SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
A Crown of Thorns
On his deathbed, the ailing Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah nominated his son as his political heir. Along with the gift of power, the Sheikh delivered a warning: "The crown I am placing on your head", he told Farooq Abdullah, "is made of thorns".
Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K’s) new Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has been served warning of the grim realities of governing the State in a less delicate fashion: if an alert Central Reserve Police Force patrol had not detected the bomb planted outside a Srinagar mosque on October 28, his first task on taking office would have been commiserating with the relatives of the victims. And even as Azad was taking the formal oath of office, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) set off a car bomb in the Nowgam area, not half a dozen kilometres away.
Like every other chief administrator of J&K since 1988, Azad has promised to work to bring peace to the state, while at once making sure human rights are not violated in the war against terror. He will most likely discover the task is a less than happy one. Just like his predecessors in office, Azad will have to confront one of the most bloody low-intensity conflicts in the world, while at once managing an unruly and fractious political coalition, engaging with deep ethnic, religious and regional fissures, and all the while working to rebuild institutions of governance undermined by decades of neglect.
Since the India-Pakistan crisis of 2001-2002, violence in J&K has been in steady decline. Judged by key indices, like the numbers of terrorism-related incidents and fatalities, 2005 saw this trend deepen. Nonetheless, Azad has arrived in office at a time when the détente process faces several serious challenges.
For one, the energetic earthquake-relief performance of organisations of the Islamist right, like the Jamaat ud-Dawa (under whose banner the Lashkar-e-Toiba, LeT, currently operates) and al-Rashid Trust has won them renewed legitimacy in Pakistan. Groups like the LeT are likely to try and capitalise on the situation, a fact which the October 29 serial bombings in New Delhi illustrated. Battered by criticism of his handling of the earthquake, Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, may find it increasingly difficult to confront the Islamists and their armies – assuming, of course, that he actually wishes to add to his multiple domestic challenges by doing so.
Second, no one is certain just where the dialogue between New Delhi and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) is headed. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were scheduled to hold a second round of meetings, but some in the secessionist organisation have been backing away from the dialogue. Part of this is the consequence of pressure from terrorist groups. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), which rejects dialogue with New Delhi, is promoting itself as an alternative political front. Its new website, www.hizbmedia.com, expressly projects the Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani as the political face of the terrorist group.
On ground, there are disturbing signs that terrorist groups are starting to learn the central lesson of recent years: that, despite the overall reduction in levels of violence, they can nevertheless act in ways that allow a high degree of coercive control over civil society. One key manifestation of this realisation is the growing pooling of resources by terrorist groups. While the JeM took responsibility for the November 2 bombing in Srinagar, for example, investigators have determined that the vehicle itself was purchased by an HM operative.
Such cooperation is not new – but does show that jihadi groups could demonstrate greater operational effectiveness than some had expected. Azad, like his predecessors, is likely to try and keep the pressure on terrorist groups, not just through coercive means, but also by trying to bring political pressure to bear through building public support for the India-Pakistan détente process.
If terrorist groups choose to exert pressure on the peace process, political interventions of this kind may not prove useful. New Delhi seems increasingly certain the October 29 serial bombings at the Indian capital were conducted by the Pakistan-based LeT. On November 12, Delhi Police and Intelligence Bureau personnel detained an alleged Lashkar operative, Tariq Ahmad Dar, on suspicion of having led the cell which carried out the bombings. Dar, interestingly, had been arrested earlier this year on charges of funnelling funds from Saudi Arabia to the Lashkar in J&K, and was out of prison on bail, pending trial. It seems increasingly likely that the Lashkar trail will lead on to Pakistan – something that could have an impact on the peace process itself.
Given the strength of its infrastructure and its deep links to Pakistan’s military establishment, the Lashkar is, without doubt, the principal terrorist threat to India today. It is, however, far from the only one. Bilal Ahmad Beig’s Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF), which bombed Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market in 1996, has shown signs in recent months of recovering from its deep penetration by Indian counter-intelligence. Both the JeM and HM, too, have carried out operations outside of J&K in the past. The Delhi bombings have once again made clear the stark fact that, as long as terrorist groups possess the capabilities to carry out violent acts, they will sooner or later use what is available. Of groups with both the intention to carry out terror attacks across India, and the capabilities needed to do so, there is no shortage.
