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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bangladesh: Golden Hues of Hope in Sonar Bangla

Survey & Graphics: Courtesy Daily Star

BANGLADESH HAS visibly crossed several crossroads. After thirty five years of the dastardly assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by army rebels guided by plotters like Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmad, Ziaur Rahman justice has been meted out to five killers. They were hanged on January 28, 2010. The remaining seven killers are hiding abroad. Irrespective of their humanitarian considerations and aversion for death sentence these countries including Canada should repatriate the national criminals of Bangladesh. Only then, the cycle of justice would be completed. The hangings have sent a message to the butchers of democracy that Bangladesh was created by the visionaries who wanted separate cultural identity for the Bengali speaking people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, in Pakistan the killers of Z. A. Bhutto (judicial hanging) and Benazir Bhutto are yet to be brought to the books. Pakistan has emerged as a country where human lives are cheaper than foul and goat hawked in the market. A nation cannot maintain its entity if the killers, coup leaders and usurpers are not brought to justice.

Earlier in January 2009 dramatic changes took place in the political scenario of the struggling nation. Political developments during last decade had brought into sharp focus on the quantum of ideological chasm between the forces headed by pro-liberation and secular combine headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed and the post-Mujib political usurpers, pro-Pakistani and Islamist conglomerate headed by Begum Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). If Ziaur Rahman was a part of the plot to kill Sheikh Mujib, how can his wife remain ignorant about that? She should be made to speak and disclose the truth and crimes committed against the people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh was born out of the aspirations of the Bengali speaking people to achieve political, economic, and cultural freedom from the overwhelming alien ethnic forces represented by Punjabi dominated political, bureaucratic and military hegemony. The movements also aimed at restoration of the unique secular tradition of the Bengali speaking people-on either side of the geopolitical fence.

Violent changes imposed on the people of Bangladesh by the conspiratorial forces of Pakistan, USA; represented by the ISI and the CIA and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami had tried to virtually negate the achievements of the liberation war. Mujib’s death and ultimate capture of power by Ziaur Rahman marked the stark dividing line between the forces of liberation, establishment of secular democratic forces represented by the Awami League and the pro-Pakistan, pro-Islamist non-secular forces represented by the BNP. The BNP was not only a political face of the military regime; it emerged as the umbrella for all non-secular Islamist anti-Indian forces and an echo pillar for the Pakistani conspirators. Common sensible people in Bangladesh call the BNP as Bangla Name Pakistan (Pakistan in the garb of Bangla political front).

This was proved beyond doubt when Ziaur Rahman allowed the Jamaat chief to return to Bangladesh and reopen the fundamentalist shop. Zia’s open collaboration with the CIA and the ISI resulted in recruitment of over 15, 000 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas for undergoing training in ISI, Al Qaeda and Afghan mujahideen camps and fighting against the USSR. Nearly 2000 Bangla jihadis were deputed to Bosnia, Chechnya and other theatres of jihad directly or indirectly sponsored by the USA, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda. Zia was responsible for Islamization of secular Bangladesh and dragging it closer to Pakistan.

After conclusion of the Afghan jihad 8000 odd jihadis returned to Bangladesh, who opened new jihadi outfits to Islamicise Bangladesh and remove the last vestiges of the secular identity of the Bangladeshi people. Since then the Jamaat and the jihadi forces did not have to look back. Islamization process, proliferation in activities of the jihadi groups and stranglehold of Pakistan and pumping in of Arab world fund for strengthening Islamic resurgence were given priority by the BNP and Jamaat coalition government. Between 1993 and 2003 over 36 jihadi tanzeems rooted in the country and over 8000 afghan war veterans opened new jihad accelerating bodies, started over 65 new madrasas and proclaimed that their objective was establishing Nizam-e-Mustafa in Bangladesh. The BNP/Jamaat government did everything possible to bury the name of Bangabandhu, arranged attempt on Sheikh Hasina’s life and closed eyes on the activities of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI), Bangla Bhai, Hizbut Tehrir, Ahl-e-Hadith and Allahar Dal etc armed terrorist movements. Pakistani jihadi tanjeems like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad etc also opened shop in Bangladesh and the ISI, in collaboration with the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) accelerated terrorist activities in India. It is needless to say that the pro-Pakistani tools of governance in Bangladesh were treated as the most trusted allies by the Indian ethnic insurgent groups.

