The Talibisation of Bangladesh
Begum Khaleda Zia now finds herself in a quandary. On the one hand her right wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its coalition partner the Jamaat-e-Islami have pushed Bangladesh toward theocracy, while on the other hand United Stares and the European Union have forced her to launch a crackdown on the jihadists from which Bangladesh is finding it hard to extricate itself. For three years now, a wave of bombings, assassinations and religious violence has swept Bangladesh. This, in a country whose very foundations are based on the idea that religion cannot form the basis of nationhood.
Another coalition partner, the Islamic Oikya Jote is open about its political inclinations and predilection and is well known for its support to the Taliban and the Al-Quaida. The party's membership largely duplicates that of Bangladesh's largest terrorist group the 2000-strong Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which was founded in 1992 by Afghan returned Bangladeshi mujahedin with orders from Osama bin Laden to convert the moderate Islamic state into "a nation of true believers." The HUJI has been involved in several bombings, including two attempted assassinations of then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed in July 2000.
Although the Jamaat now projects a more tempered face, its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir has been behind a string of bomb attacks and killings. As per a TIME Magazine report ( Deadly Cargo, October 14, 2002), at gatherings during the last election campaign in 2001, Jamaat leaders spoke of breathing the "Islamic spirit of jihad" into the armed forces while supporters rallied around posters of bin Laden and the HUJI slogan: amra sobai hobo taliban, bangla hobe afghanistan. ("We will all be Taliban and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan.") The Jamaat is also the principal force behind the stupendous growth of unlicensed madrasas, known as qaumi madrasas, in the last ten years. There are now an estimated 20,000 of them in Bangladesh, of which those run by mujahedin veterans, are known to shelter militants and recruit fresh fighters.
The Bengali speaking people have always been united by a common moderate culture that does not mirror South Asia's socio-cultural fault lines that traverse along caste, religion and race. For many years Bangladesh pursued an independent course in a peaceful, secular and democratic fashion. Traditionally, under Bengali Sufi mystical teachings, the majority Muslim population co-existed in harmony with the Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. Bangladesh had an impressive record on education and civil rights for women.
This explains why this country was not on top of CIA's agenda even after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Bangladesh's coastal hills in the south and borders with India in the north have turned into a heaven for Islamic militants armed by gunrunners en route from Cambodia and southern Thailand to Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Central Asia and the Middle East.
They find "natural allies" in Muslim guerrillas from India hiding out across the border, and in Muslim Rohingyas, tens of thousands of whom fled the ethnic and religious suppression of the Burmese military junta in the late 1970s and 1980s. Further, Bangladesh has long been exploited by Pakistan as a springboard for anti-Indian operations of the ISI. Pakistan's main target all along having been to keep India's North East states in a state of strategic destabilization to reduce pressures along the India-Pakistan border. Recent news reports (such as Bangladesh: New base of terror?, The Kashmir Telagraph, May 2004) indicate that hundreds of madrassas have begun springing up along the entire stretch of the porous India-Bangladesh border (2,400-km). Reports also indicate that the "maulvis" (religious teachers are mostly Pakistanis of the Wahabi type)
The original facilities date back to 1975, making them Asia's oldest jihadi training camps. The biggest has 26 interconnected bunkers complete with kitchens, lecture halls, telephones and televisions concealed beneath a three-meter-high false forest floor that stretches between two hills. Weapons available for training there include AK-47s, heavy machine guns, rifles, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Mantraps and mines, which can be triggered by spotters hiding in tree houses, protect approaches to the camp.
The terrorist camps have hosted militant visitors from the southern Philippines, Indonesia, southern Thailand, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Fighters trained and given new identities in Bangladesh also regularly end up in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Even the hijackers of the ill fated Indian Airlines' plane IC814 from Katmandu to Delhi, which was forced to land in Kandahar, reached Nepal via Bangladesh.
