Wednesday, December 28, 2005

War on Terror in Bangladesh

photos: Most Bangladeshi Muslims practice Sufism. They explain that they are in transition in this present world. They live a modest life for an exciting life after death. Recent spate of bombing in the shrines of Sufi saints by Islamic militants threatens the secular space of Sufi culture -in ancient Bengal (photo credit: Saiful Wadud Helal, filmmaker: Color of Faith

Counterfeit War on Terror in Bangladesh

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

On November 14, two Assistant Judges of the Jhalakathi District, Jagannath Pandey and Sohel Ahmed, on the way to their Courts, were bombed to death by a katel (killer) squad member of the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (for background see link below). The assassin, Mamun Ali, was caught by the locals and handed over to the police. The incident, the first of its kind in the country, is yet another stage in a progressive unravelling, and dramatically undermines the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led coalition’s efforts to inveigle the world into believing that, by proscribing a few terrorist groups and the arrest of a few hundred alleged ‘militants’, the country has established a firm grip over its slide into chaos.

The August 17, 2005, bombings, the high point of terrorist mobilisation across the country, led to an ostensibly frantic search for the JMB Chief Abdur Rahman and the Jagrata Janata Muslim Bangladesh (JMJB) commander Bangla Bhai, backed by a Government reward of US $152,000 for information leading to their arrests. Both the leaders have been able to elude the ‘long’ arm of the law, though some 300 non-descript Islamist militants have been arrested from various districts across the country. Reports indicated that Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel came close to arresting Abdur Rahman in Dhaka’s Banashree area on November 19 after receiving a ‘vital input’, but he escaped following what is believed to have been a tip-off from an official source.

In the meantime, reports indicate that the JMB has raised a 2,000 strong suicide cadre, even as the katel group compiles dossiers on potential targets, including members of the RAB. These developments have evidently sent tremors through Dhaka – despite the Government’s long record of cover-ups and denial. State Minister for Home Affairs, Lutfozzaman Babor, who denied the existence of the JMB and the JMJB in January 2005, finally acknowledged the problem in a statement on November 17, declaring, "This has made the Government worried (sic)".

Despite the spike in terrorist activities in Bangladesh over the past months, it is evident that the death squads remain grossly underutilized, and the August 17 incidents are a pointer to the spread and capacity that the terrorists have consolidated across the country. Over the past three months, there have been a significant number of threats issued against government offices, newspaper houses, law-enforcers, the judiciary and political activists. The militants have mixed into the general population, posing as hawkers and petty traders, or simply working as rickshaw-pullers, making them an invisible and ubiquitous enemy even as they prepare for the next wave of terrorist strikes.

Mamun Ali’s interrogation has revealed interesting facets of the dynamics of terrorist mobilisation in Bangladesh. His confessional statement, recorded under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, discloses that some of the suicide and death squad members have been trained in Afghanistan. Mamun himself had joined the outfit in year 2000 and was soon co-opted into its death squad. Many of the katel members are reported to have been recruited from the families of militant cadres killed in separate encounters by the RAB, exploiting their inherent desire for vengeance against the enforcement agencies. Compact discs seized from the JMB hideout in the Banashree area of Dhaka on November 22 contained details of several ‘encounters’ across the country, as also personal information of many RAB personnel, indicating that the JMB has plans to strike at the RAB. The family of each suicide bomber has been promised Taka 50,000 to 100,000 or more as compensation for their ‘sacrifice’. With generous funding continuing to flow in from foreign sources, securing the loyalty of the katel squad members has been rather easy for the JMB.

The financial resources at the disposal of the militants are enormous. Intelligence sources suggest that JMB spends roughly Taka six million a year for maintaining its full-time leaders and cadres, and Taka ten to fifty million for buying explosives and firearms, and operational costs. Little has been done by the Government to disrupt the uninterrupted flow of such funds from organisations like the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. More than two months after the August 17 blasts, JMB leaders continue to transact through several of their Bank accounts throughout the country. Chequebooks recovered from the JMB’s Rangpur hideout on November 23 revealed that the outfit has recently withdrawn Taka 9,00,000 from three accounts with two banks – Al Arafa Islami Bank, Dhaka, and the Bogra Bazar Branch of Sonali Bank in the Bogra District.

The official response to the growing tentacles of Islamist radicalism has been rather unique. Following the November 14 judges’ killings, the Government circulated a compilation of four verses from the Holy Quran and the Hadith to the media offices. The Arabic verses followed by translations in Bengali – advocating moderation and condemning violence in general, and particularly violence against fellow-Muslims, as well as fitna or anarchy – appeared to be a principal component of the official counter-campaign against the violent religious fanaticism. But the Government’s proclivity to fall back on Islamic verses runs the danger of reinforcing radical Islamist mobilisation, rather than devising a response to it.

The enormity of the problem and the corresponding lack of capabilities among law enforcers to deal with them is, however, not the most significant component of the regime’s failure. The BNP’s stubborn resistance to take its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), to task was evident in its November 24 decision to strip party law-maker Abu Hena, the MP from Bagmara in Rajshahi district, of party membership for speaking against the Jamaat. Hena had linked the rise of the extremists with that of the Jamaat.

With only 17 seats out of the 300 in the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly) and two ministers in the Union Cabinet, the Jamaat has engineered a slow but steady rise in national politics. Speaking on April 30, 2005, the JeI Chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, said that his party had achieved its ‘short-term goal’ of coming into mainstream politics and asked his party colleagues to now work to achieve the ‘long-term programme’ to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic State.
The Islami Chattra Shibir (the student wing of the JeI) has wrested control of the students’ union of the Rajshahi University, the second largest university in the country, replacing the BNP’s student wing. Soon after the election in April, Shahdat-al-Hiqma, the militant group that was proscribed in February 2002, pasted 5,000 posters on the walls of the University’s buildings, asking students to "take up arms to eradicate injustice". Considerable Islamist mobilisation has also been reported from Khulna University in November 2005. The Jamaat is making inroads into the bureaucracy as well. Among others, Sarfaraj Hossain, the Home Secretary, is reported to have Jamaat connections. Many of the arrested cadres of the JMB have told their interrogators that their activities went unnoticed because they enjoyed the blessings of local officers who, in turn, were influenced by Jamaat leaders.

The Jamaat is umbilically linked with the Islamist extremists in Bangladesh, and this nexus is very well documented. It not a matter of coincidence that many JMB cadres, including the arrested death squad cadre, Mamun, share a Jamaat or a Shibir past. Intelligence officials, in the last week of October 2005, spoke of the existence of a decade-long Islamist militant strategy, adopted in 1998, to prepare an atmosphere compatible with an Islamic revolution in Bangladesh. Jamaat’s ‘long-term programme’, by all indications, bears an uncanny resemblance with this ‘decade-long plan’. The irony is that the extremists are able to piggyback on one of the mainstream political parties, the BNP, whose long term-existence they directly threaten.

With significant and continuous official patronage, Islamist extremism is assuming monstrous proportions in Bangladesh, and the state remains grossly inept in its efforts to contain this growth. A mere and belated acknowledgement of the existence of the problem will no more make it go away than years of denial did. Bangladesh will have to go well beyond its current ‘thus far and no further’ approach, and its strategies based on the publication of scriptural texts, to rein in the forces of terror. Regrettably, official initiatives suggest that the Government is yet to decide on such a course of action. #