The Threat of Islamic Extremism to Bangladesh
The Bangladesh government's current measures against Islamic extremists operating on its soil could put the country's interests in danger. With conditions in the country conducive to the spread of Islamic extremism, the government's relaxed approach to this issue could enhance Bangladesh's attractiveness as a haven for terrorists fleeing counter-terrorism operations elsewhere.
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.
Many who defy these rules have been tortured and killed. Cultural groups and cinema halls have been targeted as well. In August 2004, a bomb blast at a rally being addressed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, former prime minister and leader of the secular, center-left Awami League, killed 21 people and injured hundreds. This was the second attempt on her life, the first being in 2000 when she was prime minister. In January this year, former finance minister Shah M.S. Kibria, also of the Awami League, was assassinated.
These attacks are believed to be the work of Islamist terror outfits like the Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh (H.U.J.I.-B.), the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (J.M.J.B.) and the Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh (A.H.A.B.). H.U.J.I.-B.'s links with al-Qaeda are well known. It is said to have been set up with seed money provided by Osama bin Laden, and the group is a member of his International Islamic Front (I.I.F.).
History of Islamic Fundamentalism in Bangladesh
Neither Islamic fundamentalism nor extremism is new to Bangladesh. Although it was linguistic nationalism not religious nationalism that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Islamist forces have grown in strength thanks to patronage by successive governments. Following the assassination of its founding father, the secular Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975, the hold of fundamentalist forces over the government -- whether military or democratic -- witnessed a sharp increase.
Successive governments openly courted the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. Discredited in 1971 for its collaboration with the Pakistan Army during the Bangladesh liberation war, Jamaat-e-Islami was resurrected by General Ziaur Rehman in the late '70s. Jamaat leaders, who had fled to Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1971 war, were brought back to Bangladesh by Rehman. Jamaat's influence grew rapidly thereafter. For instance, in the 1980s, General Hussain Mohammad Ershad went a step further and used Jamaat to counter the secular Awami League.
But it was not just Bangladesh's military rulers who wooed the fundamentalists. Political parties and politicians courted them as well. During Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's first stint at the helm in the first half of the 1990s, Jamaat and other fundamentalist outfits were given free rein. Over the years, Jamaat set up thousands of madrassas in Bangladesh, many of which are known to recruit and train jihadi fighters.
Fundamentalist activism in Bangladesh received a big boost in 2001. General elections in October brought to power a four party coalition led by the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.) and including two fundamentalist parties -- Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote. Jamaat has two ministers in government. Even if Jamaat is not directly involved in the recent terrorist attacks, its inclusion in the coalition government has encouraged radical Islamist groups to feel that they enjoy protection from the government and can act with impunity. The links between terror outfits and sections of the government has sent out a strong signal to the local police to refrain from apprehending those who are engaging in gun-running and violence.
Jamaat and Islamic Oikya Jote are not just fundamentalist organizations. They support and have links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and both parties have supported the terrorist activities of the H.U.J.I.-B. Islamic Oikya Jote's chairman, Azizul Huq, is said to be a member of H.U.J.I.-B.'s advisory council.
The coming to power of a fundamentalist-friendly coalition in Bangladesh coincided with the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the loss of training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their bases were disrupted by counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, so al-Qaeda fighters were forced to look for new nests. Bangladesh emerged as an attractive sanctuary. In April 2002, Bertil Lintner wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review that after the fall of Kandahar in Afghanistan in late 2001, hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters arrived by ship from Karachi to the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong. A few months later, Time magazine's Alex Perry provided details on southern Bangladesh having become "a haven for hundreds of jihadis." The Bangladeshi media too has reported extensively about the activities of the extremists, especially of the violence engineered by Bangla Bhai, leader of the J.M.J.B.
Bangladesh's attractiveness as a safe haven for terrorists is not new. Anti-India militants fighting Indian security forces in the insurgency-wracked states of India's northeast have used Bangladesh as a sanctuary for decades. Groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (U.L.F.A.) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (N.L.F.T.) are known to have set up training camps on Bangladeshi soil and militants under pressure from counter-insurgency operations in India have taken refuge there.
India, which for years has been calling rather unsuccessfully on the Bangladesh government to close down anti-India militant training camps on Bangladeshi soil, has also drawn attention to the nexus between militants active in India's insurgency-wracked northeast, Bangladesh's Islamist extremists and al-Qaeda. It has called attention to the cooperation between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Forces Intelligence in fostering the terrorist network in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has reacted fiercely to suggestions that the country is becoming a haven for Islamic extremism. It banned the distribution of the Far Eastern Economic Review issue that carried Lintner's "baseless" article. Newspaper offices have been raided and journalists taken into custody for investigating al-Qaeda activities in the country. Its standard response to India's allegations, for instance, has been outright denial.
It was only on February 23, 2005 that the Bangladesh government, under pressure from the European Union, took some steps against terror outfits. The J.M.J.B. and the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (J.M.B.) were banned. Incidentally, until February 23, the government had been dismissing reports of the J.M.J.B.'s vigilante violence as a figment of the media's imagination. Some leaders and cadres were taken into custody in February but neither Bangla Bhai nor Moulana Abdur Rahman, a former activist of Jamaat-e-Islami who is now the leader of the J.M.J.B., were arrested. Strangely, the government did not take action against H.U.J.I.-B. either.
Responding to the U.S. listing of H.U.J.I.-B. as a terrorist group, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Moshed Khan said that he had not seen "such activity [terrorism] in Bangladesh. … The way Bangladesh is being painted with the same brush time and again it seems that it is a conspiracy and an orchestrated campaign by some vested quarters." While the Bangladesh government is now reluctantly admitting to the presence of terrorist groups in the country, it remains adamant that there are no al-Qaeda operatives on its soil.
In addition to political compulsions to keep her fundamentalist partners in the coalition government happy, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's inadequate response against terrorists and jihadis is prompted by her intense political and personal rivalry with Sheikh Hasina. Informed observers of the political scene in Bangladesh say that the B.N.P. sees its fundamentalist friends as useful weapons to keep the Awami League in check.
The prime minister's reluctance to rein in her fundamentalist partners in government and take firm action against terrorism could prove costly. Bangladesh's terror outfits are by no means insignificant. H.U.J.I.-B., for instance, is said to have thousands of fighters. Its original mission might have been to set up Islamic rule in Bangladesh but, over the years, its ambitions and the geographical spread of its role have grown substantially.
During the 1990s, it was involved in training Muslim Rohingya insurgents from Myanmar and it sent its cadres to fight in Afghanistan and against Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Post-9/11, its responsibilities in the global jihad have grown. It appears to have been made responsible for training jihadi fighters from southern Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Brunei and it is sending its own fighters to Indonesia, the Philippines and Chechnya.
It would, however, be an exaggeration to describe Bangladesh as being on the brink of "Talibanization" as some reports in the media have claimed. The average Bangladeshi is uneasy with the steady Islamization of the country. The country has a history of linguistic nationalism triumphing over religious nationalism and there is still a strong Bengali culture that Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus share. This has acted as a brake against the rising tide of extremism to some extent so far.
However, more powerful brakes will be needed. And unless the Bangladesh government acts to crack down on extremism and terrorism, the potential threat that Islamic extremism in Bangladesh poses to global security could turn imminent.
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