On March 2, 2006, the 50 year old ‘supreme commander’ of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Abdur Rahman, surrendered after a 34-hour siege on his East Shaplabagh hideout in Sylhet City, 200 kilometres northeast of capital Dhaka. Arrested along with Rahman were his wife, sons, daughters, grandson, domestic helps and some associates.
Four days later, on March 6, the JMB number two and ‘commander’ of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, hiding in a tin-shed in the remote Rampur Village under the Muktagachha Sub-district of Mymensingh, 120 kilometres north of Dhaka, was wounded and captured, after skirmishes with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
"Bangladesh is a terrorism-free nation", declared an ecstatic Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, in a televised address to the nation, after the March 2 arrest of the JMB chief. Speaking again on March 7, after Bangla Bhai’s arrest, she added, albeit with greater moderation, that the government would ‘succeed in destroying the terrorist networks and arresting the remaining terrorists’.
There are obvious reasons to celebrate the ‘capture’ of the two most-wanted militants, silencing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP), and Begum Zia’s personal, bete noire, the Sheikh Hasina Wajed-led Awami League, which will, for the time being, sound much less convincing in its claims of governmental collusion with the Islamist terrorists. The arrests would also, at least temporarily, discomfit the many critics of the BNP-Islamist coalition in India, who have long attacked Begum Zia’s government on the same grounds.
The test of good faith would, however, come in the follow up to the arrests, and the willingness of the government to act on the information recovered from the arrested militants. That would not only mean, as indicated by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, targeting the international networks of the militancy, but also tracking and breaking such ties, wherever they exist, domestically.
Going by the established linkages of the JMB and the JMJB with entities like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), BNP’s coalition partner, the Islami Chattra Shibir (ICS) JeI’s student wing, and some of the ministers within the BNP, as well as police officials and bureaucrats, effective anti-terrorist action would essentially demand steps against the government’s own men, partners and loyalists.
In the past, and despite hard evidences, the government has demonstrated little will for such initiatives, and there is persisting skepticism that anti-militancy operations would stop short of the necessary measures this time as well. Indeed, the arrests of the two top JMB-JMJB leaders have confirmed their linkages with the JeI. Two of the four bank cheque books found in Abdur Rahman’s Sylhet hideout belonged to the former JeI ameer (chief) of the Habiganj district, Saidur Rahman. Saidur’s son Shamim, a former ICS activist, has already been arrested for his involvement in the August 17, 2005, explosions. It remains to be seen, moreover, where these arrests lead even against Siddiqul Islam and Abdur Rahman.
In Pakistan, several prominent terrorist leaders – their organizations ostensibly ‘banned’ by the government – have been arrested in the past, only to be hosted in some comfort for a few months, before they are once again released. The ‘Pakistan model’ is one that Bangladesh has been assiduously emulating over the past years, and only harsh action against the arrested militants is going to convince the government’s critics that it actually means business.
It is significant that the District Courts in Barisal and Sylhet have already pronounced sentences of death and forty years of imprisonment against both Rahman and Siddiqul Islam; visible, determined and rapid movement towards execution of these sentences would certainly have evidentiary value within this context.
Nevertheless, the capture of the country’s two top terrorists constitutes a definite setback for the twin outfits, the JMB and the JMJB, which have engineered several terrorist strikes over the past years, including the country-wide blasts on August 17, 2005. These arrests, however, do not necessarily auger the immediate collapse and death of these groups, although five of the seven members of the Majlis-e-Shura (the highest decision-making body) of the JMB are now behind bars. These include Ataur Rahman Sunny (arrested on December 14, 2005), Abdul Awal (arrested on November 18, 2005) and Rakib Hasan Russel alias Hafez Mohammad (arrested on February 28, 2006). The remaining members of the Shura, Salahuddin alias Salehin (‘commander’ of the Sylhet-Mymensingh region) and Faruq Hossain alias Khaled Saifullah (‘commander’ of the Rangpur-Dinajpur region), remain at large. Salahuddin, considered to be an expert in bomb-making, masterminded the Netrokona suicide attack on December 8, 2005, with the help of his associate Mujahiddul Islam Sumon, who was later arrested in Mymansingh. Faruq Hossain coordinated the suicide attacks targeting judges in Chandpur, Laxmipur and Chittagong.
Also elusive is Nabil Bin Rahman, the 16 year old son of the arrested JMB chief. Nabil is considered to be a specialist in assembling explosives and is also, according to Abdur Rahman’s admissions in possession of a large cache of explosives. Police are also reportedly looking for about 40 bomb-making experts of the terrorist combine, who played a crucial part in the August 17 bomb blasts. In addition, there are an unspecified number of suicide bombers, about 10,000 ‘full time workers’ and 100,000 ‘part time workers’ of the outfit in various districts of the country, with Jamalpur, Bogra and Natore its strongholds.
In areas such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, Cox’s Bazaar, Gazipur, Jhalakathi, Barisal, Patuakhali and Chandpur, the JMB-JMJB has a well-established network. The group also has a strong presence among the Rohingya dominated southern parts of the country. In addition, there are numerous faceless foreign collaborators and sponsors, whose generous contributions have made the group what it is today. In fact, Shura member Abdul Awal had confessed in February 2006 that a Muslim militant leader in the United Kingdom, had given them £10,000 to carry out the bomb attacks. For a government that is known for its more-than-wavering approach towards the growth of radical Islamism in the country, bringing Islamist militancy and its elaborate network to account, would be an enormous task.
An indication of this magnitude is visible in the ‘progress’ claimed by the government in bringing the militants responsible for the 459 explosions of August 17, 2005, to justice. Till date, just 225 cases have been filed in various Districts of the country and 122 charge sheets have been produced before the Courts; 93 cases are under investigation and the trial of some 61 cases has begun. In most of the charge-sheeted cases, the terrorists, including their top leaders, have been booked under the Explosive Substances Act.
Evidence of foot-dragging is also visible in tracking the financial trail of the JMB-JMJB. Police have identified suspect accounts of the JMB in three bank branches in Sylhet, Brahmanbaria and Pallabi in Dhaka, but have only led to the recovery of a few thousand taka in deposits, with total transactions amounting to just Taka 1,100,000 lakh (US $16,138) – a pittance in view of the fact that the outfit is known to have been spending up to Taka 700,000 (US $10,269) per month on its activities.
Targeting the financial network of the terrorists is further handicapped by the fact that the Anti-Money Laundering Act, 2001, is still being amended with assistance from the United States, and does not currently support any inter-agency collaboration. Speaking on March 8, 2006, Bangladesh Bank Governor, Salehuddin Ahmed, stated that the "mere detection and seizure of accounts of alleged terrorists would not be enough to stop the terrorist financing and activities". His confessed helplessness in the matter, stating, further, "Some of the banks do not tell us about the suspicious transactions despite repeated requests."
There has been a continuous and great reluctance in Bangladesh to fight Islamist terrorism, and it was official patronage that encouraged and sustained the growth of extremist groups, allowing a lowly Bengali teacher like Siddiqul Islam to acquire near-heroic proportions as ‘Bangla Bhai’, and the former ICS activist Abdur Rahman to float and nourish the JMB. It remains to be seen whether Dhaka has the will and the capacity to cut the umbilical cord that has linked elements within the ruling coalition to the terrorists, even at the risk of placing the survival of the government, and the possibilities of re-election, in jeopardy.
Bangladesh, moreover, cannot become a "terrorism-free nation" as long as it continues to host and support virtually every active Northeast Indian terrorist group on its soil, and as long as it continues to export Islamist terrorists into India – with the latter trend increasingly in evidence over the past months.
Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.