Al-Qaida module bust takes security agencies back to Pakistan

The recent arrest of youths from Bengal and Kerala point to a sinister plot in which Pak, not B’desh, has emerged as top ‘jihadi’ recruiter from West Bengal

NIA takes over probe of Jammu Airport bombing that caused minor injuries to two IAF personnel.Representational image: PTI

The busting of a suspected Pakistan-sponsored al-Qaida module operating out of West Bengal and Kerala by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Saturday (September 19) points to an intriguing development, raising the concerns of security agencies.

In the past, it was mostly the Bangladesh-based Islamic extremist groups indoctrinating people from West Bengal to join the so-called ‘jihad’. But the trend seems to be changing with recent arrests, indicating that even Pakistan-based terror groups are now roping in recruits from the state.

“This trend was first noticed when the Special Task Force (STF) of the West Bengal police arrested a 22-year-old college student from West Bengal, Tania Parvin, for her alleged links with Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in March this year,” said a senior police officer.

After her arrest, the STF came to know the student was radicalized in cyberspace by Pakistan-based cadres of the Hafiz Saeed-led organisation.

The NIA, which later took over the case and filed a chargesheet against her earlier this month said she was also working for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI asked her to “open a fake Facebook profile and befriend armed force members in India to obtain sensitive information,” the NIA said in a statement.

The Central agency claimed that the LeT cadres based in Pakistan’s Lahore had introduced Parvin to ISI sleuths.

The agency, however, did not say anything on whether the nine arrested on Saturday from West Bengal and Kerala had any link with Parvin, though the operational link between LeT and Pakistan-based al-Qaida is well established.

In early morning raids at Ernakulam in Kerala and Murshidabad in West Bengal on Saturday, the NIA arrested nine persons for their alleged link with al-Qaida. All the nine are natives of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district.

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“The NIA has arrested six terrorists from West-Bengal and three terrorists from Kerala in the early morning raids. A large quantity of incriminating material, including digital devices, documents, jihadi literature, sharp weapons, country-made firearms, a locally fabricated body armour, articles and literature used for making home-made explosive devices have been seized from their possession,” the agency said in a statement.

The three arrested from Kerala were working as migrant workers there.

Radicalized on social media

“As per preliminary investigation, these individuals were radicalized by Pakistan-based al-Qaeda terrorists on social media and were motivated to undertake attacks at multiple places, including the National Capital Region. For this purpose, the module was actively indulging in fund raising and a few members of the gang were planning to travel to New Delhi to procure arms and ammunition. These arrests have pre-empted possible terrorist attacks in various parts of the country,” it said.

There are more members of the module spread in other districts of West Bengal and in other states, the NIA said. The Central agency has started a manhunt for the arrest of two other “operatives” who are said to be based in Malda district.

Sources also said four other accused managed to evade the NIA raid.

Larger network?

Investigators are trying to find out whether the arrestees were a part of a larger network of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) considering that apart from trying to procure arms and ammunition from their Pakistani handler identified as one Hamza, a member of the group was also reportedly trying to source weapons from Bangladesh.

“Until the arrest of Parvin by the West Bengal police in March, no major link or network of Pakistani terror outfits in the state had come to light. Operatives of splinter groups of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islams (another Bangladesh-based terror group) were mostly active in the state,” pointed out an official of a Central intelligence agency.

The terror network of the JMB in the state was unearthed after an accidental blast in Khagragarh locality of Burdwan on October 2, 2014, in which two JMB members were killed and another injured.

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Since then West Bengal police in a series of crackdowns in different parts of the state arrested several JMB operatives, including those involved in the 2018 Bodh Gaya blast. In May this year too, the Special Task Force (STF) of Kolkata Police in a joint operation with their counterparts in Murshidabad arrested Abdul Karim alias Boro Karim, a top operative of the JMB in the country involved in the blast.

Intelligence sources said both al-Qaida and ISIS have developed a strong presence in Bangladesh with the help of JMB factions and AI.

A faction of the JMB which has been now rechristened as Neo-JMB is reportedly influenced by ISIS. In July this year, the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of Bangladesh arrested a woman of West Bengal origin who was looking after the recruitment drive of the terror outfit.

The other splinter group, which is now known only as Jamaat-ul Mujahideen, is backed by al-Qaida. The AI is affiliated to al-Qaida’s South Asian branch, the AQIS.

The Lashkar hand

Intelligence agencies were reportedly getting inputs from Bangladesh that the terror groups operating in that country have joined hands with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to expand their activities in India by making bases in the bordering areas of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

These arrests perhaps will throw more light on the terror networks operating in the Indian sub-continent. In July this year, a UN report on terrorism said the “AQIS has between 150-200 members from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and is also planning to carry out attacks in the region.”

Meanwhile, the family members of those arrested on Saturday deny the NIA’s charges even as the BJP is busy politicizing the arrests ahead of the next year’s assembly elections.

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“Apart from working at the Basantapur College as a caretaker to earn some extra money, my son also worked as an electrician. Apart from that he was not involved in anything,” said mother of Leu Yean Ahmed, an accused.

Tajumuddin Mandal whose two sons were picked up in the raids said, “I am still not aware under what charges my sons were arrested. They were not involved in any anti-national activities.”

Tajumuddin’s one son Mosaraf Hossen was arrested from Kerala and another son Atitur Rehman from West Bengal.

The NIA said there was enough evidence against those arrested and that their interrogations revealed a widespread terror network functioning under the banner of Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind.

Politics gets in

The BJP, the party accused of indulging in politics of polarisation, quickly seized the opportunity to take political mileage.

The state has become a safe haven for the terrorists due to the patronage of the ruling TMC, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh alleged.

Another state BJP leader Sayantan Basu even went to the extent of claiming that unregulated madrasahs in the state had turned into Laden (Osama bin) Schools, suggesting the educational institutions were harbouring terrorists.

The ruling TMC accused the BJP of doing politics over terrorism and blamed the central forces for infiltration of terrorists into the country.

“It was the duty of the Border Security Force (BSF) to secure the border. What were the BSF and other Central agencies doing to prevent the cross-border terrorism?” TMC’s Lok Sabha MP Kalyan Banerjee asked.

West Bengal shares 2,217 km of border with Bangladesh. Out of which nearly 579.65 km is unfenced, making cross-border movement easier.