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How to tackle the scourge of the world

| SANDEEP BAMZAI
Published : Sep 27, 2016, 11:41 pm IST
Updated : Sep 27, 2016, 11:41 pm IST

Maj. Gen. Tarique Ahmed Siddique (Retd), the security adviser to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, is her go-to man on curbing Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

Maj. Gen. Tarique Ahmed Siddique (Retd), the security adviser to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, is her go-to man on curbing Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. The country’s problems with pluralism and, more recently, with rabid Islamic indoctrination, are quite well known. While the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina have blamed their main political rival, the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami, the seamless transfer of the toxic ideology of political Islam slithers across the Internet to spread the message of jihad, wreaking havoc among the ruling elite’s progeny.

But while India struggles to quell the intifada in Kashmir, it is heartening to see how Bangladesh has so rapidly managed to cauterise the open wounds of the Holey Artisan Bakery, and effectively neutralise the top jihadist leadership in a major change of fortunes. There obviously has been a calibrated strategy in place to deal with this running sore, now the scourge of the world. This turnaround came in a matter of days, that made it even more illuminating. Everyone wondered where the spine and steel had come from. A series of brutal murders of secular writers, bloggers and liberal intellectuals by radical Islamists had shaken the very consciousness and the conscience of Bangladeshis, who seemed ill-equipped to deal with them. These attacks went as far back as 2013. The only common link appeared to be their views, which caused hotheads among Bangladesh’s mostly moderate and tolerant Sunni Muslim majority to resort to random bloodletting. But this time the reaction time was swift, just 26 days after the Gulshan attack, with as many as nine members of the ultra-Islamist Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were killed in an operation. The most decisive success, of course, was the killing of Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, the JMB’s poster boy who was once seen as the most dangerous man in Bangladesh.

What is surprising is while the Hasina government seemed to have a policy of drift while tackling attacks on secular bloggers and other free speech advocates, she managed to quell the burgeoning local terror modules with alacrity. Many more successes were notched up by the Hasina government in the battle over homegrown terror. It is no secret that India played a pivotal role in helping Ms Hasina trump her BNP rivals in the last polls. Indian intelligence agencies were active in Bangladesh, and the recent strikes on top JMB cadres may well be the result of collaborative intelligence-sharing between India and Bangladesh.

Maj. Gen. Siddique’s role was said to have been critical. Earlier, Wikileaks cables quoted former US ambassador James Moriarty reporting back to Washington in February 2009: “Hasina depends on retired Maj. Gen. Tarique Ahmed Siddique for his military expertise and trusts him, based on his loyalty and his relationship with her family. Siddique, whose brother Shafique is married to Sheikh Rehana (PM’s sister based in London), has a long history as part of Hasina’s family, including acting at times as surrogate father for her son Sajeeb Joy Wazed (based in Washington), which is partially what inspires Hasina’s trust. Siddique is a Cabinet-level adviser who influences military and security issues.”

Back in India, we seem to forget that one of the things the UPA government had done commendably well, and for which it perhaps never got due credit, was neutering the Indian Mujahideen leadership. Intelligence Bureau director Syed Asif Ibrahim and RAW chief Alok Joshi worked in tandem to deliver crippling blows, including picking up Yasin Bhatkal from Nepal. When Mohammed Ahmed Siddibapa Zarrar aka Yasin Bhatkal was captured, it put one of our most dreaded adversaries out of action. Another IM operative, Asadullah Akhtar alias Haddi, was detained with him. Bhatkal’s arrest came soon after Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s Abdul Karim Tunda was deported from Nepal. In a couple of years, Danish Ansari, Mohammad Aftab Alam, Imran Khan, Syed Maqbool, Qateel Siddiqui and Fasih Mehmood (deported from Saudi Arabia) were all in the bag. And while siblings Riaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, along with Amir Reza Khan, are still at large, the IM has pretty much been decimated in India.

This only means India can systematically subjugate terror networks when it really wants to. From the ashes of Simi emerged Indian Mujahideen (IM), arrayed against Hindu India. Its substantive network of cells had targeted urban centres and caused incalculable damage prior to the body blow it got in the form of Bhatkal’s capture. India’s intelligence agencies even managed to get terrorists hiding in Saudi Arabia back in those crucial years.

There was no stealth technology, but the Indian version of America’s Osama success was achieved in total secrecy. IB officials finally got their hands on Bhatkal. Humint, or human intelligence, was the key as intelligence agencies of Nepal and India worked together to track Bhatkal down to his hideout deep inside Nepal. They nabbed him in the dead of night before the terror mastermind was formally arrested at Raxaul, a town on Bihar’s border with Nepal. What did Bhatkal in was his cellphone. The IB hung on to it like a terrier once it got the electronic scent. The chase grew increasingly frantic over the final four days, as the IB closed in on Bhatkal, staking him out as they waited for the right opportunity to pick him up. The key IM operative, wanted in a series of terror strikes across India that killed hundreds of innocent people, was formally arrested. The icing on the cake for India was Asadullah Akhtar, held and arrested with Bhatkal. Akhtar is the man suspected to be the planter or co-planter of Bhatkal’s deadly bombs. Both were taken into custody by the Bihar police. Bhatkal was living in Nepal for nearly a year. India got its Osama bin Laden!

Bhatkal was wanted in at least 40 cases, including blasts in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, and carried a bounty of Rs 35 lakh. He had been captured once before. A special Kolkata police task force had got him in 2009 for carrying fake currency notes, but the cool-as-a-cucumber Bhatkal hid his real identity and jumped bail after a month behind bars. The other capture was only on CCTV footage, as Bhatkal was recorded planting a bomb in Pune’s German Bakery three years ago. He was one step ahead of the law on at least two occasions in 2012, once giving the pursuing police the slip by just an hour.

India has to reboot its counterterrorism boiler plate, both at the borders, where slack and lax vigil has seen defence installations rocked by terror, and within the country. We need to build a perpetual moat-like structure to prevent the return of an IM-type rogue entity, and all our security and intelligence resources must be put to work for this.