The Begum Khaleda Zia Government of Bangladesh, which has been in power in Dhaka since 2001, looks upon the fundamentalist and jihadi elements as its objective allies. Though her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is by no means a fundamentalist party, she wants to use these elements to keep India destabilised externally and to weaken the opposition Awami League and its allies internally.
She has shown no desire or inclination to act against either the anti-India elements from our Northeast or the jihadi terrorist elements which pose a threat not only to their own country and India, but also to the Southeast Asian region and the world as a whole. It has given a free hand to its military-intelligence establishment, which continues to collude with the ISI.
Till now, the international community has not paid as much attention as it deserves to the signs of Bangladesh emerging as a new hub of pro-bin Laden jihadi terrorism. The situation in Bangladesh is similar to the one in Indonesia before the Bali explosion of October, 2002. The Khaleda Zia Government, like the Megawati Sukarnoputri Government in Indonesia before October 2002, refuses to acknowledge the growing activities of the jihadi terrorist elements from its territory and has been avoiding any strong action against them while continuing to pay lip-service to Bangladesh's support to the so-called war against international terrorism.
Like Pakistan, Bangladesh too is lacking in sincerity in its implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution No.1373 against terrorism. Unless the international community pressures her to start acting against the jihadi and other terrorist elements operating from Bangladesh territory, this region and the world are in for another nasty surprise similar to the Bali explosion.
Concerns over the likelihood of Bangladesh emerging as a major hub of jihadi terrorism in Asia to the east of India have once again come to the fore following the publication on December 10, 2003, of an edited version of a report on Bangladesh prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and an advisory issued by the US State Department to its citizens and officials posted in or visiting that country.
The CSIS report prepared in July last, edited portions of which were obtained by a media organisation called the Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, said that the Government of Bangladesh was not doing enough to prevent the country from becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists in South Asia and expressed its concern over the activities of extremists suspected to be connected to Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. It said that the Government of Bangladesh was unwilling to crack down on terrorism and referred to the likelihood of dangers to Canadian aid agencies in Bangladesh.
It also said that there have been a number of serious terrorist attacks on cultural groups and recreational facilities in Bangladesh, but the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been routinely blaming the opposition party for such criminal activities, rather than finding out the real perpetrators of violence.
According to the CSIS report, in February,2003, Islamic militants attacked a cultural concert in a northern Bangladesh town and the police recovered bomb-making materials from radicals who claimed to be members of the militant organizations Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Shahdat ul Hiqma. In 1998, a group called Bangladesh Jihad came to notice when one of its members signed a fatwa issued by bin Laden calling for a jihad against the US and Israel, it added.
In a statement issued on December 11, 2003, the Bangladesh Foreign Office strongly denied the contents of the CSIS report. It said: "The contents of the report are far from the reality on the ground. The Government remains firmly committed to combating terrorism. Some quarters are bent on tarnishing the peaceful image of Bangladesh."
In a separate statement issued at Ottawa the same day, the Bangladesh's High Commissioner in Ottawa, Mohsin Ali Khan, denied that his country had become a terrorist haven and asserted that his Government was very "conscious of its responsibility to protect its citizens. We condemn terrorism in any country, in any form, in any place. Bangladesh is against any terrorist attack and it will not allow its soil to be used by any terrorist group."
Coinciding with the publication of extracts from the CSIS report, the US State Department issued an advisory on Bangladesh in which it said that it had received information about possible threats to its Embassy in Dhaka and warned Americans in Bangladesh to be vigilant, particularly in places frequented by foreigners. It added that it had recently received information regarding several possible threats against the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka and other U.S. interests in Bangladesh and cautioned that American citizens in Bangladesh should remain vigilant, particularly in public places frequented by foreigners, including but not limited to hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, and places of worship. They should also avoid demonstrations and large crowds, the statement said. The advisory did not give any other details. According to the "Bangladesh Observer", a similar advisory was issued by the Australian Government too to its citizens in Bangladesh.
