By Rupak Bhattacharjee
India’s sensitive North Eastern region, especially Assam, is fast emerging as an epicentre of international jihadi networks. The state is increasingly becoming vulnerable to Islamic terrorist outfits largely because of the unabated influx from Bangladesh and presence of several fundamentalist organisations. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi recently informed the state assembly that a few Islamic terrorist groups, including Pakistan-based Harhat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), had been active in some parts of Assam and that a number of persons affiliated to such outfits were lodged in different jails of the state.
The latest reports indicate that the radical Islamic forces are trying to make inroads into the Muslim-dominated areas of the state. In a major development on October 9, Assam Police arrested six persons from Barpeta district for their alleged links with the October 2 Burdwan blast. Police said they were key members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) module operating in the state. The arrested persons admitted during interrogation that they were instructed to remain as sleeper cell and search for potential Muslim youth keen to join jihad. Some of them had also undergone training in handling explosives and ideological indoctrination at various Madrassas in Bengal’s Burdwan and Murshidabad districts.
Subsequently, on October 11, three more persons were arrested from Dhubri district’s Mankachar area bordering Bangladesh, in connection with the blast. Recently, police also seized a huge cache of explosives from a bus bound for Goalpara, in Guwahati and arrested two persons. In another incident on October 21, an arms dealer and suspected linkman of Islamic terror groups was killed in an encounter with the security forces in Kokrajhar district.
All these developments demonstrate a growing trend of Islamic radicalisation in Assam. In the eyes of police, four districts having considerable Muslim population—Dhubri, Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Karimganj, are vulnerable to Islamic terrorism. The presence of Bangladesh-based jihadi outfit JMB has been reported for the first time in Assam. Interrogation of the arrested persons has unearthed that Shakil Ahmed, a JMB activist who died in the Burdwan blast, had visited Barpeta on several occasions in his bid to motivate local youth for jihad. Police suspect that several Muslim youths of lower Assam have been trained to make IEDs with locally available materials and there may be more terror sleeper cells in the state.
The existence of jihadi elements in Assam was traced earlier too, but security officials say they had “never made their presence visible”. Meanwhile, state’s civil society has been alarmed by the sudden rise of Islamic militancy. Several organisations, including AASU, have blamed the state government’s inaction in curbing the activities of radical Islamic groups. They maintain that at least 14 Islamist groups having links with international terror outfits are operating in the state. Some of them include Muslim United Liberation Tiger of Assam (MULTA), Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, United Reformation Protest of Assam and People’s United Liberation Front.
The security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations had already communicated to the state government about ISI links of these outfits and heightened activities of MULTA in lower Assam. Moreover, the alleged links between SIMI and Assam’s MULTA and Muslim United Student Association, has been brought to notice.
The Union Home Ministry sent directives to the state government in the wake of ethnic violence in BTAD and the resultant polarisation of voters along religious lines during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls that Assam has been figuring in the Islamic terror map. Reports suggest that repeated violence in four districts of BTAD—Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, directed against Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers, who are often dubbed as illegal Bangladeshi migrants by the indigenous Bodos, could have radicalised a section of Muslim youths.
This is particularly so after the 2012 riots. In the opinion of senior security officials, Assam has been featuring in “discourses of pan-Islamic jihadi forces” since then. They say the districts bordering Bangladesh might have been intruded by radical Islamic ideologues and jihadi elements. The forces inimical to India are making concerted efforts to motivate the Muslim youths to participate in jihad by raising issues like “ethnic conflict, unemployment and Islamic identity”. Besides, numerous NGOs, religious and political leaders who had been involved in providing relief, perhaps facilitated the radicalisation process.
Under such circumstances, the major concerns remains—al Qaida gaining foothold in Assam, particularly after Ayman al-Zawahiri’s announcement of launching a new jihadi front, Qaedat al-Jihad, in the Indian sub-continent to establish a caliphate in the region. In an online video released on September 4, the al Qaida chief specifically mentioned ethnic violence and communal riots in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. The following day, Assam chief minister said his government had intelligence inputs that al Qaida was trying to set up base in the state. It was also suggested that the dreaded terrorist outfit had reached a tacit understanding with the ULFA(I) led by Paresh Baruah. The possibility of ULFA(I)’s tie up with the al Qaida can not be ruled out completely as in the past also, it had established working relations with the religious extremist forces of Bangladesh.
Furthermore, the ongoing conflict between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in neighbouring Myanmar has contributed to growing resentment among Muslims in the state. The security officials have already cautioned that persistent radicalisation of Rohingyas pose a threat to peace and stability of North East. Intelligence agencies have found evidences of Rohingyas taking shelter in some parts of the region. The backlash of ethnic violence in Rakhine province assumes significance since al Qaida chief’s focus of jihad also includes Myanmar and JMB leaders’ earlier revelation that they had recruited and trained several Rohingyas.
The Gogoi government has initiated some measures to counter the menace of Islamic terror in Assam. A high alert has been sounded across the state and vigilance stepped up along India-Bangladesh and inter-state borders following intelligence inputs indicating JMB’s plan to spread tentacles in the state. Assam DGP says several Muslim youths of the state have joined JMB after being trained in the terror outfit’s camps in Bangladesh. He has noted that “some youths from Assam are traveling to Bangladesh frequently” and in touch with their handlers based in the neighbouring country.
The porous India-Bangladesh borders in certain segments are being used by the jihadi outfits to foment trouble in restive Assam. Some cadres of HuM and other terror groups who were arrested earlier revealed that they had traveled from Pakistan to Bangladesh and subsequently to India through Assam. Intelligence sources say Karimganj in southern Assam and Garo Hills in Meghalaya—both the regions bordering Bangladesh, are key entry points for jihadi elements. Unlike other North Eastern militant outfits, the Islamic terrorist groups consider the two routes “safe corridor for travel”. It is imperative that the Centre takes appropriate measures to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement signed with Bangladesh in September 2011 and completely seal the international borders to stop cross-border terrorism.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India