By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Referring to the 8/17 bomb blasts in all the 63 districts in Bangladesh, Ambassador Howard Schaffer expressed the view that Bangladesh is probably being used by Islamic fundamentalists and insurgents as a safe haven to enable them to carry on with their activities in an unrestricted manner.
Between August and December 2005, a series of attacks hit Bangladesh, collectively killing 12, wounding hundreds of others and involving the country's first suicide strikes. In the most audacious assault on August 17, 434 homemade bombs were set off in 63 districts over the course of just one hour. This unprecedented bout of violence has thrust the country to the forefront of regional and global terrorist attention, generating fears that a new jihadist beachhead is emerging in this predominantly Muslim nation of roughly 144 million people.
"This is surely terrorism. It can't be anything else. What was astonishing about these bombings, which took place in late August, was that they were coordinated throughout the country. Only a couple of districts were not affected. Not too many people were killed, and that many people think is evidence that what these terrorist groups were seeking to do was to send a warning to the government and the country, because you can't have such a coordinated attack unless you have a very strong organization," he said.
Schaffer said the inability of the government to rule the country was a major contributor of growing extremism.
"Bangladesh is badly governed. And under those circumstances, there is a tendency to turn to moderate Islamic countries, moderate Islamic parties, or more radical groups. It sets up an environment in which these radical groups can operate," he said.
Two main militant organizations currently exist in Bangladesh: Jama'at ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB, or the Bangladesh Assembly of Holy Warriors) and Harakat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (HuJI-B, or Movement of Islamic Holy war–Bangladesh). It may be mentioned here that the masterminds of the notorious Islamist militancy group JMB, Shykh Abdur Rahman studied in Medina University, who later came back to Bangladesh and worked for the Saudi Embassy for some years. During his student life, Shykh Rahman managed to establish relations with Al-Qaeda.
Incidents of extremism and terrorism have witnessed a sharp increase in Bangladesh in recent years, with the number of attacks last year exceeding the total number of incidents in the preceding five years. Most of the attacks have been directed against religious minorities, secular intellectuals and journalists as well as against politicians belonging to secular parties and leftist activists. Islamist extremists have sought to impose an Islamic way of life on people in rural areas, often through the use of force. Women have been coerced into veiling themselves and men have been forced to grow beards and wear skull caps.
According to terrorism experts and several analysts, Bangladesh is increasingly recognized as the locus of a significant and expanding threat emanating from radicalized Islamist extremist mobilization and its systematic transformation into political and terrorist violence. Notwithstanding vociferous official denials, it has, for some time now, been an established staging post for terrorism within the region, and is seen as a potential center of Islamist consolidation for the "global jihad" as well.
Worse, these processes are rooted in an entrenched political dynamic that has progressively diminished the space for secular or moderate politics in the country. Given the polarization and extreme hostility between the two dominant political parties in Bangladesh, and the near complete split down the middle in voting patterns, the Islamist parties have become central to the processes of government formation in the country, and have gradually expanded their political presence as well. These trends have been compounded further by the combination of religious mobilization, intimidation and extremist violence that these radical parties and their armed allies engage in, as well as their very wide and expanding presence in the social sector, particularly education. Given these broad trends, the scope for any reversal of the Islamist extremist consolidation in Bangladesh has shrunk progressively.
It is necessary to understand the dynamics of these processes, as well as to make an objective assessment of their real and potential threat, both in terms of internal stability and external security. Firstly, what are the real dimensions and magnitude of the threat of Islamist extremist mobilization in Bangladesh? The coastal area stretching from the port city of Chittagong south through Cox's Bazaar to the Myanmar border, notorious for piracy, smuggling and arms-running, is the principal area of activity of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami Bangladesh (Movement of Islamic Holy War, HuJI-BD), which is a signatory to Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front and a designated terrorist outfit in many countries, including the United States.
