January 30, 2020
The revelation by three suspected ISIS operatives arrested in Delhi displays an intelligence failure on the part of Nepal’s security agencies.
On January 9, the special cell of the Delhi Police arrested three alleged Islamic State operatives from a north Delhi locale. Although Khaja Moideen, Abdul Samad and Syed Ali Nawaz, all residents of Tamil Nadu, were arrested from Delhi, they had travelled to India from Nepal, where they had set up a base and met their “foreign handler”, according to the Times of India.
“Moideen, along with Syed Ali Nawaz and Abdul Samad, went to Kathmandu, Nepal after illegally crossing the border with fake documents. After setting up a base in Nepal to be used as a hideout, they had come to Delhi,” read the Times of India report.
That suspected Islamic State operatives hiding out in Nepal and planning cross-border terrorism should be a cause for concern for the country’s security and intelligence apparatus.
The Nepal Police, however, said that they were unaware of the suspected terrorists’ activities in Nepal.
“We didn’t know that they [terror suspects] were in Nepal,” said Deputy Inspector General Shailesh Thapa Kshetri, spokesperson for the Nepal Police. “But after the news report appeared in an Indian newspaper, we started our own investigation. As of now, we can’t talk about the details of the investigation further.”
The Home Ministry, which oversees all the security agencies, also said it had no idea about the terrorists being in Nepal.
“We aren’t aware of the issue. We haven’t received any notice regarding this,” said Kedar Nath Sharma, spokesperson for the Home Ministry.
Kshteri said that the Nepal Police had not received any formal requests for information from their Indian counterparts and neither have they provided any further information.
Despite the fact that this is not the first time that suspected terrorists have based themselves in Nepal, the Nepal Police is insistent that it’s “very difficult for international criminals to enter Nepal.”
“The immigration department looks over individual persons and their details, but we too have mobilised teams from our special bureau, the Narcotics Control Bureau and Crime Investigation Bureau in plain clothes to surveil suspected persons,” said Kshetri. “Nepal is not a hub for international terrorism but some have been found using Nepali air or land routes to visit third countries and due to a lack of information, we sometimes may not have been able to arrest them.”
In 2018, also in January, the Delhi Police had arrested Abdul Subhan Qureshi, an alleged Indian Mujahideen operative who was wanted by multiple anti-terror agencies. According to an India Today report, Qureshi was involved in several terror attacks in Delhi and Bengaluru as well as in the 2006 Mumbai train blasts and the Ahmedabad bomb blasts.
“Qureshi was living in Nepal for a long time,” Indian police officials had told Asian News International, an Indian news agency.
High-profile terror suspects hiding out in Nepal and using the country as a base shows just how easy it has become for international criminals to enter the country and live here without fear, say security experts.
“If the Indian news report is true, this is something really serious,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, a security analyst. “This will not only affect the national security of India but also of Nepal.”
Wagle too pointed out that this is not the first time terrorists have made Nepal a base.
“We’ve had similar issues in the past and are continually being warned about it,” he said. “India has been warning us about our open border as has the US, but we don’t seem to have done anything about it. Unless we can offer decent security, incidents like these can have grave implications for the future.”
Although there is a special Bureau in Nepal to look over terrorism, the Bureau does not seem to be active.
There have been consistent warnings from international agencies and even police from neighbouring countries that Nepal is increasingly being used as a hub for international terrorism outfits. According to the United States State Department’s 2018 Country Report on Terrorism, the Indian Mujahideen, which has ties with the Pakistan-based terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat ul-Jihad Islami, is using Nepal as a hub to carry out terrorist activities against India.
“Due to Nepal’s open border with India and insufficient security protocols at the country’s sole international airport in Kathmandu, Nepal has been, and could continue to be, used as a transit or staging point for international terrorists,” states the report.
The report pointed to serious security lapses at Tribhuvan International Airport, including an inability to prescreen passengers, rudimentary physical security checks, a lack of ultraviolet lights to examine the legality of documents, and the fact that landing data is not entered into any database.
According to the Times of India, the three suspected terrorists had entered Nepal using forged documents and flew to Delhi from Kathmandu using those same documents. Nepali authorities did not stop them at any point.
Ramchandra Tiwari, spokesperson for the Department of Immigration, admitted that the airport has various shortcomings, especially when it comes to security checks.
“We do not have the technology to verify high-quality forged documents,” Tiwari told the Post. “The technology we have is already outdated. However, we are planning to build a lab at the airport that will detect fake documents.”
The airport, as the only point of entry into the country via air, is especially sensitive infrastructure but it is at the airport that Nepal’s security fails.
In 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked by five Pakistani hijackers on its way back to Delhi from Kathmandu. Since then, all Indian airlines conduct a separate security check on the runway before boarding. But despite this second security check, criminals and suspected terrorists still seem to be able to sneak through, showing that it is not just a failing on the part of Nepal’s airport, said security officials.
In some cases, police might have arrested international criminals and handed them over to the Indian police without informing the media as there is no legal procedure in Nepal to hand over criminals to India, said a former police officer.
“We have some security lapses but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for international criminals to hide out here,” said former Deputy Inspector General Hemanta Malla. “However, we do lack proper databases and there is insufficient information coming in from intelligence agencies.”
The security agencies are woefully understaffed and underequipped, said Malla. “They need more human resources and the latest technology to surveil and arrest suspected terrorists and criminals.”