Friday, December 19, 2014

Crossroads for Terror in South Asia

Burdwan in West Bengal, a city about 150 kilometers from Kolkata, was the location in early October of a blast inside a house which resulted in the death of two men, Shakil Ahmed and Swapan Mondal. Another man injured in the blast was later detained with with two women who were also present at the time of the blast and reportedly disclosed that those present at the time were all members of the terrorist outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuM-B/JMB) - and were planning to carry out attacks across Bangladesh.

Subsequent investigations revealed disturbing plans for a large terror scheme, with the JMB operating out of India to attack targets in Bangladesh and possibly even in India.

One scheme, apparently in the works for months, involved making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to be sent to Bangladesh and Assam to perpetrate acts of terror, as well as carrying out recruitment and fund-raising drives - with senior JMB operatives frequently visiting at least seven madrassas across three districts (Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia) near the Bangladesh border in West Bengal.

The authorities allegedly found around 50 grenades, gelatin sticks, chemicals and five cellphones with 50 SIM cards at the house in Burdwan where the blast took place on October 2, with intelligence sources claiming that at least 50 IEDs manufactured in JMB hideouts such as the Burdwan house may have already found their way into Bangladesh.

The presence of this purported resurgent terror network operating from West Bengal and Assam has found further credence as authorities discovered another two-dozen abandoned IEDs on October 17 at a desolate location in the Malda district. In the following days, six other supposed JMB sleeper-cell operatives were arrested in Assam, and leaflets and other propaganda material was discovered.

The JMB terror threat took center stage in 2005 when the group carried out a series of almost 500 synchronized blasts in 63 of the 64 districts in Bangladesh to support an agenda to do away with democracy and establish Sharia rule. The JMB is vehemently against the idea of democracy in Bangladesh and any regional cooperation between Dhaka and New Delhi.

While the JMB has not attacked India, the group has been known to provide arms and training to separatist elements operating in northeastern parts of the country. The JMB also has had a long history of cooperating with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and is even reputed to have ties to al-Qaeda.

A recent revelation by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, is of vital importance. The day after leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s pronouncement that al-Qaeda has a dedicated South Asia wing, Gogoi revealed how his government had intelligence on al-Qaeda’s attempts to set up a base in the state and how the group had allegedly entered into a "tacit understanding" with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

If validated, these signs certainly wouldn't paint a very positive picture, for India and its neighbors. A resurgent JMB, with LeT and local northeastern separatists, and a ULFA-supported al-Qaeda presence, could create new safe havens for terrorist/insurgent groups across a region comprising Bangladesh and parts of the surrounding Indian border states of Assam and West Bengal.

The recurring rhetoric for the past few decades has been rising concern over Bangladesh turning into a safe haven for extremist elements looking to target India. However, given recent events in Assam and West Bengal, the government in New Delhi and respective state governments need to have a comprehensive and honest re-examination of the factors that have led to the current situation at the periphery.

While India claims to have established a closer relationship with Bangladesh on issues related to regional terrorism, facts seem to point in the opposite direction and India at times lacks the necessary will to act on information received from intelligence services across its borders. For instance, four years ago, Bangladesh pushed for the extradition of an alleged terrorist who had been reportedly operating from one of the seven madrassas recently targeted for use by the JMB leadership.

A foreign ministry official had claimed in an unofficial report that the state government at the time was reluctant to help. On another occasion, efforts by then-Indian intelligence services chief K C Verma to get the central government to act on Bangladesh’s request for extradition of a supposed JMB operative failed because then-Home Minister P Chidambaram was unable to coordinate with the West Bengal government.

A fresh wave of extremism in Bangladesh can dent the still-developing democratic structure of the country, something which is bound to have repercussions for India and New Delhi's efforts for regional safety. In that regard - and in countering the overall menace of terrorism in South Asia - New Delhi needs consciously and seriously to take regional leadership and promote an integrated regional approach.

Most importantly, that includes a focus on developing the right infrastructure and other socio-economic tools to ensure a conducive and safe social environment for youths and various minorities in the region; successfully countering negative ideologies is a more holistic solution to the prevalent and gravely rising threat of parts of these states turning into terrorist hubs.

Only a firm hand in dealing with the state governments on these issues, along with greater dialogue, bilateral involvement and trust with Bangladesh over issues of border security and intelligence, and indirectly through supporting democracy, can dispel these imminent internal and regional threats.

Uday Deshwal is an MA graduate in South Asia & Global Security from the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and currently is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India.


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