Puppet masters

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

A protest in Allahabad against the terrorist violence in Varanasi. - JITENDRA PRAKASH/REUTERS

A protest in Allahabad against the terrorist violence in Varanasi. - JITENDRA PRAKASH/REUTERS

Investigation into the Varanasi bombings leads to the fact of Bangladesh's emergence as a base for Islamist terrorism.

THREE men, we now know, planted the bombs that exploded in Varanasi in March. But the puppet-masters who controlled the strings that directed their hands, it turns out, sat in cities hundreds of kilometres away: in Dhaka, Karachi and Kandahar.

The police in Uttar Pradesh have arrested Mohammad Waliullah, a cleric in charge of a small mosque in the town of Phulpur, for having allegedly played a central role in the serial bombings. Waliullah, who served eight months in jail after being arrested in 2001 on suspicion of maintaining links with the Jaish-e-Mohammad, was allegedly tasked with providing shelter and transport to three Bangladeshi Harkat ul-Jehad Islami (HuJI) operatives who executed the explosions, known only as Bashiruddin, Mustafiz and Zakaria.

According to Waliullah's account to police and intelligence interrogators, the three terrorists first made contact with him years ago when they studied together at the Dar ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband. In June 2004, Bashiruddin resumed his contact with Waliullah. Waliullah was then taken to Bangladesh for a meeting with a middle-level HuJI commander, Maulana Assadullah. After the meeting, Waliullah was appointed HuJI commander for operations in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Waliullah started work by recruiting five eastern Uttar Pradesh men who are currently charged with facilitating the bombings. Syed Shoaib, Farhan Ali, Mohammad Rizwan Siddiq, Saad Ali and Mohammad Shahid, all long-standing associates of Waliullah, who worked at a garments factory in Bhiwandi near Mumbai, were ordered to observe the work of three experts who had come in from Dhaka to execute the attacks, so that they could operate independently in the future.

Sources involved in Waliullah's interrogation said he described the terror strikes in Varanasi as vengeance for Hindu fundamentalist violence - particulary the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Waliullah said that the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi was chosen as a target because of its significance to the Hindu faith. Asked why the railway station was also attacked, he responded that the group had explosives available - and that the building was designed to resemble a temple.

As investigators move on unravelling just who executed the recent bombing of the Jama Masjid in New Delhi - an action most experts agree was intended to provoke communal violence rather than kill - the complex, trans-national history and operational structures of HuJI are becoming a subject of renewed interest. Along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, HuJI is the principal suspect for the New Delhi bombings. New developments suggest, interestingly, that both might have played a role.

Founded to fight in the United States-funded jehad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, HuJI was from the outset a favoured child of Islamists within the Pakistan Army. In 1995, HuJI chief Qari Saifullah Akhtar was arrested on charges of attempting to organise a coup against the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Among the military officers later convicted for the attempted coup was Brigadier Zahir-ul-Islam Abbasi, the Inter Service Intelligence's (ISI) station chief in New Delhi in 1988.

Akhtar himself, however, was released after a brief term in jail, and he helped significantly to expand HuJI's operations in Jammu and Kashmir. In order to optimise its effectiveness, HuJI was ordered to merge with Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil's Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM). However, following its role in the kidnapping and murder of several United States and European nationals, the new organisation was proscribed, and HuJI and the Harkatul Mujahideen parted ways once again.

It is important to note, however, that HuJI had begun to develop pan-India networks even at this stage, networks of the kind that helped execute the Varanasi terror strike. On April 13, India released eight Pakistani terrorists at the end of their prison sentences. One, a Sialkot resident named Babby Yunus Sayeed, was arrested after Indian intelligence infiltrated a terror cell he had set up in Mumbai that was attempting to recruit local cadre through the Students Islamic Movement of India.

From 1998 onwards, however, HuJI found itself embroiled in a series of complex power struggles. Maulana Nazimuddin Shamzai, the head of the ultra-Right Binori town seminary in Karachi, had been a mentor to both Akhtar and Khalil, but fell apart with them over issues of authority and resources. In 1999, after Maulana Azhar Masood returned to Pakistan from an Indian jail as part of the Indian Airlines IC-814 hostages-for-prisoners swap, he set up a new organisation, the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

In the midst of this factional struggle, Akhtar left Karachi and moved to Kandahar, where he forged a close relationship with the Taliban's emir Mullah Mohammad Omar. However, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, HuJI's cadre were left decimated and Akhtar was forced to flee to Dubai. Akhtar was arrested in August 2004, and deported to Pakistan - but the fact that he is yet to be prosecuted illustrates just how powerful his friends in Pakistan are.

HuJI started to develop a presence in Bangladesh when volunteers from that country began to return home after the mujahideen took power in Afghanistan in April 1992. That month, several of the Afghan jehad veterans announced the foundation of a local branch of HuJI. Shaukat Usman was to lead the organisation, with Imtiaz Quddus as his lieutenant. Several of the founders had political links with the government of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, including Allama Azizul Haq and Ataur Rahman Khan.

