Since April 2004, the districts of Rajshahi, Naogaon, Natore, Joypurhat, Rangpur and Bogra have witnessed increasing activities of the Islamist vigilanté group, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), espousing the ideal of a 'Talibanised' Bangladesh and vowing to ensure that the region is 'swept clean' of the activities of Left Wing groups, primarily the Purbo Banglar Communist Party (PBCP).
The rise of the vigilanté group raises serious questions regarding its motives. Far from providing a semblance of security and order in the area - its proclaimed objective - the JMJB's activities have seriously undermined public security. The reaction of the government to the JMJB, moreover, remains baffling.
On August 15, 2003 cadres belonging to an outlawed Islamist group, Jama'atul Mujahidin (JuM), clashed with a police team that had gone to inquire about the presence of JuM cadres at the house of a local Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader, Montezar Rahman in Joypurhat.
Among the cadres who fled after the encounter was Moulana Abdur Rahman, now the 'Emir' of the JMJB. The documents seized from the encounter site revealed the scope of the strategy being prepared by the Islamists; a strategy that has alarmed the left leaning 11-party alliance who allege that the JeI and Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) were developing an 'Islamic militant network' across the country by taking advantage of being partners in the alliance government at Dhaka. With the crackdown on the JuM increasing, the JMJB has emerged as the Islamic militant nexus the left parties refer to.
JMJB's activities started in certain upazilas (sub-districts) of Rajshahi, Naogaon and Natore after Left Wing extremists, popularly known as sarbahara (Left Wing cadres), killed four relatives and friends of Deputy Minister for Land, Ruhul Kuddus Talukder Dulu.
Way back on November 9, 2003, operatives with ties to the PBCP killed the ruling Bangladesh National Party's (BNP) Bagmara upazila president Abdul Hamid in Rajshahi city and also killed Sabbir Ahmed Gamma, nephew of Ruhul Kuddus, in Natore's Naldanga upazila in February 2004. Within a couple of weeks of Gamma's death, the Sarbahara's also killed Wahidul Haq Pakhi, an aide to Gamma, at Puthia in the Rajshahi district and then murdered Durgapur's Municipality Commissioner, Anwar Hossain, a political aide to parliamentarian Nadim Mostafa on March 7, 2004.
With the police unable to stop the extremists from targeting the politicians, the latter allegedly turned towards the JMJB to retaliate against the PBCP. In an apparent bid to occupy the space vacated by an ineffective police force, the JMJB attempted to establish a link with the slain relatives of the deputy minister by introducing itself as "Gamma Bahini" in some places and "Pakhi Bahini" in others; an obvious reference to the politicians who were killed by the extremists. However, in areas where they were eventually accepted, the JMJB leaders and activists did not attempt to hide their uniquely Islamist cause and variously claimed to be Al Qaeda, Taliban and Mujahidin members.
The JMJB's retaliation is primarily lead by Siddiqul Islam, also known as Bangla Bhai, who was earlier involved in the politics of the ruling alliance partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Bangla Bhai has personally led operations of the JMJB, killing three cadres of the PBCP at Atrai in the Naogaon district on May 6, 2004, and another three PBCP cadres at the Bamongram village in Nandigram Upazila of Bogra District on May 20. The PBCP has also reacted violently to the attack against its cadres, killing two JMJB cadres and injuring six others in Naogaon on May 17, 2004.
Astonishingly, instead of stopping this vigilanté action, the police appear to be supporting it. Noor Mohammad, Divisional Inspector General (DIG) of police, Rajshahi, reportedly stated that his men were assisting the vigilanté 'law enforcers' in tracking down the extremists. Armed with the assurances of the local police and politicians, Bangla Bhai and his supporters escalated their activities and spread into neighbouring districts, preparing hit-lists and moving brazenly to enforce their own 'laws'.
On May 22, 2004, several thousand JMJB activists armed with bamboo and hockey sticks staged a showdown under police escort in Rajshahi city, threatening journalists with death for reporting against them. The demonstration was held after a half-day hartal (strike) called by the main Opposition, the Awami League (AL) and the 11-party alliance demanding the arrest of Bangla Bhai. The first rally of the JMJB was addressed by Bagmara's BNP Joint Secretary, Besharat Ullah, indicating the degree of support that the vigilanté outfit enjoys within the ruling party.
