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Bangladesh: The Shift in the Balance of Terror in South Asia

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by Sumon K. Chakrabarti
Published on March 13th, 2006

In Bangladesh the forces of secular Bengali nationalism are increasingly coming under challenge from radical Islam.. The change is manifest in the growth of the number of madrassas and Islamic NGOs and in institutional support from political and religious groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Very recently, even those aware of these developments were surprised by the sheer scale and dispersal of the 459 coordinated bomb blasts within a single hour across 63 of the country's 64 districts on 17 August 2005. The recovery of a number of unexploded devices, as well as arrests and the discovery of cottage 'bomb factories', including one in the single district – Munshiganj – which escaped the serial blasts (but where over a hundred bombs were recovered from a house in Baligaon village), suggest that the number of explosions could well have been even larger.

Over the past years, Islamist extremist activities have especially been noticed in a few of Bangladesh's western districts including Naogaon, Rajshahi, Kushtia (each of which shares borders with the Indian state of West Bengal); and Bogra, Natore and Pabna. The Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and its twin organization, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) – the latter is widely held responsible for the 17 August explosions – have been known to be active in these districts. Southern Districts, including Bandarban, Cox's Bazaar, Chittagong, Khagrachhari, Rangamati (sharing borders with Myanmar and the Northeast Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura) have also witnessed significant extremist activities attributed to the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-BD) and its international partners, including the Al-Qaeda. In addition, Sylhet in East Bangladesh, sharing a border with the Indian state of Assam, has also seen some Islamist terrorist violence. Among the more prominent of these was the 21 May 2004 attack in which two persons were killed and the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, was among some 70 injured in a powerful bomb blast at Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in Sylhet. There was at that time, however, little cumulative evidence pointing to any single terrorist organization – or known coalition of such organizations – that could engineer a nationwide strike of such magnitude.

Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Bangla Bhai (Bangladeshi Brother)

Led by Abdur Rahman and a former school teacher Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, the JMJB – with its antagonism to cultural functions, cinema, theatre, shrines and NGOs – started spreading its network all over the country since the late 1990s with support from the Middle East.

The duo, two of the most wanted Islamic militants in Bangladesh, were captured in early March. The capture of Bangla Bhai came on March 6, just four days after the arrest of his alleged spiritual guru Abdur Rahman. The government, which has always been denying the presence of any Islamic terrorists in the country, claimed success soon after. But security analysts doubt whether these two arrests will deal any blow to the Islamic fundamentalist groups and more importantly, whether it was a merely an effort to pacify the growing international criticism of Bangladesh prior to the impending elections.

Having become public after the BNP-Jamaat coalition assumed power, this organization has now evidently turned its nationwide web towards waging an armed revolution to establish what they call "the rule of Allah". The JMJB is thought to be the youth front of the Al Mujahideen, the parent organization that began working in the mid-1990s and still remains shrouded in obscurity.

To maintain this obscurity, Al Mujahideen has slowly diversified its activities. Such organizations as Jama'atul Jihad, Jama'atul Mujahideen, Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh (AHAB), Ahle Hadith Jubo Shangha, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Harkatul Jihad, Hizbut Tawhid, Tawhidi Janata, Islami Jubo Shangha, Islami Shangha, Al Falah A'am Unnayan Shanstha and Shahadat-e al Hiqma are believed to be offshoots of this parent organization.

In 2003, the decoding of diaries recovered from militants made available minutes of internal meetings, locations of its training centers and names of its patrons and leaders. Investigators were stunned to find that the outfit had training stations in 57 districts with bases at the Ahle Hadith mosques and madrassas. Bangladeshi intelligence officers now maintain that they have well-equipped training stations in all the 16 northern and some southern districts, and small stations in other districts where they operate.

And these are merely the props of a larger drama waiting to be played out in the country in the run-up to this year’s general elections. Coordinating low intensity blasts in 63 of 64 districts of the country is practically impossible without good intelligence especially when one considers the fact that in a case of serial blasts of this scale and magnitude, not a single person was killed.

Before the caretaker government takes over sometime in the middle of 2006 to conduct a "free and fair election" (as is the tradition in Bangladesh), acts of violence and the resultant chaos may be used to give the government an opportunity to say that things have gone seriously wrong in the country and to declare an emergency. A recent internal survey done by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) has shown that negative emotions are high against the present government and the Islamist coalition cannot garner more than 100-110 seats in next year's elections.

