Saturday, April 05, 2008

Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: What has been done?

Photo: Home-grown Islamic vigilante Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen leader dubbed `Bangla Bhai' captured after fire-fight in 2006, later hanged for declaring war against the country

Dr ALI RIAZ


ON MARCH 6, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJIB) a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The official implications of such designation are very broad. Once an organization is so designated, it becomes illegal for persons in the United States or subject to US jurisdiction to provide material support to that organization. US financial institutions have to freeze any assets the organization holds, and the United States can deny visas to its representatives. The designation moreover carries a message greater than these legal implications: it indicates that the US State Department has been keeping track of the organization and is convinced that it constitutes a threat beyond its country of origin.

This announcement may surprise many casual observers of Bangladeshi politics, but those who have been following the political scene in Bangladesh and/or tracking the US State Department’s listing of terrorist organizations over recent years, would have been aware it was only a matter of time before this organization would be declared an FTO. The HuJIB, an organization closely connected to the Harkat-ul Jihad as-Islami (HUJI) notorious for its militant activities within and outside Pakistan, was listed among “Groups of Concern” by the State Department in 2007. Its elevation to FTO is more than a change of status; it is an indication that this organization has been using Bangladesh as a base for activities beyond state borders. Equally important is the fact that these activities continued to be carried on more than two and a half years after HuJIB was banned in Bangladesh with some key leaders of the organization executed and many behind bars. Despite continued efforts on the part of the government to check militancy and apprehend the organizers, militant organizations are ostensibly thriving.

From Afghan War to BNP-JI alliance
The HuJIB is one of many militant organizations present within the country, but it should be recognized as the fountainhead of the militant groups that have been spawned since HuJIB’s emergence in 1992. Organized by those who participated in the Afghan War as ‘volunteers,’ the HuJIB brought home the long shadow of a distant war. The state’s support to the rebels of neighbouring Burma, providing them with a safe haven in the southeast hill tracts had the unforeseen consequence of giving these organizations a free reign.

Additionally, factors such as a supportive domestic political environment due to the growing strength of the Islamist parties within mainstream politics; the easy availability of weapons from both the black and grey markets, particularly via Southeast Asia; an unremitting flow of funds from some international charity organizations such as the Restoration of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS); the proxy war by the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI and its Indian counterpart the RAW on Bangladeshi soil – all helped to engender these groups.

Under intense international pressure the reluctant coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jammat-i-Islami (JI) (2001-2006) took some steps in 2005; three militant organizations including the HuJIB were banned. In late 2006 the government began arresting and trying key militant leaders. On 29 March 2007, not long after the country witnessed a change in government, six militant leaders were executed after all legal processes had been exhausted by them.

A regrouping
Although the arrests, the executions, intense security campaign and growing public awareness dealt a serious blow to the militant groups, developments over the past year demonstrate that these groups have not disappeared. Instead, militants have regrouped and seem to be steadily gaining strength.

One of the first signs of the regrouping of the militants came in April 2007: advocate Hyder Hossain, the public prosecutor and chief counsel of the case which resulted in the death sentence meted out to the six key leaders of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh was assassinated. Sporadic incidents of attacks occurred from the middle of 2007. For example, in May 2007, a previously unknown group called Jadid al-Qaeda Bangladesh detonated three near-simultaneous bombs in three divisional railway stations in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. In November 2007, five militants of the banned JMB made a bid to escape from Comilla Jail, reportedly with help from the outside and from some jail employees.

In February 2008, the Rapid Action Battalion seized 46 live grenades from Satkhira, after the arrest of Mufti Moinuddin alias Abu Zandal, a key accomplice of the HuJIB leader Mufti Abdul Hannan. There were several other instances when grenades were recovered from various parts of the country. These and other similar incidents reveal that the networks of these militant organizations have remained intact, that financial support for maintaining the networks has not dried up, and that the flow of weapon has not been disrupted.

The government stalls...
From early on the present interim government had recognized the importance of dealing with militancy as a matter of concern, but it seems to be remaining one step behind the militants. One can argue that the steps taken to combat militancy have been inadequate, and that some necessary steps have not been taken yet. For example, although militant leaders had insisted that their pool of supporters consisted of 10,000-15,000 the total number of individuals arrested for their alleged involvement with militant activities is less than eight hundred – a number too small to organize the synchronized bomb blasts of 17 August 2005, let alone other operations. Those who had joined the Afghan war are estimated at 2800 according to government documents; yet not all have been traced and questioned, let alone apprehended.

The government has probed very little, if at all, into the suspected training sites used by militants. The possible political connection between certain members of the BNP and the militants has not been examined at length. There is enough evidence to show that the connections between the Jammat-i-Islami (JI) are more than accidental, and that these relationships are neither limited to individuals, nor to one or two units of the party.

... and patrons are still at large
Official records and press reports show that during the 4-party coalition government (2001-2006) a number of militant leaders were arrested, but released by the local authorities. To my knowledge no investigations, either public or administrative, has been conducted to identify the individuals concerned and the reasons behind the leniency displayed toward the militants. Patrons of the militants - individuals and organizations, domestic and foreign – have escaped justice altogether. This was one of the main topics of discussion immediately after the series of bombings, but over time it disappeared even from public discourse. Let me reiterate the point I made in my book, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web: "The importance of identifying, apprehending and trying the patrons of militancy cannot be overstated. Efforts to dismantle the networks of militants without bringing the patrons –- political and financial –- are bound to fail.”

The efforts of law enforcing agencies to seize weapons are commendable; these confiscations will delay the next rounds of attacks, and save many lives. But unfortunately these efforts are not sufficient to mitigate militancy; identifying the sources of weapons of the militants and breaking these networks is imperative to defeat the militants. The sooner the government addresses these issues, the better; delay will only make these issues more difficult to deal with. Let us hope that it is not too late already. #

Ali Riaz is Chair and Associate Professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. His most recent book is: Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web. His has published four other books, including God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh. Earlier in his career, Professor Riaz worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service as broadcast journalist. He was a defiant student leader challenging the military despot General H.M. Ershad in mid 1980s.