Minister himself threatened to 'speak to' the State Police intelligence chief, who had claimed to have substantial evidence of the ISI's role in funding militant organisations like the ULFA, after the series of attacks in August 2004.

Guided by the wisdom of its political masters, the Assam's State police department has also begun to underplay potential of Islamist militancy in the State and the role of the ISI-DGFI combine. A senior intelligence officer boasted in an informal conversation that he could 'finish Islamic militancy in the State just by persuasion'. There are, however, strong indications that such recourse to 'persuasion' has already floundered. In many of Assam's districts, including Karimganj, Cachar, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Dhubri, where the migrants from Bangladesh are in numerical majority, Islamist mobilisation and activity has seen an upsurge. The growth has followed a relatively subtle path, not accompanied by the expected mushrooming of the madrassas. In its latest manifestation, amidst intelligence inputs that the ISI was planning to use the MULTA (Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam) to carry out subversive activities in the Cachar district of Assam, CRPF personnel recovered 50 foreign-made detonators from Baghehor village in Cachar district on September 2, 2004, and arrested one person in this connection. Reports also suggested that, as the ULFA lacked an organisational structure in districts like Cachar, it is effectively using MULTA cadres.

The problem that confronts the region is not just about occasional 'security lapses' or even a sudden spurt of violence. Indeed, violence has never ceased to torment the region over the past decades. The real problem is located in a curious lack of vision and ability to locate this violence in a wider strategic perspective that accommodates all its driving factors - including the intervention of foreign elements. Unless the Governments in the region and New Delhi take a hard look at broader designs of destabilisation, incidents like the one in Dimapur can only recur with increasing frequency.

SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, Volume 3, No. 15, October 25, 2004