J&K’s future, then, remains as profoundly linked to the course of events in Pakistan as ever before. Azad’s accession to office will yield significant political gains – not the least, the restoration of faith in the institutional processes of democracy, and the affirmation of the fact that Governments in the State are made by voters, not bureaucrats in New Delhi. Beyond that, though, terror seems set to continue to shape the terms of political discourse in J&K. For years, Pakistan has put off a decision on whether it wishes to decisively act to curb terrorist capabilities. Until New Delhi finds means of compelling it to do so – or Pakistan is persuaded that such action is in its own best interests – the path to peace will remain shrouded in uncertainty
the Bandarban Recoveries
In mid-October 2005, the Bangladesh Home Ministry issued an order to prepare a list of Rohingyas illegally living in the inaccessible hilly areas of Bandarban and to arrest those involved in criminal activities. The order said that a section of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh was involved in drugs and arms dealings as well as other criminal operations. In its order, the Home Ministry, issued instructions for the arrest of Rohingya suspects in order to suppress drug, human and arms trafficking and other form of crime.
The order comes in the wake intermittent recoveries of arms and explosives from the hilly parts of the District, close to the border with Myanmar. Bandarban has been the scene of the maximum number of recovery of illegal arms and explosives in the country. After several raids by the security forces under ‘Operation Uttaran’, an anti-crime combing operation, out of the 55 major arms recoveries recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal across Bangladesh between January 1 and November 10, 2005, 19 have taken place in Bandarban district alone. According to Bangladesh Army sources, in the 11 months preceding September 2005, forces recovered a total of 295 sophisticated weapons that included AK 47, M 16 and G 3 rifles with 58,000 rounds of ammunitions just in the Naikhongchhari sub-district of Bandarban.
The achievements, as far as quantities of the recovered arms and ammunition are concerned, have been significant. However, these measures need to be analysed in the context of Bangladeshi attempts to refurbish its much-maligned image as a country fast degenerating into a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, particularly in the aftermath of recent incidents such as the country-wide bomb blasts of August 17, 2005. As has been argued before, these measures are inherently arbitrary, ad hoc and fall drastically short of putting any halt to the country’s slide into a quagmire of extremism and terror.
More than 150,000 Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh from Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) later gave them refugee status and allowed them to live in the shelter homes built in Teknaf, Ukhiya, and Naikhongchhari. The Myanmar Government took back a good number of Rohingya refugees in several phases. Bangladeshi official records maintain that 13,000 Rohingyas are still living in the country, but secret agencies of the police claim that more than 27,000 illegal Rohingyas still live in the Bandarban hilly areas alone, posing an inherent threat to the country due to their involvement in various criminal activities.
The arrest on September 22, 2005, of a Myanmar national, Mohammad Selim alias Haddi Selim, a suspected cadre of the Arakan Solidarity Organisation, by the police at Kutupolang Rohingya camp in Ukhia sub-district of Cox’s Bazaar in connection with the arms recoveries in Naikhongchhari illustrates the modus operandi of these groups, and its continuity with past activities. Another report in the Daily Star spoke of the arrest of another Arakan rebel, Selim, in mid-2000, who in his confessional statement said that he smuggled arms using the Thailand and Myanmar insurgent network through the Chittagong Hills Tracts (CHT), and sold them in the underground market.
Interrogations in both these cases indicated that the sources of arms and their mode of transport into Bandarban have demonstrated little change over the years. Selim disclosed that he often crossed the border and hid arms and ammunition in the deep forest areas of the hill District, such as Baisari, Dochari, Chakdhala, Techari and Lembuchari. Subsequently, these were smuggled deeper into the country and sold to the criminals. 37 arms smuggling gangs and syndicates are reported to be active in the Chittagong region (of which Bandarban is a part) and have obvious links with the 124 arms syndicates active in Bangladesh, making the task of transportation a relatively trouble-free affair. Some 50 thousand illegal firearms and a huge stock of ammunition are reported to be in the possession of the criminal underworld in the Chittagong region.
