An accidental blast in a remote West Bengal village has inadvertently uncovered a growing network of Bangladesh-based Islamists in eastern India with international jihadi ties.
The episode has shocked the India government as the terrorists were understood to be working to establish sharia law in several eastern states including West Bengal and Assam. The force behind the movement is a fundamentalist group named Jammat–ul Mujahiddin Bangladesh, known by its initials JMB, which was formed in Bangladesh more than a decade ago.
So far, Indian intelligence forces have rolled up about 15 of the group and are concerned that the eastern Indian states, isolated from the main part of the country geographically by Bangladesh, could be a hotbed for extremism because of longstanding ethnic tensions and the ability of Bangladeshi Muslims to easily penetrate the porous border.
New Delhi has so far seemingly been reluctant to take the matter seriously, preferring to depend on the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Dhaka in its anti-terror campaign. But when the JMB was discovered to have quietly entered the eastern Indian states, New Delhi found the situation too hot to handle. The JMB has recruited many Muslim youths from eastern India and started fund-raising drives with the aim of destabilizing the Hasina government and establishing an Islamic regime in Bangladesh and, if possible, including bordering Indian localities with Muslim concentrations.
The JMB is believed to be transforming Madrasas – typical Islamic religious schools – based in three districts in West Bengal to train new recruits in the use of improvised explosive devices, small arms and jihadi practices. Women were found to be trained in the art of manufacturing grenades and other explosives, later to be shifted to Bangladesh through couriers. West Bengal police were said to be “clueless” about the growing network. But the sudden blast, in a house in a village in Burdwan district on Oct. 2, killing two suspects, changed everything. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) was authorized to probe the blast.
JMB, which translates as “Assembly of Holy Warriors in Bangladesh,” was formed in 1998 with the aim of establishing Islamic rule in the poverty-stricken country. Although initial funds reportedly came through donations from well-wishers based in Bangladesh and other countries including Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan, the UAE etc., cadres later began using extortion & taxations to raise funds.
With over 10,000 fulltime and 100,000 casual cadres, the JMB resorted to disruptive activities in Bangladesh and also started transferring a huge portion of terror funds to India through messengers who have found it easy to penetrate the border.
During Begum Khaleda Zia’s term as Bangladesh Prime Minister, the JMB received political patronage as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government had allies in two hardline Islamist parties, Jammat-e-Islami and Islami Oikyajot. Throughout the end of Khaleda’s term in 2006, the JMB expanded its networks across the country.
In 2005, the JMB received international media attention with serial blasts with low intensity bombs at over 300 locations across Bangladesh, including Dhaka itself that killed two. The terror group claimed responsibility, stating that: “We are the soldiers of Allah. We have taken up arms for implementing Allah's law…It is time to go for Islamic laws in Bangladesh…. There is no future with man-made laws."
The government banned the JMB and following the serial bombings the international community put massive pressure on Khaleda’s government to take stringent action against the organization, which ultimately killed hundreds of people including two judges. In return, Bangladesh’s security forces arrested almost all the important leaders, killing many activists.. Six leaders were tried and executed on March 30, 2007 in various Bangladesh jails.
Adding to the troubles for the JMB, Begum Zia’s arch-rival Sheikh Hasina recaptured power in December 2008, forcing the JMB to start shifting their hideouts to eastern India.
India’s two important intelligence agencies, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau identified JMB leaders who regularly entered from Bangladesh to visit the West Bengal madrasas. They also cautioned the government that the JMB was silently working on a strong terror network in four districts in West Bengal.
Those alerts were not taken seriously initially by the pro-Muslim West Bengal government in Kolkata or by Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi. However the change of leadership in the national capital when Narendra Modi took charge has changed the mood.
The Bharatiya Janata Party led government virtually overpowered the West Bengal government, forcing them to take strong action. Initially unwilling, the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee later welcomed the National Intelligence Agency probe into the episode.
By Oct. 31, the federal agency interrogated and arrested suspected JMB leaders and their associates in West Bengal and came out with a list comprising 12 individuals in connection with the Burdwan blast. Many carried heavy cash bounties on their heads.
The intelligence agency, with the help of West Bengal police, later succeeded in arresting Sajid alias Masood Rana, a Bangladeshi national who featured in the NIA list carrying a reward of Rs1 million (US$16,100). The investigative agency arrested another wanted terrorist named Amjad Ali Sheikh, a supplier of explosives to JMB.
Meanwhile, an NIA team led by Director General Sharad Kumar visited Dhaka seeking more details about JMB activities. The Sheikh Hasina government agreed to share all relevant documents with the visiting Indian investigators.
Another breakthrough came with the arrest of a suspected Burmese terrorist from Hyderabad on Nov.17. Suspected to be a Rohingya Muslim and identified as Khalid Mohammed, he was picked up in connection with the Burdwan blast. He is said to be a bomb expert and was instrumental in running terror camps along the Myanmar border areas.
The NIA has continued its search for another 10 rebels. The featuring in the list of Sahanur Alam, who hails from a remote village in western Assam, spread a shockwave through the state, which had been thought untouched by Islamist militancy despite the ethnic unrest.
The arrest of Suzena Begum by Assam police in Guwahati on Nov. 7 confirmed the presence of radical Islamic elements. She is Sahanur Alam’s wife and remains in government custody. Police suspect she initially was a messenger but subsequently became a trainer of female activists. She also confessed that more Assamese Muslim women were trained as jihadis in West Bengal.
Six residents of the town of Barpeta were arrested by Assam police on Oct. 10 on suspicion of links to the JMB. The government recently handed over all cases related to jihadi activities in Assam to the NIA, given the seriousness of the situation and its international ramifications.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi acknowledged that some areas of his state have become a major concentration of jihadi elements, writing to Prime Minister Modi urging him to take up the matter with the Bangladesh government for information-sharing and coordinated action. Northeast India, he said, remains vulnerable to Islamist terrorism because of the influx from Bangladesh and also the presence of several fundamentalist organizations in the region.