The advisory assumed significance in the light of the stand taken by the US Embassy in Dhaka in the past that it did not have any corroboration of the reports carried by the Time magazine, the Jane's Intelligence Review of London and other sections of the media about the shifting of some sections of Al Qaeda from Pakistan to Bangladesh following the US military action in Afghanistan post 9/11 and its operations against Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
In fact, the annual report on the Patterns of Global Terrorism during 1992 submitted by the Counter-Terrorism Division of the US State Department to the Congress in May,2003, did not refer to any pro-bin Laden jihadi terrorist activities in Bangladesh territory on the lines of what has been appearing in the US media. However, it did contain, as in its reports of the previous years, an account of the activities of the Bangladesh branch of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al- Islami (HUJI), which is a member of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF). The State Department refers to it as HUJI(B), to distinguish it from the HUJI of Pakistan headed by Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
Its comments on the activities of HUJI (B) said:
"The mission of HUJI-B, led by Shauqat Osman, is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh. HUJI-B has connections to the Pakistani militant groups Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI) and Harak ul-Mujahidin (HUM), who advocate similar objectives in Pakistan and Kashmir.HUJI-B was accused of stabbing a senior Bangladeshi journalist in November 2000 for making a documentary on the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh. HUJI-B was suspected in the July 2000 assassination attempt of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.HUJI-B has an estimated cadre strength of more than several thousand members.Operates and trains members in Bangladesh, where it maintains at least six camps. Funding of the HUJI-B comes primarily from madrassas in Bangladesh. The group also has ties to militants in Pakistan that may provide another funding source."
Commenting on the publication of extracts from the CSIS report and the rejection of its contents by the Bangladesh Government, the Bangladesh Observer said on December 12,2003:
"True to its character, the alliance government has promptly rejected the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report that Bangladesh may emerge as a ‘haven for Islamic terrorists’. Mere rejection of the report is customary, it has to be substantial. Apparently, the CSIS report is based on a number of serious attacks by ‘radicals’ on the cultural groups in Bangladesh. It also refers to reported hints of some Islamic groups’ collusion with Al-Qaida. Right at the moment the Canadian intelligence report has been published, the US and Australian Governments have warned their citizens of possible danger during their movement and stay in Bangladesh. Whether this is a coincidence or something else is not known. But the public announcement through which the US Government keeps its visiting citizens alert fears potential attacks by international terrorists against US interests in Bangladesh."
"It is too early to say if there is any truth or not in the CSIS report. But the powerful bomb blasts at the Udichi function in Jessore, at Bangla New Year’s function at Ramna Botomool and at the Communist Party meeting at Paltan are an unmistakable indication of the choice of targets. It is a fact that none of these bombing incidents has been conclusively investigated. People do not know who were the masterminds behind all such attacks. Then there were more recent attacks on cinema halls in Mymensingh. Again, investigation has not led either to unearthing the cause of the attack or nabbing the perpetrators. Whether all this is a case of intelligence failure or anything else no one knows.
"Then there are time-to-time huge and sophisticated arms, ammunition and explosive hauls. A few organised militant Islamic groups’ clashes with the police in different places over the attempt to capture Ahmadiya sect’s mosques or to smuggle in arms and explosives in some places are allowed to pass rather quietly. If those alarming incidents were seriously followed through, no one possibly could accuse the Government of non-action against terrorists. Sure enough, we have passed the phase when crying hoarse that some quarters are busy tarnishing our non-secular image abroad would be of any use. If the process continues, we will soon be facing a credibility crisis. We must be alive to the sensitive issue of terrorism because its global connotation is far stronger than we can appreciate.
"The Government however has so far firmly dealt with the fanatics bent on capturing the Ahmadiya mosques at Nakhalpara and at Sarishabari, Jamalpur. However the threat remains as long as the ultimatum for declaring the Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims is there. The Government must not sit on such sensitive issues. It must open a viable channel of negotiations with the aggressive party and convince them of the merit of peaceful co-existence of different communities. Similarly, violent incidents like the bomb blasts have to be thoroughly probed into both for clarity and punishment of the criminals. If the masterminds behind such incidents can be brought to book, we will know whether the threat is a mere perceived one or more than that. Maybe, we will be able to dismiss, rather factually, that there is no possibility of the rise of ‘Islamic terrorists’ here. We do not like to be painted as a nation dominated by fundamentalists. Let the Government come clean on this issue and stand by its claim",
Earlier, in an article under the title "Is religious extremism on the rise in Bangladesh?" published by the Jane's Intelligence Review of May 2002, Bertil Lintner, the well-known columnist on Southeast Asia, had drawn attention to the worrying developments in Bangladesh. He referred to the activities of organisations such as HUJI, the so-called Jihad movement, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the JEI's students' wing, the Islami Olkyo Jote (IOJ), which like the JEI, is a member of the present ruling coalition, and two organisations of Rohingya Muslim refugees from the Arakan area of Myanmar called the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation and to the proliferation of madrasas in Bangladesh and said:, inter alia:."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."
