End July, al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri was reportedly not killed yet in a US drone strike. A week ago, Assam Police flagged the concern about a video where the most wanted terrorist had purportedly appealed to his militia to do "hijrah" (migration) to the northeastern state. "The AQIS (al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent) is showing interest to expand its network into the Northeast. In one of the videos, AQIS has released, AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri has himself appealed to do hijrah into Assam…That is disturbing," Assam police chief Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta had said on 28 July.
The officer's comment followed the state police's claim that the cops had busted a network of the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), affiliated with the AQIS, last week. Assam Police arrested 11 people from districts Barpeta, Morigaon, Guwahati (Kamrup Metro) and Goalpara for their alleged links to global terrorist organisations, especially ABT or AQIS, GP Singh, Special Director General of Police (law & order, border) said.
The officer said, "Earlier, we had arrested 12 and the NIA (National Investigation) had arrested six persons. That makes a total of 29 arrests since February this year." He said that the police had seized several mobile phones, tablets and laptops from where "information or evidence" of their alleged links to global terrorist outfits emerged.
The arrests made last week had a precursor: Assam Police run months-long intelligence operations in collaboration with central agencies. The operation led to the busting of the financial linkages of al Qaeda and its affiliates in India, according to top police officials.
What are ABT and AQIS?
Bangladesh had banned the ABT, a radical Islamist outfit, in May 2015 for its suspected involvement in killing three 'secular' (non-Islamist or atheist) bloggers. The ABT started recruiting highly motivated and educated university students fluent in the English language and also adept at using social media.
The Sheikh Haseena government had assessed in 2016 that the ABT was a bigger outfit than Harakat ul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI B) and Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), but it could not specify the strength of the outfit since it has rather fluid organisational structures. Usually, they work in small cells comprising 4 to 7 people in one unit, according to a paper titled "Ansarullah Bangla Team: A Major Threat for Bangladesh’s Democracy".
The report said that extremist ideologues like Anwar al Awlaki who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011 influenced the ABT. This group drew closer to the armed jihadi ideology of al Qaeda and Isis to wage holy war in Bangladesh and abroad.
The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) based in The Hague said that the AQIS was launched in September 2014 to operate across southern Asia. More than a dozen terrorist outfits drawn mostly from Pakistan besides a few from Bangladesh and India are affiliated with AQIS.
The recent operation by Assam Police came two months after the NIA raided two locations in the Barpeta district in connection with ABT's alleged recruitments. Earlier, the central anti-terror agency had registered a case in March that said that a Bangladeshi national had entered India illegally and was active in recruiting, training and motivating impressionable youngsters to join jihadi outfits and work among "ansars" (Islamic warriors) for creating a base for al Qaeda in India.
Assam Police then arrested eight persons for their alleged links with AQIS and/or ABT in Barpeta under Sections 120(b)/121/121(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and various sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, better known as UAPA.
ABT in Barpeta
Suspected terrorists that Assam Police arrested from District Morigaon included Afsaruddin Bhuyan and Mustafa alias Mufti Mustafa who allegedly acted as a financial conduit for the ABT/AQIS. They were also running two madrassas in Morigaon, which were allegedly used to indoctrinate students. "We are keeping a close watch on a few other madrasas and mosques which were visited by radical elements (from Bangladesh)," Special DG Singh said.
A pan-India network?
Hours before Assam Police’s crackdown on the ABT/AQIS modules, Bengaluru Police caught a 24-year-old food delivery boy, Akhtar Hussian Lashkar, who hails from Cachar in Assam. The suspect, who has been living in the Karnataka capital since 2020, allegedly identified himself as a member of al Qaeda. He was produced in a city court and later remanded in police custody.
Based on the information provided by Lashkar, Bengaluru Police detained another man from Assam in Salem, Tamil Nadu. The arrests indicate that ABT/AQIS deployed several sleeper cells in Assam and other states.
