Beaming houseboys bear trays of bed-tea, the politest way of getting someone up at the rudest of hours. It is so far from morning that the cooks in the roadside dhabas along India’s National Highway 37 are asleep in their kitchens and no one has got round to firing up the tandoors.
From Goalpara in the West, to Saikhoa Ghat in the East, the Valley of Assam, in this one of India’s most north easterly pockets, is stricken with a silent vegetal blackness. The only lights are feeble yellow beams coming from all-terrain Gypsies, open-back four-wheel drive vehicles whose diesel engines grind as they wait to escort small groups of tourists to the edge of one of the most bountiful jungles in the world.
The foreign visitors have travelled more than 1000 miles just to reach Guwahati, the capital of Assam, before being jangled for many hours more to reach Kaziranga: 260 square miles of extraordinary forest, sandbanks and grassland, granted World Heritage Site status in 1985. Tourists come in tens of thousands to glimpse some of the 480 species of birds, 34 kinds of mammals and 42 varieties of fish, many of them rare, endangered or nearly extinct. However, this superfluity, the Kaziranga success story, has attracted a new kind of visitor. Here, in the environmental ark of India’s North East, a speculative and alarming new front has opened up in the war on terrorism. Through dozens of interviews with India’s security services, forestry officials, police, intelligence analysts, local traders and merchants, Weekend has established that Islamic militants closely affiliated to al-Qaeda are seeking to exploit this surfeit of endangered species, cashing-in on its ecological diversity to raise money for their murderous causes. These groups have established basesin the formerly moderate Muslim country of Bangladesh and now have agents operating along the 2,500-mile porous border between Bangladesh and Assam, actively reconnoitring Kaziranga – as well as parks and reserves in Nepal, Burma and Thailand. They have into business with local animal trappers and organised crime syndicates, hunting for horns, ivory and pelts, with which to raise funds ‘under the wire’ to lubricate the global jihad.
The days when Osama bin Laden was a rich man, able to run lucrative construction, mining and farming businesses in Saudi Arabia and Sudan to finance his embryonic jihadi movement are long gone. When bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 to join the victorious Taliban he was estimated to have brought with him $70 million (£36 million) in cash, which he used to build up al-Qaeda, constructing training camps, buying old Soviet arms caches and new Western weapons, spreading the jihadi word through mosques and madrassahs in Europe and North America. But that cash was spent up long ago and the system by which al-Qaeda once moved its money around, the unofficial global banking system of hawala in which anyone wishing to raise and transport money invisibly – whether it be from nominal charities in London’s East End or the gold markets of Dubai – could do so through a shop-front trader who took commission to ask no questions and instructed others in far-off cities to pay their clients’ debts, has been strangled since September 11, 2001, by the attentions of the world’s intelligence agencies attention and global banking. New financing and new thinking has been required.
Out in the long grass of Kaziranga are more Royal Bengal Tigers per metre than in any other stretch of jungle in the world – an animal that broken down into its constituent parts has a value comparable to a bespoke Italian racing car. A small rhino horn bought from a Kaziranga poacher for a few hundred rupees (£10-£20) can be smuggled out in the back of a rucksack and with good provenance (the beast’s tail and ears, presented to a prospective buyer) go for £20,000 in the right market place in Asia, Europe or North America. For a minimal initial investment that puts £20,000 into al-Qaeda’s pocket, equating to 1,000 AK-47s from Pakistan’s arms bazaars at Dhera Ishmail Khan or 20 return flights to Europe or the United States for would-be suicide bombers from Islamabad or Dacca. Big cat pelts can fetch anything up to £10,000 a piece and represent a month’s training, food and accommodation for 500 al-Qaeda recruits at a militant camp in Waziristan or a significant down payment on a piece of radioactive material from Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan with which to construct a dirty bomb.
One mass shipment of animal parts from this region valued in excess of £2.8 million was recently intercepted by UK customs, but the sentence for trading in these items is low, a fine of £300 in India or £900 in Nepal. Monkey brains, bear bile, musk, big-cat carcases, elephant feet, tails, horns and teeth all have considerable value too. Some endangered species are worth gram for gram as much as cocaine. Run by criminal syndicates, the trade turns in anywhere between £8 billion and an incredible £13 billion a year, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
A senior Indian security source, who has tracked the incursion of Bangladeshi militants into this illegal trade, told Weekend. ‘An environmental disaster is in the offing here and only a minuscule percentage of the vast profits from the wildlife racket need trickle back into a nascent Islamic insurgency in a country like Bangladesh to bring it to the boil, setting off bombs and igniting vast expatriate Bangladeshi communities in countries like Britain.’
With almost 50 per cent living below the poverty line across the border in Bangladesh, where more than 50 per cent of men and 69 per cent of women cannot read or write, it is little wonder that criminal syndicates and religious extremists have been able to thrive. Transparency International, a global civil society campaign group, whose board members include Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Mary Robinson, the former Irish Prime Minister and UN Human Rights Commissioner, has recently labelled this populous 147 million-strong predominately Muslim state as the ‘most corrupt country in the world’. Once celebrated for its religious and ethnic tolerance, Bangladesh has become increasingly radicalised since Jamaat-Islami, a fundamental Islamist party, became a coalition partner in the ruling government in 2001, a situation that has been exploited by the murky secret police force of Pakistan, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, that stands accused of fomenting terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan, encouraging the rise of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and has maintained links with Bangladesh’s extremist elements since the country, once called East Pakistan, split away from the Islamabad government to form Bangladesh after a war in 1971. The US Congressional Research Service, the research engine of the US Congress, reported in January 2007 that ‘the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh were being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamist extremists’.