His article gave the following details of the HUJI and the Jihad movement:
"Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) - Bangladesh's main militant outfit. Set up in 1992, it now has an estimated strength of 15,000 and is headed by Shawkat Osman aka Maulana or Sheikh Farid in Chittagong. Its members are recruited mainly from students of the country's madrassahs, and until last year they called themselves 'Bangladeshi Taliban'. The group is believed to have extensive contacts with Muslim groups in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Osama bin Laden's February 23, 1998 fatwa urging jihad against the USA was co-signed by two Egyptian clerics, one from Pakistan, and Fazlul Rahman, "leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh". This is not believed to be a separate organisation but a common name for several Islamic groups in Bangladesh, of which HUJI is considered the biggest and most important."
In an article on Al Qaeda activities in Bangladesh written by its correspondent in New Delhi Alex Perry, the Time magazine of October 15, 2002, quoted sources in the HUJI and the Bangladesh military as saying that in July 1992 about 150 armed men belonging to the Taliban and Al Qaeda had been transported to Bangladesh from Afghanistan and Pakistan by a ship called"MV Mecca" and that 50 others had similarly been transported during 2001.
The Transnational Threats Update,Volume 1 • Number 9 dated June 2003 of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, DC stated as follows:
"The current security climate in Bangladesh may allow terrorist groups to organize an attack using a radiological dispersal device. Concerns over this possibility are plausible given that radioactive substances have proven accessible to terror groups operating within the country.
A package of "semi-processed explosive-grade" uranium weighing 225 grams was recently seized from smugglers at the Patnitola border of Bangladesh. The material came with a user’s manual that illustrated how to build an explosive device tipped with nuclear materials. More importantly, authorities have alleged confessions from two members of the Shahadad-ul-Hikma terrorist group who were arrested on suspicion of transporting the package.
This case has increased concerns because there have been multiple nuclear smuggling incidents intercepted by Bangladeshi authorities. Adding to this unease are strong links found between the shipments, implying the smuggling operation is highly organized. Experts have assessed that the most recent consignment matches a previous shipment confiscated in the same northwest border region. They were both from the same location, made in Russia, and marked from Kazakhstan in 1988.
The sheer number of militant Islamist training camps operating in the region compounds the problem of accessible nuclear materials. The estimated number of camps varies from at least 15, according to members of the epistemic community, to 156, reported by Indian intelligence. According to India, among the fundamentalist organizations present in Bangladesh are the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), the Achijk National Volunteer Council, the Chakma National Liberation Front (CNLF) and the Dima Halam Daoga."
In a subsequent assessment, in which he advocated a more activist US policy in Bangladesh, Joseph J. Schatz of the Congressional Quarterly, who had traveled to Bangladesh, stated as follows:
"While disputed by the new BNP-led Government, there are several alleged links between Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and groups operating on Bangladeshi soil. In the aftermath of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, for which the U.S. Government blamed bin Laden, a worldwide sting operation was launched, which saw the Indian Government arrest Bangladeshi nationals for plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Calcutta.
A Bangladeshi religious radical, Fazlul Rahman, signed bin Laden’s 1998 decree calling for the murder of Americans around the world. Western intelligence officials subsequently linked Rahman to terrorist cells operating out of southern Bangladesh. These groups allegedly have links to al Qaeda and in some cases Afghanistan’s former ruling militia, the Taliban.
According to analysts and Bangladeshi authorities, the Bangladeshi extremist Islamic group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami allegedly received financial backing from bin Laden and sent members to train in Afghanistan.This terrorist group styles itself the "Bangladeshi Taliban" and allegedly aims to institute an extremist, Taliban-type government in Bangladesh.
The group, which is estimated to include approximately 15,000 militants, operates out of the Chittagong Hills in southern Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi authorities implicated the group in the January 1999 attempted murder of prominent Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman. According to the authorities, the group planned to assassinate up to 28 Bangladeshi intellectuals as part of their campaign against "enemies of Islam".
In addition, during President Bill Clinton’s March 2000 trip to Bangladesh, his planned visit to the village of Joypurawas was canceled due to terrorist threats from al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
The Zia Government denies that extremism and terrorism are problems in Bangladesh, and instead focuses attention on the nation’s democratic and secular values. But although the extent of al Qaeda’s influence in Bangladesh does not yet appear to be great, its alleged existence is significant because it flies in the face of the nation’s tradition of religious moderation and tolerance, and its lack of a strong Islamic fundamentalist following. It should be of direct concern to the U.S. Government, which has a tradition of very good relations with Bangladesh."
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