Senior police officials said ABT/AQIS modules entered Assam through West Bengal. These groups first stayed in West Bengal where they could easily converse in Bengali to radicalise the local youth.
Are the ABT and AQIS the only causes of concern?
The AQIS is not the only terrorist outfit that stepped up its activities in Assam. Even Isis is trying to spread its tentacles in the state. Recently, security agencies stumbled upon a Bengali version of "Voice of Hind" (Hinder Awaj), a propaganda magazine suspected to be published by Isis, which appeals to Indian Muslims to "wake up" and fight against the alleged oppression and atrocities meted out to the community.
It has also published photographs of India’s top leadership, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, identifying them as enemies.
Singh, however, played down the threat perception, saying such types of magazines have been doing the rounds for years. "This is not a new phenomenon. al Qaeda first published a Bengali version of its magazine in 2017. Similarly, Isis has been running multilingual publications for several years," he claimed.
Analysts say that the AQIS and Isis have been competing with each other to extend their respective networks in Bangladesh and the adjoining region primarily to generate funds. But their attempts to radicalise Indian youth and recruit them in large numbers have not been very successful because of counter-radicalisation measures initiated by security agencies.
"Media started reporting on Isis trying to establish a ‘Bengal Caliphate’ between 2015 and 2017," said Kabir Taneja, a Fellow in the Strategic Studies programme at Observer Research Foundation. "However, the modus operandi of Isis was completely different from al Qaeda. The former is a very do-it-yourself kind of organisation. The people in India who largely succumbed to that narrative were the ones who wanted to travel to the caliphate, which was in Syria. So, that was their (IS) ultimate aim. They were not very interested in creating a Bengal, UP or a Kashmir unit," Taneja, who authored a book, ‘The ISIS Peril’ (Penguin Random House/2019), told TOI Plus.
Seen from that perspective, Isis had never posed a big threat to India, he said. Isis has been on a decline since the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2019, and his replacement (the new caliph) was killed within six months. "The Isis post-Baghdadi became very diluted, largely running through online propaganda units although it has some strong affiliations in Africa at this point of time," Taneja maintained.
Differences between al Qaeda and Isis modes of operation
However, al Qaeda is different. "The AQ is much more grounded and a hierarchical organisation; an organisation that plays a long game."
The AQ has had a very strong presence in Bangladesh. It has used areas like Cox’s Bazar for "illicit transportation" of people, money and some weapons, but never conducted any operations in the region, according to Taneja.
Assam which faces the problem of illegal migrants from Bangladesh seems to have caught the attention of jihadist terror outfits in the wake of the Supreme Court-monitored exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA. While the Assam-specific NRC was aimed at weeding out foreigners staying illegally in the state, CAA seeks to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Organisations such as AQIS tried to exploit the perception generated due to protests by some opposition parties and human rights organisations that these legal instruments would be used against Muslims. "They made a similar attempt during the Hijab row, but did not succeed," Taneja said, stressing that AQIS is a much bigger threat than Isis(Khorasan), which came into existence only in 2015. This explains why Assam police had gone into overdrive to nab so many suspects at one go.
He supported the theory that Isis has been running multilingual publications for several years. "But it is difficult to attach any motive of terror attacks to such publications at this moment because there is no empirical evidence," Taneja said.
Nevertheless, the top brass of the Assam police exudes confidence that they can easily tackle the radical elements such as AQIS, which are trying to indoctrinate youth in some pockets. "Given our experience in handling insurgency, this should not be a problem for us," Special DGP Singh said in his concluding remark.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said today that Assam had become a hotbed of "jihadi activities", with five modules having links with Bangladesh-based terror outfit Ansarul Islam busted in five months. He said six Bangladeshi nationals who are members of Ansarul Islam had entered the state to indoctrinate youths and one of them was arrested when the first module was busted at Barpeta in March this year, Sarma said at a press conference here.
The chief minister said that the indoctrination of Muslim youths in private madrassas by imams from outside the state was alarming.