Officials from the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarul Bangla team who were arrested in Assam, India in July 2022.
Credit: special arrangement
Never before have terrorists in India been as technologically savvy as the al-Qaeda-affiliated officials apprehended last month in northeastern India. The arrested officials were equipped with advanced communications software designed to keep their activities completely secret.
Police and investigative agencies were stunned to discover an internal communications application on the laptops of some apprehended Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) militants. The app was allegedly made by software professionals in a foreign country. ABT, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), is a banned organization in Bangladesh.
“These (ABTs) were the most technologically advanced terrorist modules that have been destroyed so far,” Assam Police Chief Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta told the diplomat, adding that they were “using a very sophisticated application for encrypted communication”.
Mahanta said an “enormous amount” of information was extracted from the arrested officials, including plans for their expansion into India.
On August 4, the Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters that the app had “never been heard from [of] before.” As many as five modules of the terror outfit have been dismantled in the state in the past four months, he said.
Another official involved in the investigation described the app as “military grade”, which could have been produced in Germany, as there was previous evidence from other countries that some al-Qaeda cells were using a similar software manufactured in that country.
The arrest of an ABT activist in the northeastern Indian state of Assam nearly five months ago paved the way for a vast network of terrorist organizations in different regions of the country. So far, around 30 officials from the group have been arrested in different states since the crackdown began in March. Among those arrested is a Bangladeshi nationalwho illegally crossed the border and moved to Assam to expand the base of the outfit.
In addition to spreading al-Qaeda propaganda on social media, ABT sleeper cells identified potential officials for the group. Electronic appliances seized from those arrested provided data on jihadist literature and videos linked to al-Qaeda.
Interrogation of the arrested officials revealed details about the group’s modus operandi and its mode of communication. Details on the software were mainly provided by an ABT cell in Bhopal which was dismantled a few months ago.
New recruits underwent intensive indoctrination after recruitment. After a few weeks, their laptops were loaded with the application for encrypted messaging and they received lessons on how to use the software. Cells that were established in India received instructions from their managers in Bangladesh through the app.
Indian security agencies and police have not ruled out the possibility of further arrests in other states across the country in the coming weeks. Some of them also expressed concern about the two videos released by al-Qaeda in recent months, specifically targeting Assam. They are concerned that this may encourage more people to join the group.
The first video released earlier this year carried a message from the outfit’s deceased leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the second made a clear appeal to Muslims to execute “hijrah (immigration) to Assam” to release the “ummah(Muslim community) of atrocities perceived to have been committed against Muslims by the Indian government.
Assam, along with Gujarat and Kashmir, has been on al-Qaeda’s radar for 2014, when the group launched its chapter in South Asia. The northeastern state came to the attention of the terror group following controversy over the Supreme Court-mandated National Citizens Registry (NRC), which was an exercise to identify genuine citizens of the state .
Foreign nationals in Assam consist of Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh and citizens of Nepal. There were allegations that the BJP government in the state harassed ethnic Bengali Muslims for being foreign nationals.
The eviction of encroaching Bengali Muslim community from government land in the state also sparked controversy last year after a photographer was seen trampling over the corpse of a person whose the house was demolished.
For al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Assam appears to be an ideal ground to spot the disenchanted who are waiting for an opportunity to revolt against the government. So far, however, only a small part seems to have been attracted to jihadist groups, as evidenced by modules destroyed in Assam over the past two decades, including groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.