However, oxidization of the golden hue dream of Sonar Bangla was abruptly checkmated with the landslide win of the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina in the last election and marginalization of BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and other fanatic forces. The people of Bangladesh voted overwhelmingly for Sheikh Hasina to restore freedom of the country that was earned with blood of millions of Bangla citizens. However, this new earned freedom faced immediate threat in the form of bloodied revolt by the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force. Within two months of installation of the new government of liberation the Bangladesh Rifle officers and jawans staged a revolt in Dhaka and other detachment headquarters. The bloodied revolt, ostensively staged on certain grievances, there were informed opinions that political opponents and sections of the armed forces and the military intelligence, the DGFI, had motivated the revolt to get pro-democracy Army Chief General Moeen removed and bring about a army coup by dismissing the newly elected government. There were reports that BNP and Jamaat leaders were the main motivators. However, Sheikh Hasina tackled the national crisis with firm grit and determination and pragmatic approach.

It can be said that Hasina has succeeded to a great extent in defanging the DGFI and has established reasonable control on the armed forces by pushing aside the prominent BNP and Jamaat leaning senior army officers. To General Moeen goes the credit of helping the secular and democratic government.

After completion of one year in January 2010, despite several internal shortcomings, Hasina government has maintained reasonably high level of popularity. According to a study carried out recently by Daily Star newspaper of Bangladesh, the new government has suffered some erosion in popularity on certain fronts. But it maintained considerable popular support. In an impoverished country like Bangladesh it is not possible for any government to maintain 80% popularity. Drought, flood, cyclones and shortage of food, shelter and lack of employment opportunities obviously maintain high level of disapproval of any government in a struggling country like Bangladesh. Bangladesh depends heavily on manpower export to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Libya and the Gulf countries. After the global recession thousands of labour force working abroad returned home, putting pressure on the employment front. The youths are restive and they want the Dhaka government to negotiate with other countries to facilitate their job opportunities in foreign markets; mostly in semi-skilled labour sectors.

Government actions to ban jihadi entities like Ahl-e-Hadith, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, HuJI, Allahar Dal and hanging of three JMB criminals for serial bombings obviously irritated good number of fanatics, which constitute nearly 15%-20% population of the state. Large numbers of jihadi activists were arrested and are being tried. The discovery of huge arms and ammunition manufacturing facility at Bhola, an island, which was being run by a British national of Bangladesh origin, Faisal Mustafa under cover of Green Crescent madrasa, highlighted the determination of Hasina government to deal firmly with all terror breeding organizations.

The government also relentlessly pursued the illegal import of 10 trucks full of sophisticated weapons by the ULFA in collaboration with the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the DGFI. The arms were imported by ULFA chief Paresh Barua in 2004. The BNP government winked at the induction of 10 trucks full of weapons for carrying out depredations in Assam and other places in northeast India. Only after the new government came to power several senior officers of the NSI and the DGFI and other accused persons related to BNP were arrested and brought up for trial.

These steps, coupled with the government decision to modernize madrasa education and streamlining religious education in co0nformity with the education policy of the country has angered the Maulvis and other streams of religious teachers. This class is not happy with government decision to overhaul rural primary education and to root out organized armed gangs dominating several educational institutions in the country.

Devastation caused by Cyclone Sidr in November 2005 and Cyclone Aila in May 2009 left hundreds of villages in ruins. The rural poor in the southern districts were most hard hit. Despite mobilization of internal and international help the government has not been able to restore normalcy. Economic recession accompanied by shortage of funds and other amenities have left thousands of families still uprooted and unsettled.

