Aftermath of one of the serial blasts in Dispur-Guwahati: civilians were definitely the target

Aftermath of one of the serial blasts in Dispur-Guwahati: civilians were definitely the target

Assam: confusion confounded

Bibhu PrasadRoutray | Assam | 10 November 2008 |

Notwithstanding Ulfa’s disclaimer, there is circumstantial evidence that it wants to show it is alive and kicking

Forensic examination has confirmed that RDX and ammonium nitrate were used in at least two of the three explosions that rocked Dispur-Guwahati on October 30. By all accounts all the explosions were sophisticated, of a high intensity, and were the outcome of meticulous planning and substantial financial resources.

On October 31, about 30 hours after the explosions, a Guwahati-based private TV news channel reported that they have received a text message in which the ‘Islamic Security Force–Indian Muzahideen’ (ISF–IM) has claimed responsibility for the serial blasts. The message read, “We ISF–IM take the responsibility of yesterday’s blast. We warn all of Assam and India of situations like this in future. We thank all our holy members and partners. Ameen.” The mobile number used to send the message was later traced to the Morigaon district, adjoining Kamrup district where Dispur is situated. A group called the Islamic Security Force of India (ISFI) was founded almost one and half decades ago and had perished without recording a single action worth note, and no prior information is available on any derivative of this group answering to the title of ISF-IM. The Assam Police has, however, claimed that the ISF–IM was, indeed, floated in the year 2000 in western Assam, basically to confront Bodo militancy.

Immediately after the explosions, a cabinet minister in Assam went on record saying that he suspects the role of the Ulfa in the attack, an assumption that was, however, rather quickly challenged by others in the State establishment. The denial by Ulfa within hours of the blasts appeared to have convinced even the Assam police intelligence chief Khagen Sarma, who declared, “The needle of suspicion points to jihadi outfits who are behind subversive activities in the state…While investigations will go on, the police have been zeroing in on Islamist fundamentalist forces which, of late, have been active in the state and the region.”

Sarma was not alone. ‘ULFA can’t do this’ theories found ready takers among many analysts who extended their arc of understanding to blame the illegal migrants from Bangladesh and the Harkat-ul Jihad-al Islami (HuJI), which has been accused of orchestrating several terror strikes in urban centres across India, though there is little evidence of their past activities or potency in the North-east. Organizations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) organized rallies condemning jihadi and fundamentalist forces.

As with terrorist attacks in the past, it is doubtful that a final and credible determination of responsibility will ever be made – police investigations and declarations notwithstanding. Worse, the current proclivity to carry out processes of investigation under the glare of the media severely undermines the already deficient credibility of state agencies, as every line of investigation, partial determination of fact, lead and, indeed, at least some wildly speculative nonsense, is reported as the ‘solution’ of the case. The sheer incoherence that is projected at this stage undermines the integrity of the investigative process and, in substantial measure, the sustainability of any prosecution that may eventually be launched.

It must be clear that investigations are, at this juncture, at no more than a preliminary stage. Five persons have been detained, but this has no definitive implications regarding culpability. Among these, Nazir Ahmed was arrested from Moirabari in eastern Assam’s Morigaon district. It was Ahmed’s mobile phone that was used to send an SMS to a local television channel claiming the serial blasts as an operation executed by the ISF–IM. The mobile phone had reportedly been acquired on the basis of false identity documents. The owners of one of the cars and of a motorcycle used in the serial blasts were also arrested, but reports suggest that these vehicles had not been in their possession for some time. Two further arrests are also related to the acquisition of vehicles for the serial attack. A forensic examination of the explosives used suggests that a mix of RDX and ammonium nitrate variously involved in the blasts, which were triggered by timer devices. That, roughly, is all that lies in the present realm of ‘facts’ in this case.

A large body of precedent information, however, does provide a credible basis for an informed assessment of groups that have the capacity and intent to execute an operation reflecting the coordination and magnitude of the October 30 attacks. One thing is certain in this context: Ulfa does not lie outside the circle of suspicion.

Ulfa has been involved in numerous explosions in Assam since the very inception of the group. Indeed, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and grenades have been established as the dominant mode of attack by Ulfa cadres. With a visible decline in its numerical strength, Ulfa has, since 2005, also resorted to employing mercenaries for planting explosives in crowded places. The outfit has used sophisticated explosives like the RDX in a number of its attacks and is also known to have a sizeable stock of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) and a variety of plastic explosives, stored mostly in the Bangladesh, along India’s international border. ULFA has used explosive laden bicycles, motorcycles and cars to set off blasts on previous occasions. The first instance of a car bomb explosion set off by ULFA was on 4 February 2007, near the Pan Bazaar Police Station in Guwahati. In January 2008, two Ulfa cadres responsible for the attack were arrested by the Assam Police. A sizeable majority of Ulfa’s terror attacks have been directed against civilian targets, in complete contravention to the claims of the outfit and its overground advocates.

Significantly, all the four districts that were chosen for the serial attacks on October 30 are known Ulfa strongholds. Moreover, almost all the locations where explosives were detonated, including the specific locations in Dispur-Guwahati, barring the high court premises, have been targeted by ULFA in the past. The Ganeshguri flyover, in the proximity of the State Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat, has been the scene of at least 30 explosions, in the past five years. Portions of the space below the flyover are used as a parking area for cars and two wheelers, as well as by street hawkers, and are an easy location to plant a car bomb.

Too much emphasis has been placed on the present debility of Ulfa to argue that the outfit, being at its weakest since its inception, is operationally incapable of carrying out an attack at this scale, particularly after the defection and surrender of two companies of its principal strike force, the ‘28th battalion’ (one of the three active military formations of the outfit). While it is certainly the case that the ‘28th battalion’s’ defection and engagement with the government has impacted significantly on ULFA’s capacities, it remains the case that other formations, including the ‘27th battalion’ and the ‘709th battalion’ (active in the western Assam districts), are almost intact.

A major strike was, moreover, almost a dire necessity for Ulfa, to demonstrate its surviving capacities in the eyes of both sympathizers and detractors, who are increasingly inclined to write the outfit off.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the State Government is presently exploring the possibility of a HuJI-Ulfa link in the serial blasts, even as it examines the authenticity of the SMS claiming responsibility of the ISF-IM. Since this serial attack occurred in India’s perennially troubled and neglected North-east, its impression is already receding in the national (read, Delhi’s) consciousness. It is useful to recall that, just two days before the serial blasts, officials of the Assam home department, which is headed by chief minister Gogoi, were pleading with the Union government to  end army operations so that more Ulfa cadres could be brought into the ‘peace process’.

As the dust settles further, Assam will, inevitably, revert to ‘politics as usual’. The October 30 bombings are only the latest in a chain of terrorist attacks under a succession of inept administrations that have vacillated, deceived, politicized and undermined responses, but consistently failed to define and execute a coherent strategy to neutralize this threat.