By Nijeesh N.*
Amidst ongoing insurgent activities of various ethnic armed groups (EAGs) and the political unrest during the just concluded State Assembly elections, Assam faces a growing Islamist terrorist threat from within, from neighboring States, as well as from bordering countries.
On May 12, 2016, four extremists belonging to the Muslim Tiger Force of Assam (MTFA), identified as Ismail Ali, Mohidul Islam, Mouizinur Ahmed and Saiyyuddin Islam were arrested during a search operation carried out by the Army and Assam Police at Abhayapuri in Bongaigaon District. Three firearms, including a stolen ‘licensed’ factory-made pistol and two country-made pistols, were recovered from the militants who are suspected to be supplying arms to Muslim extremist groups active in the region. According to Police sources, the militants were involved in several cases of extortion and kidnapping.
On April 20, 2016, the Chirang Police arrested seven suspected cadres of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) from two different areas in the Chirang District of Assam. Five of them were arrested from the Dawkanagar area; another two, including the imam (prayer leader) of Rajapara Masjid (mosque), were arrested from the Amguri area. Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) Inspector General of Police (IGP) L.R. Bishnoi stated, “All these jihadis were operating in Assam under Bangladesh-based jihadi module JMB. They had set up a camp for imparting physical training and there were plans to impart arms training later. Two people came from West Bengal to impart training to the jihadis here. We have got their names and addresses and we are in touch with our counterparts in West Bengal to arrest them”. He also disclosed, “After the police busted a training camp in Dawkanagar in September 2015, initial probe pointed to the presence of at least 28 jihadi cadres in the area. But with the latest arrests, the total number of arrested jihadi cadres shot up to 29 and interrogation revealed that at least seven others are on the run.” He added that the numbers may go up further.
On April 17, 2016, the Kokrajhar and Chirang Police, in a joint operation, arrested four suspected jihadis, from three different locations in Kokrajhar District. A grenade, a revolver, seven rounds of M20 ammunition, two army camouflage dresses and five mobile phones were recovered from their possession. Later it was found that the arrestees were part of a JMB module that was planning to train local Muslims at a camp in Daukhanagar village in Chirang District to launch attacks on cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and local Bodos. Assam has a history of bitter clashes between Muslims and Bodos in the BTAD area. The latest of such clashes were reported in May 2014, when 46 Muslim settlers were slaughtered.
On April 6, 2016, the Army, in a joint search operation with Dhubri Police, arrested one MTFA terrorist, Mohammad Sahidul Islam Miah, from Rupsi near Basbari in Dhubri District.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 22 Islamist extremists, including 12 JMB, six MTFA, one Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and three whose affiliations were unidentified, have been arrested thus far in 2016 (data till May 15, 2016). In 2015, 57 Islamic terrorists were arrested, including 20 JMB cadres, 19 MTFA cadres, 10 Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) cadres, one cadre each of Muslim Liberation Army (MLA) and Peoples United Liberation Front (PULF), and six whose affiliations were not identified. State Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rockybul Hussain informed the State Assembly on December 15, 2014, that between January 2001 to November 2014, a total of 130 Islamist extremists, including 106 MULTA militants, 14 Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) militants, and 10 JMB militants, were arrested in the State.
A majority of the Islamist militant groups in Assam were founded between 1990 and 1996 with the prime objective of safeguarding the ‘overall interests’ of the minority Muslim communities in the region. According to SATP, at least 20 Islamist terror formations have operated in Assam at different periods. On December 8, 2015, Rockybul Hussain informed the State Assembly that three Islamist militant groups, MULTA, JMB and HuM, were presently active in the State.
Assam for long has been threatened by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed Islamist extremist groups. The accidental blast in a rented house at Khagragarh in Burdwan (West Bengal) on October 2, 2014, in which two JMB militants were killed and another was injured, and the subsequent investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the case, opened a Pandora’s Box after the NIA took over the case on October 10, 2014. According to the NIA charge sheet filed on March 30, 2015, and a subsequent supplementary charge sheet dated July 23, 2015, the NIA has charged 27 persons, including two persons from Assam. Of the 27 charge sheeted persons, 16 have so far been arrested, of which two have been arrested from Assam. Another nine persons, who have not been charge sheeted, have also been arrested, two among them from Assam.
The NIA claimed that, during the course of investigations, it had been found that operatives of JMB had established their networks in different parts of the country, including Assam, and “were engaged in preparation of bombs, ammunition/arms, maintaining hideouts and organizing terrorist training camps in pursuance of a larger conspiracy to organise terrorist attacks in different parts of India and in Bangladesh.” One of the charge sheeted persons, Lal Mohammed aka Ibrahim, a JMB cadre arrested by Jharkhand Police on April 18, 2015 (NIA officially arrested him on April 27, 2015), reportedly revealed to interrogators that JMB’s sabotage plans in Assam were to counter Bodo ‘aggression’.