The government of Sheikh Hasina struggled to cope with natural disasters, challenges from the Islamist terrorists, pro-Pakistani political conspirators and global recession. In a politically volatile country economic depression and price rise and inflation add to restlessness and such opportunities are exploited by diversionary political elements like the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami and their cohorts. In the midst of such chaotic ambience Hasina completed her one year in power and the survey taken up by Daily Star indicate that despite several factors of dissatisfaction Hasina has maintained high degree of popularity.

There are few other reasons of dissatisfaction in several segments of the populace. Though violence was injected into the political and social souls of Bangladesh by the killers of Mujib and later military dictators, the people of Bangladesh have not succumbed to the culture of violence, as imbued by the Pakistani society, where religious banditry is passed as Islam. However, in Bangladesh the student’s movement has become the violent fringes of political ideology.

The student wing of Awami League, Chattra League, is a powerful institution. The League has firm stranglehold in most educational institutions and they are also known for interfering in local administration. Bangladesh politics is crucially dominated by students unions, mainly Chattra League (AL), Chattra Dal (BNP), Islamic Chattra Shibir (Jamaat-e- Islami), Islamic Student Movement of Bangladesh (want Khilafa), and Revolutionary Students Unity of Bangladesh (Left) etc. These students unions, aligned on political lines, often clash in the Universities and other educational institutions. They try to capture the university hostels and dictate terms on the authorities. During BNP/Jamaat rule the Chattra Dal and Chattra Shibir along with Islamic Student Movement of Bangladesh dominated the political scene, tender grabbing for government works, killing and maiming Chattra League activists and maiming the local administration.

Now that Awami League is in power the Chattra League is flexing muscles. Grabbing tenders for government works has become an issue of serious concern. There are frequent violent clashes between Chattra League, Chattra Dal and Islamic Chattra Shibir. In recent months there have been serious efforts by Chattra Dal and Shibir to capture political grassroots in different districts by violently dislodging the Chattra League. In January 2010 a combined group of Shibir and Chattra Dal carried out violent armed attack on a Dhaka university college.

Such clashes often result in killing of students and members of the faculty. Sheikh Hasina has several times tried to discipline the Chattra League leaders and party leaders who exercise control on CL in different districts. General public opinion is against such activism by the student unions of the political parties. However, there has been some qualitative difference this time. A number of Chattra League leaders have been booked under the law for criminal activities. The government does not want to come down heavily fearing upsurge of student unions owing allegiance to the opposition parties. Hasina has some tight rope warning ahead. She has to convert the dynamism of the students and youths to constructive activities for fighting fundamentalism, promote secularism and get them imbued with spirit of sacrifices committed by the leading freedom fighters. Mukti Juddha (freedom struggle) is still a vibrant dream in the minds of majority of Bangladeshi people. The students can help Hasina by harnessing these sentiments.

The other issue that agitates public minds is Cross Firing by Rapid Action Battalions (RAB). In Bangladesh Cross Fire means faked encounter. During BNP/Jamaat rule there were over 500 Cross Fire killings of criminals, political opponents and Marxist-Leninist and Maoist leaders and workers. In the western districts of Bangladesh the revolutionary Maoist left movement is quite strong. During last one year about 100 people have died in Cross Fire. This legacy of killing the people in the ruse of encounter allegedly helps the administration to avoid going through the encumbered hassles of legal prosecution. Only recently Hasina government has issued some directives to examine each and every case of Cross Fire death. Bangladesh Human Rights activists are also agitating against this legacy of the military rule and reckless rule by BNP/Jamaat.

The issue of security of the minorities (Hindu, Buddhists, Christians and peripheral Hindu tribals) is a burning issue. With the return of Sheikh Hasina the minorities had heaved a sigh of relief that they would no more be subjected to rioting, forcible eviction from their lands and homes, their women would be protected and their religious places would not be destroyed by the BNP, Jamaat and Jihadi groups. According available statistics during the BNP/Jamaat rule over 1500 homes of the minorities were forcibly occupied, about 1500 acres of land grabbed, 370 minority women were raped and about the same umber kidnapped, converted and married to Muslims. Besides such atrocities plundering of Hindu business establishments and killing of businessmen had become a common feature. The minority segments of the people, especially the huge tribal population of Chittagong Hill Tracts still feel insecure. Hasina government has taken some steps to ensure security of the minorities, but in a wild riverine country dictates of the law are often hijacked by the Islamists and minority baiters. Being the head of a secular and democratic government Sheikh Hasina has to perform better and bring in new legislation for constitutional protection of the minorities as prevalent in India. Bangladesh requires constitutional guarantees for their rights. This action would be the acid test of Bangladeshi secularism.

