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Centre asks Assam and Bengal to look for Bangla terrorists

The instructions were issued on Thursday morning, even as another attack near an Eid prayer gathering in Kishoreganj killed four people.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi |
July 8, 2016 4:34:56 am

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has asked the West Bengal and Assam governments to urgently step up the hunt for five key Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh terrorists known to be operating from bases inside India, highly-placed government sources have told The Indian Express. The instructions were issued on Thursday morning, even as another attack near an Eid prayer gathering in Kishoreganj killed four people.

The NIA has sought the five — Sahadat Sheikh, also known by the aliases Nasirullah and Sohail, Shahidul Islam, Talha Sheikh, Salahuddin and Zahidul — ever since it uncovered a largescale Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen bomb-making factory in Burdwan in 2014.

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The five men are believed to help operate a string of bomb-making facilities and safehouses that provided the logistical backbone for last week’s attack in Dhaka. All five men had set up homes in West Bengal, marrying local women and obtaining Indian identification papers.

Earlier this year, the Islamic State in-house magazine, Dabiq, announced that the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen had dissolved and merged into the Syria-headquartered jihadist organisation. However, the weapons used in last Friday’s attack — a low-calibre Kalashnikov lookalike known as an AK22, and hand-grenade sized IEDs — were typical of weapons used in past Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen strikes, which the men are known to have organised.

Government sources said that despite multiple intelligence warnings that the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen leadership was continuing to cross into India to use safehouses among sympathisers in Assam and West Bengal, both states had accorded a relatively low priority to the search for the fugitives, since the group was not seen as a security threat within their territory.

Sahadat Sheikh — nicknamed ‘Hathkata’ because he blew off his right hand in a bomb-making accident — is believed to be the most important of the five men. In charges filed in a Kolkata court in 2014, the NIA described Sheikh as “an expert in making IEDs” (improvised explosive devices). The agency said he “used to impart training at various terrorist training camps organised at Mukimnagar and Simulia madrasas as a master-trainer on explosives”.

Believed to have moved to India in 2010, Sheikh, 38, lived in Beldanga, a small town in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, selling pens and clothing door to door. According to police records, he had two wives — Shamima, 23, and Manjura, 22.

The bomb-maker, the NIA believes, was key to ensuring the factory in Burdwan kept up a steady supply of explosives to the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen inside Bangladesh, at a time when its networks were under intense pressure from the police. Police found over 50 IEDs, as well as large stocks of ammonium nitrate gel, inside the Burdwan factory.

Lashkar-e-Taiba trained bomb-maker Shahidul Islam, also known as Boma Mizan, has also been a fugitive since the 2014 raid. Islam had relocated to Kirnahar, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, following a February 23, 2014, ambush while he was being taken to a court in Mymensingh for trial. He is facing a 20-year sentence in Bangladesh in a terrorism case for which he was arrested.
His first wife, who is serving a five-year sentence, was injured when Islam set off a bomb in an effort to escape the raid during which he was arrested, along with their two-year-old son and five-month-old girl.

The 42-year-old was sighted by Indian intelligence in Rajarhat, near Kolkata airport, soon after escaping Bangladesh, only to evade surveillance. He then married Kirnahar resident Ayesha, NIA records show, and began training young bomb-makers for the Jama’at-ul-Mujhideen.

Bangladesh intelligence officials say the explosive devices used in last Friday’s attack as well as today bear similarities with the devices Sheikh and Islam produced in Burdwan.

Talha Sheikh, the third key fugitive, was identified as a firearms trainer for the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen by the NIA. Like Islam, he lived in Kirnahar, and the NIA recorded that “protected witnesses have deposed about the active involvement of Talha in the organisational activities of the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen” through West Bengal.

As reported by The Indian Express earlier, New Delhi passed on warnings on imminent strikes in Bangladesh early this month, based on analysis of terrorist activity, including the movement of Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen cadre on the Indian side of the border.

“Frankly”, said a West Bengal police official, “there’s also been some reluctance to chase these cases hard because of the political environment. The Burdwan case saw thousands of people attacking police raiding parties, and the state government is not keen on provoking a confrontation with the Muslim community”.

In Assam, similarly, largescale ethnic-communal clashes between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in 2012 allowed Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen supporters to represent themselves as defenders of the community, especially amongst immigrants from Bangladesh, living on the char islands in the Gaurang River.

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