Pakistan and China collaborated to arm insurgents in India. THE WEEK investigates a conspiracy hatched by the ISI in Bangladesh
By Syed Nazakat/Chittagong &Dhaka
It was past midnight on April 1, 2004, in the coastal city of Chittagongin southeasternBangladesh. Two trawlers carrying munitions, enough to arm a brigade and procured from one of the China’s biggest state-owned defence company, North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) reached the harbour. Top officials ofBangladesh’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 fromDhakato 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.
New Delhiwas shocked by the haul, as it was revealed that the arms were meant for insurgent groups in India.Bangladeshhas 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 a copy of 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 Pakistanprocured weapons fromChinato fuel insurgency inIndia. And the case is the strongest evidence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence andChinacoming together to use Bangladeshi soil against India.
The four-member team ofBangladesharmy’s ordnance branch, which investigated the arms haul, has also confirmed that all 10 truckloads of arms and ammunition were manufactured inChinaby 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 Bangladeshi investigators have also found that Chowdhury and Rahim have travelled toLondonand to a Gulf country on their respective passport no Z0171247 and O0397451 to meet ISI officials including its chief to plan anti-India covert operations. Chowdhury and Abdur Rahim were so confident about their cover that they often directed sources by using their cell phone 01812271769 and 01711565850. The Bangladeshi 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 inDhaka, Brig. Mogisuddin and Col Shahed Mahmud. Mogisuddin facilitated their meetings with ISI officials and arms dealers in Bangladesh,Dubaiand London. “Our investigation has found that the weapons came fromChinaand were procured byPakistanwith the help ofBangladesh’s top intelligence officials,” said Moniruzaman Chaudhory, chief investigating officer. “All [weapons] were destined forIndia.” He said his team had figured out six of seven issues that aChittagongcourt 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, whenBangladeshwas 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-IslamiBangladesh, who were accused of collaborating withPakistanduring 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 ofPakistan, under intense pressure from theUSafter 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. Musharraf banned five jihadi groups that his army had long nurtured. To Washingtonand toDelhi, this must have sounded like progress. But though terrorist camps were officially closed, terrorists were shifted to hideaways far away fromPakistan. THE WEEK has learnt that instead of arresting terrorists, the ISI shifted atleast 100 terrorist commanders including Arab fighters of Al-Qaeda fromPakistan to Bangladeshin special Pakistan International Airlines flights fromKarachitoDhaka. In Dhaka, they were kept in safe houses. The houses were owned and protected by DGFI and NSI. The investigators are shocked to found that some terrorist commanders were even kept at NSI DG’s safe house Gulshan area ofDhaka. 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 inDhaka,” said Samad. Once he got the bail he escaped fromBangladeshand took refuge inCanada. (See the box)
Around this time, many Indian terrorist groups were expanding their activities toBangladesh. This correspondent visited Sector 3 in Uttara,VIP Roadin Karnail and Dhanmondi in Dhaka, where commanders of the United Liberation Front of Asom, a militant separatist group inIndia’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 toPakistanmany a time, and at least once toAfghanistan, where he met warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In Dhaka, Baruah’s handler was Brig. 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 atRapaPlazainDhaka. 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 smuggle weapons. Brig. Rahim and Mogisuddin held several meetings with the channel’s people inDhakaand 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 inDhakain 2004. The owner of the channel came toDhakaand 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 inLondon, Tarique is widely expected to succeed his mother as BNP chief.
Rahim once met the ISI chief inLondon. The ISI had not received the payment of 2.5 crore takas of the mobile phone bugging devices that the Bangladeshintelligence 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 fromChina. The investigators suspect that Bangladeshi intelligence officials were not aware ofPakistan’s business contacts with NORINCO.
Headquartered inBeijing, NORINCO is the third largest defence company inChinaand 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 thePakistanarmy. 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, theUSimposed sanctions on NORINCO after it was caught providingIranspeciality steel used in its missile programmes.
Indian security agencies had information on NORINCO’s involvement in supplying arms to insurgents in the northeast. 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, neitherIndia’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 BeihaiinQingdao. Confession statements by Hafiz Rehman and another arms dealer, Deam Mohamad, in aChittagongcourt revealed that the ship passed through Hong Kong andMyanmar, and when it reached St Martin’s Island near theMyanmarborder, the consignment was reloaded into two trawlers. “When I asked him [Baruah] about the required permission from theBangladeshnavy, 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 fromManilato Dhaka viaBangkok. 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 byIndia’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 inBangkok, Willy Narue.
From Dhaka Shimray went to Chittagongand 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’sIsland. 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 byBangladesh’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 inBangladesh began their attempts to derail the investigation.Chittagongwas 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 atChittagongjetty. During the interrogation he told us that one officer fromBangladeshintelligence 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 inChittagong, grenades were hurled from the roofs of neighbouring buildings towards a truck on which she was addressing a crowd inDhaka. 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 toIndia, 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 ofChittagongarms case at the metropolitan court inChittagongboils down to the names that would pop up. As the testimony has begun at the court,Bangladeshis 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 intelligence agency. It was a doomsday scenario for us,” said Maj.-Gen. (retd) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, who fought againstPakistanin 1971.
He said the historic India-Pakistan enmity provides an important context whyBangladeshhas become a spy battleground. “Indiasupported us in 1971 againstPakistan. Today, these guys are collaborating withPakistanto harmIndia. 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.
(THE WEEK, Dec 11, 2011)