May 23, 2007

Bangladesh: Islamist Terror and the Caretaker Government

Guest Column by Dr. Anand Kumar

The threat posed by Islamist forces of Bangladesh has once again come into focus after the recent terror strike in Mecca mosque of Hyderabad in India. These forces have been trying to regroup in Bangladesh after they suffered a major setback when six of their top leaders were executed by the caretaker government. On the other hand, international community is trying to consolidate on this positive move of the interim government. It wants to support the chief advisor Fakharuddin Ahmed to check this menace.

The caretaker government of Bangladesh surprised the whole world when it executed six top leaders of the extremist group Jama'atu Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) just before the SAARC summit. At that time, it was thought that this step was taken by the interim authority to gain acceptance at the international fora.

This step of the caretaker government was significant for several reasons. Before this, the earlier government led by Khaleda Zia had tried to hide the presence of Islamists from the outside world. Even when some of these leaders were arrested and later convicted, the Khaleda Zia government had dragged its feet to implementing the courts verdict. It was feared that these leaders would be set free in case the four party alliance returns to power. Earlier too, it had withdrawn charges from several Islamist leaders. In these circumstances, the steps taken by the caretaker government were really impressive. It was particularly important, because this action was taken by a predominantly Muslim country in the south Asia, where regimes are known to shelter such forces.

After the execution of six Islamist leaders, it was feared that extremist forces present in Bangladesh would retaliate in a big way. But nothing of the sort happened in the immediate aftermath. However, this does not mean that Islamists are weak in the country. Probably, Islamists could not retaliate in a major way, because they did not expect an action of this kind from a government in Bangladesh.

The only notable retaliation of the Islamists has been the three nearly simultaneous blasts that took place in Bangladesh on May 1, 2007. These blasts were not meant to kill people. Their main purpose was to send the message that the Islamists are back in business. Islamists of Bangladesh had carried out similar blasts across Bangladesh on Aug. 17, 2005, killing three people and injuring more than 100 with the same objective. The blasts were carried out with the objective of killing only when the Islamists thought that people were indulging in some activity prohibited by puritanical Islam. Hence people were killed while watching cinema, theatre or celebrating Bangla New Year.

The attackers in the May blasts threatened the Muslim minority Ahmadiyas and called on the people to quit jobs with Western-funded charities because of the latter's alleged anti-Islamism. The JMB militants had previously threatened non-governmental organisations, especially those working to promote women's rights in Bangladesh. A similar nature of threat shows that these extremists also belong to the same group. They might be trying to confuse law enforcement agencies by taking names like "Zadid (new) al Qaeda."

Though the May blasts were not very destructive, its perpetrators are still at large. The law enforcement agencies have not been able to catch these culprits. It shows their limitation. Moreover, this is the situation when all powerful army is backing the present government.

Islamists in Bangladesh have become active in other ways too. Like in the past, they are once again issuing threats to government officials and planning to harm NGOs.

Three detained Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) militants in Rangpur on May 3, 2007, disclosed sensational information about their regrouping, technique and plans to blast bombs in NGO offices and other important establishments. According to police, many JMB men took up jobs at different NGOs upon instructions from the high command. Their purpose was to attack those offices in future.
Banned militant outfit Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) on May 3, 2007 threatened the district deputy commissioner (DC) to bomb several establishments including his office in one or two days. The letter sent by militants reads, "We will blow up some important establishments including your office within one and two days as you killed our leaders."
Army personnel arrested a Shibir leader while he along with his associate was taking video footages of an army camp in Chapainawabganj on May 4, 2007. Police later raided his house and seized several objectionable books and documents.
A militant organisation claiming itself as the Barisal divisional al-Qaeda on May 13, 2007 threatened the second additional and district sessions judge asking him to stay away from the court.
Bangladesh Islamists Involved in Terror Acts in India

The bomb blast in Mecca mosque in Hyderabad shows that Islamists in Bangladesh are still strong. The law enforcement agencies of India are getting increasingly sure that a major player in this attack is Harkat-ul-Jehad-i-Islami's (HuJI) of Bangladesh. This group is known to be working closely with ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM). It was blamed for the Sankat Mochan bombing in Varanasi. Its central role in the Varanasi blasts became evident from the arrest of Walilullah, Pesh Imam of Phulpur in UP and reportedly head of Huji’s operations in the northern state, last year by the UP special task force investigating these blasts. Walilullah, who had studied at Deoband, is said to have helped the Huji militants, who had been trained in Pakistan, with logistics after they crossed over from Bangladesh to accomplish the Varanasi mission.

The suspicion on HuJI for Mecca blasts is based on the fact that the SIM card on the cellphone attached to these bombs was purchased in Kolkata. The explosive material, RDX and TNT, are not available in India and were imported from Bangladesh. Their local accomplishes had to just put them together.

