Monday, March 31, 2014

Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh: Latent Threat


In an attempt to re-assert itself in Bangladesh, extremists belonging to the banned Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) targeted a prison van and freed three of their comrades on February 23, 2014. The prison transport was taking them from Kashimpur Prison in Gazipur District to a court in the Trishal Sub-district area of Mymenshingh District. The driver of the van, Police Constable Atiqul Islam, was killed in the attack, while two other Policemen sustained injuries. The freed terrorists were identified as Jahidul Islam alias Boma Mizan, Salauddin Salehin alias Sunny and Hafez Mahmud alias Raqib Hasan alias Rasel. All three were members of the Majlish-e-Shura(highest decision making body) of JMB. Later, on February 24, 2014, Raqib was killed in crossfire between terrorists and the Police in the Mirzapur sub-District area of the neighbouring Tangail District.

While Raqib and Salauddin were on death row, Jahidul was serving a life sentence, each for his involvement in the August 17, 2005, countrywide explosions. 459 explosions had occurred in 63 of Bangladesh's 64 Districts (excluding Munshiganj) killing three and injuring more than 100 people. On the day of the prison van attack, the three were scheduled to appear before the court in connection with another bombing at a cinema hall in Mymenshingh on December 7, 2002, in which 18 people were killed and 300 were injured.

A massive manhunt is underway for their capture and authorities have declared a bounty of BDT 200,000 for each of them. A high alert has also been issued in prisons across Bangladesh, where convicted or under-trial Islamist radicals are lodged.

Tangail Police have claimed that the present JMB 'chief' Anwar Hossain Faruk led the operation and over BDT six million was spent for the mission. On September 15, 2012, in a report handed over to the Government by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), it was stated that Bangladesh faced a significant risk of money laundering and some risk of terrorism financing. The report, inter alia, also observed that some outfits, including JMB, were active in Bangladesh and JMB cadres had publicly claimed receiving funds from Saudi Arabia.

With the exception of this latest attack, the JMB has not carried out any significant operation in the recent past. However, in 2011, JMB had threatened to kill Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and to blow up the Chittagong District Central Jail and Court Building. A letter, claimed to have been signed by JMB terrorist, Abdul Mannan reached the Jailor, Rafiqul Quader, by post on January 5, 2011, threatening to bomb the Jail and Court building if detained JMB cadres and leaders were not released within a month. The attack never took place. The last major attack carried out by JMB was on November 14, 2005, when a JMB cadre belonging to the suicide squad exploded a bomb, killing two senior assistant judges, Shaheed Sohel Ahmed and Jagannath Pandey, and wounding three people in the District Headquarters of Jhalakathi District.

The long hiatus in activities was, most likely, primarily due to intensive security measures undertaken by the Security Forces (SFs). Most recently, on February 24, 2014, Police recovered one shotgun, one bullet and three shells from Tangail District after killing Raqib. Again, on March 14, 2014, 4.5 kilograms of explosives were recovered from a JMB hideout in Mymenshingh District, and two JMB terrorists were arrested. Earlier, on August 23, 2013, a cache of arms and ammunition, including a Submachine Gun (SMG), a Light Machine Gun (LMG), foreign made pistols, and 80 bullets, were recovered from three JMB terrorists in Thanthania of Bogra District. On, January 9, 2012, several publications of the banned organisation and some books giving instructions on how to make bombs and operate firearms like AK-47, were recovered from the Uttara area of Dhaka city, along with the arrest of JMB activist Emdadul Haque Uzzal.

According to partial data collected by Institute for Conflict Management, since 2005, a total of 521 JMB terrorists have been arrested from across Bangladesh in 260 incidents (data till March 28, 2014). Prominent among these were: former 'chief' Moulana Saidur Rahman; 'commander' of the Dhaka zone, Mohtasim Billah alias Bashir; former 'second-in-command' Mahtab Khamaru; Mohammad Asaduzzaman 'chief' of the Khulna divisional unit; Mohammad Wahab, 'head' of the Savar zone; former 'acting chief' Anwar Alam alias Nazmul alias Bhagne Shahid; Chittagong 'divisional commander’ Javed Iqbal; Mehedi Hasan alias Abeer, in charge of  the Khulna Division; Zahirul Islam alias Zahid alias Badal, in charge of the Dhaka Division (North); Dhaka ‘divisional commander’ Salahuddin alias Salehin; Sherpur ‘district commander’ Mujahidul Islam Sumon; and Emranul Haque alias Rajib 'chief' of the information technology (IT) wing.