Although the media portrayed him as the main leader of the vigilanté group, Bangla Bhai is one of the seven members of JMJB's highest decision-making body, the Majlis-e-Shura. His party has, however, designated him as the 'commander' of the anti-Sarbahara venture. The first tier of the organization has activists called Ehsar who are recruited on a full-time basis and act at the directive of higher echelons. The second tier, Gayeri Ehsar, has over 100,000 part-time activists. The third tier involves those who indirectly cooperate with the JMJB. According to JMJB officials, the whole country has been divided into nine organisational divisions. Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet and Chittagong have an organisational divisional office each, while Dhaka has two divisional offices and Rajshahi three.
Significantly, a closer look into the moorings of JMJB leaders reveal a more disturbing aspect: first, they are primarily Jama'atul Mujahidin cadres metamorphosed into this new identity; and second, they have apparent and openly proclaimed links to the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.
The 'Emir' of the group, Moulana Abdur Rahman began his political career by joining the Islami Chhatra Shibir and later its patron organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami. In the early 1980s, he studied at Madina Islami University in Saudi Arabia and later worked at the Saudi Embassy in Dhaka for five years between 1985 and 1990. Thereafter, Rahman set up a mosque and a madrassa with financial help from two Islamic non-governmental organisations, the Rabeta-e-Islam and the Islami Oytijjho Sangstha.
The Moulana has been quoted as stating that "our model includes many leaders and scholars of Islam. But we will take as much (ideology) from the Taliban as we need." The sweep of the organisation's strategy is revealed by the number of camps which have been established by it across the north-western districts of the country; at least 10 camps have been set up in Atrai and Raninagar in Naogaon district, Bagmara in Rajshahi district, and Naldanga and Singra in Natore district.
There have been reports that JMJB's training of recruits includes recorded speeches of Osama bin Laden and video footage of warfare training at Al Qaeda's (now defunct) Farooque camp in Afghanistan. The JMJB cadres have also been accused of extorting protection money from traders, forcing men to wear beards and women to put on the burkha (veil), reminiscent of the Taliban's practices.
With increasing reports of excesses committed by the JMJB cadres, the government, at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on law and order held at the Home Ministry on May 22, 2004, instructed the police to arrest Bangla Bhai. However, the local police denied that they had received any such orders. This apparent 'confusion' threw light on the sharp divide within the government over the handling of the situation. Some senior ministers and ruling BNP policymakers strongly favoured Bangla Bhai's arrest on the grounds that there cannot be a private force parallel to the state's law-enforcement agencies to carry out an 'anti-extremist' drive. By contrast, local politicians in the affected districts have publicly supported the actions of the JMJB, as they find that the latter has created an effective resistance against Left Wing extremists.
The emergence of the JMJB is not an overnight phenomena, but is the result of a systematic strategy, compounded by the steady erosion of governance in the North-Western districts, the emergence of a large number of radical madrassas and extremist Islamist leaders and the apparent collusion between local politicians and Islamist groups. Apart from the JMJB, reports emanating from different parts of the country portray a disturbing trend.
On May 21, 2004, a bomb blast at the Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in Sylhet killed two people and injured the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, who was the intended target. The bomb blast was the second in five months at the same site and the explosives used were similar to those used in the January 12, 2004, blast during the Urs, the annual religious congregation at the shrine. The prime suspect in the blast has been identified as Moulana M. Habibur Rahman, who runs the Jameya Madania Madrassa at Kazirpar in the Sylhet district, and is believed to have close ties with the Taliban. Al Qaeda links to Bangladeshi nationals have also cropped up in faraway Japan, where, on May 26, 2004, the Police arrested three Bangladeshis along with two other foreign nationals suspected of Al Qaeda activities.
The intricate patterns of collusion and dependency that are illustrated by the increasing activities of Islamist extremist groups like the JMJB in Bangladesh, with their systematic and rapid spread from one district to another, their assumption of the role of 'protector' in areas of widespread mis-governance, the explicit support of local politicians and police forces, as well as the linkages and claims of contact with the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine, are all matters of acute concern, and cannot easily be dismissed as just another 'local disturbance'.
Saji Cherian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal