Emergence of AQIS/ABT:
In a recent development, NIA issued high-alert directives to Anti Terror squads in five states of India, namely, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Maharastra, Karnataka and Gujarat (Reporter, 2023). The intelligence enthusiast community of the country drew a parallel between these directives to the recent supplementary chargesheet that the agency filed on August 30 implicating two terror extremists from the (Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent) AQIS/(Ansarullah Bangla Team) ABT module. Both extremists, Md. Akbar Ali alias Akbar Ali and Abul Kalam Azad, named in the chargesheet were actively involved in recruitment and radicalisation activities along the bordering districts of Assam. The state of Assam and West Bengal in particular is at the receiving end of Illegal immigration and Radical Islamist terror elements infiltrating from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh.
Porus border, political minorityism combined with religious appeasement and vote bank politics by political parties like the Congress, TMC and Communist party further added to the problem over the years. Agencies like the NIA and Assam Police are actively working to contain the circle of influence of Islamic terror organisations like AQIS/ABT, but a permanent solution is far from sight as these Violent Extremist organisations enjoy a natural camouflage across many bordering districts of Assam and West Bengal, which have a significant population of Bangladeshi immigrants. Likewise, other states of India, like Delhi, Maharashtra or Karnataka which have significant Bangladeshi and Rohingya settlements also offer a conducive environment for such organisations to hide in plain sight and flourish.
The history of Bangladeshi militants participating in Jihad across the globe is very old and long. From Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Bangladeshi terror elements have fought wars all across responding to what they believe to be the transnational Ummah (Doyle, 2019). Perhaps one of the first generations of Violent Islamist organisations to have emerged in Bangladesh can be traced to Muslim Millat Bahini and Harkatul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh in the late 80s followed in succession by Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh/ JMB and lastly, AQIS/ABT (Sultan, 2016). From what can be reasoned as the inception of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh, a host of world events radically motivated Bangladeshis to enlist themselves as emissaries to realise the goal of a worldwide caliphate for Islam.
The first generation of Islamic militants from Bangladesh had drawn inspiration from the Israel-Palestine conflict that led to the formation of the Muslim Millat Bahini by a dismissed Army major Matiur Rahman, consolidating the Bangladeshi Mujahids returning from the conflict zone into one of the first violent Islamists organisation of the country (Sultan, 2016) (Mostofa, 2022). Subsequently, the Soviet-Afgan war is believed to have fueled the emergence of second-generation Islamic militant groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B) (Mostofa, 2022) to send mujahids wherever a so perceived Jihad was happening (Sultan, 2016). Lastly, what is categorised as third-generation Islamic militancy in Bangladesh, the AQIS/ABT have tangible affiliations and ideological moorings rooted in the Islamic caliphate which emerged around Raqqa and Mosul in 2014 and also with Al-Qaida (Mostofa, 2022).
What is more concerning with the third generation of Islamist organisations like AQIS/ ABT is their metamorphosis, their medium of radicalisation and recruitment, which has vastly changed following the changing digital landscape of communication. The arrest of Zobaida Siddiqua Nabila a 19-year-old college student from Dhaka, dubbed as the first-ever female operative of the ABT or Ansar al Islam reveals how modern digital communication platforms have become the new recruitment centres for modern-day jihadists. The 19-year-old used platforms such as Facebook, Telegram, and Chipwire to disseminate extremist materials targeting the young audience. Reportedly, Nabila operated 15 telegram channels with 25,000 followers, where extremist content like manuals for bomb-making etc. was regularly shared (Digital, 2021). Apart from these known platforms like telegram and Facebook, Bangladeshi Extremists have made themselves well-versed in the use of a myriad of encrypted digital communication platforms. Surprisingly, these platforms are otherwise lesser known in the public domain, such as Transfer.Sh, the Internet Archive, Yandex.Com, File.Fm, Fromsmash.Com, Gofile.Io, Tune.Pk, Wetransfer.com, pro-IS private file hosting site on Nextcloud and Mediafire (Desk, 2021). The level of technical sophistication achieved by AQIS/ABT can be best understood by a recent comment of Assam CM where he stated, “They have messaging systems with peer-to-peer encryption, unknown apps for one-time use and deletion and self-destruct programmes. Their financial transactions have also been in small doses to avoid suspicion” (Bureau, 2022). Therefore, it is aptly apparent, the level of sophistication which AQIS/ABT has deployed and the challenges that Indian agencies have to face and overcome to preserve the freedom of the wards they have sworn to protect.
