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ULFA (I)’s Elusive Sleeper Cells: The New Enemy Giving Assam's Security Forces a 'Headache'

ULFA (I)’s Elusive Sleeper Cells: The New Enemy Giving Assam's Security Forces a 'Headache'

The cells have civil society members who use modern-day technologies like social media platforms to communicate and execute terror activities.

Guwahati: The Assam Police, already fighting militancy for several decades, now have a new enemy to deal with — 'sleeper cells' of the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I).

The elusive sleeper cells, which are made up of civil society members who employ modern technology like social media platforms to communicate and execute terror activities, have become a major ‘headache’ for the state police department.

The police suspect that the fugitive ULFA (I) commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, allegedly in hiding somewhere along the China-Myanmar border, has been trying to recuperate and gain ground in the state via its sleeper cells, especially those based in Guwahati.

The recent discovery of several ‘sleeper cell’ members following a grenade blast by ULFA (I) in Guwahati and the arrest of a number of overground workers of the outfit have exposed the new dimensions of the ULFA (I)’s networks and strategy. The blast on May 15 had targeted a police picket at the city’s RG Baruah Road.

Of the eight persons arrested in connection with the blast so far, at least three are suspected to be active sleeper cell members of the militant group.

The trio — retired school teacher Prakash Rajkonwar, former president of the Gauhati University Post Graduate Students’ Union and research scholar Sanjib Talukdar, and a small-time television actor Jahnabee Saikia — were arrested for allegedly working as ULFA (I)’s sleeper cell members and aiding militant cadres to accomplish their plans.

Guwahati Police Commissioner Deepak Kumar said, “An investigation has revealed that both Sanjib and Rajkonwar were in constant touch with Paresh Baruah since 2016. They were directly taking orders from the militant chief and helping other cadres and their networks across the state. Similarly, Saikia’s rented house in the city was turned into a ‘safe house’.”

Following the blast, during a raid at Saikia's residence, the police recovered a 9mm pistol, ammunition, a metal dice (suspected to be used for making explosives), a tool box containing instruments suspected to be used for assembling explosive devices, around 30kg of explosive powder, a pack containing 900g of gelatin, and several incriminating documents of the outfit.

Since the recovery, several questions are being raised, including how such quantities of arms, ammunition and explosives managed to make their way into the city and were hoarded without anyone’s knowledge.

While Talukdar helped ULFA (I) militant Bijoy Asom (already arrested) to carry out a recce of the entire city before the latter hurled the grenade, Saikia had hired the two-wheeler used by Asom to execute the plan and flee the spot. Talukdar had been in touch with Baruah since he was a student leader at the Gauhati University in 2016-17.

“After the explosion, Saikia dropped Asom at Ganeshguri, from where he was taken to the Khanapara area near the Assam-Meghalaya border by the outfit’s fresh recruit Chinmoy Lahkar. From Khanapara, Asom boarded a Nagaon-bound vehicle and after reaching his destination, he contacted ULFA (I) cadre Indramohan Bora who helped him flee. He was arrested later,” a police source said.

Both Lahkar and Bora, newly recruited by the outfit, have also been arrested.

The investigation has also highlighted that the ULFA (I) was trying to rebuild its ground network and set up sleeper cells across the state for the last three to four years.

Rajkonwar, who hails from Tinsukia district, had retired as a teacher from Dirak primary school before allegedly joining the outfit’s sleeper cell in 2017.

Kumar said, “It’s ULFA (I)’s new strategy to handpick smart and intelligent youth and spread its tentacles through these urban-based workers. Both Talukdar and Rajkonwar were handpicked by the militant chief. Educated people like them can prove to be special assets for the outfit because they are far more capable of motivating and influencing the unemployed and unemployable youth to join the outfit as a career choice in the insurgency-turned-terrorism industry.”

Besides, the investigation also established the role of surrendered ULFA members in recruiting fresh members.

The arrested former ULFA members — Pranomoy Rajguru and an explosive expert Amrit Ballab Goswami (who surrendered) — were found to be working as recruiters for the banned outfit.

Sources in the Assam Police said Rajguru was working to revive the ULFA (I) in the Sivasagar district where the outfit had enjoyed huge support in its early days.

An Assam Police Special Bureau official, on condition of anonymity, said, “Rajguru is more than an overground worker. He was working to ensure a fresh grip for the outfit in the district as well as its inter-state adjoining areas. Through social networking sites, he was found to be hunting for fresh recruits for the outfit which believes to have lost many of its members during a recent crackdown on its hideouts in Myanmar.”

Describing the modus operandi, the official added that Rajguru used to keep an eye on social networking sites like Facebook and looked for account holders aggressively sharing anti-establishment posts and with some kind of leaning towards the outfit's revolutionary ideas.

“He then used to look for these vulnerable users and try to influence them to join the outfit,” said the official.

Once recruited, these sleeper cell members were instructed to carry on with their normal lives and work towards influencing like-minded people into the group.

To ensure discreet communication, they were even instructed to interact through encrypted mediums like WhatsApp calls to dupe security surveillance.

The police are currently scanning the contents of computers and mobile handsets seized during the operations.

But for many, the delay in the ongoing peace parley has also adversely contributed to the situation.

Anup Chetia, general secretary of the pro-talks faction of the outfit, expressed disappointment over the matter. “The delay in the peace talks with the government will bear no fruit. The pending process has triggered frustration among many ULFA members who once shunned militancy and joined the mainstream. Such a condition is very vulnerable. We are waiting for the newly formed government to accelerate the peace talks,” he said.

The trilateral peace talks between the ULFA, the central and the state governments were initiated in 2011 and it’s been almost a year since the last rounds of talks were held.

Sources claimed unsuccessful rehabilitation schemes and unemployment have also fuelled the situation, leading many of the surrendered militants to return to the outfit.

The threat from sleeper cells can be gauged by the fact that their mention figured at a recent meeting held in New Delhi. The meeting was chaired by then Union home minister Rajnath Singh and attended by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba and top officials of the Assam Police. It reportedly focused on security measures that ought to be taken to neutralise the sleeper cells.

A source said, “The Centre wants the state government to go beyond the routine probe confined merely to the detention of the ULFA (I) activists responsible for the blast. There were indications that the probe may spread across the state to unearth the sleeper cell network. Security forces have found it astonishing that the much-feeble ULFA (I) managed to set up a network of overground activists from different walks of life right under the nose of the authorities.”

According to reports, security agencies have so far identified over 25 ‘urban guerrillas’ from different walks of life. Some are believed to be working in colleges and those identified, so far, stay in places like Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur and Sivasagar, among other urban centres.

However, the police are looking for concrete evidence before making arrests. The sleeper cell members are used to deliver extortion notes, arrange safe houses for cadres, store and ship arms and explosives, arrange finances and launder funds.

Sonowal had recently said, “No person in Assam supports violence and they want peace and amity. We will ensure that none of those involved in the violent incident is spared.”