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Border Trouble

Border Trouble

Author: Nava Thakuria
Publication: Tehelka
Date: January 11, 2008
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main37.asp?filename=Ws190108Border.asp

Pakistan's ISI is partnering militant groups to foment trouble in the Northeast.

The land of armed movements, set on fire by the anti-New Delhi militias, has woken up to a new threat from religious fundamentalists fuelled by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to make Northeast India a volatile region in the continent. The Northeast is no stranger to banned armed groups and their destructive activities, but the recent development where it has emerged that the Pakistani agency has engaged scores of its operatives in the region and also sponsored a number of indigenous armed groups has come as a shocking revelation.

The people of the alienated region of India, which is surrounded by Bhutan, Tibet, Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh traditionally pursue a policy of hatred against the Union Government alleging that New Delhi is only interested in exploiting the natural resources of the region but never takes cognizance of the relentless troubles faced by its nearly 50 million population. Even then, they can hardly support the presence of a Pakistani agency in their region, which continues fuelling Islamic fundamentalism consistently beyond their borders.

But unfortunately, for the people of the Northeast, a most influential armed group of Assam has reportedly maintained close links with the ISI. The local media quoting different (government and non-government) sources claimed that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is in touch with Islamic militants too. Launched in 1979 with the aim to make Assam an independent country, the banned armed group is blamed for numerous killings, explosions and kidnappings and a huge number of extortion cases.

What is appalling for the people of the region is that not less than 20 native militia groups have come closer to the ISI. It was disclosed during the interrogation of an ISI operative, who was arrested by the Assam police in Guwahati recently. More shocking revelation for the entire nation is that the alliance has slowly pushed the insurgent groups into the clutches of Islamic militants.

The Assam police termed it a big catch in its counter-terrorism operations in the Northeast. The arrested ISI operative was identified as SM Alam alias Mujibullah Alam alias Asfi Alam. Hailing from Ajampur village under Uttara police station in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Alam (35) has been recognized as an important functionary of the ISI in charge of Assam and the Northeast.

The police said that Alam was a member of Jamat-e-Islami and Chatra Shibir (of Bangladesh) and joined the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in 1993. The hardcore Bangladeshi national underwent training in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) also. Later he joined Jamat-ul-Mujahideen in 2005 and afterward he was recruited by the ISI. Soon he shifted his base to the restive Northeast in 2006. What was alarming, however, was Alam confessed that 24 militant outfits in the region had maintained communication with the ISI network.

The ISI is viewed as a notorious agency in Indian perspective as it continues spreading terror in many parts of India. However, it is recognised as the largest and most powerful intelligence service in Pakistan. Created as an independent unit in 1948, the ISI officially handles external intelligence gathering for the Pakistan government. Headquartered at Islamabad, the ISI is known as a disciplined army unit with around 10,000 staff members. It however faces allegations of meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbouring countries.

The Indian police have from time to time claimed that ISI was involved in many explosions in the country. The Mumbai police asserted that it had enough proof of involvement of ISI in the July 2006 blast in a local commuter train. The ISI is also blamed for masterminding explosions in many other cities of the country including Hyderabad, Lucknow, Sri Nagar, Malegaon, Varanasi, Guwahati and Imphal.

This reporter tried to contact the officers of the Inter Services Public Relations, Pakistan Armed Forces, of which ISI is a unit, for their reactions regarding the arrest of Alam in Assam. While responding to the phone calls, an additional director (in charge of foreign media) of Inter Services Public Relations only said that the arrest of the ISI operative was not in his knowledge. He assured he would respond later, though he has not done so. Moreover, a query submitted in the ISPR website also did not result in any response. What is significant is that, the officials of ISPR, while responding to the phone calls, did not summarily reject the news that one of their operatives had been arrested in India.

Dr M Amarjeet Singh, a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi wrote in one of his articles, "Apart from aiding and abetting terrorism in Kashmir, ISI has also been fully engaged in building terror infrastructures in the rest of India, including in the Northeast, which has long been infested with multiple insurgencies. This attempt to fish in troubled waters of the Northeast poses a formidable risk to India's security."

The Indian security agencies have already gathered evidence to establish that the ISI had been sponsoring violence in many parts of the country. The ISI takes responsibility for supplying sophisticated arms and guerrilla training to several militant groups based in the Northeast.

Brig (Retired) Dr S P Sinha, who served the Northeast for many decades, claimed that the ISI had now formed a new base in Bangladesh to carry on anti-India operations. In his recent book titled 'Lost Opportunities: 50 years of Insurgency in the Northeast and India's Response', Dr Sinha, who led the Gorkha Rifles, also narrated that Pakistan had shifted nearly 200 terrorist training camps from the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) to Bangladesh.