These arrests, as well as intermittent recoveries, enormously weakened the outfit. Crucially, JMB lost its strength considerably in 2007. On March 30, 2007, six top JMB terrorists, including the outfit’s then 'chief' Abdur Rahman and ‘second-in-command’, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai’ were executed. The other terrorists hanged were Majlish-e-Shura members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun.

JMB was founded in 1998 by Shaikh Abdur Rahman, with the objective of establishing Islamic rule in Bangladesh and to replace the current state and constitution. It opposes the existing political system and seeks to "build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in Holy Quran-Hadith." It opposes democracy, socialism as well as cultural functions, cinema halls, shrines and NGOs. A report issued in November 2011 by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point notes: “JMB's actual cadre strength is unknown. Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies identified 8,096 JMB members, of which 2,000 were allegedly part of the group's ‘suicide squad’...”

Current reports suggest that JMB still has around 1,000 active workers, mostly in the Ahl-e-Hadis belt of northern Bangladesh. Its current strategy is to re-build the outfit into a Taliban-like organisation to establish a Shariah based state.

Intelligence sources indicate that the Bangladesh Government had succeeded in arresting and trying a significant number of terrorists over the last seven years. According to media report, between 2007 and 2014, 478 JMB operatives were tried in 177 cases; of these, 51 top leaders of the outfit were sentenced to death, but are also facing trials in several other cases and accordingly, their execution may take years. Meanwhile, many of the arrested terrorists have slipped through legal loopholes and regrouped to strengthen the terrorist formation. Moreover, another approximately 270 cadres, wanted in different cases are still at large, raising a significant threat of terror attacks.

The enormity and protraction of ongoing cases and the lack of a fast-track trial process creates ample opportunities for the outfit to attempt future 'hijack' incidents to rescue their convicted operatives. Unsurprisingly, on February 24, 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed asked the Law Ministry to take effective measures to ensure speedy disposal of cases relating to terrorism.

Crucially, since the establishment of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) on March 15, 2010, the country has been engrossed with the War Crimes Trials, even as the administration is preoccupied with protest rallies and general shutdowns orchestrated by Islamist extremists led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its students' wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) in collusion with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The rising graph of fatalities in attacks carried out by these extremists since the establishment of the ICT has become a matter of immediate concern. At least 435 people - 255 civilians, 27 SF personnel and 153 terrorists - have been killed in such violence between March 15, 2010 and March 30, 2014. This has resulted in a measure of neglect as far as other terrorist formations in the country are concerned, primarily including JMB, which also has proven links with the JeI. In July 2010, detained then 'chief' of JMB, Saidur Rahman had disclosed the JMB link with JeI.

Inspector General of Police Hassan Mahmood Khandker, on February 23, 2014, admitted that “terrorists are still active in the country,” but asserted further that “the situation is under our control now.” With desperate efforts at revival, however, the surviving extremist organisations in the country continue to pose a tangible threat to the fragile sense of control that has been established in Bangladesh, and the danger of a rash of terrorist incidents is never entirely excluded. The freeing of leadership elements of the JMB in the February 23 incidents underlines, and can only compound, this latent risk.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings
Volume 12, No. 39, March 31, 2014

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Friday, February 14, 2014

Are Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh Religiously Motivated?

The first month of 2014 was a tough one for Hindus in Bangladesh. Violence raged in over two dozen separate Hindu villages across the country, ending in the murder of two men, the rape of at least five women, and the destruction of many homes, temples and businesses. Typically, the attacks involve assailants from outside the villages. They continue a pattern that injured 188 Hindus in 2013.

In this South Asian nation of 153 million, Hindus make up a scant 8.5% of the population. As a minority, they are often singled out for abuse. “It has almost become a norm to attack the Hindus in Bangladesh after the general elections every five years,” Adhir Pal, an elderly Hindu, told national media outlet When I visited his village, Malopara, this January, every neighbor I interviewed seemed to think that violent intrusions are a frequent experienced for Hindus in Bangladesh.

It’s easy to conclude that the repeated attacks on Hindus are coming from Muslims, since this group constitutes 89% of all Bangladeshis. But does the religious definition of these groups mean the attacks are motivated by religious differences, or could they be the result of one or more other factors?

