Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Bangladesh: Arms and the rogues

Phioto: Hidden hand - Former Bangladeshi home minister Lutfozzaman Babar examining a seized rocket launcher at Chittagong jetty. He is now in jail



SYED NAZAKAT/Chittagong & Dhaka


THE WEEK investigates a conspiracy hatched by the ISI to arm insurgents in India

It was past midnight on April 1, 2004, in the coastal city of Chittagong in southeastern Bangladesh. Two trawlers carrying munitions, enough to arm a brigade and procured from the company China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), reached the harbour. Top officials of Bangladesh's foreign intelligence and internal security intelligence guided the trawlers from St Martin's Island in the Bay of Bengal to the Chittagong jetty, and Nurul Amin, a senior official at the industries ministry, was expected to arrive from Dhaka to supervise the unloading and distribution of the consignment.

Everything went on smoothly, until two policemen, Mohammad Alauddin and Helal Uddin, saw the consignment and blew the whistle, perhaps unaware of the orders from higher authorities.

It was New Delhi, not Dhaka, which was shocked by the haul, as it was revealed that the arms were meant for insurgent groups in India. Bangladesh has become, says an Indian military report on the haul, “a key focal point in the transit route of illegal arms in the subcontinent.”

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Bangladesh investigated the case till July this year, and the police have filed charges against some of the country's top politicians and intelligence officers, including two former ministers and intelligence chiefs.

THE WEEK has unearthed official records on the case in India and Bangladesh, and has got exclusive access to the 3,500-page Chittagong case diary. It has also got the confessional statement of the main accused in the case, notorious Bangladeshi arms dealer Hafiz Rehman, and many important court documents. The documents reveal startling details of how Pakistan procured weapons from China to fuel insurgency in India. And the case is the strongest evidence of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and China coming together to use Bangladeshi soil against India.

The four-member team of Bangladesh army's ordnance branch, which investigated the arms haul, has also confirmed that all 10 truckloads of arms and ammunition were manufactured in China by NORINCO, a state-owned arms manufacturer. The seized consignment, which included 1,290 submachine guns, 400 semi-automatic guns, 400 Thompson submachine guns, 150 rocket launchers, 2,000 grenade-launching tubes, 840 rockets, 24,996 hand-grenades and 11,40,520 bullets, was the largest arms haul in Bangladesh's history.

The case diary says the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, or DGFI, which is Bangladesh's military intelligence agency, was penetrated by the ISI to the extent that its then director, Maj.-Gen. (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury, was an ISI mole. Chowdhury was later promoted as the chief of Bangladesh's National Security Intelligence. The NSI, too, was penetrated by the ISI and its then chief, Brig.-Gen. (retd) Abdur Rahim, who reports to the prime minister like the DGFI chief, was discreetly working for the ISI.

The case diary says Chowdhury and Rahim travelled to London and to a Middle East country to meet the ISI's top brass to plan covert anti-India operations (using passports Z0171247 and O0397451). And they often directed sources by using their own cell phones (01812271769 and 01711565850). The investigators have confirmed their contacts with other military and government officials and other ISI moles through emails, phone intercepts, witness accounts and other evidence.

Both Chowdhury and Rahim, currently in prison, were cultivated by two ISI officers posted at the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, Brig. Mogisuddin and Col Shahed Mahmud. Mogisuddin facilitated their meetings with ISI officials and arms dealers in Bangladesh, Dubai and London. “Our investigation has found that the weapons came from China and were procured by Pakistan with the help of Bangladesh's top intelligence officials,” said Moniruzaman Chaudhory, chief investigating officer. “All [weapons] were destined for India.” He said his team had figured out six of seven issues that a Chittagong court had directed it to solve during the investigation. “The only unsolved issue is the identification of the vessel that transported the arms consignment,” he said.

The conspiracy began in 2000, when Bangladesh was in political unrest owing to the enmity between the ruling the Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Many leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, who were accused of collaborating with Pakistan during the liberation war and committing war crimes, had returned to the country. The BNP came to power in 2001, forming a coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikye Jote.