Intelligence sources believe that HuJI activist Mohammed Abdul Sahed alias Bilal's brother Zaheed, who runs a mobile-phone repair shop, could have provided the phones. Bilal, who took over the command HuJI on October 12, 2005, has been on the list of most wanted terrorists after he masterminded a suicide attack on the special task force's headquarters in Hyderabad that left one police personnel dead. He is also wanted in the murder conspiracy of BJP leader N Indrasena Reddy and the Secunderabad Ganesh temple blast, besides the blasts on the Samjhauta Express.

An associate of Rasool Khan 'Party', a Gujarat resident, Bilal has been instrumental in sending youths for arms training to Pakistan through Dhaka and some Gulf states. Just as in the case of the attack on Sankatmochan temple, the prime motive in attack at Mecca masjid was to drive a communal wedge between Hindus and Muslims and trigger riots.

US Security Team for Giving Bangladesh High Priority

Exemplary action taken by the caretaker government in Bangladesh against the Islamists has drawn the attention of the US authorities. A US security delegation comprising a congressman and military veterans had visited Bangladesh in April 2007. The delegation comprised US Congressman Curt Weldon, former deputy assistance secretary of defence W Bruce Weinrod, retired US Air Force major general Ronald J Bath, retired US Army colonel Timothy D Ringgold, and retired US Coast Guard commander Michael D Kearney. They came to Bangladesh to develop the framework for a major conference on homeland security issues to be held in Bangladesh later this year. The delegation held a series of high-level meetings with senior government leaders, civil and military officials and businessmen.

After their return from this visit, the delegation members have asked President George W Bush to give Bangladesh "high priority" as a strategic partner in US foreign and national security policies against the backdrop of its exposure to Islamist extremism. In a letter the delegation said, "Bangladesh is potentially a crucial player in the struggle against Islamic extremism, and this is a crucial period for that country. The US has rare opportunity now to help shape the future of an important nation."

The letter further stated that by making Bangladesh a priority the US could help "ensure a democratic and pro-Western nation, and prevent the emergence of another highly unstable Islamic nation vulnerable to extremism." It warned that given the economic underdevelopment in that nation along with political instability in recent years, "Bangladesh is vulnerable to extremist efforts to impose a violently anti-US regime on that nation".

The delegation members also felt that Bangladesh, the world's third largest Muslim majority country, has generally a moderate and tolerant form of Islam which has co-existed comfortably with a secular government since its independence. They thought that Bangladesh can be "a strong member of a moderate Islamic coalition that rejects fanaticism and terrorism." It suggested that "Bangladesh's positive role and potential makes it all the more important that the US take a pro-active role in assisting Bangladesh to improve its political and economic situation so that Bangladesh will not provide fertile ground for extremist fanaticism."

The delegation observed that Bangladesh is now in a period of "political and economic transition" when key leaders are seeking to strengthen and deepen the national democratic political system and also crack down on "endemic" corruption. It felt that this was a truly historic moment in Bangladesh and a successful outcome was crucial to the future stability and political orientation of that nation.

Given the importance of the present moment for the future, they suggested that the US strengthen further its support for Bangladesh "by making every effort to support those far-sighted leaders who are working towards a genuine and corruption free democracy that is aligned with the West in its struggle against Islamic extremism".

The delegation acknowledged the crucial role played by military in Bangladesh. It noted that “military leadership is at this time assuming a low-profile and playing a positive role in encouraging needed changes in the Bangladeshi political system" and in the efforts to end rampant corruption there. It asked the US to reinforce and in effect reward the Bangladeshi military for their role and restraint. It felt that enhanced military-to-military and as appropriate, civilian-to-military programmes and visits was very much in the US national interest. For these reasons it urged the US to make Bangladesh a very high priority. The delegation thinks that by doing so, the US will ensure that Bangladesh strengthens its democratic system and increases its role as moderate and democratic Islamic ally in the global struggles we face in the twenty-first century.

Similarly, Britain has also shown its desire to help enhance Bangladesh's capability of combating terrorism as both countries are working together to fight against the threat of global and internal terrorism. Speaking to media in Dhaka Marriot Leslie, defence director of British Foreign Office said, "We want to learn from each other's experience in combating terrorism and how we continue the operational cooperation which has already started."

Conclusion

The recent terror incidents in Bangladesh as well as India have shown that Islamist extremists belonging to groups like Jama'atu Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and HuJI are back in action. The execution of six top JMB leaders was only a temporary setback for these organizations. The vast network and cadre base created by these groups are still intact. The action of the caretaker government headed by Fakharuddin Ahmed may not have given a death blow to Islamist fundamentalism in Bangladesh, but it has definitely established its credentials as a government willing to act against such forces. The security experts from the US have already recognized this and want their government to act in cooperation with the interim authority in Bangladesh to tackle the challenge of Islamist terror.

(The views expressed by the author are his own. The author can be reached at e-mail anandkrai@yahoo.co.in)

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