As Adhir Pal points out, some violence is linked to national politics. Residents say the attacks in Malopara in January came from local people aligned with Bangladesh’s opposition parties, which includes the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamic fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami. The attackers, some of whom carried guns, told villagers not to vote for the incumbent Awami League. The Hindu community said their aggressors had correctly identified their allegiance to the ruling party, but since they regard attacks as nearly inevitable, residents say they voted for Awami League anyway. (The party won the January 5 election while the opposition boycotted it and lost parliamentary seats.)

As a slim minority of Bangladesh’s voters, of course, Hindus could not elect any party alone. But while the conflation of politics and religion accounts for some attacks, it doesn’t explain others.

Reports of some altercations describe long-simmering personal resentments coming to a head at minor conflicts over sports matches, wedding plans and the like. But in most attacks, causes are impersonal. In Dinajpur, a district near Bangladesh’s northern border, residents said their attackers were landless peasants who had migrated from India years before and that the attacks were an attempt to scare them into fleeing, leaving their farmland up for grabs. In a country where climate change looms, conflicts over land are not capricious or surprising.

The pressure to grab arable land recalls the preludes to Rwandan genocide of 1994, which was motivated in part by overpopulation. The two conflicts share many underlying factors, most of which are traceable to power shifts after colonialism’s end. What they don’t share, however, is a religious basis. (In Rwanda, the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority, and the Christianity common to both groups wasn’t the issue.)

With all that said, religious differences probably did influence some of the two dozen Bangladeshi villages that saw violence last month. In some localities, Hindu temples and their idols became the focal point of vandalism. The group most commonly fingered as perpetrators for attacks was Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islamist group has been increasingly pushed to the outskirts of Bangladeshi electoral politics, but remains popular—and angry—nationwide.

Ultimately, the multiple causes of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh point to the complexity of identifying religious motivations for conflict. But they also suggest that conflicts that appear religious may be solved through multiple means—which means the irreducible philosophical differences between faiths need not be a block to peace.

In January, over three dozen organizations held rallies demanding justice and protection for Hindus. Eventually, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and even the opposition party leaders joined in. Although the attacks have not yet fully abated, the majority of the country seems to want peace.

First published in the Religion Dispatches, University of South California, USA, February 13, 2014

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of her writing at

Friday, February 07, 2014

Crime and politics in Bangladesh: Bang bang club

More trials for Bangladesh’s deflated opposition

TEN years after they arrived, the weapons have found their victims. In April 2004 police in Chittagong, the main port city of Bangladesh, intercepted a shipment of rifles, submachine guns with silencers, 25,000 hand grenades and more, worth some $5m. Made in China, the arms may have been shipped with help from Pakistani spies set on causing trouble for India. The weapons were intended for rebels in Assam state in India’s north-east, where insurgencies rumble on.

For years in Bangladesh the legal case went nowhere. Those involved in the arms shipment were ignored. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), under Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, showed no interest in prosecutions. Only after the Awami League, the current government, took office in 2009 did prosecutors begin to consider the crime seriously. On January 30th a trial court sentenced 14 men—most of them from or affiliated to opposition parties—to death on smuggling charges related to the arms haul.

Assuming the sentences are upheld by the higher courts, they carry great political as well as legal weight. By implication, they embroil Mrs Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman. He is judged by many to be the BNP’s next leader—though he is living in London while corruption cases pile up against him at home. Among those sentenced to hang is Lutfuzzaman Babar, a long-time flunky of Mr Rahman’s. This week the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, vowed that her government would work to prove that, in the light of Mr Rahman’s influence at the time, he knew all about the weapons.

Others sentenced to death include a former head of Bangladesh’s military intelligence, another high-ranking Bangladeshi spy, plus (in absentia) a leader of an Assamese insurgent group who is on India’s most-wanted list. Of major political significance, the court also found guilty Motiur Rahman Nizami, who leads Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and a close ally of the BNP. He has already been indicted by a separate court, looking at war crimes committed in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. He faces the prospect of being sentenced to death twice over.

Jamaat has promised protests against the smuggling verdicts. Though the party has a reputation for street violence, its capacity to create trouble seems diminished in recent months. Many Jamaat activists have either been arrested or shot dead. The BNP also looks utterly broken, unable to persuade followers to return to disruptive street protests against Sheikh Hasina, whether over court cases or elections.