Bangladesh – The Great Turnaround

When East Pakistan broke away from the main western part of the country to form Bangladesh in 1971, the struggle for independence grew out of the Bengali language movement and was based primarily on Bengali nationalism, and not the tenets of religion. Three million people died in nine months to achieve independence. But the change of Bangladesh from a liberal Muslim country to a hardliner Islamic state began soon after, in mid-1970s, when Major General Zia ur Rahman seized power and dropped "secularism" as one of the four cornerstones of Bangladesh's constitution.

The recent transformation which has put Bangladesh, a country of 141 million people with 83 percent Muslim population, on the global network of terrorism began in 2001 when a four-party Islamic coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came into power According to Amnesty International, Islamic forces targeted the Hindus, who constitute less than 10 per cent of Bangladesh's population of 130 million. They ransacked Hindu places of worship, burned villages and raped scores of Hindu women. According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2003 released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor early this year, under the new four-party Islamic alliance which runs Bangladesh, "discrimination against members of the religious minority existed at both the governmental and societal level, and religious minorities were disadvantaged in practice in such areas as access to government jobs and political office."

The return of the Jamaat has brought a profound shift in the country's politics. They now sit in the corridors of power in a country whose formation they had opposed. In the past four years, the Jamaat has been singularly responsible for the growth of "traditional" Islamic madrassas.. The number has nearly doubled to 60,000. The fact that millions of young Bangladeshis now graduate from such madrassas is changing the perceptions of life and society, and the outlook towards "infidels" in general.

As another country that until recently was considered a moderate Muslim state – Indonesia – has shown, an economic collapse or political crisis can give rise to militants for whom religious fanaticism equals national pride and in their belief, a way out of misrule, disorder and corrupt worldly politics.

Islamic Infiltration

Even the Bangladeshi army has been infiltrated by pro-fundamentalist elements with a definite tilt towards the Jamaat-e-Islami. Today 35 per cent of the army is reportedly made up of fundamentalists and pro-Jamaat people. All the 11 General Officer Commanding, zonal heads of the Bangladesh army, share close links with organizations like Jamaat and Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HUJI). oSome commissioned officers of the army have been linked and arrested for coordinating and planning the August 17 blasts.

The flow of Islamic petrodollars from the Middle East has strengthened the finances of groups like the Jammat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote (both part of the government) and allowed them to spread their activities. The Jamat supported Pakistan against the Bengali nationalists during the liberation war.. Now, it has supported the growth of the Bangladeshi wing of Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HUJI), founded by some Bangladeshi volunteers or Mujahideen who traveled to Afghanistan in 1980 to drive the Soviets out, and came under the direct influence of Osama bin Laden. HUJI today has estimated cadre strength of 25,000, and has given sanctuary to Pakistan sponsored Islamic militant groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. It is now well documented, even by the Western intelligence agencies, that bin Laden's deputy Aymaan al Zawahiri took shelter in Bangladesh for a few days as the U S intensified their search for the world's most wanted person.

In an interview to CNN in December 2001, American "Taliban" soldier, John Walker Lindh, described that the Al-Queda-directed Ansar Brigades ("Ansar" means companions of the Prophet), to which he belonged in Afghanistan, were divided along linguistic lines: "Bengali, Pakistani and Arabic," making it clear that the Bangladeshi element plays a significant role in terror's backyard.

Over the last 3 years, brutal and sometimes fatal attacks on the country's secular Muslim figures and the very recent attack on the former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and the top leadership of her party, the Awami League that led Bangladesh's freedom struggle, has led Western powers to wonder whether that the shift towards fundamentalism in that country is happening with government sanction.

There has been apprehension that the present government or a section of its "inner circle" were involved in the killings of political opponents, intellectuals and the secular citizenry. After the assassination of Shah AMS Kibria, his son, Dr. Reza Kibria and daughter Dr.   Nazli Kibria issued an international appeal to bring the killers to justice.