Bangladesh government has been cautioned against promulgating a law that would encourage land grabbers to illegally seize properties belonging to minority Hindus, accelerating a process that has been on since India’s partition in 1947. Human rights activists, lawyers and NGOs urged the government to scrap the proposed ‘Vested Property Verification, Selection and Settlement Ordinance, 2008′. They are of the view that ‘Vested Property Return Act 2001’ is good enough to resolve the land issue of the minority community (Hindu). This replaced a Pakistan era law enacted to deal with the ownership rights over the ‘enemy property’, left behind by millions of minority Hindus who migrated to India. It was either left to the care of relatives who chose to stay behind, or was grabbed, generating legal disputes. Studies have shown that this process continued after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 and land-grabbing has been condoned by all political parties. The Awami League government was keen to introduce the new proposed law in the Parliament. However, under pressure from different lobbies the government has deferred the move. Some modifications have been suggested. This historic issue should be settled to the satisfaction of the minorities, otherwise Hasina government would lose popularity amongst the minority population. Surprisingly enough the government of India had not brought up this subject for bilateral discussion with the Bangladesh Prime Minister during her recent visit to Delhi. Sheikh Hasina must gather support to bring about a new law that would protect land, lives and dignity of the minorities, setting up a standard for all other Muslim majority countries.

Corruption and price rise in Bangladesh is rampant as in India and various parts of South Asia and South East Asia. Poverty is more acute in Bangladesh, particularly in the rural areas. High rise in consumer commodity prices during last one year has caused severe distress amongst the poor segments of the people. Observers opined that Hasina government is either unwilling or in collusion with the corrupt hoarders, speculators and price manipulators. This allegation is wild. She is personally honest, but it is not possible to inject honesty serum in all politicians and bureaucrats. India has miserably failed. Why bait Bangladesh alone?

Fish, a staple daily diet has become scarce. Bangladesh has to import fish from India though certain categories of fish are allowed to be exported to earn foreign exchange. Obviously, Bangladesh is heavily dependent on India for edible oils, pulses, condiments, sugar and other items of daily needs. Closure of legal or illegal trade with India for more than 15 days would create severe scarcity in Bangladesh, which is capable of provoking critical political crisis. With the improvement of bilateral relations border trading and regular export and import situation should improve. Hasina’s government has marginally succeeded in bringing down prices of essential commodities to some extent and the country gained bumper production in the wake of giving subsidy to agriculture inputs.

While the above narrated issues are responsible for dwindling popularity of Hasina government within a year of her thundering return to power she deserves applause on certain other scores. There cannot be exclusive black and white situation.

Her government has displayed that it is determined to root out jihadism and terrorism in any form. The interim government as well as the new elected government has started taking firm action against the major and minor Islamist, terrorist and jihadi organisations. The Ahl-e-Hadith Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Hizbut Tehrir and Allhar Dal etc virulently violent organisations have been banned. Several JMB activists, bomb specialists have been arrested and prosecuted. JMB is regarded as the affiliate of Taliban in Bangladesh, Its connectivity with al Qaeda is well proved. A special Bangladesh court sentenced three members of militant Islamic groups to death on in February2008 for involvement in a suicide bombing more than two years ago in which eight people were killed. Besides this the JMB was responsible for 49 serial bombing on a single day. Prime Minister Hasina made it clear in public speeches that Bangladesh would not be allowed to become a playground of jihadis and terrorists like Pakistan. Pakistan’s policy of creating and playing with terror groups has backfired on it. It is reeling under self-grown jihadist attacks.

