Friday, March 20, 2009

More than a mutiny: ISI plot suspected

Photo: A Bangladesh army officer breaks down while lifting the coffin of a colleague
SAURABH SHUKLA

THE PLOT of senseless blood letting in Dhaka is thickening. And as the two-month-old government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina battles to bring stability to the country following the barbaric killing of over 140 top Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) officers along with their family members in Dhaka on February 25, reports of a Pakistan-sponsored plot to assassinate her are gaining credence.

Increasingly intelligence is uncovering that the original plan was to assassinate Hasina and army chief Moeen U. Ahmed on February 24, but due to lack of coordination, the required ammunition couldn’t be smuggled into the Durbar area at the BDR headquarters where Hasina had gone a day before the mutiny. The plan was reportedly hatched at the behest of the ISI which is concerned with Hasina’s moderate outlook.

On February 25, a group of BDR junior commissioned officers, lined up the top brass of Bangladesh’s border guards and killed them. The brutality of the killing was shocking as the bodies of the officers and their families were dumped into manholes and mass graves. While some of the ringleaders of the coup and their accomplices have been arrested, over 1,000 BDR personnel have been charged by the Hasina government.

A confidential report prepared by South Block suggests that Pakistani intelligence was behind the mutiny. The report claims “both Indian and some international intelligence agencies have received indisputable proof of the involvement of Salauddin Chowdhury—an influential BNP MP and a long standing Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent of influence in Bangladesh with a strong criminal mafia nexus—in the entire episode”.

Chowdhury, a prominent shipping magnate, was a close associate and parliamentary secretary to former premier Khaleda Zia. His name also figured in the Chittagong arms haul in 2004, in which a lethal cargo of arms was unloaded for terrorist activities in India. But Chowdhury has denied such charges.

However, exclusive details available with India Today suggest that intelligence agencies had intercepted a telephone call from Pakistan’s defence attaché in Dhaka, Sajaad Rasool, to a contact in the Pakistani consulate in Dubai. Another intercept revealed Rasool was in contact with Chowdhury.

According to sources, the Pakistani defence attaché monitored the situation from the Gulshan area of Dhaka and was in constant touch with his handlers in Pakistan.

In fact, on February 25 he knew the precise details about the plot unfolding inside the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. At 12.30 pm, Rasool made a call to the ISI headquarters in Islamabad reporting that DG BDR Major-General Shakeel Ahmed had been killed.

The big question is, how the Pakistani defence attaché knew what was happening inside when even senior officers of the Bangladesh Army and the Government were in the dark. Other intercepts that confirm the involvement of the ISI, include a series of phone calls made by some key Jamaat-e- Islami (JeI) leaders to their ISI contacts in Dubai, London and Islamabad updating them on the operation.

According to the report, the BDR was used by the plotters because resentment has been brewing in the lower ranks. Besides, the aim was to ensure a takeover by pro-Pakistan elements in the Bangladesh Army. So smooth was the planning that no intelligence agency got a whiff of the plot. Chowdhury allegedly used a former DG of BDR, Major-General Fazlur Rehman, as a frontman to instigate the troops.

Chowdhury is suspected to have paid Taka 40 crore (Rs 30 crore) to Fazlur Rahman, who in turn is said to have paid Taka 5 crore to four deputy assistant directors of BDR. While almost 400 sepoys were paid Taka 5 lakh, the key among them were paid Taka 50 lakh each, according to the report.

For India that has a vital stake in the stability of a moderate regime in Dhaka, the developments were worrying. In fact, on February 28, India had begun preparations to evacuate Hasina. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was in touch with Hasina and assured her of Indian support. Sources say New Delhi alerted Dhaka.

Following this, Hasina was taken to a Bangladesh Army safehouse. Two teams of commandos were kept ready at a forward air force base in Tripura and another one in Kolkata. But when the situation turned around with the Bangladesh Army backing Hasina and the mutiny quelled, the plan was shelved.

But the big question is why the ISI plotted to destabilise the government. The reason is, compared to the fundamentalist regime of Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s government is considered to be moderate and has cracked down on Islamists. Sources say Pakistani intelligence fanned the conspiracy as it feared that many of its key assets could be tried for war crimes committed in 1971.

The Hasina government had moved a resolution in parliament last month to punish criminals of the 1971 war, something her party had promised in its election manifesto. Sources say JEI leaders Amir Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mujahid, who are alleged war criminals, provided logistical support to the mutiny.

The ISI plotted to kill Hasina as Islamabad has been uneasy with the Hasina regime’s policies and it’s perceived proximity to India. In fact the crisis in Dhaka should be another reason why India and Bangladesh should work together closely, especially on security issues. Besides, India has to align with the international community to ensure the stability of Hasina’s regime which is pivotal for India’s security concerns.

Experts say that New Delhi and Dhaka should use this opportunity to sensitise the world that Pakistan is the fulcrum of terrorism, and till its agencies, like the ISI, are neutralised, the world, beginning with our neighbourhood, cannot be free of terrorism. #

First published in India Today, India, March 5, 2009

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