Significantly, on September 16, 2015, the Chirang District Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) busted an Islamic fundamentalist ‘training camp’ and arrested three suspects, seizing weapons which were being used to train cadres in the camp in Daukhanagar. Later, the Police confirmed that the arrested persons were associated with the JMB and that MULTA was the brain behind the training camp. Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports also suggested that JMB uses MULTA as the umbrella organization of various jihadi elements in Assam to carry out organizational activities, including collecting money, imparting basic motivational training and brainwashing youth who are willing to join.
Meanwhile, reports indicated that a new jihadi formation, MTFA was formed to take ‘revenge’ for the massacre of Muslims in the BTAD in May 2014. Though specific details about the outfit are not available in the open source, according to the SATP database, at least 25 MTFA militants have been arrested so far. The first reported arrest took place on March 13, 2015, when a MTFA militant, identified as Anwar Hussain was arrested from Jalabila in the Kokrajhar District. According to Army sources, Anwar Hussain was involved in procurement of arms and had plans to create violence during the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections, which were held in April 2015.
Major global Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and IS are also reportedly eying the region. Notably, at the time of its formation in September 2014, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) had specifically mentioned Assam as its target, along with Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, IS in its ‘world dominion map’ has covered Assam among other parts of India. Although there are no visible signs of presence of these terror formations in the State, rising interest in the IS through Internet is a disturbing aspect. The then Director General of Police (DGP) of Assam Khagen Sarma had stated on September 29, 2015, “Assam has religious fundamentalists and that has generated a lot of interest in the ISIS. Hits in the Internet photos of ISIS is very high in Assam”. Moreover, a suspected IS operative, identified as Suman Aziz Laskar, was arrested from Silchar Medical College (SMC) in Cachar District on February 6, 2016. Following recent incidents of killings of secularist activists/writers/bloggers by suspected Islamist terrorists in Bangladesh, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs in India, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) on April 27, 2016, that Indian security agencies were also concerned about possible attacks by the Islamic State in two bordering Indian States, Assam and West Bengal.
In addition, subsequent to the arrests and recovery of arms across BTAD between April 17 and 20, 2016, it has come to light that jihadi forces in lower Assam Districts were trying to establish links with arms smugglers of Nagaland and Myanmar to gain direct access to the underground market of sophisticated arms. Though the State Police have not officially confirmed this possible nexus between jihadi modules and other ethnic militant outfits of the region, it was reported that some gunrunners in the Barak Valley were helping Islamist extremist modules secure access to the clandestine arms market in neighboring countries like Myanmar. In recent years, Assam has recorded a steep hike in cases registered in connection with the Illegal arms smuggling. State Police records shows that, while 492 cases were registered under the Arms Act in the state in 2010, the number rose to 511 in 2015.
Besides, large scale illegal flow of substantial amounts of money from the Middle Eastern countries to Assam through Kerala has also becomes a major cause of concern for security agencies in the State. According to an April 24, 2016, report, security agencies had identified some religious organisations in the Districts of Morigaon and Nagaon in Assam, which may have received such illegally transferred money. Though the exact reasons for such huge transfers of funds are yet to be ascertained, security agencies suspect that some unscrupulous persons might be using this money for indoctrination and radicalization. Considering its ‘least developed region’ status in the State, the lower Assam region, especially the BTC areas, could also be a soft target for Islamist extremist elements. Police also confirmed that recently arrested JMB members were not planning any major action in Assam as yet, and were concentrating mostly on recruiting from lower Assam Districts and creating a base in Assam for future operations.
The demographic transition in the State and the problem of the influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants further complicates the situation. Though the Government has started the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) data on February 27, 2015, to identify those who illegally entered Assam after 1971, implementation has been sluggish. Moreover, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, on May 10, 2016, informed the Rajya Sabha that, “at least 43,000 Bangladeshi nationals, who entered India on valid documents, have vanished during the last four years, whereas only 19,995 could be deported during the same period.” According to him, “In Assam, the detection and deportation of illegal migrants are done through the Foreigners Tribunals established under the provision of Foreigners Tribunal Act, 1946. Altogether 100 Foreigners Tribunals are working at present towards detection and deportation of illegal migrants in Assam”.
Though Assam has seen a steady decline in insurgency-related violence after 2014, the recent spurt in jihadi activities and the nexus between jihadi elements and ethnic militant groups in the region make the security situation in the State vulnerable. At a juncture when pan-Islamist terrorist networks are trying to make inroads into Bangladesh, with which the region shares a vast and “porous” border, extreme vigilance on the part of both the State Government as well the Centre, to strengthen security along the border, is necessary.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management