On January 28, 2007, authorities fixed February 17 as the date for the execution of six of the seven militants of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), including its chief, Abdur Rahman, its ‘operations commander’ Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, who is also the chief of the Jagrata Janata Muslim Bangladesh (JMJB), Majlish-e-Shura (the highest decision-making body) members, Ataur Rahman Sunny, Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and suicide squad member Iftekhar al Mamun. Another convict, Asadul Islam alias Arif, is absconding. All of them have been sentenced to death for their involvement in the Jhalakathi bomb attack that killed two judges in November 2005. There is, however, little chance of the sentence being carried out on the appointed day as all the convicts have filed mercy petitions with the President. Authorities have indicated that, in case the President rejects the petitions, the militants will be hanged in March. President Iajuddin Ahmed, temporarily presiding over the fate of a politically polarised nation that faces an uncertain poll in a few months, is not expected to take a decision on the petitions any time soon.
Previously, on January 27, all the convicted JMB leaders and cadres, barring Bangla Bhai had submitted their mercy petitions to the jail authorities. Bangla Bhai, who has been kept in Kashimpur Jail, submitted his mercy petition a day later on January 28. Interestingly, some of the letters to the President from the JMB militants, which have been described as ‘mercy petitions’, were nothing but reassertions and justifications of the past criminal actions of the group. After submitting a three- page letter which the jail authorities described as a compilation of quotations from Quran and the Hadith and an invitation to the President to "join the path of Islam", for instance, Rahman reportedly announced that "in Islamic law, the President does not have the jurisdiction to show mercy", so "he (Rahman) does not want the President's mercy". Similarly, Bangla Bhai’s three-and-a-half page ‘mercy petition’ defended his activities by referring to different verses of the Quran and Hadith. The official explanation for considering such an assertion as a ‘mercy petition’, consequently, defied logic. A jail official said, "Whether he (Bangla Bhai) appeals for mercy or not, whatever he has written in the letter would be considered as his mercy petition and we will send it to the President through the Home Ministry." Both Rahman and Bangla Bhai had earlier made similar claims in their letters to the Supreme Court justifying the killing of people in order to establish Islamic rule. They even went to the extent of asserting that all judges, who held trials under Taguti (non-Islamic) laws, neglecting Shariah, deserve death. At that stage also, the Supreme Court had accepted their letters as appeals and had stayed the execution of the death sentence before, confirming it thereafter, on November 28, 2006.
Despite the appeals pending before the President, however, it would seem that these radical groups are nearing the end of the road. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the fate of the JMB militants in coming months, as has repeatedly been emphasized before, the execution of the death sentences on the JMB militants is not likely to bring about a dramatic change in the course of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh.
The arrests of the top JMB leadership had been expected to bring out the group’s entire dynamics into public knowledge, but these expectations have been belied. Much current information about the outfit, which, before the August 17, 2005 country-wide bombings, functioned in relative anonymity, however, remains largely speculative, with little hard evidence or information available to the public. It is not clear whether the absence of hard information in the public sphere is part of a collusive arrangement, but the JMB’s complex and widely hypothesized linkages with the state establishment remain entirely hidden away.
Open source information indicates that 57 JMB cadres were arrested between April 26, 2006—the day last
Majlish-e-Shura member of the group, Khaled Saifullah was arrested from a rented house in Dhaka city’s Paradagair locality—and January 31, 2007. These arrests took place across 11
districts: Narayanganj, Rangpur, Tangail, Gazipur, Chittagong, Kishoreganj,
Chapainawabganj, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Bogra and Sherpur. All but three of the arrested were lower-rung cadres of the outfit. Three middle level operatives of the JMB who were arrested during this period were:
Belal Hejati, a top aide to Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, who was arrested in Bagmara in the Rajshahi district on July 23, 2006.
Abdul Khalek, a close aide of Bangla Bhai and brother of Abdus Sattar, JMJB’s second-in-command for the Baghmara sub-district, who was arrested at Biprokaya village in the Rajshahi district on August 30, 2006.
Jahangir Alam alias Mokhlesur Rahman alias Adnan Sami alias Ammar, the ‘Bogra zone commander’ of the JMB, who was arrested from the Charmatha area of Bogra
district on May 2, 2006.