By contrast, the prime minister looks increasingly content. Her Awami League won a general election on January 5th that was boycotted by the BNP and Jamaat. Aid donors and other observers who worried about the poll’s credibility now seem to be coming to terms with five more years of Sheikh Hasina. The official aid agencies of Britain and America have funded an opinion survey suggesting that the Awami League would have won the election even without the boycott. That is a handy fillip for the government.

India, Bangladesh’s giant neighbour, will be pleased with things, too. It is especially close to Sheikh Hasina and the avowedly secular Awami League, and it endorsed the January election. Those who set foreign policy in Delhi are anxious to prevent Bangladesh becoming, as it was before, a haven for insurgent groups that operate in India. They want Bangladesh to resist the sort of Islamist extremism prevalent in Pakistan. And they want it to help limit the flow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants flooding into India for work.

Sheikh Hasina shares India’s aims, while doing everything to flatten the opposition at home. It bodes ill for democratic government. But the state of the opposition—pinned down in court, on the streets and in parliament—suggests a modicum of outward calm may prevail for a while.

First published in the Economist, February 8th 2014

Monday, February 03, 2014

Pakistan, time to face the truth about Bangladesh


There was some buzz again last week that Dr Manmohan Singh was contemplating a visit to Pakistan next month, before he hangs his boots. It is one of those rumours which in the past nine years has been neither denied by the foreign office nor confirmed. And the ‘news’ gained ground when a visiting bunch of Pakistani journalists reported that all that was left was a fixing of dates. Meanwhile it appears that the Prime Minister might instead be traveling to Myanmar to attend the summit of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The interesting grouping consists of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Look East Sir, look East.

Pakistan is too occupied with ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban — which it calls a stake holder in its domestic political process — to bother with the Indian Prime Minister. Try figuring this out: the Taliban has asked Imran Khan to negotiate on its behalf in the peace talks with the government!

Last week, that Pakistani ‘social worker of repute’ Hafiz Saeed, no wait, ‘Professor’ Hafiz Saeed said in a rally that India was exerting pressure on the Bangladeshi government to hang Jamaat leaders. He was referring to the death sentence handed down by a Chittagong court to 14 men, including Bangladesh Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, in the sensational 10 truck arms smuggling case of 2004. ULFA chief Paresh Barua was also given the death penalty in absentia.

In April 2004, Bangladesh police had seized 4,930 types of sophisticated firearms, 27,020 grenades, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 2,000 grenade launchers, 6,392 magazines and 1,140,520 bullets when they were being loaded on to 10 trucks headed to North East India. Barua, then in Bangladesh, worked closely with the ISI and the BNP, especially Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rehman. Both Barua and Tarique fled Bangladesh when the Awami League government came to power.

The ISI has always maintained its links with the Jamaat in Bangladesh, either through Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence during BNP rule or lately through various non-state actors. Three Myanmar born Pakistani Taliban operatives were caught in Dhaka last month on a ‘jihad mission’.

Not just the ISI, Pakistan’s politicians too are vocal in their support for trans-national jihadi terrorists. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhary Nisar described the capital punishment to Bangladesh’s war criminal Abdul Qadir Mollah as ‘judicial murder’. Mollah, known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, and his Al Badr cohorts smashed to death a two year old on the floor, slit the throats of his pregnant mother and two sisters, and raped his two other sisters, one of whom died from her wounds. The one who survived testified against Mollah. 43 years later, Mollah was convicted and hanged for killing 344 civilians in 1971. A few days later, Pakistani politician Javed Hashmi (PTI) called Mollah as Shaheed-e-Pakistan. These are the kind of men that Pakistan’s leaders call heroes.

More than four decades after losing half of its country, Pakistan has still not come to terms with the fact that Bangladesh is systematically going ahead with bringing to trial the war crimes accused of 1971. And during that process, historical facts are coming to the fore once again. Pakistanis have been fed on a diet of lies about their history and their leaders are quite content to perpetuate that state of ignorance.

The denial runs deeper as evidenced from a report in Pakistani newspaper, The Nation (Jan 24, 2014) which denounces a Bollywood film to be released this month as an Indian conspiracy to defame Pakistan rather than an artistic interpretation by a private Indian film producer. The article says, “Based on anti-Pakistan propaganda, ‘The Bastard Child’, (now renamed ‘Children of War’) a Hindi language movie, has recently been released in India to tarnish the image of Pakistan and its armed forces around the world.”

