Dialogue April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4
Intelligence and Control of Terrorism
Different kinds of perceived grievances give rise to different types of terrorist activities in different countries at different times. Controlling such terrorism requires a many-pronged approach and selective use of measures in each case. The core requirement, however, is actionable intelligence. Absence or inadequacy of such intelligence makes the task of security agencies difficult and quite often hazardous. Two recent cases in which intelligence failures caused terrible consequences are discussed in this paper.
The issue of the New York Times dated 22 December, 2014 contained an article entitled “Spy Data Failed to Halt ’08 Mumbai Terror.” It was written by three journalists named James Glanz, Sebastian Rotella and David E. Sangar, each reporting from different locations including Mumbai, New Delhi, New York, Washington, and Chicago. Further reportings were contributed by Andrew W. Lehran, Declan Walsh, Jeff Larsen, Tom Jennings and Anna Belle Peevey from different locations. The write-up was published under a three column headline in the front page and continued in a two page centre-spread of the newspaper’s section A in the Late City Edition. The prominence given to the long and detailed report reflects the importance of the subject dealt with. So many journalists joined together to file the report after painstaking research over six years. The write-up was appropriately sub-titled “Online Clues Were Found, But Never Pieced Together.” Snapshots of the Taj Mahal Hotel of Mumbai taken during the impugned period (November 26-29, 2008), when the hotel was under sieze, along with the photographs of three of the main operatives were printed as illustrations to the write-up.
Replete with information culled from all available sources and analysis based on country experience of the selected and mature journalists this article in the world’s leading daily will enlighten all interested scanners of contemporary events. The small nuggets of “Missed Signals Before the Attacks” are invaluable because these are sourced from classified documents and interviews with the concerned senior officials.
The sequence of events became known soon after the incident. The motives and styles of the operatives involved also became known during the past six years. What was not known to the general public was the plethora of activities which were going on behind the scene. Having exposed these, the journalists concerned have presented the matter afresh to the domain of public debates. Hopefully, such debates will now be better informed and intellectually more enlivening. But what is more important is to learn the lessons from the past mistakes and to define the future course of action firmly based on such learning.
It is now clear that “actionable intelligence” were not available in the form required. It is also clear that intelligence agencies failed to put their heads together and warn each other in time. The bits and pieces of intelligence available were never sewed together to bring out a complete picture, however imperfect, about the probable course of action the conspirators and the militants might take. What is unpardonable, however, is the failure to take cognizance of the information proffered by simple witnesses. One example is that of “the wife of one terrorist, David Coleman Headley” who had “warned American officials three times in 2007 and 2008 that Mr. Headley was a terrorist conducting missions in Mumbai.” She seems to have been just ignored. Consequently Headley “went unnoticed until shortly before his arrest in Chicago in late 2009.” That was too late indeed. Meanwhile, the proffered “clues slipped by the Americans.” The same thing happened with the others. “The British had access to a trove of data” but they “contend that the information was not specific enough to detect the threat. The Indians did not home in on the plot even with the alerts from the United States.”
Reading the article in the background of the events and the action/inaction of the agencies and governments concerned it is certain that the unity of purpose has been lacking all along. The United States seem to be unable to shake off their previous suspicion that India was not in the same boat with them in international diplomacy. Pakistan has not definitely learnt any lessons. Otherwise their government would not have kept quiet when the Courts recently released the arrested and undertrial militants on bail. They would have co-operated with India in dealing with the terrorists. They do not seem to realize that by supporting, inspiring and inciting the Jihadi, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda militants they would ultimately hurt themselves. The Pakistan Prime Minister’s announcement that Army Courts will now try terrorism-related cases seems to be a perverted decision because it is the Army, which has been supporting the terrorists in the past. It has to be realized that in Pakistan it is the Army, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and the religious extremists who call the shots in politics and not the democratically elected government.
The Indian government must make a proper analysis of the events, particularly the intelligence failures of the past, and gear up all the concerned organizations urgently. The instant need is to have a proper look at the functioning of all our police and intelligence outfits, both in the Centre and in the States, and after proper examination take the required action on the lines suggested by the various Commissions and Committees whose reports are already available with the respective governments.
In India the extremist elements are of various types. They have different objectives and sometimes conflicting support bases. These have to be dealt with very carefully. This writer had an opportunity to look at the past events as Chief Secretary, Assam, and Chairman of the Unified Command of Army, paramilitary forces, police and Intelligence Agencies (1990-1995). But that was long ago. Meanwhile, the problems have become more complicated and more numerous. A coordinated action plan must be drawn up and implemented urgently.