It has been convenient for law enforcement agencies to indict the illegal Rohingya refugees in arms smuggling. The centrality of the Rohingyas in these criminal operations, though is a reality, needs to assessed in the context of the enveloping scenario of radicalisation in the District, which is fast becoming a favourite hunting ground for local Islamist militants with international connections.
Why is this south-eastern District, spread over 4,479 square kilometres, so important? Bandarban has a 129 kilometre international boundary with Myanmar. Four mountain ranges, Merania, Wailatong, Tambang and Politai cut across the District. Bandarban’s hostile geography – fifty percent of the total area is under forest and, located 187 kilometres away from capital Dhaka, it remains significantly insulated from the heavy hand of the Government – enormously favours the militants. Located within the District are multiple militant groupings of the Arakans and the Rohingyas from Myanmar, with a deepening nexus with Bangladeshi radical Islamist forces. Proximity to Myanmar and easy access to the sea, across the neighbouring Cox’s Bazaar District, provide an alternate access and exit routes, making Bandarban the most advantageous destination for extremist elements.
Both the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) have been active in the District. Two JMB operatives arrested in August 2005 in the remote Faitong area of Bandarban revealed details about the existence of their militant bases in the area, during interrogation. Intelligence agencies indicated that the JMB might have acquired a huge cache of firearms and explosives from the Myanmarese gun-runners, as the explosives and ammunition seized from Naikhongchhari on different occasions were similar to the explosives used in the August 17 and October 3 serial blasts.
In addition to the traffic in illegal arms and explosives, the District is also known for poppy cultivation, presenting dangerous prospects for narco-terrorism. In areas, along the international border and in the upper reaches of the Singu River, such as Mraung Gound, War New Chaung, Late Cray Chaung, Yin Bound, Late Chaung, Site Chaung and Thit Poke, local tribals have been cultivating poppy for many years. To begin with, the cultivation was primarily for the production of raw opium. However, there have been reports that the Islamist militants are getting very closely involved in the trade. Intelligence reports indicate that the JMB, the JMJB, the Harkatul Jihad and the Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh have entered into the lucrative trade of cultivating poppy locally under the supervision of top militant leaders. This has been further confirmed by arrested JMB cadres in the aftermath of the August 17 country-wide bombings. Bangladesh’s Army conducts yearly operations to destroy poppy cultivations, but the effectiveness and reach of such routine operations remains a matter of debate.
Bandarban is emerging as a tactical melting pot for the Rohingyas and the local as well as international radical Islamist jehadi network. A February 2004 intelligence report indicated that four Al-Qaeda training camps had come up in the District. Interrogations of the arrested JMB cadres involved in the August 17 bombings indicated that the JMB had set up several training centres in Lama sub-district of Bandarban and other areas, including Jalpaitali, Tetultali, Maheshkhali and Garzania. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a group of 15 Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) cadres (MULFA operates in Northeast India’s Assam State), had visited the Lamuchari Rohingya training camp in Naikhongchhari in January 2002, under an agreement entered into in 1999.
The strategic vulnerability of the District has been further compounded by myopic official policies and confusing security arrangements. Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) has just a single border outpost (Rijupara in Naikhongchhari) in the entire stretch of the international border in Bandarban. There are other strategic complexities. Although the Naikhongchhari sub-district is in Bandarban, the Naikhongchhari BDR zone is under the BDR Chittagong sector. The CHT, as per the national security policy, is under the Bandarban Army region. Bandarban is managed by the Chittagong division of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) a ‘special para-military force’ under the Home Ministry. As a result, joint operations by the BDR, the Army and the RAB, which are central to the restoration of law and order in the strategically located district, have not been able to proceed beyond the periodic recovery of abandoned and hidden arms and explosives.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
November 7-13, 2005
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Afghanistan to be eighth member of SAARC: Afghanistan will become the eighth member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) while China and Japan will be granted observer status with the South Asian regional grouping, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said in Dhaka on November 13, 2005. Addressing a press conference at the conclusion of the 13th SAARC summit, Dr. Singh said: "We have agreed to induct Afghanistan as a new member… Afghanistan is very close to us. It is now in our group. We also welcome China and Japan as observers since they have shown interest." Later, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran informed that "The standing committee meeting of the council of ministers of SAARC will finalise the status of China and Japan while it is now only for Afghanistan to sign an agreement of the SAARC charter and join as a member." Besides India and Bangladesh, SAARC currently groups Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. HindustanTimes, November 14, 2005.