“The movie, which has been made on the subject of 1970-1971 events in East Pakistan, depicts Pakistan Army in East Pakistan as an occupation army. It screens alleged atrocities committed by Pakistan Army personnel in East Pakistan, which ignited flames for its separation… Notwithstanding, peace endeavours initiated by government of Pakistan, India does not spare any opportunity to prick Pakistan. It quotes “sources” saying “This propaganda movie is an attempt to bring bad name to Pakistan.” If the YouTube trailers of the film provoked this extreme reaction, it is quite clear that the film will be banned in Pakistan, depriving yet another generation from knowing the truth about 1971.

First published in Mid-Day, India, January 3, 2014
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bangladesh's Non-Election


In early December, after weeks of strikes and road blocks called by the political opposition, the dairy farmers of the Rangpur district, in northern Bangladesh, started protesting the disruption to their business by pouring milk onto highways. For many weeks, they hadn’t been able to get their milk to the processing and packaging plants in the capital; instead, they had to sell it to local confectioners and small restaurants. Supply far outstripped demand.

Across the country, an average of half a million liters of milk was dumped every day that the opposition called a general strike or a blockade. After many such protests since late October, the dairy industry was on its knees. Many small farmers, like those in Rangpur, had borrowed money to buy their livestock and could no longer afford to feed their cows; they started selling the animals and looking for other ways to make a living.

Supermarket shelves in Dhaka grew more sparse. They carried little fresh milk, and no butter, except for shockingly expensive brands imported from India and Australia.

The crisis erupted after the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, objected to holding a national election unless the government first handed over power to a neutral caretaker body; it feared rigging otherwise. When the ruling Awami League refused, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia called a series of crippling protests.

B.N.P. supporters and Jamaat-e-Islami unleashed their anger on anyone who defied the strikes, destroying roads, damaging rail lines, torching buses — and killing about 200 people since late October, according to the British newspaper The Independent.

The milk farmers’ plight was just one example of the colossal waste caused by the chaos surrounding the election. Supply roads to the capital were obstructed, and across the country, milk soured on roads and vegetables rotted in fields. The garment industry, a major engine of the economy, was in jeopardy because of delayed deliveries to international buyers. Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters early this month that up to $1 billion in orders were at risk in the weeks ahead if stability did not return.

But as political negotiations foundered, the opposition decided to boycott the election. So when the vote took place on Jan. 5, like many of my fellow citizens, I didn’t bother to cast a ballot. The sole candidate in my constituency — an ally of the Awami League — was running uncontested. Some 152 other members of Parliament from the Awami League and affiliated parties also ran against no competition, and the 147 remaining Awami League contestants faced off against weak independent candidates. (In the end, the Awami League won 232 out of 300 seats.) Bangladesh is now in the unprecedented situation of having a Parliament with no real opposition.

How much staying power can such a government have? Enough to serve the whole term, it turns out, no matter how dysfunctional the situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has had the good sense of forming a new cabinet that is relatively fresh and untainted, leaving behind many ministers suspected of corruption. And while the Awami League has taken a hit in terms of popularity for staging an election with no serious contender, the B.N.P. seems to have come out of the experience even more discredited.

Many people have been put off by its hard-line stance and violent tactics. The B.N.P. has refused to sever its links to the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, even though that group was widely believed to be behind much of the street violence. On polling day and in subsequent weeks, Hindu minorities were targeted by Jamaat-e-Islami members simply for having gone out to vote. Especially in northern districts, where religious minorities are concentrated, Hindu families have been attacked, their homes torched and their businesses destroyed. According to one count, up to 700 people may have been affected. These attacks have been widely condemned, and not just by Hindus, with protests taking place throughout the country.

Most important, economic considerations will prevail over concerns about political representation, and this will favor the new status quo. The cost of more upheaval would be too high, and the prevailing mood now is for restoring economic stability. Businesses cannot afford another disruptive year. The Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent think tank, estimates the total economic loss at more than $6.3 billion. The transport sector has borne the brunt of the losses, followed by the agricultural sector and the clothing and textile industries.

Previous elections in Bangladesh were celebrated with great fanfare: Voters would display their inky thumbs with pride. Not this time. Still, after the near-standstill of this fall, a semblance of normality has returned. There has been no major public outcry yet over this lopsided election. Children are going back to school. The roads in the capital are reassuringly clogged with traffic again. Butter has returned to the supermarket shelves. The fundamental political issues remain, but for now, an uneasy peace holds.

First published in The New York Times, January 29, 2014

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”