Further, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB or Awakened Muslim Masses), a vigilante Islamist group, is reported to have created strong bases mostly in northwest Bangladesh, in the districts of Rajshahi, Satkhira, Naogaon, Bagerhat, Jessore, Chittagong, Joypurhat, Natore, Rangpur, Bogra, Chittagong, and Khulna. Elsewhere, the Jama'atul Mujahideen (Party of the Mujahideen) is training small groups of youths for jihad in the northern districts of Natore and Bogra, one in the southwestern district of Chuadanga and another in the mid-eastern border district of Chandpur. It also has a network in the Shaghata, Sundarganj and Sadullapur areas of Gaibandha district as also in Rajshahi district and parts of Khulna city. While both of them espouse the ideal of a "Italianized" Bangladesh, JMJB leaders have openly proclaimed links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There have also been reports that JMJB's training of recruits includes recorded speeches of bin Laden and video footage of warfare training at al-Qaeda's (now defunct) Farooque camp in Afghanistan. Professor Abu Sayeed, in his two books, Aghoshito Juddher Blueprint (Blueprint of an Undeclared War) and Brutal Crime Documents, claims that around 50,000 militants belonging to more than 40 groups are now controlling a vast area of the country. Sayeed also says over 50 camps are now in operation across Bangladesh, where Islamists are getting military training and that militant groups have their recruits in all sections of society, including mosques, seminaries, educational institutions, the judiciary, mass media and even the armed forces.
The prevailing socio-political dynamics lend themselves to the consolidation of Islamist extremism in the country. For instance, the JMJB is believed to have exploited the countryside's abhorrence towards left-wing extremism to spread radical Wahhabism among the rural populace and in the process also emerged as a significant force to be reckoned with. The group's rapid spread has been primarily achieved through an assumption of the role of "protector" in areas of widespread mal-governance, support of local administration and perceived linkages and claims of contact with the al-Qaeda-Taliban combine.
Taking recourse to a policy of appeasement, the Khaleda Zia regime had initially remained largely indifferent to the growing power and clout of such radical Islamist groups. Although, lately after the countrywide bomb explosion by JMB, the former ruling coalition was rather forced to go into a massive drive to arrest the main kingpins and put them on trial.
A sharp polarization of the country's polity has led to a situation in which the just past-government sought to maintain an electoral balance, while the Islamic extremists seek to broaden their political and social base. This is crucial and is expected to continue, considering the past trajectory. In the October 2001 Parliamentary elections, BNP secured 40.97% of the votes, with its coalition right-wing parties, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh securing 4.28%, and the Islami Oikyo Jote (Islamic Unity Council, an alliance of seven radical Islamist groups) wining 0.68%. At the other end, the opposition AL received 40.13% of the vote. This extremely close competition between the two main parties gave the Islamists disproportionate leverage, considering their tiny electoral base. It is this battle for electoral balance among the BNP and AL that is being exploited by the Islamic extremists.
While it is true that Bangladeshi Islamic extremists, with some exceptions, have not been linked to major international terrorist incidents, it would be perilous to consider the Islamist ensemble as purely internal developments.
These movements are, to a certain extent, local variants of an international Islamist enterprise and a significant number of these groups and individuals maintain links with the "global jihad". To that end, it would be hazardous to focus only on the transient geographical location of Islamist terror.
Anti-US rhetoric has continued. In December 2001, Maulana Ubaidul Haq, the khatib (grand cleric), of Bangladesh's national mosque, Baitul Mukarram, and a Jamaat associate, publicly condemned the US war on terror and urged followers to wage holy war against the USA. "President Bush and America is the most heinous terrorist in the world. Both America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh's 120 million Muslims spit on them," the cleric told a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims which included several high-ranking government officials.
