Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bangladesh Arms Trafficking: Residual Networks

Veronica Khangchian

In perhaps, the single biggest arms seizure since the April 2, 2004, Chittagong arms haul case where 10 truckloads of weapons had been seized, a huge arms cache was recovered by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh, over several days, from the Satchari National Park in the Chunarughat Sub-District of the Habiganj District in Bangladesh, adjoining the West Tripura District in the Indian State of Tripura. Officials disclosed that they recovered 184 rocket shells (40mm) and 153 chargers for rocket launchers abandoned inside one bunker on a hillock in the reserve forest, some 130 kilometers from the capital, Dhaka, during the raid on June 3, 2014. Another six more empty bunkers were located on the same day. On June 4, the RAB found another two bunkers and recovered 38 rocket shells, four machine guns, 95 rocket chargers, 1,300 rounds of machine gun ammunition, and over 13,000 bullets of different calibres. RAB recovered more arms and ammunition, including four machine guns in a bunker on June 8, and also found oil used for cleaning firearms. Another two empty bunkers were also located. As it resumed a search operation deep into the reserve forest on the eight consecutive day, RAB made additional recoveries, including one machine gun barrel, 633 rounds of ammunition, and 54 anti-tank shells, from three newly discovered bunkers, on June 9.

The area from where the arms were recovered was once the base camp of the now-defunct Indian insurgent outfit, the Tripura-based All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The camp was later captured by insurgents belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), with its principal theatre of operations in the Indian State of Assam, abutting Tripura, and ATTF had earlier smuggled a huge quantity of Chinese-made weapons from the Southeast Asian grey market by sea, landed them around Cox's Bazar or Chittagong, and transported these to rebel bases such as Satchari, from where arms were smuggled into India's troubled northeast.

However, some confusion prevails over the present recoveries. Indian security agencies are yet to ascertain whether these belong to any militant outfit active in India's Northeast. Media reports have speculated on the distant possibility of ULFA 'chief' Paresh Baruah asking ATTF to store the weapons in its one-time bases, and this cannot be ruled out. Reports also indicate that ATTF leader, Ranjit Debbarma (now in Tripura jail), who had close ties with Paresh Baruah, had stocked the cache in collaboration with ULFA militants. A June 4 media report suggested that the arms and ammunition belonged to ULFA leader Baruah. Information gleaned by Indian intelligence agencies from Debbarma, and provided to Bangladesh authorities, led to the recovery of the ammunition on June 3, three kilometers off the border. According to the report, arms smuggled from China by Baruah were kept in the Satchari Forest and were sent to Indian militants at opportune moments.

However, Bangladesh State Minister for Home, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, asserted that the haul was based on intelligence collected by local Bangladesh agencies. RAB Media Wing Director Habibur Rahman added that the arms and ammunition recovered in the Satchari Forest were apparently similar to those recovered in Chittagong in 2004, and to a truckload of ammunition recovered at Bogra in June 2003.  It is significant, moreover, that investigators of the Bogra ammunition haul had determined that the ammunition was bound for the Satchari Forest, and had also confirmed its linkages with NLFT and ULFA.

Earlier, a Bangladesh Court had arrived at a significant verdict in the Chittagong arms haul case, nearly 10 years after the incident. On January 30, 2014, a Chittagong District Court awarded the death penalty to 14 accused, including Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ameer (chief) of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), Lutfozzaman Babar of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the then Minister of State for Home, and ULFA-I 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah (in absentia), for smuggling 10 truckloads of arms into Chittagong District in 2004, during the tenure of the BNP-led Government. Investigations revealed that the weapons were manufactured in China and were being shipped to ULFA. The condemned also include former Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Director Major General (Retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury; former Director General of National Security Intelligence (NSI) Brigadier General (Retd) Abdur Rahim; and three other NSI officials – Director (Security) Wing Commander Shahab Uddin Ahmed; Deputy Director Major (Retd) Liakat Hossain; and Field Officer Akbar Hossain Khan. Others awarded the death penalty in the case are former Additional Secretary (Industry) Nurul Amin; the then Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. (CUFL) Managing Director Mahsin Uddin Talukder; CUFL General Manager (Administration) K.M. Enamul Hoque; and three businessmen, Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, Deen Mohammad and Haji Abdus Subhan.

In the initial stages of the trial, which commenced in 2005, only some small fry, mostly labourers, truckers and trawler drivers, were implicated, leaving out the big shots as the then BNP-led Government allegedly tried to cover up the involvement of the state machinery, including its Ministers and high officials of intelligence agencies. However, after an Army-backed caretaker Government took charge on January 11, 2007, ahead of the country’s General Elections, the Court of Chittagong Metropolitan Judge ordered further investigations on February 14, 2008. In June 2011, Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets, accusing 11 new suspects. While Paresh Barua and former Secretary of the Industries Ministry, Nurul Amin, have been absconding ever since the recovery of the arms, the other nine are behind bars. Baruah and Amin were sentenced in absentia. The verdict of the Special Tribunal observed that the role of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the incident was 'mysterious', and pointed to the direct involvement of then Ministers and top military and civil officials. Judge S.M. Mojibur Rahman also argued that the smuggling of such a huge volume of weapons and ammunition was not possible without Government support, and noted, “They [the intelligence officials] were involved in the conspiracy to destroy the entire nation by putting the country’s existence at stake.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has now promised separate investigations into the role of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party (BNP) in the Chittagong arms haul case, declaring, ‘The trial of 10 truckloads of arms haul is over. We will now probe afresh the conspiracies behind it, from where the arms came, how it was brought to Bangladesh and who had funded it." The Prime Minister added that Bangladesh had become hotbed of activities of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975.