AQIS/ABT a threat to Assam:
Al Qaida, on and off over the decades had tried or shown intention of expansion into India. On 3rd September 2014 in an hour-long video statement, Ayman al-Zawahiri the then emir of Al Qaida formally announced its AQIS chapter, dedicated specifically to the Indian subcontinent with a motive of achieving an Islamic caliphate and ridding the region of polytheists (Paul Cruickshank, 2022) or more specifically of the Non-Muslims. The AQIS had been more or less blunt when it came to expressing their intentions for India, the AQIS spokesperson-turned-emir Usama Mahmoud in 2019 had insisted that it “does not consider the battle front against India to be limited to Kashmir, wherever you find the Indian army and the polytheist rulers of India, within India and without, strike them” (Paul Cruickshank, 2022, p. 43). Usama Mahmoud had also pressed for a similar plan of action in an earlier statement in 2017 when he held “This movement on the one hand aims to reform Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh, and the whole of Subcontinent, into an Islamic Subcontinent. On the other hand, this movement is also a part of the global jihadi movement, i.e., it is part of the same jihadi movement that is fighting against the alliance of Crusaders, Zionists, Mulhids (Anti-Islam activists who claim to be Muslims), polytheists, and secularists” (Paul Cruickshank, 2022, p. 39).
Nevertheless, the state of Assam is not a new addition to Al Qaida’s primary objective, for instance, as early as 1996, Osama bin Laden released a statement calling for the liberation of Kashmir and Assam (Awasthi, 2021). Islamic terror organisations that have India on their hit list have been enjoying the strategic cooperation of rather unnatural alliances since the late 80s. For instance, the previous embodiments of Bangladesh-based Islamic terror outfits like the HUJI had secured the cooperation of rebel groups active in the Northeast such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Manipur-based People’s Liberation Front to ease infiltration of their cadres through the porous Indo Bangladesh Border (Surinder Sharmah, 2022, p. 210). Subsequently, erudite scholars also believe that the United Jihad Council (UJC) or the Muttahida Jihad Council, which is an umbrella organisation of Pakistani and Kashmiri Islamist terrorist outfits had brokered cooperation from ULFA with the help of the Bangladeshi military on similar terms as it had with HUJI (Surinder Sharmah, 2022, p. 272). For that matter, the AQIS/ABT may have access to the old networks and assets of UJC or HUJI and may very well be utilising them to achieve their primary objectives in Assam.
The Intention of AQIS regarding India and specifically that of Assam became more evident from the fact that, in March 2020, AQIS renamed its Urdu mouthpiece from Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-i-Ghazwa-e-Hind (Viswanathan, 2023), thus unveiling its naked ambitions. This premeditated move of using words such as Gazwa-e-Hind seems more of a cunning attempt to motivate more Islamists to join their call, as Ghazwa-e-Hind is believed to have been prophesied in some Islamic works of literature i;e Hadith (2011).
The strategic posturing of AQIS towards the state of Assam becomes more evident from the fact that in 2021, it aired another video statement where it made a clarion call to Al Qaida cadres and radical sympathisers to make Hijrah to Assam. This call to perform hijrah to Assam essentially meant that AQIS issued a dictate to its emissaries to infiltrate and wage war against the state. Concomitantly, just before a US drone strike killed him, in April 2022, Al Zawahiri had made another urge to mujahids to commit Hijrah to Assam. However, these clarion calls made by AQIS and Al Zawahiri were not spontaneous, in fact were carefully executed after years of initial planning.
For instance, Saiful Islam alias Haroon Rashid alias Md Suman, a resident of Atadi village in Bangladesh's Naryanganj district (Karmakar, 2022) had infiltrated into Assam along with five other AQIS/ABT elements, maintained a low profile, took the guise of Imams, established Maddrassa’s and undertook a long term approach of radicalising local youths and indoctrinating them to become ‘Ansars’ aka Sleeper cells (Kalita, 2022).
Thus, it is apparent that the immediate goal of AQIS/ABT in Assam is not to engage militarily, but rather to make inroads first into the Muslim youth's psyche and using softer tools like seeding propaganda through madrassas or through more suitable digital modes, followed by indoctrination and later enlistment as Ansars.
AQIS is pitched in for the long waiting game, as demographic data of Assam shows a phenomenal reset is in the making, down the years to come, demographers believe, the decadal growth of the Muslim community which is positive at a rate of 29.59% (according to 2011 census) may swap its position in demography table of the state.
Around the grey, however, dedicated attempts by the Assam police and National Investigation Agency have been somewhat reassuring and beaming with a sense of security for the society. To have an overview, Assam Police and NIA till October last year had busted more than five modules of AQIS/ABT and arrested more than 53 terror individuals including Bangladeshi citizens (Viswanathan, 2023). Although the Assam police or the NIA for that matter is mandated with the task, yet every citizen must be vigilant to effectively curb this menace that poses a serious challenge to the sovereignty, integrity and freedom of India that is Bharat.
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