341 prisoners escape after Maoists attack jail in Bihar: On November 13, 2005, approximately thousand cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) launched near simultaneous attacks on the jail, police lines and a paramilitary camp at Jehanabad in the State of Bihar, killing two persons and injuring five others. One Maoist was also killed in the incident. 341 of the jail's 600 odd prisoners, including Ajay Kanu, state secretary of the CPI-Maoist, and several other cadres of the outfit, were set free and approximately 12 activists of the Ranvir Sena, a private army of upper-caste landowners, have been abducted. Pamphlets left by the Maoists at the jail said 'Operation Jailbreak' was deliberately made to coincide with the ‘great November 13 Russian revolution’ and its aim was to "rescue our comrades and to award death penalty to select Ranvir Sena activists" lodged in the jail. The Maoists, who had reportedly taken control of all entry and exit points of the town exploded a series of bombs in front of the district Collectorate, residence of the district judge and the local S. S. College where a paramilitary camp has been set up. The Hindu, November 14, 2005.
Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist arrested in Delhi blasts case: On November 13, 2005, Delhi Police (DP) announced the arrest of a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorist who allegedly coordinated and financed the serial bomb blasts in Delhi on October 29. Tariq Ahmed Dar, who was working as a sales representative with the pharmaceutical firm Johnson and Johnson, had allegedly hatched the plot along with two LeT cadres, Abu Al Qama and Abu Huzefa, DP Commissioner K. K. Paul informed at a press conference in Delhi. Huzefa was a Pakistani and a LeT commander in Kashmir Valley. Just days before the blasts, Rupees 4.86 lakh had been deposited to Tariq's bank account in Srinagar from a Middle-East country. The money was meant for financing the blasts in which RDX, though not in its pure form, was used, Paul said. Dar had been arrested by DP from Srinagar on November 10 and was brought to Delhi the next day where a local court remanded him to 14 days police custody, Paul informed. He also said that at least four persons were involved in the blasts, which killed at least 62 people and injured more than 200 others.The Times of India, November 14, 2005.
Portugal extradites Abu Salem: Mafia don and prime accused in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, Abu Salem, was extradited to India from Portugal along with his associate, Monica Bedi, on November 10, 2005. The extradition was authorised by a Lisbon court. Salem and Bedi were arrested in Lisbon in 2002 after an Interpol Red Corner alert and were sentenced to prison terms for traveling on false documents. Briefing the media, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Director, U. S. Misra, said Salem was brought to Mumbai around 0715 (IST). Apart from the serial blasts case, Abu Salem is accused in two cases of murder in Mumbai, three cases of extortion in Delhi and one case of passport forgery in Lucknow. Misra said the extradition came after India assured Portugal that neither Salem nor Bedi would be sentenced to death. The Hindu, November 11, 2005.
Maoists release former Prime Minister’s son: On November 8, 2005, the Maoist insurgents released Arun Chand, son of former Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand. The Maoists’ Seti Mahakali regional bureau member and head of the Kailali Bardiya district, Atom, released Chand after he agreed to pay Rupees 31.1 million he owed to sugarcane farmers by March 13, 2006. Liaison officer of the National Human Rights Commission in Nepalgunj, Bir Bahadur Budhamagar, reportedly said that Chand also agreed to re-open the industry that is presently shut. "Our talks centred on the factory and I was not mistreated in any way… I was released only after an agreement was reached with them," said Arun Chand after his release. The Himalayan Times, November 9, 2005.
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