Analysts note that the death sentence awarded to Paresh Barua will have little impact on the outfit as Barua and most of his cadres have already shifted base out of Bangladesh. Intelligence officials in Assam, however, feel that the elusive insurgent leader will be under greater pressure to come forward for talks, should Myanmar act as Bangladesh did, and evict insurgents from India's north-east, including Barua and his cadres, from its soil. The Assam Police have intelligence inputs that Barua is currently operating out of his base along the Myanmar-China border. Officials in Bangladesh argue that the death sentence would at least ensure that Baruah would not be able to enter Bangladesh without the court’s intervention.

Significantly, the verdict comes at a time when ULFA-I is facing a crisis. Sources indicate that not more than 10 hardcore members of the outfit are inside Assam, and that the group has no more than 180 cadres in camps in Myanmar. Senior leaders who were in the Mon District of Nagaland have been called back to Myanmar after the outfit awarded the death sentence to 'operational commander' Pramod Gogoi alias Partha Pratim Asom. On March 16, 2014 [the party's 'Army Day'], ULFA-I asked its members to re-strengthen the outfit, fearing that certain members had a nexus with the SFs. At least eight ULFA-I cadres, including Pramod Gogoi, were executed on the instructions of ULFA-I's 'commander-in-chief', Paresh Baruah, for 'conspiring’ with Police and Security Forces to engineer a mass surrender of cadres over the preceding four months. Seven cadres had also been executed in December 2013, while they were trying to flee the Myanmar base to surrender to the Police. 'Operational commander' Pramod Gogoi was executed on January 15, 2014 in the Mon District. ULFA-I is said to have a total of around 240 cadres at present.

Significantly, the Goalpara Police recovered a stock of ammunition and detonators from ULFA-I along the Assam-Meghalaya border in the Goalpara District on January 27, 2014. The Police disclosed that a group of ULFA-I militants had entered Hatigaon, a village under the Agia Police Station, with arms and explosive materials, which they stored inside a rubber plantation. Goalpara Superintendent of Police (SP) Nitul Gogoi stated, “We got the information that a group under the leadership of Drishti Rajkhowa brought the ammunition from Bangladesh.”
Coordination between the Meghalaya based Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), one of the biggest procurers of arms in Meghalaya, and ULFA-I, remains a concern. In the latest incident, on June 26, 2014, a militant identified as Dharma Kanta Rai, who was on ‘deputation’ from the ULFA-I to the GNLA, was killed during a rescue operation mounted by West Garo Hills Police at Darekgre near Rongmasugre village in West Garo Hills District, to free four abducted persons from the GNLA and ULFA. The abductions had been carried out on June 25 from Kantanagre village in West Garo Hills District. The deceased ULFA-I cadre was reportedly an improvised explosive device (IED) expert, used by GNLA to target Police movements.

Worryingly, media reports indicate that a large proportion of weapons and ammunition that reach the mushrooming in Meghalaya, are from the armory of insurgent groups presently engaged in peace parleys with the Government. These groups include the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the pro-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF). According to sources, these frontline militant outfits never divulged the exact composition of their arsenal and, according to one source, “80 to 90 per cent of these arms lie unused for five to six years and just before their life span lapses, these militant groups prefer to dispose of these weapons.”

Further, despite dramatically improving relations between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Northeast insurgent groups continue to maintain some 45 hideouts in Bangladesh, mostly belonging to ATTF and NLFT (21 camps), according to BSF Special Director General B.D. Sharma. He added, on June 20, that the insurgents could not be fully wiped out from Bangladesh soil because deployment of BGB was thin compared to requirements, and that, “They are now raising new forces and we hope that the situation would improve soon. Besides, the terrain and riverine border also come in the way of maintaining effective border vigil.” However, Mohammed Latiful Haider, Additional Director General, BGB, has denied the existence of any camps of Indian militant outfits in the country. The denial came on June 25, after the first day of a border coordination conference held between senior BSF and BGB officials at Kadamtala, at BSF North Bengal Frontier Headquarters near Siliguri, under the Darjeeling District of West Bengal.

Bangladesh has now clearly declared that it would not allow its territory to be used against India. The assurance, reiterated to Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her first foreign visit on June 26, 2014, came as the External Affairs Minister promised to put extra energy into bilateral ties. Swaraj stated that New Delhi sought a comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh for a secure and prosperous South Asia.  With recent developments, and agreed cooperation between India and Bangladesh, a further significant improvement can be hoped for.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 52, June 30, 2014


Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management