June 19, 2021
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The Ostrich Syndrome

As the shadow of Islamic militancy lengthens, there are urgent questions for Bangladesh government to ponder: How can it act effectively against militants with two self-professed Islamic fundamentalist parties as its coalition partners? When its own

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The Ostrich Syndrome

The Bangladesh Government recently and sharply rejected a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report that had alleged that Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's Government was "not doing enough" to prevent the country from becoming a "haven for Islamic terrorists" in South Asia. The report, obtained by the Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says the Bangladesh Government was unwilling to crack down on Islamic terrorism. The CSIS report also suggested that there could be dangers to Canadian aid agencies in Bangladesh. A foreign office spokesman at Dhaka has dubbed the report 'a campaign to malign Bangladesh'.

Similar 'rejections' had also been articulated by the Bangladesh Foreign Office, and by powerful ministers of the alliance Government, when the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Time magazine, and subsequently other prominent foreign media, published reports about growing jehadi activities following the change of regime in Dhaka after the elections of 2001. While the ruling Alliance has consistently denied the presence of Islamic militants in the country, the nation's vibrant press, political Opposition and leaders of civil society have repeatedly projected a different picture.

While the Government's overall position remains broadly unchanged, there is now growing evidence of a less aggressive stance, as evidence mounts, with at least occasional disclosures of encounters and arrests of jehadis by the enforcement agencies leaving them no choice but to admit that a number of clandestine militant Islamic groups were, in fact, active across the country, and were receiving significant external support.

There are now increasing reports of the operation of several jehadi groups in the country, particularly in its northern and western regions, with coherent linkages and political networks, as well as access to arms and military training. Whatever their actual numbers or present capabilities, as well as the limited influence they have on the general population, these jehadis have started causing alarm in democratic circles, and unless they are effectively contained, may become a real and extraordinary danger in the imminent future. There are also frequent allegations in the media regarding the 'mysteriously soft' attitude of the Government towards these entities, as none of the arrested militants has, so far, received any punishment, nor has there been any meaningful investigation into their funding and support structures.

Police and intelligence agencies first suspected the involvement of these underground outfits in a series of bomb blasts at secular cultural functions and political meetings, which killed nearly a hundred people between 1997 and 2001. The fanatics also planted powerful bombs at one of then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's political meetings. At that time, Government agencies had unearthed some militant 'hideouts' and a few cadres with suspected 'foreign connections' were arrested. But the administrative measures were too small to contain the fast growing networks that have become entrenched over the past decades.

Understandably, with the change of regime in mid-2001, the genuine national concern was perhaps neglected since the new Government had been formed with the support of two of the country's organized fundamentalist parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ). The installation of the alliance Government gave a boost to the radical Islamists's morale, after they had virtually been on the run during the previous Awami League (AL) rule. With the change of guard, most of the arrested militants, including those charge-sheeted, were released on bail and eventually the charges against them were dropped. Within a year, however, the 'concern' had started resurfacing, with the media reporting frequent encounters between 'armed Islamic militants' and the police, as well as subsequent arrests, with interrogations throwing light on foreign linkages of the cadres and organizations.

Although these clandestine armed outfits first came to be focused on in the late Nineties, they have had their roots in the country since 1971, when Bengalis of the former East Pakistan were fighting their war of liberation against then-West Pakistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami, with its militant students' group, Islami Chhatra Sangha, had floated their first armed cadres, 'Al-Badar' and ' Al -Shams' to 'defend Islam' and Pakistan's unity while the Pakistan Central Government had formed the 'Razakar Bahini' to counter the Bengali freedom fighters. Two senior ministers of the present cabinet - Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mujahid - were directly involved in the floating of these infamous groups, which were responsible for killing of hundreds of secular Bengali intellectuals after branding them 'anti-Islamic'. These groups were the first militant religious organizations in this country, formed in close co-operation with the Pakistani Army.

Following the bloody political changeover in 1975, Bangladesh has passed through a prolonged military and pseudo-democratic era. The banned Jamaat-e-Islami and other 'anti-liberation' entities which took part in the 1971 genocide were once again given license to operate, thanks to the subsequently assassinated President General Zia-ur-Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). And in the name of Islamic charity and religious education, the jehadis started building up their initial bases with substantial funding reportedly from sources abroad. Over the years, thousands of madrassas (seminaries), known as 'Koumi Madrassas', entirely outside governmental control and nor accountable to anyone except their sponsors, were built. The main objective of the sponsors of a large proportion of these madrassas was allegedly to train and develop the 'soldiers of Allah': the jehadis.

Testimonies of arrested militants suggest that they are well funded and well equipped to carry out an 'Islamic revolution' in the country. They are staunch admirers of the Taliban, and many of their cadres reportedly fought in Afghanistan and also in Kashmir. Media reports suggest that a section of the Jamaat-e-Islami, IOJ and the Islami Shasantantra Andolon may be in league with some of these extremist groups, though these political fronts have all denied the charge. The Government has not banned any of the militant groups so far, with the exception of Al-Hikma.

