Friday, December 30, 2005

Bangladesh haven for Islamic terror network

By Chris Blackburn*

In the present debate over terrorism threats, Bangladesh is generally not the first country that comes to mind as a hotspot of al-Qaeda activity. But perhaps it should. The second largest Muslim democracy, Bangladesh is today the site of al-Qaeda-run training camps financed by Middle Eastern charities and organisations, including backing from rogue elements within the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Just as important, it is a laboratory for the disastrous consequences of Islamist participation in the democratic process.

Bangladesh’s geography makes it an optimal location for a terrorist network. Smaller than the state of Iowa, Bangladesh is also perfectly designed for guerrilla warfare, a stark contrast to al-Qaeda’s former safe haven in Afghanistan. Dense jungle and highly populated urban areas give Islamist terrorists and their supports excellent protective cover to conduct their trade, allowing them to hide their training and operations from sophisticated surveillance while shielding them from the threat of capture. Operating in this labyrinthine environment, terrorist trainees have developed elaborate escape and evasion plans.

Natural protections afforded by Bangladesh have made the country a popular destination for radicals Islamist of different stripes. Indian intelligence and government officials have publicly stated that 172 Islamist militant camps are currently operating in Bangladesh. Camps situated in the country are believed to house activists from Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombings and other atrocities. Pakistani groups such as Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed, both with links to al-Qaeda, are also believed to be operating in the country. The recent suicide bombings in Delhi and Hyderabad (India) were both believed to have had connections to Bangladesh and the ISI supported networks; recent arrests have shown this to be the case.

As a result, India has recently increased its troop deployment on the border with Bangladesh by 100 percent. Calls for action in the Indian media are growing louder. This could help to create another tense standoff between India and Pakistan, and the added threat of a nuclear confrontation looks like it could develop over the horizon. Previously, analysts in the region thought that Kashmir would be the main flashpoint for any further escalation in tension between the two nuclear neighbours. Now Bangladesh seems like the most likely candidate for the dubious distinction.

Fears of terrorism are particularly acute in Bangladesh. Recently, the country celebrated its 34th independence day. Casting a dark shadow over the celebrations, however, is the fact that the nation is in a grip of panic, and many fear anarchy will prevail.

Their concerns are well founded. Suicide bombers have taken to targeting law courts and government buildings. This new tactic of suicide bombing follows on the heels of reports that Bangladeshi police suspected some 2000 suicide bombers were ready to go operational. In August, 500 bombs were exploded simultaneously throughout the country in what was seen as a trial run for the terrorists.

The latest attacks show a devastating capability for murder and a heretofore-unseen sophistication. The opposition Awami League politicians have been targeted for assassination. Shah AMS Kibria, a senior Awami League politician and former under Secretary-General of the United Nations, was murdered by a grenade blast in one of these terrorist attacks earlier this year. Journalists have been threatened with their lives by Islamist groups seeking to suppress reports of their activities and patronage.

But the terrorists’ ambitions extend beyond the ongoing murder spree. The perpetrators believe that democracy should be overthrown by Sharia law and aspire to turn the second biggest Muslim democracy into an Islamist theocracy. Bangladesh, they claim, has become too westernised, like India. To achieve the vision of an Islamist state, they have sought to move beyond bombing and to make inroads into the Bangladeshi government.

Evidence of their success can already be detected. For instance, the Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party is a coalition partner in Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's government. The party is founded on the principles of Maulana Maududi, who was a major figure in the international Islamist scene and he worked alongside the Arab dominated Muslim Brotherhood. The two ideologies have meshed and they borrow ideas from each other. They also set up complimentary research institutes. Azam Tamimi’s UK-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought is one such organisation; Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi and Khurshid Ahmed (Jamaat) both sit on its advisory board. Jamaat sided with Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War and set up the notorious al-Badr forces that were responsible for helping and implementing the systematic genocide of up to 3 million Bangladeshi’s. They have supported the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Jamaat wants to create a theocracy in Bangladesh and eventually to remove the democratic elements it claims are a blasphemous western intrusion.

Despite its unambiguously extremist agenda, Jamaat has successfully established its influence in prominent Bangladeshi institutions. Thus the Islami Bank Bangladesh (IBBL) is controlled by the Jamaat; many of its leaders sit on its board. IBBL also controls the accounts of Middle Eastern charities, which have been tied to Islamist terrorism. The Al-Haramain charity, which has supported Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, has its accounts at the Islami bank. Bangladeshi and Indian intelligence have named 10 Islamic charities they believe are helping to finance and promote Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh; they are the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), Rabita Al-Alam Al-Islami, Society of Social Reforms, Qatar Charitable Society, Al-Muntada Al-Islami, International Islamic Relief Agency, Al-Forkan Foundation, International Relief Organization (IRO), Kuwait Joint Relief Committee and the Muslim Aid Bangladesh (UK).

Muslim Aid Bangladesh is part of Muslim Aid UK, which is run by individuals associated with the Islamic Foundation UK. The foundation’s ties to radical Islamists have been previously documented the BBC program “Panorama.” The foundation was set up by Khurshid Ahmed, a senior Jamaat leader. Iqbal Sacranie, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is a trustee of Muslim Aid UK and was formerly its chairman. Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) helped to found Muslim Aid and it has been alleged by European intelligence agencies that branches of Muslim Aid have provided help to jihadi fighters from Bosnia to Indonesia.

The Islamists’ recent entrance into Bangladesh’s political arena is not altogether unexpected. South Asian analysts have long observed that the country would be ripe for al-Qaeda, though little effort has been made to stop their development in and penetration of the country. Time magazine has been banned from reporting in the country since 2002. Alex Perry, its South Asia bureau chief, had published a piece exposing the government’s lack of response to the build-up of Islamist terrorists with links to al-Qaeda.

Political unrest is nothing new for the country. Bangladesh has been frequently scarred by dangerous and often bloody feuds between its political actors. The country was born in 1971, after the country’s liberation forces, with the aid of India’s military might, fought off the West Pakistani dictatorship of Yahya Khan to regain their and cultural and political independence. Today, however, the Bengali people feel that they are once again fighting for their survival and cultural identity.

The international community would be well advised to take note of the Islamist ascendance that presently imperils the country. Though Bangladesh is one the poorest nations in the world, it is strategically important to the U.S.-led “War on Terror.” This is why international pressure must be applied to the country. Bangladesh must be forced to dismantle the terrorist training and ideological infrastructure, something the current government has been unable to do effectively because its coalition partner is part of the problem.

The current crisis unfolding in Bangladesh must act as an early warning signal. It is a dark glimmer of what groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami do once they become part of governments. Advocates of allowing Islamist parties to enter the democratic process must take notice: groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat abuse their authority and dangerously push for greater powers and privileges which allow them to try and destroy democracy from within. Greater political responsibilities aren’t dissuading them from trying to violently implement Sharia law; they only embolden them. At the very least, recent developments in Bangladesh suggest that any serious discussion of counter terrorism strategy must include a country that for too long has been ignored. #

* Writer is a British researcher on Jihad & Islamic militancy globally based in London

For his other article: Is Bangladesh new front for America's War Against Terrorism?