There is already a proven international dimension to the militancy in Bangladesh. After the fall of the Kabul in 2001, Bangladeshi intelligence sources claimed that a boat, the MV Mecca, loaded with 150 Taliban and al-Qaeda cadre fleeing the US forces anchored off the country’s Chittagong port, where small boats ferried the human cargo ashore. The hand of the ISI was detected in this operation and it was a two-way trade. Since September 2001, militant factions within the ISI have looked on Muslim Bangladesh as a new, fertile recruiting ground, with hundreds of would-be mujahideen fighters recruited in madrassahs in Bangladesh, lured by ISI agents to attend militant training camps in Pakistan before being sent on to Afghanistan to aid the resurgent Taliban or further afield into the Middle East, Europe and North America. Some have been caught, two Bangladeshi national are currently being held in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, but many more are still at large.
The Indonesian authorities raised concerns about Bangladesh becoming a haven for terrorists after interrogating Hambali, the leader of the country’s militant Jemaah Islamiya group, who was arrested in Thailand in February 2004 in connection with the Bali bombings of October 2002 in which 202 people died. Hambali, currently incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, confessed to having made plans to shift part of his organisation to Bangladesh as life had got too difficult in Indonesia. In August 2003, 11 Bangladeshis were arrested in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of planning a terrorist act, while earlier this year India revealed intelligence connecting two Bangladeshi militant groups to the Mumbai train blasts of July 11, 2006, in which more than 100 people died and 700 were injured. India also claimed that on January 4, 2007 two Bangladesh nationals, who confessed to belonging to Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a Islamist organisation recently banned in Bangladesh, were arrested in New Delhi carrying 1.42 kg of explosives, four electronic detonators and two hand grenades that it is thought were intended for the country’s crowded Republic Day celebrations. Bangladesh is fast emerging as the new hub for al-Qaeda aided by the proximity of parks like Kaziranga. In 2000, US President Bill Clinton commissioned a global threat assessment as part his administration’s International Crime Control Strategy that concluded ‘the illegal trade in animal parts and endangered animal species had become a lucrative business’, second only to drugs in the enormous profits it was capable of turning. That year the United Nations General Assembly announced it was ‘strongly convinced’ that illicit trafficking in endangered species constituted a serious and organized ‘trans-national crime’ with growing links emerging between wildlife crime and terrorism. In 2002, academics from the Regional Research Institute at Wolverhampton University investigated these links for the WWF and found that organised crime was ‘becoming engaged in the most lucrative areas of the illegal wildlife trade’, taking advantage of existing smuggling routes used for moving small arms, drugs and humans along which was trafficked wildlife. The UK scene was a microcosm, with, 50 per cent of those prosecuted for wildlife crimes having previous convictions for serious offences, including drugs and firearms.
However, despite these warnings, the WWF concluded: ‘Wildlife crime offences are often not taken seriously by those who make and implement the law.’ A British police investigator, who has specialised in the area, agreed, telling Weekend: ‘Criminals diversify from one area into another and wildlife crime offers plenty of opportunity with comparatively small risk. However, legislators do not comprehend how it intertwines with issues of national security.’
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is more bullish, warning in a recent report that wildlife crime was by now firmly in the hands of criminals involved in arms, narcotics and human trafficking and that a new link was emerging between the illegal trade and terrorism. ‘There is a need for states to tackle the issue in a concerted fashion,’ the report signed off. ‘It becomes vital to overhaul the prevalent institutional mindset, which accords wildlife trade regulation dismally low priority [and] fails to recognise that organised wildlife trade is a form of trans-national organised crime.’
Nowhere is that malaise more set in than in Britain where a parliamentary investigation reported back in September 2004 that while the UK had become one of the world’s most lucrative markets for endangered species – with British customs officers seizing 1,359 illegal items over the last four years, 517 interceptions made in 2006 alone – there was not even an agreed definition as to what constituted wildlife crime and existing laws prevented police from making arrests. This British torpor was embarrassingly highlighted that year, when customs intercepted a multi-million pound haul of ivory at Heathrow Airport but were powerless to charge anyone. After MPs complained to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), legislation was amended, the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations (COTES) updated to enhance powers of arrest and the maximum jail sentence for selling endangered species products increased from two to five years. But since then the crime has changed too, with radical Islamists from Bangladesh doing what conservationists long predicted – moving in on the endangered species racket.
One only has to tour Kaziranga or any of the outlying parks in Assam or Nepal to understand why. Our dawn convoy of Gypsies heading for the jungle rolls out at 5am and as dawn finally illuminates the park, the rangers whisper urgently: ‘Gorh.’ Only metres away are eight rhinos weighed down with huge articulated plates of armour, stumbling through the rich alluvial mud, showing off their prized horns. There are more than 2000 of these short-sighted beasts here,three quarters of the global stock of one of the rarest pachyderms in the world. Beside them are scores of swamp deer coloured like the scrub. A group of wild buffalos, whose colossal horns have the span of a longboat oar, plod by and out of the long grass wonders a troop of wild elephants, their tusks glinting in the purple dawn.
A conservational world where animals thrive on being given their freedom to roam is coming face-to-face with a criminal enterprise with a religious and political tint that will encroach wherever it is given space. With such crimes still barely registering by governments in the East and the West, weighed down by already overcrowded national security agendas, and the vast sums to be made by smuggling animal parts no bigger than a bag of sugar, is there any wonder that al-Qaeda that has thrived on unconventionality – think back to October 12, 2000, 11.18am, when a blow-up boat filled with explosives was turned into a floating mine and driven into the side of the USS Cole in Aden harbour – killing 17 American sailors and injuring 29 more -has gone into poaching?
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