Ironically, while the Government seems adamant about rejecting the 'charges' regarding religious militancy in the country, its Social Welfare Minister and Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General, Ali Ahsan Mujahid's remarks on December 19, 2003, deserve special scrutiny. "The base of the fundamentalists in Bangladesh," he declared at a party meeting in northern Nilphamari, "is so strong that all other powers are sure to be defeated here." He added further, "in a country where azans (calls to prayer) are offered from lakhs of mosques every day, there is no chance for the Awami League to return to power…."

Incidents in the early months of year 2003 suggested that, though the militant outfits may not be very large, their cadres had been completely indoctrinated by their mentors to launching campaigns of violence that members of the groups claimed were a 'holy war'. There are also reasons to believe that the activities of these extremist groups have a regional and global dimension, although there has been no serious investigation or probe into this aspect.

Bangladesh is an over-populated country with high levels of illiteracy and unemployment, and has been targeted by vested interests for a kind of political adventurism. Nevertheless, despite being deeply religious, the common people of the country have no special love for the jehadis, though a section of the extremely poverty stricken may be vulnerable to their blandishments if their activities and agenda are not effectively challenged. 

The militancy may also cash in on the discriminatory nature of the country's educational and economic systems. It is, consequently, necessary to make an objective assessment of the political, economic and cultural factors that enable and sustain the growth of these forces, and effective action must be taken to rid the nation of this menace. If the Government is not sympathetic and their funding and communication linkages are shut down, these groups would not be able to operate, and would certainly not be growing in strength.

Media investigations suggest that the Islamic militants in Bangladesh are presently split into more than a dozen groups, with each commanding a strength of a few hundred or thousand. The numbers alone do not give an adequate picture of the seriousness of the situation. 

On December 25, 2003, for instance, national newspapers reported that nine persons - including five members of the Ansar (the state 'Para Police') - had been arrested in connection with a bomb explosion inside an abandoned and dilapidated residential hotel on the western Khulna-Jessore Road. The arrested Ansar members were on duty at the hotel premises at the time of the explosion. The blast occurred when they were making bombs, and Police suspect that the four young men arrested belong to an extremist Islamic organisation, possibly the Al Muzahid party. The Police also recovered several books and booklets authored by fundamentalist leaders from the hotel rooms. A hand-written brochure titled Islamic Andolaner Note ('Points for the Islamic Movement') was also recovered. 

Police officer Shafiqul Islam of the Khalishpur thana (police station) disclosed, "One could make more than 100 bombs out of the quantities of bomb-making materials which were recovered by the police from the hotel rooms". The recovered materials included sulphur, potash, broken pieces of glasses, nails and rice husk. Police also recovered 12 live bombs.

While there is still not authoritative assessment of the strength and firepower of these groups, and weapons seizures have been negligible, while storming some 'training camps' in the jungles in southern Cox's Bazaar, security forces found advanced weapons, as also evidence of the involvement of the Rohingya Muslim rebels from Myanmar's Arakan province. Various investigations over the past few years, moreover, demonstrate that the bombs used by these extremists were highly sophisticated.

So far, security agencies have reportedly identified 48 'training centres' across the country. The names of an estimated 13 militant organisations are known, but only a few of them have created news. The known groups include Shahadat-e-al-Hikma, Jamaat-ul-Mujahid-ul-Bangladesh, Jaamat-e-Yahia Trust, Hizbut Tawhid, Al Harakat-ul-Islamia, Al Markaj-ul-Islami, Jamaatul Falaiya, Tawhidi Janata, World Islamic Front, Jumaat-as-Sadat, Shahadat-e-Nabuat, Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami and Al Khidmat.

To resolve the problem, secular thinkers suggest that the administration must first shed its 'ostrich syndrome', take serious note of such clandestine groups and work out strategies to neutralise them, since they reject both democracy and the idea of the sovereignty of the people. The so-called Islamists do not conceal their intention to set up a theocratic state, and hold the existing democracy responsible for 'anti-Islamisation'. Their ideological roots lie in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and several arrested militants have confessed that they received arms training in Pakistan, and fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Reports have it that Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has now asked the Home Ministry and concerned agencies to launch a 'massive manhunt' for these clandestine extremist groups. But how can the Government act effectively against these militants with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote, two self-professed Islamic fundamentalist parties, as its coalition partners? How can the Government contain such militancy when its own political strength is shared by the religious fundamentalists?

Haroon Habib is Senior journalist, commentator and author, Dhaka; former Chief Editor of Bangladesh Sangbad Sanstha (BSS), the country's premier news agency. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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