May 10, 2007

Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh – A Threat to Regional Peace

by R. Upadhyay

With the execution of six Islamist militants belonging to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) on March 29 this year, the anti-terror machinery of Bangladesh police stepped up its drive to combat terrorism. Continued arrest of the suspected members and associates of this outlawed Islamist terrorist group for spreading militancy through mosques and other Islamic institutions across the country is viewed as a change in approach of the present government towards the jehadis.

JMB shot into prominence in August 2005 when it carried out orchestrated bombings at more than 60 locations at the same time across the country that also killed two judges.

Anti-militancy drive of the army-backed caretaker government is widely appreciated both within and outside the country. But if the incidents of April 11, 2007, when some unidentified gunmen in southern Bangladesh shot and killed the prosecutor of the case of executed terrorists and blasts on railway stations on May 1 are any indication - the militants appear to be not ready to give up.

Bangladesh newspapers have revealed that "thousands of suspected Islamic militants went into hiding in Bangladesh after the execution of six prominent religious extremists". The daily Ittefaq while referring to intelligence sources said "the 10,000 militants who went into hiding also included 500 suicide bombers who could strike any moment". This worrisome situation is therefore a great challenge to the present interim government particularly when the whole government machinery is infiltrated with the sympathisers of the Islamists.

Introduction of compulsory Islamic course in schools from class one to eight and setting up an Islamic University confirm that Islam played a dominant role in politics. A quote from Bangladesh Economic Review statistics suggests that " the number of general educational institutions, which receive government funds, has increased 9.74 percent against a 22.22 percent growth of madrasas from 2001 to 2005" (The Daily Star dated 4th August 2005).

Post Mujib-era turned the country almost one hundred eighty degrees from secular democracy to an Islam-centric state. Return of Islam in politics within four years of its liberation from Pakistan accelerated the growth of Islamic institutions and organisations both at the government and non-government levels. An abnormal increase of Islamic institutions like mosques, madrasas, tombs of famous Sufis, units of Tabligh Jamaat, Islamic foundations, Masjid Missions, Islamic Centres, Quranic Societies, Islam Prachar Samitis, Ittehadul Ummah, Council for Islamic Socio-Cultural Organisation and World Islamic Mission created an Islamic upsurge in the country. This situation gradually transformed Bangladesh into a fertile ground for the growth of Islamic militancy.

After the end of army rule in 1990, Islam based political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Oikya Jote, Nizam-i-Islami, Muslim League, Islamic Republican parties, Islamic Democratic League and Khilafat Andolan made deep inroads in Bangladesh politics. In March 1999, IOJ chairman Amini told a public meeting: “We are for Osama [bin Ladin], we are for the Taliban, and we will be in government in 2000 through an Islamic revolution.” Pro-Osama bin Laden rallies against American assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan confirmed the jehadi mindset of many Islamists in the country.

Both the JEI and IOJ, the hardcore Islamist parties of Bangladesh are widely known for their communal agenda and for their anti-India as well as anti-West bashing. As dominant partners of Khalida Zia Government in 2001 they emerged as the most influential fundamentalist parties in Bangladesh and could systematically make a dent in national politics. They exploited the weakness of state institutions, the loose governmental hold on outlying rural regions, corruption and inefficiency. According to some reports they recruited hundreds of Madarsas educated youths and sent them for jehadi training in Libya and other parts of Islamic world with a view to carry out their expansionist designs in India and other South Asian countries namely Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Thousands of Bangladeshi mosques and madarsas funded by Saudi and other Gulf countries helped them to create a nationwide network of jehadi indoctrination for Bangladeshi youths. Some reports suggest that they also sent hundreds of Bangladeshi youngsters for Afghan War against the Russian invasion under the joint venture of ISI and Bangladesh military Intelligence.