During this time, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, under intense pressure from the US after the 9/11 attacks, declared that no Pakistan-based group would be allowed to commit terrorism in the name of religion. He banned five jihadi groups that his army had long nurtured. Though the camps were closed, terrorists were shifted to hideaways. The ISI shifted at least 100 terrorist commanders, including Arab fighters of al Qaeda, from Pakistan to Bangladesh in special Pakistan International Airlines flights from Karachi to Dhaka. In Dhaka, the houses they stayed in were owned and protected by the DGFI and NSI. Some terrorist commanders were even kept at the NSI director-general's house in the tony Gulshan area in Dhaka.

Saleem Samad, a Dhaka-based journalist who tried to interview a terrorist who was shifted to the city, was arrested by the intelligence agencies and was threatened with death. “My ordeal began the day I went to interview an Arab fighter in Dhaka,” said Samad. Once he got bail he escaped from Bangladesh and took refuge in Canada. (See the box)

Around this time, many Indian terrorist groups were expanding their activities to Bangladesh. This correspondent visited Sector 3 in Uttara, VIP Road in Karnail and Dhanmondi in Dhaka, where commanders of the United Liberation Front of Asom, a militant separatist group in India's northeast, lived for years. It was in Dhaka that Ulfa's military chief Paresh Baruah alias Kamruj Zaman came under the radar of the ISI. He was flown to Pakistan many a time, and at least once to Afghanistan, where he met warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

In Dhaka, Baruah's handler was Mogisuddin. He introduced him to pro-Pakistan Bangladeshi politicians and intelligence officials. One of them was Gulam Faruk Obhi, a Jatiya Party parliament member. It was Obhi who introduced Baruah to arms smuggler Hafizur Rahman. “We met at a fast food joint at Rapa Plaza in Dhaka. Paresh told me that he might need my help in importing some goods,” said Rehman in his confession statement. THE WEEK has a copy of the statement. He said Ulfa leaders and their families were protected by the DGFI and NSI.

According to the CID's case diary, the ISI took the help of a Middle East-based Pakistani channel to fund and smuggle weapons. Brig. Rahim and Mogisuddin held several meetings with the channel's people in Dhaka and abroad. Rahim later admitted that he was hooked to the religious programmes on the channel. “Sahabuddin [then director of the NSI] observed this. He told me that I should start a local franchise with the channel,” said Rahim.

One of the meetings, according to the case diary, was held in a Middle East country in 2003 and another in Dhaka in 2004. The owner of the channel came to Dhaka and was received at the airport by NSI officials. The expenses of his stay were met from Bangladesh's national intelligence fund. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's son Tarique Rahman was also present at the meeting. Currently living in London, Tarique is widely expected to succeed his mother as BNP chief.

Rahim once met the ISI chief in London. The ISI had not received the payment of 2.5 crore takas of the mobile phone bugging devices that the Bangladesh intelligence agencies had bought from Pakistan. “The ISI chief said the devices were a gift from Pakistan,” said Rahim. He, however, did not say anything in his confession on how and when the weapons were procured from China. The investigators suspect that Bangladeshi intelligence officials were not aware of Pakistan's business contacts with NORINCO.

Headquartered in Beijing, NORINCO is the third largest defence company in China and makes precision strike systems, amphibious assault weapons, anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, night vision products and small arms. It has a long-standing relationship with the Pakistan army. In 1996, the FBI arrested a group of Chinese arms dealers, including three NORINCO representatives, who were trying to smuggle small arms and shoulder-held missile launchers to California. And in August 2003, the US imposed sanctions on NORINCO after it was caught providing Iran speciality steel used in its missile programmes.
Indian security agencies had information on NORINCO's involvement in supplying arms to insurgents.
Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary, Research and Analysis Wing, said India had informed China about it but the Chinese repeatedly denied it. “The problem was, neither India's military intelligence nor R&AW had any intelligence or evidence to prove it,” he said.

According to the CID's case diary, the weapons might have been procured in 2003 and a ship, most probably, had come from the Chinese port of Beihai in Qingdao. Confession statements by Hafiz Rehman and another arms dealer, Deam Mohamad, in a Chittagong court revealed that the ship passed through Hong Kong and Myanmar, and when it reached St Martin's Island near the Myanmar border, the consignment was reloaded into two trawlers. “When I asked him [Baruah] about the required permission from the Bangladesh navy, coast guard and customs, he said the NSI and DGFI chiefs had made all arrangements, and the jetty permission had also been obtained,” said Rehman in his confession.

