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The Other Terror Haven

The Other Terror Haven

Author: Wasbir Hussain
Publication: Outlook
Date: January 14, 2004
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20040114&fname=bangladeh&sid=1

Introduction: The Indian accusations were shrugged, the Bhutanese action stung, but it is the increasing international attention focused on terrorist and insurgent activities in Bangladesh that makes Dhaka's past pretence progressively unsustainable.

The presence of Indian insurgents in safe havens in Bangladesh has never been in doubt, considering the volumes of hard intelligence input that New Delhi has. If confirmation was needed, a spate of reports relating to multiple incidents on January 2, 2004, and Dhaka's subsequent responses, gave confirmation to India's long standing complaint that its neighbour was being less than honest on the issue.

* On January 2, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) raided a hideout of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and captured six of its cadres and seized some weapons and a mobile telephone set. According to media reports originating from Bangladesh, the NLFT camp that was raided was located near Karisapunji village under Chunarughat upa-zilla (sub-district) in Habiganj district. The United News of Bangladesh (UNB) identified those arrested as Kokek Tripura (22), Philip Debbarma (24), Manjak Debbarma (20), Bukhuk Debbarma (24), Satish Debbarma (25) and Shoilen Debbarma (25).

* In another incident on January 2, the rebel All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) chief Ranjit Debbarma's residence in Dhaka was attacked by rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Indian media reports said five ATTF rebels were killed in that attack and eight others, including Debbarma, were wounded.

* On January 2, Bangladeshi security forces reportedly arrested as many as 34 rebels belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from different parts of Dhaka. Some Bangladeshi newspapers, including Jugantar, quoted police officials as saying the militants were arrested after raids at different places including Mohammedpur, Green Road and Gulshan, all upmarket localities in Dhaka. According to Jugantar, four people who were caught while making bombs at a house in the city's Mohammedpur area, had received treatment at the Suhrawardy Hospital, under concealed identities.

* Intelligence sources indicated that the January 2 'rocket attack' - actually two grenades lobbed into Debbarma's residence - took place in the Shamoli building apparently owned by a leading Bangladeshi political figure. The chiefs of the ATTF and ULFA were reportedly staying in this highly secure building. After the attack on the building's 2nd floor, where the ATTF chief was allegedly staying, the local police swung into action and rounded up almost everyone in the building. Some of those picked up were supposed to have been Bangladeshi intelligence operatives. Four injured persons were taken to hospital. Later, all those picked up were released by the police. Sources claim that top officials of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI, Bangladesh's Military intelligence agency) intervened to secure the release of these men. It is claimed that many of those arrested were ULFA cadres, and that this is the same incident that the local media reports in Dhaka were referring to, when they mentioned the arrest of 34 ULFA men. It is also claimed that members of a local mafia group called 'Seven Star' were behind the rocket attack. No independent confirmation of this incident was immediately available.

How did Dhaka respond to these media reports? While it preferred to remain silent on the reports relating to the raid and the arrest of six NLFT rebels as well as the bomb attack on the residence of the ATTF chief, Bangladesh came out with a formal denial of reports about the arrest of 34 ULFA militants from Dhaka.

"We would like to categorically state that the reports (about the ULFA rebels' capture) are false, baseless and concocted and have been fabricated to strain the friendly relations between Bangladesh and India. No such incidents took place in the capital city of Dhaka," a Home Ministry Press Release issued in Dhaka on January 3 said. The Bangladesh Home Ministry statement added: "We would also like to reassert the well- known position of the government of Bangladesh that Bangladesh has never allowed or assisted insurgent groups of any country for acts against that country and this policy was being pursued by the government consistently and rigorously."