The appeal had said, "The record of the BNP and the BNP-Jamaat regimes with regard to investigations of past attacks on the Awami League do not give us any confidence in their capability or interest in finding my father’s killers. .... Each investigation appears to fizzle out… the killing of my father’s colleagues Ahsanullah Master and Ivy Rahman and many others have gone unpunished. The Government’s inadequate response to the carefully orchestrated attack of August 21 on Sheikh Hasina is another sign of its ill-intent or at the very least, gross incompetence." Former Awami League finance minister, Shah A M S Kibria, was killed and about 100 others injured in a grenade attack on 27 January 2005 during a rally in Habiganj. This was reminiscent of a similar attack on 21 August 2004 in which former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina miraculously escaped death, although 22 of her party members were killed and hundreds were injured. The Awami League lost ten leading figures—all sitting members of parliament—in the attacks. 

In recent years, a number of scholars, diplomats and politicians have either been murdered or attacked for their secular views. Anyone who writes against Islamic fundamentalism or speaks out against social injustice and religious intolerance are being systematically murdered or attacked. The murder of Principal Gopal Krishna Muhuri of Chittagong, was followed by attacks on Dr. Muntasir Mamun, a secular columnist and professor of Dhaka University. Shahriar Kabir and Saleem Samad, reputed journalists, too, were attacked, followed by a deadly attack on Dr. Humayun Azad, a noted author. Recent victims have included Dr. M. Yunus, a respected professor of Rajshahi University

Many people are of the opinion that attacks against secular Bengali functions including the Bengali New Year’s celebrations and killings of Bengali intellectuals and secular politicians have been designed to substitute the rich, secular Bengali culture with fundamentalist ideology.  The fundamentalists have also destroyed and attacked religious institutions belonging to other faiths. In addition, they begun to impose their values on women. Women were disallowed from participating in out door games including swimming and football.

The Bangladesh Bar Council Human Rights Cell reports that there have been a total of 45,396 cases of human rights violations in 2004 [which is twice as many as 2003] including 5,113 murders, 814 rapes and 348 extra-judicial deaths in security/police custody.

Bangladesh’s radical leaders seem to be sending a warning to the standard bearers of the country’s secular amibition with the trademark slogan: "Amra sobai hobo Taliban, Bangla hobe Afghanistan," which translates to "We will be the Taliban, and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan."

Evidence now links the militancy to two partners in the government -- Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikyo Jote. Militants arrested after the 17 August bombings have confessed links to local-level Jamaat members, while police have described others as former members of the Jamaat’s student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir.

The Jamaat is spreading the Wahabi doctrine with reported blessings from the Saudi Arabia. Their final goal is political power. Despite being a key partner in the Khaleda Zia-led government, the party has links with various militant networks.

Their links to Central Asian and West Asian fundamentalist groups were amply clear when on the night of 21 December 2001, a few weeks after the fall of the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar, a ship, the MV Mecca, arrived at the Chittagong Port carrying several hundred Taliban and Al Queda cadres along with arms and ammunition. According to Western and Indian Intelligence reports, they were received formally by an officer of the country's army intelligence setup, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and were driven down to the southeastern border areas.

Fundamentalist Resources

Bangladeshi fundamentalist group draw heavily upon the experience and resources of the veterans of Afghanistan and Palestine. According to intelligence agencies, about 7,000 members from different organizations (Like the Harkatul Jihad, Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Islami Biplobi Parishad, Shahadat Al Hiqma, Hizbut Towhid, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Ahle Hadith Andolon, Towhidi Janata, Bishwa Islami Front, Juma'atul Sadat, Al Jomiatul Islamia, Iqra Islami Jote, Allahr Dal, Al Khidmat Bahini, Al Mujhid, Jama'ati Yahia Al Turag, Jihadi Party, Al Harkat al Islamia, Al Mahfuz Al Islami, Jama'atul Faladia, Shahadat-e-Nabuwat, Joish-e-Mostafa, Tahfize Haramaine Parishad, Hizbul Mojahedeen, Duranta Kafela and Muslim Guerrilla) were trained in Libya and Afghanistan in the early 1980s and 1990s. After returning to Bangladesh from foreign missions, many set up madrassas or Islamic schools as cover. These madrassas, modeled on the Qwami line, which is the more orthodox system of Islamic education and needs no government registration, chose the forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the Myanmar border as their base. Incidentally, the area in the north of Bangladesh is also the main arms smuggling route in the country, and that made training armed cadres easier. The deep rooted support for these organizations in the government can be gauged through this statement of Fazlul Haq Amini, the top leader of Islami Oikya Jote, a partner of ruling Islamic coalition, made on 1 March 2005 at a press conference: "An Islamic revolution will take place in Bangladesh by Qwami madrassas."

