India’s Troubled Northeast Region: The Resurgence of Ethno-Islamist Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 22

The security situation in India’s troubled northeast region plumbed new depths in October when two major terror incidents struck Manipur and Assam states. On October 21, nearly 17 people were killed in Imphal and over 30 injured in a powerful bomb blast triggered by suspected militants of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK).  The militants were believed to be targeting government security forces (The Sangai Express, October 22). A week later, on October 30, neighboring Assam witnessed serial explosions that killed nearly 84 people and left scores of wounded (Assam Tribune, November 3). Suspicion in these attacks focused on the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Bangladesh based Harkat ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) combine. The attacks consisted of ten low and high intensity bomb blasts within a span of 20 minutes in the cities of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barapeta and Guwahati. The Assam blasts occurred as recent terror attacks have targeted other parts of India, including Jaipur, Delhi, Ahmadabad and Bangalore (see Terrorism Focus, August 5).

New Methods of Attack

The aim of the perpetrators was a high fatality rate and widespread chaos, as the blasts were aimed at crowded places crammed with office workers and shoppers. Forensic investigations revealed that the bombs used a cocktail of RDX (hexogen), ammonium nitrate, plastic explosives and TNT with high-tech timer devices (Economic Times [India], November 7). For the first time in India, cars laden with explosives were used in the blasts in Guwahati, whereas motorbikes and cycles were used in previous blasts. The trend of using a deadly mixture of explosives, which is a hallmark of Islamist groups like HuJI, is new to the region. HuJI or other Islamist terrorists active in the region (e.g. the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the newly emerged Indian Mujahideen) have been accused of orchestrating a number of such terror strikes in major cities across India in the past. For the first time, however, traces of jihadi footprints are emerging in northeast India.

One hitherto unknown outfit, the Islamic Security Force-Indian Mujahideen (ISF-IM) claimed responsibility for the Assam blasts. Investigating agencies doubted the claim, thinking it may have been sent to derail the investigation (Hindustan Times, November 2). Instead, ULFA, the senior terrorist group operating in the region, remains the primary suspect in the October 30 incidents, along with HuJI and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). All three groups are active in the region and have a strong presence in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar.

The confusion of the present investigation notwithstanding, as many as 23 suspects have been arrested so far by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Assam police in connection with the October 30 serial blasts. SIT sleuths are also zeroing on the involvement of another ethnic militant outfit, the NDFB, along with ULFA and HuJI. The SIT has arrested a Bhutanese national, Tenzing G Zangpo and the self-proclaimed home secretary of the NDFB, Sobin Boro from Guwahati, amongst others. Police sources reported the October 30 terrorist attacks were given final shape at a meeting at Sobin Boro’s rented house in Guwahati on October 17.The SIT also claimed to have arrested two more NDFB cadres, Thungri Boro and Dinesh Boro, who, according to SIT, were directly involved in the blasts (Assam Times, Nov 18). Both ULFA and NDFB leaderships have issued notes of denial, perhaps fearing a backlash after sensing public outrage.

The magnitude and intensity of the latest terror attacks show the deteriorating security situation vis-a-vis the resurgence of militancy that plagues the region, especially in Assam over the last three decades. State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has blamed the attacks on “religious terrorism,” an obvious allusion to Islamist militancy, which he suggested posed “a greater danger than insurgency.” Gogoi pointed fingers at neighboring Bangladesh, indicating that the militant groups in that country were helping extremists to carry out terror strikes in the Assam state and elsewhere in the country (Times of India, November 08).

The Role of Bangladesh

Assam was a Muslim majority state before independence in 1947. Muslims became a minority in Assam after the post-independence exodus of Muslims to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Indian nationalists have pointed to recent census figures as proof that some districts of Assam have returned to having a Muslim majority as a result of massive illegal migration from Muslim Bangladesh. Assam Muslims deny the claims of migration from Bangladesh, attributing the demographic change to the high birth-rate of Assam’s Muslim community (Milli Gazette, December 16-31, 2004).