During the final stages of the plan, a tall, stocky man was brought in from Manila to Dhaka via Bangkok. He was Anthony Shimray, the chief arms procurer of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, or NSCN(IM), the biggest insurgent outfit in the northeast. Shimray was arrested by India's National Investigation Agency on October 2, 2010. He said he had procured arms from Chinese defence companies several times with the help of his middleman in Bangkok, Willy Narue.

From Dhaka Shimray went to Chittagong and checked in at the Golden Inn hotel on March 28, 2004. In the hotel ledger he gave his address as 97/5 Sher-e-Bangla road, Mohammadpur, Dhaka. Shimray and Rehman hired two trawlers—Amanat and FB Khazardan—and, along with some other people, took them to St Martin's Island. There they shifted the weapons and ammunition from the ship to the trawlers.
The trawlers passed through Teknaf, in Cox's Bazar district in Chittagong, on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Escorted by Bangladesh's coast guard, the consignment reached the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Ltd Jetty across the Karnaphuli river, where the trawlers pulled in. The jetty was under the industries ministry, which was headed by Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami. He is in prison for his role in the smuggling.

As soon as the weapons were seized, the ISI and its operatives in Bangladesh began their attempts to derail the investigation. Chittagong was notorious for arms smuggling and the BNP government tried to pass it off as a routine incident. Lutfozzaman Babar, then home minister, was allegedly involved in this. Babar was arrested last year and is currently in Dhaka Central Jail. His lawyer Mofizul Hoq Bhuiyan, however, told THE WEEK that he was being victimised. “It is a politically motivated case. He was a bright young politician. His only fault was that he was in the BNP,” he said.

It was a blind case in the beginning. But an unexpected confession changed its course. “We traced Habibullah Rahman, the man who gave trucks for unloading the arms at Chittagong jetty. During the interrogation he told us that one officer from Bangladesh intelligence wing, field officer Mohamed Akbar Hossain, had taken trucks from him,” said Chaudhory. Once Hossain was arrested and interrogated he revealed the name of his boss, NSI director Wing Commander (retd) Shahabuddin Ahmed, and when Shahabuddin was interrogated he disclosed the name of his boss, Brig.-Gen. Rahim. It was Rahim who revealed the involvement of DGFI chief Maj.-Gen. Chowdhury.

When the investigation in the case started, a plot was allegedly hatched by some members of the BNP to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, the opposition leader. Three months after the arms were seized in Chittagong, grenades were hurled from the roofs of neighbouring buildings towards a truck on which she was addressing a crowd in Dhaka. Eighteen people were killed, though Hasina escaped. Now the investigators have found that the assassination was planned by her own security officers.

Things changed when Hasina's Awami League defeated the BNP-led four-party alliance in the parliament elections in 2008. A few days after she became prime minister, Hasina initiated a multi-agency review of ISI contacts in the DGFI and NSI. She also arrested Ulfa leaders and handed them over to India, including its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. “When we took power we realised that there were a lot of wrong things happening in our country,” said Bangladesh Home Minister Shahara Khatun. “We made a clear decision that we are not going to tolerate any act of terrorism in our country.”

The trial of Chittagong arms case at the metropolitan court in Chittagong boils down to the names that would pop up. As the testimony has begun at the court, Bangladesh is brimming with speculation. Outside the court-room, the walls of the town, which witnessed many atrocities during the liberation war, are painted with graffiti extolling the 1971 heroes. “The guys who were supposed to protect our country from any internal and external security threat were moles of a foreign agency. It was a doomsday scenario for us,” said Maj.-Gen. (retd) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, who fought against Pakistan in 1971.

He said the historic India-Pakistan enmity provides an important context why Bangladesh has become a spy battleground. “India supported us in 1971 against Pakistan. Today, these guys are collaborating with Pakistan to harm India. It is a painful paradox,” he said. India, it seems, is aware of it, as the timely intervention of its intelligence agencies has foiled many Pakistan-China attempts to create bloodshed in the country.

First published in The Week magazine, India, December 3, 2011