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld a 2005 ruling by the High Court throwing out the fifth amendment of the constitution, which had allowed religion-based politics to flourish in the country during the last three decades. But Begum Zia government did not implement it. Following the apex court order, dozens of Islamic political parties must drop Islam from their name and stop using religion during their election campaigns. Religion based politics was added to the constitution by the Fifth Amendment carried out during late president Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government in 1979.This had allowed the religion-based political parties to play freely and added the Arabic “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” or in the name of God, the most merciful, benevolent in the preamble in the constitution. Some interpreters commented that the words “Bismillahir Rahman ar Rahim” in the preamble of the constitution would remain intact as the High Court verdict did not say anything about the words and those were part of the constitution’s preamble, not of the “main body”. The word “secularism” would automatically be restored in the constitution once the Court verdict is implemented. The latest order of Bangladesh Supreme Court confirming earlier order of the High Court that the regimes in Bangladesh after Mujib assassination to 1979 ascendance of usurper Ziaur Rahman has finally invalidated the 5th amendment to the Constitution. This is a big victory for the Bangladeshi freedom fighters. Perhaps Hasina government can now proceed to nullify various other orders perpetuated by Zia and his successor government for making Bangladesh an Islamic fundamentalist nation.

The fundamentalist and reactionary leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamic Chattra Shibir, Islamic Oikyo Jot, Khilafat Movement of Bangladesh and Ulema Council of Bangladesh had organized a gathering in front of Dhaka’s National Press Club and voiced protest against the Supreme Court verdict. These groups and other resurgent Islamic organisations are likely to link up with BNP and whip up protest in the ruse of Sheikh Hasina signing several agreements with India allegedly jeopardizing Bangladesh’s sovereignty and security. The pro-Pakistani and Islamist lobbies are on the verge of whipping up unrest to regain political toe hold after their humiliating defeat in last Parliamentary and local body elections. These pro-Pakistani forces, as a last resort, pick up the anti-India broom to clean up their own dirty homes.

Cracking down on organized crime, identifying and prosecuting corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, improving general law & order situation are some of other achievements of Hasina government. The U.S. government has dropped Bangladesh from its watch list following the improvement in the human rights scenario.

Despite global economic recession, the Bangladeshi economy did not suffer the way as feared by many economists and experts. The stimulus package announced by the government for vulnerable sectors helped a lot to keep the economy going. The country’s foreign exchange reserve exceeded 10 billion U.S. dollars, and inflation was pulled down to 4.69 percent in August 2009 from 10.11 percent when she formed the government on Jan. 6 last year. The flow of remittances has increased 22.4 percent from the previous year. The scenario of rural employment has improved significantly.

Another golden hue was added to the history of Bangladesh when the Bangla Supreme Court handed down death sentence on five former army officers for assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his other colleagues in and death warrant was issued against Lt. Col. Syed Farooq Rahman, Lt. Col. Sultan Sahriar Rashid Khan, Major Bazlul Huda, Maj. A. K. M. Mohiuddin Ahmed and Lt. Col Mohiuddin Ahmed. The process of prosecution had started in 1996. It took 13 years to conclude the proceedings of the most unfortunate crime committed by former army officers. The killers had enjoyed indemnity under Khondakar, Ziaur and Ershad regime. The development has, on the one hand buoyed up moral of the secular forces and on the other has set up an example to the erring army officers and pro-Pakistani forces. Several documents and evidences pointing finger at Ziaur Rahman being one of the background plotters of assassination of Mujib has embarrassed the BNP and lowered its image in public eye.

Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to Delhi has resulted in mutually beneficial agreements. Several contentious issues have been sorted out. In the 50 point historic communiqué issued after the summit meeting at Hyderabad House, PM Hasina and PM Manmohon had pledged commitment to working positively for solving all issues with the spirit of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation. The Indian government has categorically committed that nothing that harms Bangladesh will be done at Tipaimukh hydro project. The PM's also vowed to work positively to reach an agreement regarding sharing of Teesta River water. The Joint River Commission (JRC) meeting is likely to meet soon to expedite this and also on issues related to Feni, Muhuri, Khowai, Dharala and Dudkumar rivers will be held at a convenient time in the current quarter of 2010. Actions on dredging of Ichamati River and protection of Mahananda, Karotoa, Nagar, Kulik, Atrai, Dharala and Feni rivers were also agreed to be worked out. India appreciated the urgency of Bangladesh government to regenerate required water flow in all rivers and agreed to support Bangladesh initiatives to dredge rivers for flood control, navigation and access to ports. India agreed to provide dredgers on urgent basis.

The two PM’s also agreed to resolve maritime boundary disputes through mutual discussions. They acknowledged the initiation of proceedings under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and in that context India welcomed a visit of a Bangladesh delegation. Issues related to land boundary disputes were agreed to be resolved keeping in view the spirit of 1974 Land Boundary agreement. It was agreed to convene Joint Boundary Working Group to address this issue.

Bangladesh agreed to let India, Nepal and Bhutan use Mongla and Chittagong port by rail and road for trading. It was also agreed that Rohanpur-Singabad broad gauge railway link will be available for Bangladesh for transit to Nepal. Bangladesh informed India of its intention to convert Radhikapur- Birol railway line into broad gauge and requested railway transit link to Bhutan as well. To facilitate smooth trading of goods, it was agreed that trucks from Bhutan and Nepal would be allowed to enter about 200 meters into the zero point at Banglabandha at Banglabandha-Phulbari land customs station. Necessary arrangements will be mutually agreed upon and put in place by both countries.

Countries agreed to jointly combat organized terrorism, insurgency and criminal activities. Countries earlier signed to exchange convicted criminals. PM’s assured each other that the territory of either will not be allowed for activities inimical to the other, and resolved not to allow their respective territories to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by domestic or foreign terrorist/militant and insurgent organisations and their operatives. Both prime ministers agreed that the respective border guarding forces will exercise restraint, and underscored the importance of regular meetings between the two border security forces to curtail illegal cross border activities, and to prevent loss of lives.

Apart from above Bangladesh and India earlier signed three agreements and two MOUs. Bangladesh under power trading agreement will import about 250MW power from Indian eastern grid. The actions required for Grid connectivity will be completed soon. Power trading agreement is the stepping stone to set up regional power grid and energy ring.

Besides these agreements Bangladesh has shown goodwill by arresting and handing over to India important leaders of ULFA, NLFT and NDFB organizations. Paresh Barua the military commander of ULFA has now taken shelter in China. With the improved relationship India and Bangladesh can perhaps establish a common economic zone that would benefit both the countries. In case the present trend is sustained and Sheikh Hasina’s government gets a longer lease of life Bangladesh can make enormous progress and it can invite investment by foreign countries including India for rapid economic progress and improvement of its natural resources. Several Indian investors have expressed intention to invest in power, oil exploration and other industries in Bangladesh. Hopefully, at the bilateral level some positive structures can be worked out.
It may be recalled that India and Bangladesh now jointly stand as buffer between Islamist jihadism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southern Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. If this buffer is allowed to strengthen, both the countries can become islands of democracy and secularism in South and South East Asia. As it appears, India is ready to walk alongside Bangladesh in this mission.

The people of Bangladesh has finally proved that despite hijacking of the polity and policies of secular Bangladesh by pro-Pakistani forces and attempted Islamisation of the country from1976 to 2006, the Bengali identity, cultural values, traditions of secularism and love for freedom and liberty remain the main building blocks of the nation. The dream of Mujib’s Sonar Bangla may not materialize but the present developments present a golden hue. However, the dark clouds of machinations by pro-Pakistani BNP and Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami jihadist forces are just hibernating. They have the capability of striking against the forces of secularism and freedom movement in collaboration with their foreign mentors and moneybags. #

First published in, February 7, 2010

Maloy Krishna Dhar writes on security issues, a retired Indian intelligence officer and specialized in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence operations

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