Bangladesh had denied earlier that any insurgent outfit based in the country was involved in the blasts (North East Tribune [Assam], November 2). Dhaka’s denial notwithstanding, the role of Bangladesh has attracted serious scrutiny. It’s commonly believed within India that both Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and its Bangladesh counterpart, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), have assisted ethnic and Islamist terrorists and militants from West Bengal and India’s northeastern states. [1]

According to the federal Home Ministry, the Bangladesh wing of HuJI has provided assistance to ULFA and NDFB, as both Assam-based groups lack the technology and manpower to carry out large-scale operations. ULFA militants have suffered set-backs following intermittent but massive military operations in recent years. Its once-dreaded “28 Battalion” is in complete disarray after arrests and the defection of two companies in June. One theory suggests that the remnants of the ULFA colluded with other likeminded outfits in perpetrating these sophisticated terror attacks to reassert their presence in the area. The other angle being investigated by intelligence officials relates to HuJI and the possibility of links with the ethnic riots of early October, when Assam was hit by clashes between the indigenous Bodo tribes (about 5% of the Assam population) and immigrant Muslim settlers that killed nearly fifty people and rendered thousands homeless in Udalgiri and Darang districts (The Telegraph [Kolkata], October 7). According to some sections of the government and police, this could have triggered the HuJI leadership to avenge the deaths of fellow Muslims.
Homegrown Jihadis?

Encircled by four countries- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar) and China, India’s northeast region is home to more than 30 active or dormant terrorist organizations, spread over seven states. At least five major ethnic/Islamist terrorist organizations are actively involved in violence in Assam and elsewhere: the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) and the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA). [2] ULFA, an ethnic terrorist group fighting for an independent Assam since 1979, operates several camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar and its top leaders are presently based in Bangladesh. ULFA has a reputation for providing guerrilla and arms training to most of its northeast affiliates, including the NDFB. There are signs that ULFA, a group devoted to sovereignty for Assam, is becoming increasingly Islamized through ties to groups such as MULTA and HuJI, as well as through what India’s central government alleges is patronage by Pakistan’s ISI (, July 25, 2006; Times of India, July 25, 2006). A senior Indian Army official, Major General KS Sethi, recently stated that “home-grown terrorist organizations active in the northeast are aiding jihadi elements with logistical support” (Economic Times, November 2). If intelligence reports are to be believed, the Bangladesh-based HuJI has active operational links with northeastern militant groups like ULFA, PREPAK of Manipur and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF).  


The recent terror attacks in Assam were significant for two reasons: this was the deadliest attack ever in the northeast region; and for the first time there were tell-tale signs of collaboration between ethnic-separatist militants and Muslim jihadi groups with a strong cross-border reach. Evidence to this end is found in the forensic and intelligence reports and further confirmed by the confessions of Tripura-based militants arrested for their alleged role in the October 1 serial bombings in the city of Agartala. Sachindra Debbarma, the main suspect in the Agartala attacks, revealed in his confession that the attacks were planned at an NDFB safe-house in Bangladesh by agents of the Pakistan’s ISI, Bangladesh’s DGFI and cadres from seven Assam-based militant groups (Sakaal Times, November 7).

ULFA has developed the expertise needed to carry out the Agartala terrorist operation. The October 30 attacks, however, were far more sophisticated and seemingly beyond ULFA’s capabilities. The Assam government has suggested the involvement of a “third force,” besides the usual suspects, the ULFA and NDFB. This elusive third force may have roots in Bangladesh, as claimed by Assam’s senior minister, Pradyut Bordoloi (Press Trust of India, November 18).


1. Jaideep Saikia, Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamic Militancy in North East India,  Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS), Occasional Paper, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, July 2003; Rediff, January 9, 2007.
2. MULTA was founded in 1994 by a local mosque cleric in the wake of the Bodo tribal attacks on Muslim areas in Barpeta district. Its operation area covers Goalpara, Dhubri, Darrang, Nalabari and Naogaon districts. MULTA maintains ties with ULFA and the Bangladesh based HuJI,  Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). See Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed, Fundamentalism in Bangladesh: Its Impact on India, Akansha Publishing House, New Delhi, 2008, pp187-190.