A senior Bangladeshi journalist supplements his comment. Speaking to this reporter from Dhaka, the journalist disclosed, "The Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) has been actively operating in Bangladesh under a number of cover-ups. In recent months, a large number of former army officials from Pakistan have come to Bangladesh to work for different business groups. Most of the top figures in these companies are either former military personnel or well connected to the Pakistan Army."

The journalist, who sought anonymity added, "Personally I believe, these Pakistani Army officials are not retired personnel. They might be important officials of the ISI. My information is that a huge amount of profit of those companies goes to the hidden activities of the agency. I suspect, the ISI has a significant amount of shares in those companies (including one mobile phone service provider) working in Bangladesh."

"A few companies owned by foreign nationals have emerged as a major base for the ISI in Bangladesh." Naming one, Chowdhury, a pro-Pakistani politician in Bangladesh, the journalist alleged that the controversial person had business tie-ups with these companies. "He (Mr Chowdhury) also has links with many Northeastern militants including ULFA and is suspected to be involved with an armed gang in the hill tracts of Chittagong," the journalist added.

The links of Northeastern militants with the ISI found space for discussion in the Parliament too." Available inputs indicate that some Indian insurgent groups active in the northeastern region have been using the territory of Bangladesh, and have links with Pakistan's ISI," Shriprakash Jaiswal, the minister of state for Home informed Rajya Sabha on December 5. The minister, while admitting reports of alliances among the outfits for tactical purposes of shelter, hideouts, procurement of arms, also added that New Delhi had taken up the issue with Islamabad.

Weeks ago, a reputed US intelligence think tank reported about the ULFA's increasing financial enterprises with Islamic militant groups. Stratfor, in one of its analytical reports stated that ULFA leaders preferred to maintain their financial network with Pakistan's intelligence agency and 'its financial enterprise and strong links with Islamist militant groups have made it a threat that New Delhi will not be able to ignore much longer'.

The report also added that 'though India has largely turned a blind eye to militant groups operating in its far-flung Northeast', the growing Islamisation of the region provides 'more than enough reason for New Delhi to start paying closer attention to its Northeastern border'. Stratfor has been closely monitoring the growing nexus between India's North Eastern insurgent outfits and militant Islamist groups that regularly traverse India's extremely porous border with Bangladesh.

The Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi maintained that ULFA is in the clutches of the ISI and that is why they cannot come for talks. Attending a meeting on internal security affairs, which was chaired by the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on December 20 in New Delhi, Gogoi expressed serious concern that the ISI had been trying its best to make the Northeast a hub of terrorism. Gogoi argued that, a grave threat the Northeast is facing, is with the abundant aid and sustenance poured in for various anti-national armed groups from outside the country.

He urged New Delhi to take up the issue of terrorist camps in the neighbouring countries (read Bangladesh and Burma) and expedites the fencing of the international borders, which is now porous. Earlier talking to a New Delhi based television news-channel, Gogoi revealed that the ULFA leaders cannot defy the diktat of ISI as most of their senior leaders are taking shelter in Bangladesh and are at the mercy of the ISI. He strongly believes that ULFA is the prime communicator from Northeast to the international terrorist outfits.

Critical concern on ISI's active involvement in the Northeast has already been expressed in the mainstream media. The Assam Tribune, the oldest English daily of the region in an editorial said "It is a fact that presence of foreign nationals gave a chance to the ISI agents and other fundamentalist forces having roots in Bangladesh to establish their bases not only in Assam but also in other states of the Northeast, which has posed a grave security threat to the nation."

JP Rajkhowa, an Assamese bureaucrat turned media columnist, while quoting intelligence reports, stated that over 20 Jehadi groups including Muslim Tiger Force of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Force of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Army, United Muslim Front of Assam, United Islamic Reformation Movement of India, Muslim Security Force, United Liberation Militia of Assam, Muslim Security Council of Assam, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, People's United Liberation Front, Revolutionary Muslim Commandos, Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Students' Islamic Movement of India, Laskar-e-Taiba etc are active in the region. "All these groups want to carve out an Islamic state of Assam," he commented.

The Sentinel, another important English daily of Northeast commented in an editorial, "We have had occasion in the past to hammer the fact that both the ISI and the fundamentalist and terrorist organizations based in Bangladesh have taken a solemn vow to create a greater Islamic state in the subcontinent by including in it Assam and other suitable areas of the Northeast." It also raised a pertinent question that why did not the Assam government wake up to the threats of the ISI-jehadis and finally gear up 'to break the whole ISI network in the State'.

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