The second case is that of the bomb blast which took place in Bardhaman district in West Bengal on 2 October, 2014 and uncovered the secret preparations for Islamist militancy in Eastern India. The subsequent investigations brought to light the linkages between the Ja’amatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jihadi elements in Assam and West Bengal. The extent of motivation and training of Muslim youths in the sensitive localities and in select madrasas also became known. The arrest of a number of activists in Assam’s Barpeta district showed that a large number of Muslim youths who had been missing from their villages in Assam were actually taking Jihadi training in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Their leader, Sahidul Alam aka “Doctor Babu,” who had been absconding for a long time, was ultimately arrested on 5 December, 2014 in a village in Nalbari district. Alam’s wife Sujida Begum, had been arrested earlier. She had received Jihadi training and had herself become a trainer of other women. Another husband and wife duo-Seikh Rahmatullah aka Sajid and Fatema Begum – who were leaders and trainers of JMB were arrested in Dhaka. This shows that the JMB had women operatives also, unlike other Islamist outfits elsewhere. The recent arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of one person of Rohingiya origin at Hyderabad, 28 years old Muhammad Khaled, who is a trained explosives expert, has shown the linkage with the Islamist militants of Myanmar’s South-Western State of Rakhine. Khaled was a madrasa teacher. A few more Rahingiyas were arrested later. Another international link was discovered when Muhammad Alam was arrested at Chattagram in Bangladesh. Alam had been obtaining monetary assistance for JMB and other Jihadi outfits from the Netherlands.
The objectives of these Jihadi organizations are now well known. One objective is to improve the lot of their allegedly downtrodden Muslim brethren in Eastern India. The Jihadies feel that under the present regimes, Muslims have been discriminated against and have not been given their dues. The JMB, therefore, have been creating “sleeper cells” of Jihadies in the strategic locations. These Jihadies are highly motivated and well-trained. The idea is that at the appropriate moment the sleeper cells would be activated to overthrow the ruling elites by violent activities.
The ultimate objective of JMB is to establish a sovereign Islamic State which will include Bangladesh, Myanmar’s Rakhine State and India’s North Eastern Region. This they wish to achieve through demographic invasion beside terrorist activities. Large-scale and unrelenting infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims has been going on through the porous border between India’s West Bengal and Assam and Bangladesh, during the past few decades. At least in seven districts of Assam, Muslims now constitute a majority. Probably about one-third of Assam’s total population is now Muslim. In 1911 only about 16 per cent of the population were Muslim. Today it is around 33 per cent to 35 per cent. More than 5 million illegal Bangladeshis are now believed to be living in Assam. The former CPM and the present Trinamool Congress governments of West Bengal and the Congress government of Assam allegedly favour the Bangladeshis because of their vote-bank politics. Moreover, Bangladeshi infiltrators find a welcoming population in Assam’s border districts predominantly inhabited by their own kith and kin who had infiltrated earlier. Allegedly, the corrupt Border Security Force members also help them in exchange for small bribes. A Kolkata-based racket has been discovered recently. It is involved in clandestinely managing forged passports and other Indian documents for Bangladeshi infiltrators.
In the wake of the recent findings about the Jihadi outfits, a virtual hue and cry has been raised by the local media and political and social activists in Assam. But they had all along been ignoring the warning given by an internationally acclaimed security analyst–Jaideep Saikia, who had predicted the present situation long ago, in his remarkable book Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India (Vision Books. New Delhi, 2004). This book was released in New Delhi’s India International Centre by the famous economist Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution, USA, on 19 September, 2004. Cohen applauded Jaideep’s maturity and commended his book for consultation by “anyone seeking a fuller picture of the problems of revolutionary war and separatism in India’s North East.” Jaideep had earlier carried out detailed research on the same problem as a Fellow of the Ford Foundation in the prestigious University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne, USA, and had produced an excellent paper in 1998. The former Assam Governor Lt. Gen (Retd.) S.K. Sinha had written the foreword to this paper. Sinha later praised Jaideep for “highlighting the activities of (Islamic) fundamentalist elements in the North East” and for focusing attention “to the grave threat it poses to our national security.” One of the appendices of the book contained a detailed compendium on “Muslim Fundamentalist Organizations in North East India.” This is really invaluable. Jaideep had also warned about the sinister designs of Al-Quaeda and stated that “the active remnants of al-Quada and the Taliban reportedly entered Bangladesh which abuts North East India.” In fact Jaideep had cited Al-Quaeda in as many as 24 places in his book. Recently he updated the information and referred to his “research findings that predicted the Islamist design” which “were well in evidence since the late 1990s.” He re-iterated that “the transformative moment that Islam is passing through were resonating in the North East and Bangladesh even before 9/11 had occurred.” Jaideep had also mentioned about the signing of the “official declaration of Jihad against US (United States)” by the Bangladeshi Jihad leader Fazlur Rahman on 23 February, 1998. This declaration had been earlier signed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman-al-Zawahiri. (“Islamist Terror” in “Defence and Security Alert.” November, 2014. New Delhi). This shows that the Islamist insurgency in India’s North East has always been intricately linked to the Jihadi movements in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and the countries of the Middle East at the apex level. In fact, it was Jaideep who first predicted “an al-Quaeda design in the region.” Being linked to Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries, JMB and their cohorts operating in the North East had access to substantial monetary resources and arms and ammunitions which most other insurgent organizations lacked.
Where Jaideep stands out is in his originality. Unlike most armchair strategists, Jaideep had travelled far and wide with Army detachments, terrorist groups and investigative journalists to the actual areas of operation and had interviewed the diehard activists and the master terrorists. He has composed his observations and comments only after personal spot study and painstaking research.
It would be naive to assume that the Govt. of Assam (GOA) was unaware about Jaideep’s works and about the existence and spread of Jihadi organizations in the State of Assam. The media and the civil society, therefore, has every right to ask GOA to explain the action taken and/or contemplated by them in this behalf. The present writer was the Chairman of the Unified Command of Army, para-military forces, police and intelligence agencies ever since the Command had been set up on the night of 27/28 November, 1990, when Operation Bajrang also started, till he retired from service as Chief Secretary to the GOA on 28 February, 1995. He has been familiar with different types of militancy in volatile Assam and the North East during the second half of the twentieth century. He had travelled by jeeps and on foot on the Stilwell Road upto the Lake of No Return in the interior of the areas inhabited by Nagas and other tribals in the Sagaing Division and the Kachin State of Myanmar. This he did in the company of officers of a GOI organization. He happened to be the Deputy Commissioner and Political Officer of Assam’s earstwhile Lakhimpur district at that time. Then he has travelled again in Myanmar in 2013 upto the Sagaing city. He had reviewed Jaideep’s book in a leading English daily in 2004 and pointed out the dangers posed by the Jihadies to Assam and the NE.
All insurgent outfits threaten the integrity and solidarity of the country. But the present genre of militancy is different from the ones mounted earlier by ULFA, NSCN, NDFB or Maoists, because of its greater international linkages and ramifications. Moreover, role models from IS and other organizations of the Middle East provide them immense encouragement. Jihadies are also different because of the dedication and commitment of the operatives. They are unlikely to be swayed or lured by any type of monetary gain or political office. Their public support base from their own community is also enormous. The destabilizing potential of Islamist militancy is tremendous as shown by the happenings in Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In the case of Pakistan, such destabilization has been caused by their government’s own action in supporting the sinister designs of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the Fundamentalists and the Army.
Meanwhile, the Sheikh Hasina government of Bangladesh seems to be taking strong action against the Jihadies. Her government has fully co-operated with the Indian investigation teams of NIA who have visited areas where Indian militant outfits have their hideouts in Bangladesh. As a result many ULFA, NDFB and other activists had to flee Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government have arrested quite a number of Jihadi activists. The Bangladeshi security personnel have visited several locations in Eastern India. On 26 November, 2014 a Fast Track Court in Bangladesh capital of Dhaka passed death sentences on two Jihadies after trial. Some Jihadi supporters of that country seem to be now disillusioned with the extremists. They are actually working for communal harmony. These are good signs.
The indigenous Assamese people, both Hindus and Muslims, are normally peaceful. Communal harmony has been maintained by them for a long time. The large number of meetings and discussions held by the indigenous Assamese Muslims during recent months against the Jihadi elements and the equally large number of public statements they have made in the local media, including letters to the editors of the local newspapers, show that the indigenous Muslims are against the extremists. It is the Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, who had immigrated or infiltrated into Assam during the past one century, who need motivation not to encourage the Jihadies and to maintain communal peace. It may be mentioned that the Muslims who came from North India have fully got themselves absorbed into the Assamese society and adopted Assamese culture, titles, dress and language. Their icon Ajan Fakir had preached communal harmony. Their legendary general Bagh Hazarika had fought alongside the Ahom army and against the Mughals. It is significant that the Ahoms pushed back the Mughals as many as seventeen times. The last time was in 1671, when the great Ahom general Lachit Barphukan won the battle of Saraighat against the Mughals. Lachit’s statue now adorns the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla, Pune. A gold medal is awarded to the best cadet in “officer like qualities” passing out of that Academy. One of the indigenous Muslims—Fakkhruddin Ali Ahmed-had become the President of India. Another—Sir Sayed Muhammed Saadulla—whom the British had made the Prime Minister of Assam, during the Second World War and who was the pioneer in bringing the Bangladeshi immigrants in the name of “Grow More Food,” had later joined Congress and had been included as a member of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution under Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. But the Assamese people will never forgive Saadulla for the attempts he had made earlier to include Assam in Pakistan.
Both the Govt. of India and the GOA have done well to entrust the investigations of the Bardhaman related cases to the NIA. It is noticed that the NIA has taken up the matter quite seriously. They have unearthed the Jihadi activities and arrested a large number of activists. It should be possible therefore to prosecute the perpetrators of militancy early. Meanwhile, the GOA must emerge out of its past lethargy and inhibitions and take positive steps to weed out all militancy, including the Jihadi ones, as early as possible. In doing that they must separate religion from militancy and must heed Jaideep’s warning that the problem is of “militancy and not religion.” In this, they should follow the example of the Islamic country of Uzbekistan, where the long time President Islam Karimov has completely stopped all Taliban, Jihadi and Al-Quaeda activities. He seems to have achieved singular success in his endeavour. The most important step will be to speed up inclusive economic development for all sections of people mainly through the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the Urban Local Bodies, the Six Autonomous District Councils and the nineteen Ethnic and Tribal councils of Assam.
*The writer was Chief Secretary, Assam, during 1990-95.