Migration of many Islamic militants, who became unemployed after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 to Bangladesh, had the direct or indirect support from these Islamist parties in the government. Various reports suggest that hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters escaped to Chittagong in Bangladesh after the fall of Kandhar in 2001 and were settled there by Bangladesh military Intelligence. They established terrorist training bases across the country and recruited about 10,000 full-time and 100,000 part-time members. The then Khalida Zia government looked other way, when the migrated militants established terrorist training camps and trained Bangladeshis as well as the foreign Islamic soldiers in the pattern of Taliban with a view to wage jihad and establish Shariatised system of governance in Bangladesh.

Infiltration of Islamists into the different wings of the government facilitated the global linkage of all the terrorist groups in Bangladesh. The Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF) that claimed responsibility for the attack on the American Center in Kolkata in January 2002 is known to be an ally to the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which had close links with the ISI. Aftab Ansari alias Farhan Malik, prime accused in the attack reportedly disclosed global linkages between the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the HUJI.

Direct funding to the terrorist outfits in Bangladesh from international NGOs like Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage, Saudi Arabia-based Al Haramaine Islamic Institute, Rabita Al Alam Al Islami, Qatar Charitable Society and individual donors in Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Libya to build mosques, madrassas and training of imams that was primarily responsible for fomenting extremism, training and recruiting of youths to carry out jihadi activities.

All the Islamic groups, with their prime objective to uphold the cause of Islam get regular financial assistance from the oil rich Arab world. They control the financial institutions of this economically fragile country and manage their hegemony in the governance of the country. Domination of Islamists in the government facilitated Bangladesh to become an important member of the OIC. Dhaka's failure to cut such links emboldened the Islamists.

A number of the leaders of the Islamic terrorist groups active today in Bangladesh are known to have come from the ranks of JEI’s youth wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS). JMB and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), the two main terrorist outfits presently active in Bangladesh that are also known to be the creation of Jamaat-e-Islami. Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, a prominent ally of the JEI is known for its link with Al-Qaeda. It is one of the signatories of the declaration of holy war against the US on February 23, 1998.

It is strange to see that the JEI and the IOJ, which were the coalition partners of Begum Khalida Government supporting the anti-terrorist drive of the caretaker government. Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ameer of the JEI Bangladesh now thinks "militants had killed people and engaged in criminal activities in the name of Islam, which harmed politics of his party". Similarly, IOJ Chairman Fazlul Haque Aminee said, "death penalty of militants is right because they had killed people violating Islamic rules". It may be amusing to know that the terrorist outfits, of which the executed militants belonged, had close links with the JEI and the IOJ. Even Khalida Begum, the then Prime Minister had persistently denied their presence in Bangladesh due to the pressure from these parties. The change in the attitude of these parties is therefore nothing but a tactical retreat from their earlier stand on violent jehad.

Against the backdrop of the deep roots of the Islamists in the entire government machinery the biggest question that hangs over the army-backed caretaker government is how to cleanse the sympathizers of Islamic radicals from the entire system? If the political history of Bangladesh is any indication one cannot easily come to any meaningful conclusion on the future move of the dominant army in the country. Besides, the decision (since revoked) of the government to keep away the two fighting women of the two mainstream parties namely BNP and Awami League, who had presided over the government from the political scene reflected the intention of the men in uniform. Similarly the Army Chief Lt. General Moeen U. Ahmed's statement to replace elective democracy by a new brand of democracy also indicates his political ambitions.

Although, the interim government succumbed to the pressure from international community particularly the Western powers and revoked the decision, its next move is always unpredictable. How far the present government would succeed in combating Islamic terrorism in the country, only time can say but if it is to be serious, it will have to neutralise the sources of Islamic militancy.

The two former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina of Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the BNP have already weakened the democratic essence of politics in Bangladesh and pushed it into the process of "Talibanization". This dangerous concoction of poverty, weak political structure, unemployment and increased terrorist activities is steadily pushing it towards anarchy and chaos.

(The author can be reached at E-mail : ramashray60@rediffmail.com)

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