Much of the violence in the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar area has been blamed on the Rohingyas, a refugee community of Muslims from Myanmar's Arakan State. In 1991, over 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, claiming religious persecution in Myanmar. They were sheltered in more than 20 camps near the border south and east of Cox's Bazar. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) managed to repatriate most of them, but an estimated 20,000 destitute refugees remain in two camps between Cox's Bazar and the border, which is heavily mined in some areas on the Myanmar side to prevent smuggling and cross border guerrilla activities. There is also an undisclosed number of Rohingyas living in villages outside the UNHCR supervised camps. In one village, Gumdrum, located only a few hundred meters from the Myanmar border, virtually everyone is of Rohingya descent.
Some are recent arrivals, while others have settled here over the past three or four decades. According to officials, new refugees arrive daily.
In January 2001, Bangladesh clamped down on Rohingya activists and offices in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. Hundreds were rounded up, and the local press was full of reports of their alleged involvement in gun- and drug-running. Local Rohingya leaders vehemently deny such accusations, and refute claims that they are connected with Islamic fundamentalist groups in and outside Bangladesh: "These are pure fabrications to discredit us," said Nurul Islam, president of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, a moderate Rohingya group active in the border areas. Another Rohingya spokesman blamed local Bangladeshi gangs with high-level connections for the violence, smuggling and lawlessness in the area. The paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles have also been accused of involvement in smuggling activities around Cox's Bazar.
There is little doubt that extremist groups have taken advantage of the disenfranchised Rohingyas, including recruiting them as cannon fodder for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Karachi-based newspaper, Ummat on 28 September 2001, Bin Laden said: "There are areas in all parts of the world where strong jihadi forces are present, from Indonesia to Algeria, from Kabul to Chechnya, from Bosnia to Sudan, and from Myanmar to Kashmir." He was most probably referring to a small group of Rohingyas on the Bangladesh-Myamnar border.
Many of the recruits were given the most dangerous tasks in the battlefield, clearing mines and portering. According to Asian intelligence sources, recruits were paid Tk30,OOO ($525) on joining and then Tk10,OOO ($175) per month. The families of recruits killed in action were offered Tk100,000 ($1,750). Recruits were taken mostly via Nepal to Pakistan, where they were trained and sent on to military camps in Afghanistan. It is not known how many people from this part of Bangladesh - Rohingyas and others - fought in Afghanistan.
According to Asian intelligence reports, many of HUJI's members may also have been recruited from Rohingya settlements in the southeastern corner of the country HUJI is headed by an extremist cleric from Chittagong, Maulana Sheikh Farid, who also maintains links with like-minded groups in Pakistan.
Bangladesh is far from becoming another Pakistan, and the rise of extremism should be seen in the context of the country's turbulent politics since breaking away from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh was formed in opposition to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one country. Bangladesh is the only state in the subcontinent with one dominant language group and very few ethnic and religious minorities.
The rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh is not just a side effect of military politics. Enayetullah Khan, editor of the Bangladesh weekly Holiday, said that a Muslim element has always been present; otherwise, what was East Pakistan could have merged with the predominantly Hindu Indian state of West Bengal, where the same language is spoken. "We're having a bit of an identity crisis here," said Khan. "Are we Bengalis first and Muslims second, or Muslims first and Bengalis second? This is the problem. And when Muslim identity becomes an Islamic identity we're in real trouble."
This is a dilemma that Bangladesh has to tackle very carefully. The urban middle class may resent the fundamentalists and dismiss them as irrelevant, and the government - which is heavily dependent on foreign aid - has to contain the extremists so as not to upset relations with its powerful donor countries, the West and Japan.
However, extremist influence is growing, especially in the countryside. A foreign diplomat in Dhaka said: "In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the leftists who were seen as incorruptible purists. Today, the role model for many young men in rural areas is the dedicated Islamic cleric with his skull cap, flowing robes and beard." As Indonesia has shown, an economic collapse or political crisis can give rise to militants for whom religious fundamentalism equals national pride, and a way out of misrule, disorder and corrupt worldly politics.