Bangladesh certainly is on the back-foot, and its official position vis-a-vis the Indian insurgents is not coming in handy anymore in view of the changing global and South Asian counter-terrorism scenario. Further, the case against its support to Indian insurgent groups is gradually being independently validated. For instance, the location of the NLFT hideout that was raided by the BDR on January 2 tallies with a location mentioned in the latest list of 194 Indian insurgent camps inside Bangladesh submitted by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) to the visiting BDR team in New Delhi only last week (during the meeting between the two border forces from January 6 to 9, 2004). The Indian list says that the NLFT has a transit camp at Thakurgaon under Chunarughat Police Station in the Habiganj district of Bangladesh. Again, the very fact that Dhaka has not denied the raid and subsequent capture of six NLFT rebels goes against its official position that there are neither camps nor any Indian insurgent cadres operating from within the territory of Bangladesh.

Denials aside, Bangladesh, by reliable accounts, may in fact be waking up to the need to rein in these foreign militants. This report in a leading English daily from Dhaka, The Daily Star (Internet edition, January 5, 2004), makes interesting reading:

"The Home Ministry at a high level meeting with paramilitary BDR and intelligence agencies yesterday (January 4, 2004) asked them to step up border security and watch on Dhaka to stem infiltration of Indian terrorists. The Ministry officially denied discussion on steps to tackle infiltration of the operatives of the ULFA and other outfits, but meeting sources confirmed the agenda. They said Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury and State Minister Lutfozzaman Babar asked the DGFI and NSI (National Security Intelligence) agencies to keep an eye on suspicious people in hotels and rest houses in Dhaka. The ministers also asked the agencies to strengthen vigilance in the porous bordering areas of Cox's Bazar, Bandarban, Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Sylhet."

There is some speculation that Dhaka may, in fact, have been stung by Bhutan's year-end crackdown on anti-India separatist camps on its territory, a move for which the Royal Government in Thimphu has received widespread appreciation from nations in the forefront of the global war on terror. But any actions that Dhaka may be initiating, do not appear to have been triggered off simply because another South Asian neighbour has shown the way by launching an assault on anti-India rebels in the Kingdom, or because New Delhi has been persistent in its claim that an increasing number of camps of Indian insurgents are located inside Bangladesh. It is, rather, the rising pressure of international opinion that is forcing a reassessment in Dhaka.

The publication in part, on December 10, 2003, of a report on Bangladesh, prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and an advisory issued by the US State Department to its citizens and officials posted at or visiting Bangladesh, have been particularly embarrassing for Dhaka. The CSIS report prepared in December 2003, said that the Bangladesh Government was not taking enough measures to prevent the country from becoming a haven for Islamist terror groups in South Asia. The report expressed concern over the activities of terrorists suspected to be connected with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. The CSIS report added that Dhaka was not willing to crack down on terror, and expressed fear of dangers to Canadian aid workers in Bangladesh. Significantly, the report also said, there have been a number of serious terrorist attacks on cultural groups and recreational facilities in Bangladesh, but Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been blaming the opposition party (the Awami League of former Premier Sheikh Hasina) for such criminal activities as a matter of routine, rather than zeroing in on the real people or group behind such acts of violence.

Dhaka has rejected the observations made in the CSIS report and has been consistently denying that Bangladesh has become the latest hub of Islamist terror groups, including the Al Qaeda. The fact remains, however, that a local terror group, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-BD), led by Shauqat Osman, with the avowed objective of establishing 'Islamic rule' in Bangladesh, is indeed active in the country. Western media reports suggest this group has an estimated 15,000 cadres.

With increasing international attention focused on terrorist and insurgent activities in Bangladesh, Dhaka's past pretence is becoming progressively unsustainable. Nevertheless, the flow of insurgents from India to safe havens in Bangladesh continues. Indeed, with ULFA having lost its bases and once- secure staging areas inside Bhutan, it is expected to turn to two obvious alternate locations, Myanmar and Bangladesh. But Yangon is already supposed to have turned on the heat on Indian insurgents in the country, leaving Bangladesh the only place that rebels like those of the ULFA have to hold on to. This , too, may not be easy anymore. Dhaka might continue to push ahead with its stand that no Indian insurgents are located or operating from the country, but may have to move as quietly as possible to neutralize these rebels and choke them off within its territory to escape a possible foolproof indictment by the international community as a nation that has not done enough to combat terror.

(Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of of the South Asia Terrorism Portal)

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