The political leadership in Bangladesh has repeatedly claimed to have ‘broken the back’ of Islamist militancy through the high-profile arrests. The neutralisation effort appeared also to have consisted of occasional raids on ‘militant dens’ leading to the recovery of explosives and ‘bomb-making material’, though only four such raids were reported between April 26, 2006, and January 31, 2007. Two of these raids were conducted in the Savar Police Station area of Dhaka district and the Badda locality of Dhaka city. Moreover, whereas intelligence reports indicated that following the arrests of the top leadership, the JMB cadres were trying to regroup in the north and north-eastern regions of the country, most recent arrests and raids have taken place largely in a few of the north and north-western districts. JMB’s extensive network during the August 2005 country-wide attacks was known to have consisted of hundred thousands of cadres and sympathizers and a group of ‘2000 suicide bombers’. A few arrests and raids are not expected to significantly dent the outfit’s strike capability. Further, there are even lesser indications that the official drives against the group have had any impact on its lifeline—its financial networks and international linkages, especially those with the Islamist charities based abroad.
There is also much to suggest that the authorities were largely playing to the galleries by their drive against militancy, as was evident in episodes such as the August 2, 2006 incident: a few weeks before Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led alliance went through the mandatory process of passing on its powers to a caretaker government, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel claimed to have swooped on a forest area adjoining a madrassa (seminary) near Jibontola village in Mymensingh’s Bhaluka sub-district and arrested 26 JMB militants, including an Afghan war veteran and two suicide bombers. The militants, aged between 16 and 20, were said to have been undergoing training in the militant den. Bomb-making materials and training equipment were reportedly recovered. However, on August 3, police produced the militants in a court and asked for a remand of only seven of those arrested, claiming that no specific charges existed against the rest.
It is, of course, the case that the period after the arrest of the JMB leaders has been marked by an absence of any significant militant activity in Bangladesh, other than a few incidents when JMB militants issued threats. These included a June 21, 2006, bomb threat to Sonali, Agrani and Grameen Banks in the Gaibandha district and the November 8, 2006, death threat to the Mymensingh municipality chairman. The complete absence of a terrorist attack subsequent to the arrests of the JMB top brass is, however, grounds for no more than limited comfort. The silent growth of the outfit had caught the country unawares before it revealed its capabilities in August 2005, and further, in November-December 2005, and there is reason to believe that such a process of consolidation is ongoing even now. It is useful to recall that there was a gap of just six months between the government’s authoritative denials of the group’s existence (in February 2005) and the outfit’s demonstration of strength in August 2005.
While the judiciary in Bangladesh is seen to have acted fairly independently and swiftly on the fate of the JMB top brass, a large number of the arrested lower-rung cadres have either been released on bail or have been able to secure freedom by taking advantage of the extremely vague or soft charges that have been brought against them. The cases in which JMB cadres have been released include:
January 12, 2007: A court in Satkhira granted bail to a suspected JMB cadre.
December 20, 2006: The Barisal Divisional Speedy Trial Tribunal acquitted all nine accused JMB cadres in one of the 12 cases lodged in connection with the series bomb blasts at 18 places of Barisal city on August 17, 2005.
December 13, 2005: JMB military trainer Mohinuddin was released after a ruling alliance leader forced the Barisal district police and administration to release him. The Police hurriedly submitted the charge sheet in the case to the Court on December 12, 2006, stating that no proof in support of the allegations against Mohiuddin was found.
May 2, 2005: Four JMB militants were granted bail by a court in Natore. While three of them jumped bail and went into hiding, one of them subsequently surrendered on March 6, 2006.
The ‘neutralization’ of the JMB’s top leadership was achieved by a regime that had been the most potent force behind its growth, and this was done under tremendous pressure from international actors as well as the domestic public, to set things right before the general elections. What is missed out in this is that the arrests of the visible leadership have only reinforced the anonymity of the shadowy group of controllers who supported the group behind the scenes. Today, the outfit’s cadres and the middle level leadership are scattered all over the country, giving the group a dispersed and amorphous form—much like that of the al Qaeda—and it is a question of time before the middle-level leadership finds its feet, and initiates moves, once again, to realize the JMB’s grandiose plans for a radicalized Islamist Bangladesh.
Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.