Hafiz Mohammad Saeed addressing an anti-Indian rally on Pakistan's Independence Day in Lahore. File

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed addressing an anti-Indian rally on Pakistan's Independence Day in Lahore. File

Terror trail South Asia: The missing pieces of Kerala & Bangladesh

LeT has spread its wings in Bangladesh, Lanka, Maldives and far away Malaysia

Agency Report | New Delhi | 9 May, 2019 | 11:30 PM

The bulwark of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ideology is to use political Islam as the tip of the spear in its hatred for India. Using Islamic fundamentalism as the instrumentality to lure disaffected educated and uneducated youth in jihad against India, LeT has spread its wings in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and as far away as Malaysia.

The LeT along with Jaish-e-Mohommad are the two principals in the proxy war against India, both have skin the terror game and in many ways are the mirror image of ISI C Wing which runs, controls and minds the military-jihad complex in Pakistan.

The Lashkar, however, gets precedence as it is led with ruthlessness by a man who has a $10 million bounty on his head — Hafiz Mohd. Saeed — in the overarching hierarchical matrix. As co-founder and chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, he is followed by Zakiur Reham Lakhvi (supreme commander of operations in Kashmir and a key member of LeT’s General Council), Azeem Cheema (training camps are supervised by Professor Azeem Cheema alias Babu, who used to be a teacher of Islamic studies at a government degree college in Faisalabad.

He is the same Azeem Cheema whom the Mumbai police chief identified as the person who trained Pakistan militants accused of triggering the Mumbai blasts) and Abdul Rehman Makki (second-in-command of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, a Pakistani Islamic welfare organization of Ahl-e-Hadith and the political arm of the UN-designated terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba).

In this mix can be added the shadowy figure of Muzzamil Bhat; architect of the India encirclement strategy and taking the war against India offshore to neighbouring countries.

‘Washington Post’ in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings stated India, despite having the second-largest population of Muslims in the world, has seen only around 100 citizens fall for the magnetism of the Caliphate to fight alongside their Muslim brethren. But this is fewer than the number of such recruits from the Netherlands.

“Yet there are regions where the Islamic State has managed to draw adherents, including in the northern part of Kerala. The state has the highest literacy rates and development indicators in the country, as well as deep historical ties to the Middle East through migration and trade. In 2016, a group of five families left Kerala hoping to reach Islamic State territory via Afghanistan.

“By the time their relatives realized they were missing, five families – some with small children – had left their comfortable bungalows and jobs as doctors and ebusinessmen to make the perilous journey to Islamic State-held territory in Afghanistan. Authorities believe that 19 adults and three children are settled in Nangahar province, on the mountainous border with Pakistan. Their departure raised alarms about the Islamic State’s reach in India as well as growing extremism in Kerala, a southern state with deep ties through migrant workers to the Persian Gulf.

“Two of the Keralites were killed by drones in Nangahar, including one on April 11 that year, family members said. Then, on April 13, US forces dropped a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb on a cave complex where militant commanders were believed to be hiding.”

An estimated 100 Indians have left to fight for the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, according to Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi – a fraction of the number of foreign fighters who have taken up the cause in the past two years.

Over 20 Muslim youngsters have reportedly disappeared from Kerala and out of these, at least 11 were believed to have reached the IS terror camps in Syria. Firoz Khan, a 24-year-old from Trikaripur in Kerala’s Kasargod district, was arrested by IB from Mumbai. He was nabbed from a hotel in Dongri in Mumbai. Firoz had left for Mumbai on June 22 on the pretext of going to Kerala’s Kozhikode city. A phone call Firoz made to inform his family about his whereabouts is what trapped him. During the call, he said some others who went missing from his village have reached IS camps in Syria, stated a Manorama report.

The Middle East Institute writes: IS’ main recruiter, Shafi Armar, who, based in Bhatkal, was believed to be operating in Syria, has been responsible for officially forming two major cells: the Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind and Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind. However, over the past five years, these groups have not gained the traction they expected and have struggled to carry out any attack.

Simultaneously, IS only did marginally better in attracting Indians to its heartlands in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan as mentioned earlier.

The danger though is clear and present. Our vigil and guard cannot be lowered in this 24×7 war against terror. Nevertheless, over the past year, the Islamic State has seemingly tried to expand its presence. The January 2019 and December 2018 plots were not the only evidence of their activities. In September 2018, probe agencies disrupted another plot to break a top IS operative out of a jail in Tamil Nadu.

Moreover, in October 2018 Kerala police discovered that ten individuals had joined IS in Afghanistan. This is in addition to IS’ persistent presence in Kashmir, where most recently, the mounted at least ten operations that produced 22 casualties. Furthermore, in the new issue of IS’ magazine, Al Risalah, the group dedicated a few articles to political issues taking place in Kashmir.

Maintaining excellent ties with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina has meant that India has the intelligence edge in our eastern neighbourhood where the leader herself brooks no nonsense from terror outfits.

While the tony Holey Artisan Bakery attack by educated Bangladeshi youth exposed the underbelly, Sheikh Hasina’s response was brutal. Jamaat Mujhaidheen terrorists were hunted down and retribution completed.

The United States says that a faction of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) serves as the local branch of the Islamic State. It has designated the group as a terrorist organisation. “They talk like ISIS and behave like ISIS,” said Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who lives in Sweden and tracks militant groups.

Meanwhile, Islamic State propaganda channels targeting Bengali speakers – operating primarily on the messaging app Telegram – have become active again after a lull last year, he said. “Obviously they are regrouping and trying to excite their base.”

The centrifuge in this is Major General Tarique Ahmed Siddique, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s security adviser who has effective control over the country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies. General Siddique is considered one of the most influential members of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government and a very close personal ally; his brother is married to the Prime Minister’s sister, Sheikh Rehana.

His niece is the UK Labour member of parliament, Tulip Siddique.

The seeds of Islamic militancy were sown by LeT’s Muzzamil Bhat who used the HuJI, Bangladesh as a beach head, as it combined with the Jamaat to make inroads. In fact, very soon the LeT subsumed HuJI and even elements of Jamaat and became all pervasive as the paragon of Islamist ideology.

Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangladesh is the Bangladeshi branch of the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). It is banned in Bangladesh. The founder of the group was Maulana Abdus Salam. Other well-known leaders include Shaikhul Hadith Allama and Azizul Haque, who was the chairman of the political party Islami Okiya Jote.

Muhammad Habibur Rahman (alias Bulbuli Huzur) was a leader of the HuJI and initially a leader of Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish. The principal of Lalkhan Madrasa in Chittagong, Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury, was also a leader of the HuJI. Mufti Abdul Hanan is the current leader of the Bangladeshi branch of the HuJI. He is currently incarcerated, convicted of various terrorism charges and has been sentenced to death. He is charged in 25 criminal cases involving terrorism.

The Islami Chhatra Shibir or Shibir (student’s wing of Jamaat-e-Islami) also began to owe allegiance to LeT. Its objectives are to struggle for changing the existing system of education on the basis of Islamic values, to inspire students to acquire Islamic knowledge and to prepare them to take part in the struggle for establishing Islamic way of life.

A significant aim of the outfit is to establish an Afghanistan-Taliban type Islamist regime in Bangladesh. Consequently, the outfit is opposed to forces of modernization, secularism and democracy. The ICS is one of the strongest student fronts in the universities of Chittagong, Dhaka, Rajshahi and Jahangirnagar.

It is also emerging as a dominant group in the Khulna and Sylhet universities. Within the vast madrassa (religious seminary) structure in Bangladesh, the ICS is reported to be a dominant and uncontested organisation.

The Indian deep state has understood the enemy outside Kashmir Valley and busted all the terror modules within the country and through active information sharing with neighbouring nations, plugged and played into the Islamist network in these countries.

Sheikh Hasina government’s “zero-tolerance” policy is to counter violent extremism. She has also positioned the Awami League as a secular nationalist party, emphasising its prosecution and execution of hardline Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who were found guilty of war crimes during the Liberation war in 1971.

According to a US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, 2017, since Gulshan’s Holey Artisan attack, at least 79 suspected radicals have been killed and more than 150 others arrested in an aggressive anti-militancy crackdown. To support counter-terrorism, the Bangladesh government also enacted the country’s first anti-terrorism law in 2009, which was amended in 2013.

Pakistan and its jihadi arms haven’t given up on bringing her down. A sensational plot to assassinate Sheikh Hasina and her family members besides top leaders of the ruling Awami League ahead December 30, 2018 parliamentary polls was foiled. Lt. General Navid Moktar from ISI was believed to have played a pivotal role in the plot, where several ISI agents apart from some members of the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard were involved.

ISI and LeT, in many ways have tried to facilitate the return of pro-Pakistan BNP and radical Jamaat-e-Islami to power, but unsuccessfully and this is a tribute to Indian agencies liaising with Dhaka effectively.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in this war against subterranean terror came in 2009 in south Asia and in the main Bangladesh. In a big catch, intelligence sleuths captured Mohd Omar Madani, his links to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and also other terror strikes in the country proved to be a treasure trove of valuable information.

Perhaps the most important bit was his handling and knowledge of Bangladesh as conduit for Lashkar operatives. This was used with deadly impact over the next few years by RAW which communicated the coordinates of the entire cell and its managers to Dhaka.

Delhi police and the Intelligence Bureau grilled Madani after he revealed that he had links with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, Abu Hamza, Sabahuddin and Fahim Ansari all of whom have were involved in the Mumbai attacks.

Madani has also told the police that he had states like Karnataka and Kerala on his radar and the Lashkar had plans to carry out deadly strikes in these states. He was a crucial piece in the jigsaw, for the probe and questioning revealed Madani was responsible for making Bangladesh a transit point for the Lashkar cadres waiting to cross over into India.

Police sources said he was in constant touch with Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi regarding recruitment in India. Madani was specifically directed to look for youth in the metros and coastal areas.