West Bengal

'Shahadat' Terror Module Bust — Bengal's Radicalisation Crisis Is Worsening Due To Lack Of Political Will To Act Against Islamists

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jun 24, 2024, 03:01 PM | Updated 03:00 PM IST

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
  • The problem of extremism in Bengal is growing worse because there isn't enough political effort to counter Islamist groups.
  • The busting of an Islamist terror module named ‘Shahadat’ (meaning martyrdom) by the Bengal Police’s Special Task Force (STF) over the weekend is ominous for the state, and the country 

    The head of this module — Mohammad Habibullah — is a second-year computer science student at the government-run Mankar College in Purba Bardhaman district of south Bengal. 

    According to a senior officer of the Bengal Police, the 21-year-old Habibullah is highly radicalised and has close links with leaders of terror outfits of Bangladesh. 

    A shy and soft-spoken youngster who generally kept to himself and didn’t have many friends in his native village of Mirpara near the town of Kanska in Paschim Bardhaman district, Habibullah was picked up by the STF on Saturday (22 June) and a number of electronic devices seized from him. 

    Counter-terrorism experts in the Bengal Police told Swarajya that ‘Shahadat’ is the Bengal wing of Bangladesh’s Shahadat-e al-Hiqme, a banned terror outfit in that country. The Shahadat-e al-Hiqme is a front of the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), another proscribed Islamist terror outfit of Bangladesh. ABT is itself a front of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). 

    The Shahadat-e al-Hiqme, formed in 2003, is said to be funded by Pakistan's ISI through Dawood Ibrahim. 

    Habibullah, who scored good marks in the Class X and higher secondary examinations conducted by state boards, is said to have established ‘Shahadat’ in late 2022 when he was just 19. 

    “He was radicalised when he was in Class X. Since Class VII, he was in touch with radical Islamist groups online and was being groomed by top operatives of the ABT and Shahdat-e al-Hiqme,” said a senior Bengal Police officer who is privy to the confessions being made by Habibullah to his STF interrogators. 

    The STF detained five more youths who had been recruited by Habibullah from Purba and Paschim Bardhaman districts on Sunday (23 June). 

    Habibullah was picked up from Panagarh, a town in Paschim Bardhaman that is also home to two sensitive defence establishments. 

    The IAF has a base in Panagarh where it stations a tactical aircraft squadron for use by special forces and also C-130J Super Hercules mid-air refuellers for Sukhoi 30-MKI fighters. The Indian Army’s ‘Brahmastra Corps’ (XVII Corps) — the first mountain strike corps — is also based in Panagarh. 

    Habibullah had been tasked by his handlers in Bangladesh to collect sensitive information like movement of aircraft and troops at the bases in Panagarh. He had developed some contacts among local contractors in Panagarh who have limited access to the Indian Air Force and Indian Army bases. 

    However, Habibullah had not been able to gather much information about the defence establishments. 

    But what is ominous is that a bright young lad like Habibullah coming from a middle-class family was radicalised to the extent that he became the ‘Amir’ (head) of a terror cell. 

    Shahadat had established links with the Hyderabad-based Darsgah-Jihad-O-Shahadat (Centre for Jihad & Martyrdom) that is also closely linked to Pakistani terror outfits that are funded, armed and controlled by the notorious ISI,” said the Bengal Police officer who holds the rank of a DIG. 

    What has sent alarm bells ringing in the security and intelligence establishments is the radicalisation of Habibullah and other Muslim youths in the two Bardhaman districts. 

    “This is very dangerous and we suspect that apart from the six (including Habibullah) who have already been arrested, many more Muslim youths in the two Bardhaman districts as well as Birbhum, Hooghly and Paschim Medinipur districts have also been radicalised. This radicalisation is happening in mosques where radical Islamist clerics give fiery sermons,” a senior officer of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) which has been tracking Islamist radicals in Bengal told Swarajya

    These radical clerics preach the regressive and puritanical Salafi Islam.

    “What is surprising is that not just illiterate Muslims, but even educated ones are falling prey to their hate sermons,” said the SIB officer. 

    The clerics target youngsters who are good in studies. After radicalising them to a great extent, these ‘assets’ are handed over by the clerics to terror operatives who brainwash them thoroughly and then recruit them in their outfits or, as in Habibullahs’s case, get them to form new ones. 

    The reason that bright students, especially ones who are proficient with computers and are inclined towards studying computer science, are targeted is because they can be of immense value to terror outfits who operate in the dark web. 

    Habibullah and his associates, for instance, used to communicate through cryptic messaging platforms like ‘BiP’. That is why it was difficult for the STF, which had been on Shahdat’s trail over the past few months, to zero in on Habibullah. 

    The STF, said the Bengal Police officer, has found out that Habibullah and the other five were radicalised by portraying Muslims as a persecuted lot in parts of India and the world. A good amount of radical e-literature has been recovered from the arrested youths. 

    “It is surprising that bright youths from middle-class Muslim families who have no links with radical Islamists and whose parents are not radical at all have been brainwashed to such an extent that they have risked their futures and their lives to join or start terror outfits,” said the SIB officer. 

    What has also surprised police and intelligence officers is the close links that Habibullah’s ‘Shahadat’ has forged with established Ismalist terror and radical outfits within the country and in Bangladesh within a short period. 

    “This shows that all these outfits are highly networked and communicate with each other through very secure platforms. That is why they also need computer professionals to operate on the dark web, cover their electronic tracks and also move funds without leaving a trail,” said the SIB officer. 

    Bengal Police officers say that the issue of radicalisation that is going on blatantly and rampantly in many parts of Bengal has to be tackled at its roots.

    “It is important to keep a close watch on the activities of radical clerics and bring mosques and unregistered madrassas under the scanner. The radicalisation happens at mosques and madrassas. It is important to also examine what links the clerics (maulvis) have with other Islamist organsiations and the source of funds they receive,” said the Bengal Police officer. 

    However, the widespread and intense surveillance on clerics, mosques and madrassas as well as Islamist outfits is out of the question in Bengal at present. 

    A number of police officers that Swarajya spoke to said that Bengal’s political leadership will never allow such surveillance. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will never allow it, they told Swarajya, out of fear of angering Muslims.

    It is widely suspected that some powerful Muslim politicians in Bengal have links with Islamist outfits and patronise radical clerics. State surveillance on these outfits and clerics, as well as mosques and madrassas, will anger them and turn them against the Trinamool Congress which depends majorly on Muslim votes to keep it in power in the state. 

    Habibullah and his ‘Shahadat’ are just the tip of the dangerous iceberg that is a grave threat to not only Bengal, but also India’s security. Intelligence officers suspect that many Muslim youths in Bengal have been radicalised and have been recruited into sleeper cells of Islamist terror outfits that have close links with terror outfits in Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

    But the current ruling dispensation in Bengal stands in the way of neutralising the grave threat that these Islamists pose.

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