Little is known about HuJI's operations in Bangladesh other than the fact that it has at least six training camps in the hills around the port city of Chittagong and a string of bases running from the coast to the Myanmar border. Many of its recruits are thought to be members of the Rohingya community of Myanmar who, along with a few volunteers from Thailand, make up the bulk of its approximately 700 trained members. HuJI also began to recruit from Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India.

As in Pakistan, HuJI sought to influence the course of politics in Bangladesh from an early stage and had some success. HuJI operative Mufti Abdul Hannan, who attempted to assassinate former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in July 2000, is believed to have trained at a HuJI camp in Peshawar. A string of other terror attacks followed, targeting progressive intellectuals, journalists and politicians. HuJI and its friends in Al Qaeda were finding a new home.

From 2001, pressure mounted on Pakistan to cut back its support for jehadi organisations. HuJI began to step in to fill the void on the western front. In January 2002, for example, a HuJI cadre led by one-time mafioso Aftab Ansari organised a terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Kolkata. Pakistani interrogators who later questioned Syed Omar Sheikh, one of the terrorists released in the Indian Airlines flight 184 hostages-for-prisoners swap, later learned he had ordered the Kolkata attack.

Bangladesh proved reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem: The Khaleda Zia regime was, after all, in power thanks to the support of Islamist organisations that sympathised with HuJI. In February 2005, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia admitted for the first time that jehadi groups were operating from Pakistani soil and denounced the Jamiat ul-Mujahideen and the Jagrata Muslim Janata. However, she insisted that HuJI did not have a presence in Bangladesh and refused to act against it.

What followed was predictable - and, indeed, predicted. Last year, Pakistan's Daily Times observed that Khaleda Zia's regime was "most reluctant to take action against the Islamists as long as they continue to attack Awami League cadres and communists." However, the newspaper argued, this opportunistic alliance would prove self-defeating. "A day will come soon enough," it prophesied, "when the state of Bangladesh will come under threat from the Islamic warriors it is now empowering through denial."

Last August, terrorists from the two organisations the Khaleda Zia regime had spoken against - but failed to act against by dismantling their infrastructure or arresting their leadership - carried out 450 simultaneous explosions across Bangladesh. Awaking to the threat to Bangladesh, the government arrested key Jamiat ul-Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata leaders and unleashed the police against their operatives. HuJI was finally recognised as a problem - but barring Hannan, not one of its terrorists has been arrested.

For India, this lethargy has had serious consequences. In January, the police arrested two HuJI terrorists from Bangladesh: Saeed-Ul and Sohed-Ul. They were armed with the military-grade explosive Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate, or PETN, a sign of the terror group's growing resources. A month earlier, the Delhi Police arrested three other HuJI terrorists - Mohammad Ibrahim, Nafiq-ul-Vishwas and Hilal - who told interrogators that they had received special training in ISI-run training camps in Balochistan.

In February, the Delhi Police arrested two more HuJI operatives: Anishul Murshlin and Muhibbul Muttakin. Long-time HuJI operatives responsible for a series of terror strikes on communist and Awami League activists in Bangladesh, the twin brothers had been sent in to India to feed explosives to a cell run by Ghulam Yazdani, the Bangladesh-based Lashkar-e-Taiba commander in charge of HuJI's eastern-India operations. The explosives were used in attacks in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

Yazdani, a Nalgonda resident long wanted by the police for his role in the assassination of Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya, had joined the Lashkar after the communal violence in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid - a motivation similar to that of the Varanasi bomber, Waliullah. Yazdani was instrumental in recruiting at least 14 men from Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat for jehad training in the wake of the 2002 pogrom, and was finally shot dead in Delhi on March 8 - the day of the Varanasi bombing.

What might the future hold? In Pakistan, the Lashkar, which owes allegiance to the Ahl-e-Hadith sect, is a competitor for resources with HuJI, which is patronised by Deobandi clerics. For their common cause, though, both now seem willing to cooperate - a fact that may prove significant as investigations into the bombing of the Jama Masjid in Delhi proceed.

HuJI also seems to be attempting to expand its reach in Jammu and Kashmir by allying with adversarial factions. On February 22, security forces in the Mahore area of Jammu and Kashmir shot two Pakistani HuJI operatives, code-named Abu Salem and Abu Qasim, along with a Mahore resident who coordinated Jaish operations in the region, Mohammad Zafar. Such pooling of resources, despite the bitter feud between the HuJI and Jaish leaderships, is a rational response to the pressures both organisations are facing.

One fact is starting to become clear. Despite Pakistan's repeated promises to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and Bangladesh's half-hearted crackdown against Islamists operating from its soil, the long jehad against India is nowhere near winding down. At a recent press conference in Srinagar, Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal pointed to evidence that terror "camps were flourishing across the border", and bluntly asserted that "guns have to be met with guns" - a sign of mounting frustration in New Delhi.

Can the India-Pakistan dtente survive the wave of bombings that have hit major Indian cities since late last year? It must, for the future of South Asia - and yet, each act of terror makes peace just that little bit more elusive.

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