In March 2002 there were reports that bin Laden's number two Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been hiding out in Bangladesh for months after arriving in Chittagong. al-Zawahiri, it was said, arrived in Dhaka in early March that year and stayed briefly in the compound of a local fundamentalist leader.. He was believed to have left Bangladesh that summer, crossing over the eastern border into Burma with Rohingya rebels. In September that year Bangladesh's domestic intelligence agency arrested four Yemenis, an Algerian, a Libyan and a Sudanese at three houses in the district of Uttara in Dhaka. Bangladeshi intelligence sources said they received information from foreign agencies that the men—Abu Nujaid of Libya, Sadek Al Nassami, Abu Sallam, Abu Umaiya and Abul Abbas of Yemen, Abul Ashem of Algeria and Hassan Adam of Sudan—were involved in militant arms training at a madrasah in the capital run by a Saudi-backed charity, al-Haramain. Indonesia's al-Qaeda boss Omar al-Faruq is reported to have told the CIA that al-Haramain was the foundation used to channel bin Laden's money to him from the Middle East. In fact TIME Magazine reported that two al-Haramain foreign offices were blacklisted by Washington in March that year—although probably without the knowledge of al-Haramain's headquarters in Riyadh.
The government of Bangladesh was in a denial mode till recently. In fact, in early 2002 Zia flatly denied that there were any "Taliban" in her government, or even in Bangladesh. In February this year, however, the government did a volte-face. The police announced the arrest of scores of suspected militants in two days; they allegedly included several in possession of explosives and bomb-making equipment, as well as a professor of Arabic named Mohammed Asadullah Al Galib is believed to have ties with militants in the Middle East. Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh ( J.M.B.) and the (hereto unacknowledged) J.M.J.B., were accused of "a series of murders, robberies, bomb attacks, threats and various kinds of terrorist acts." On February 24, 2005, the Daily Star quoted an unnamed government official as saying: "There are already some cases of murder, bomb attack and robbery filed against them with different police stations and they will now be tried on those charges." Police are still looking for Azizur Rahman (also known as "Bangla Bhai" or "Bangla brother"), the man they claim is the J.M.J.B.'s leader and who some believe has covert government support. The security services announced a border alert for 20 fugitives, including Rahman.
There are several reasons for the change policy on the part of the government. The law and order situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated to frightening levels. Then in January this year, India forced the cancellation of the annual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, citing poor security in Dhaka.
The main catalyst for the crackdown however appears to have been a donor meeting in Washington in February this year ( A Selective Crack-Down, Outlook Magazine, March 2, 2005). This meeting was attended by representatives from the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank, at which the rising tide of violence and Islamic militancy in Bangladesh—and ways to end it. Top of the agenda was suspension of funds to Bangladesh, heavily dependent on foreign aid. If foreign aid were indeed suspended, Bangladesh would be crippled. As one of the least developed countries (LDCs), it virtually subsists on international funding. Skeptics therefore believe that the crackdown is merely an eyewash, a possible ploy to keep the donor countries happy.
Further, the critics of the government aren't convinced that it's truly committed to containing militancy and prosecuting radicals who have been arrested. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, the spokesman for opposition leader Wajed, was dismissive of the government's actions as "too little, too late," and voices concerns that Zia's alliance with Islamic fundamentalist groups might make it too difficult for her to control the forces of extremism. "The root of the problem ... lies with the ruling alliance itself," he says. A Bangladesh defence analyst, Brigadier General Jahangir Kabir (Retd), in an editorial opinion in the "The Daily Star" entitled "Policies of April 30 and Beyond" (May 03, 2004) had commented that the "Jammat-e-Islami is the real winner in the current situation. Instead of being in a squeeze from our pro-West major political parties, it is moving from strength to strength on the back of BNP as a free rider".
Another issue, inextricably linked to the rise of the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh, is that of violence towards minorities, which international human rights groups have extensively documented. As early as December 2001, an Amnesty report pointed to the large- scale involvement of cadres, both from the Jamaat the BNP, in the perpetration of these hate crimes. Among the targeted minorities are not just Hindus but also Christians and Buddhists.
The delay, on the part of
the state, in acting against the
fundamentalists has also raised concern that violence and radical
already have become entrenched in Bangladesh. In February this year,
as per a
TIME Magazine report ( Reining in the Radicals, Feb 28, 2005) in the
town of Rangpur, police told local reporters that two arrested
claimed to be part of a 15,000-strong militia aiming to "bring about
Islamic revolution." And al Galib—who has all along denied links with
radical forces—warned that any campaign to curb fundamentalism would
declared, "Whether we are hanged or jailed, our
movement will continue".