For many years, these trained fundamentalists have congregated in hidden training camps, mosques, madrassas and even orphanages, recruiting their cadres from the country’s predominantly poverty-stricken peasantry, teaching them the use of weapons and the manufacture of bombs, in return for a financially secure family. They have strong patrons in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf States. The cantonment-bred regimes in Dhaka supported them because they needed such forces to contain the secular forces.

Endemic poverty , failure of the major political parties to deliver and long spells of military rule that left political institutions at the grassroots weakened have be seen as causes behind the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh after the 1990. The international climate in which Islamic radicalism is on the upswing throughout the world has provided many Muslims in Bangladesh cause to assert their religious identity in a rather violent way.

Almost all of these madrassas follow a form of the Deobandi Islam taught in the 1950’s by the intellectual and activist Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. Born in India in 1903, Maududi gradually moved away from his reformist agenda to define Muslim politics in opposition to Indian nationalism. And his Deobandi model is now followed across most madrassas of Pakistan, where it gave rise to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whether Maududi intended it or not, his teachings have become synonymous with radical Islam. Bangladesh is the new nurturing ground of Deobandi Islam.

Indian intelligence reports have claimed the various militant groups have some one million members across the country. An intelligence report says about 80,000 of them took training in arms and explosives.

Economic analysts say that Bangladesh will continue to be dogged by widening trade deficits, poor law and order situation, agitations accompanied by strikes and serious infrastructure bottlenecks. Rampant corruption impedes production and foreign investments which the country desperately needs. The Berlin-based Transparency International described Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world. Money laundering remains the country's major problem. The Bangladesh Economic Association estimates that nearly USD 6 billion slipped through the net in 2003, at least half of it due to smuggling, despite a law enacted in 2002. And with the opposition likely to intensify its agitation by the beginning of 2005, labor militancy may increase in view of shutdowns and job losses in non-profitable government-run industries.

Mr. Chakrabarti, based in New Delhi, is a special correspondent with India’s leading English news network, CNN-IBN, and is among the few to track the changes in Bangladesh since the late 1990s.

List of the Militant Islamist groups active in Bangladesh:

Every year the numbers of such outfits keep increasing. Most of these organizations are either underground or semi-underground. And when action is necessitated against any one of them, due to home-grown or international pressure, they just keep changing names. Here is a list, which does not include mainstream Islamist political parties like Jamate IslamiIslami Oikyo Jote, Islamic Shashantantrik Andolan, and Zaker Party that take part in the electoral process. Jamayatul Mujahidin Bangladesh

Shahadat-e-al Hikma
Jamayat-e- Eyahia al Turret
Hijbul Taohid
Al Harat al Islamia
Al Markajul al Islami
Jamayatul Falaiya
Taohidi Janata
Bishwa Islami Front
Jummatul al Sadat
Harkatul Jihad
Allahr Dal
Jayshe Mostofa
Al Jihad Bangladesh
World Islamic Front for Jihad
Jayshe Mohammed
Jamat-ul-Mujahidul Bangladesh
Warat Islamic Front
Al Khidmot
Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh
Harkat-a-Islam al Jihad
Hijbullah Islami Somaj
Muslim Millat Saria Council
Ahle Hadis
Hijbul Mahadi Basbid
Hijbul Thahrire
Al Islam Martyrs’ Brigade
International Khatme Nabuwat Movement
Amra Dhakabashi
Araakan Rohinga Force
Islamic Solidarity Front
Araakan Peoples Army
Liberation Mayanmar Force
Araakan Mujahid Party
Rohinga Independents Force
Rohinga Independents Army
Rohinga Patriotic Front
Rohinga Solidarity Organaigetion
Rohinga Islamic Front
Jamiate Ahle Hadis Andolon
Jamiatul Ehhia-ut-Turaj
Hayatul Igasa
Ahle Hadis Jubo Sangha
Anjumane Talamije Islamia
Tahfije Harmine parished
Aiammah parished
Al Harmaine
Khedmate Islam
Hifajate Khatame Nabuat

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