Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh

Book review: Jihadi terror in Bangladesh


Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web
By Ali Riaz; Routledge 2008; Pp172;
Price £80

In this book he gets to the root of what led in 2005 to a countrywide setting off of 450 bombs that signalled the coming into its own of jihadi Islam

BANGLADESH HAS Harkat-ul Jihad Bangladesh (HUJIB), the Jama’at-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) as functioning jihadi organisations. These three organisations can be traced to a single network. Others include Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Shahadat-i-Hiqma, and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Reliable data about the militant organisations, particularly the profiles of the activists, are not available, but profiles of the militants arrested since the beginning of 2006 indicate that former participants of the Afghan war and disaffected youth are at the helm of these organisations. The top leaders are thus ‘connected’ to organisations outside Bangladesh.

Their attacks have traced a uniform pattern, possibly in response to one central directive. They frequently target specific groups: locally prominent NGOs and NGO-run schools, members of the judiciary, women, and so on (p.31), which conforms to the pattern in Pakistan. Violence against the Hindus in Bangladesh after the 2001 Babri Masjid incident is well documented. Beginning in 2002, the Ahmedis were attacked by Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (KN), an umbrella organisation of the Islamist groups. They have begun a campaign to declare Ahmedis non-Muslims, just like Pakistan.

The BD government, instead of clamping down on the perpetrators of these attacks, has succumbed to their pressure and on January 8, 2004, banned all Ahmedi publications. It also allowed this organisation to attack Ahmedi mosques, and seize their properties, while the police and local authorities helped them pull down the signboards of Ahmedi organisations, more or less as in Pakistan, where the Ahmedis have been constitutionally declared non-Muslims. The Ahmedi headquarters in Dhaka was attacked in 1992, and Imam Shah Alam was killed in Jessore in 2003. (p.35)

The Saudi-assisted Ahle Hadith movement became strong in the 1980s and Bangladesh saw a mushrooming of the madrassas. Between 1972 and 2004, their growth rate was 73 percent. In May 2004, the police chief in Rajshahi was telling the press that Bangla Bhai was assisting the law enforcers in tracking down the left-wing outlaws. Bangla Bhai was a jihadi veteran from Afghanistan whom Pakistan had facilitated and who was eventually hanged once the civilian governments were removed with the imposition of emergency in 2006.

Bangla Bhai, with hundreds killed and maimed at his hands, gave Bangladesh a bad name in the world. But Bangladesh was on the self-chosen course of degradation together with Pakistan. Pakistan did it under its India-driven policy but Bangladesh did it out of sheer liking for violence under Islam. Others too were chosen for patronage. The case of Mufti Rauf is instructive.

Abdur Rauf went to Afghanistan via Pakistan in 1989 and fought alongside the Taliban until the end of 1992. He became a key organiser of a militant group soon after his return to Bangladesh. By his own admission, he imparted military training to madrassa students as a teacher in Madaripur district for about three years. Later he came into contact with the Rohingya rebels in the south-eastern region. In 1995 he was arrested with 40 other militants from a training camp at Cox’s Bazaar but was jailed for only five months (p.52).

Why was Bangladesh soft on terrorists? This is a question all Muslim states have to answer but will not. The question is important because their bias in favour of these terrorists has led to the death of many peaceful citizens.

Geographically, Bangladesh is surrounded almost entirely by India on its eastern western and northern borders, sharing 4,053 km (3,035 miles) of frontier and 193 km (172 miles) of it with Myanmar in the southeast. The Bay of Bengal, shared with India and Myanmar, bounds Bangladesh in the south. Five Indian states border Bangladesh, including four in India’s troubled northeast where dozens of militant groups are fighting for full statehood, greater autonomy or independence. (p.62)

Author Riaz writes: “After the 1975 military coup in Bangladesh, a new identity, called Bangladeshi nationalism, was articulated in a manner that portrayed India as an adversary. Over the following 30 years, the situation has worsened as more issues of difference have been added to an already distrustful relationship. There are four sources of boundary conflicts: (1) non-ratification of the 1974 Indo-Bangladesh Land Agreement; (2) non-delineation of maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal; (3) ownership of Talpatty Island referred to as New Moore Island; and (4) sharing of river waters that flow from India to Bangladesh.”

The book says India organised groups inside Bangladesh and gave them material support to conduct a low-intensity conflict till 1997. The military regimes in Bangladesh retaliated by resurrecting a policy begun by the Pakistani government of providing shelter and support to the insurgent groups of Indian north-eastern states (p.63). Bangladeshi masses converted to hardline attitudes towards the non-Muslims after the BJP arose in India and in 1992 caused the Babri Masjid crisis. This helped the Islamists argue that the right course for Muslim-majority Bangladesh would be to pursue an Islamist path. The secularist Awami League failed to present an alternative vision which would underscore national sovereignty, and address Dhaka’s concerns vis-à-vis India.

It further says: “The Indo-Bangladesh fence-construction project has progressed slowly and, to date only about half of the border has been fenced. Bangladesh authorities allege that Indians are violating the 1975 border guidelines which clearly state that any type of defensive work cannot be carried out within 150 yards of the zero line.” (p.64)

Relations with Burma went bad too. Between late 1977 and May 1978, about 200,000 Burmese Arakanese Rohingyas crossed the border and took shelter in Bangladesh as a result of persecution by the Burmese authorities (p.65). Later the Arakanese turned up in Karachi madrassas.

The above-mentioned terrorist organisation HUJIB, run by Shafiqur Rehman who had returned from jihad in Afghanistan, moved to the Chittagong Hill Tracts to help the Rohingya refugees. Subsequently, HUJIB militants acknowledged the existence of various training camps in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar districts based on madrassas established with foreign funds.

Foreign funds had also gone to the Naga rebels in India’s northeast. When the Indian army went after the Nagas in 1958 the most prominent leader of the Naga independence movement — Angami Zapu Phizo — fled to the then East Pakistan. Phizo was cordially received by Pakistani intelligence officials who helped go on to London to internationalise the Naga demand for an independent state, while his followers began receiving military training inside East Pakistan. (p.66)

Author Riaz reveals that “the Pakistani military intelligence agency had set up a Coordinating Bureau to supervise its covert operation in Nagaland; and that China began providing active support to the Naga movement in 1966 and military training to the rebels in 1967. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) continued to receive support from Pakistani intelligence agencies even up to the 1990s.” (p.67)

In Bangladesh, the presence of Indian intelligence operatives within Bangladesh is a matter of common discussion. RAW has been present and active in Bangladesh even when it was still East Pakistan, although RAW has always denied the allegations. Bangladeshi intelligence is ill-equipped. In December 2002, three army officers and a number of civilians were arrested from the border districts of north-eastern Sylhet and northern Mymensingh for spying for the Indians (p.78).

By 2003, the presence of the ISI in Bangladesh became so conspicuous that the foreign minister of Bangladesh acknowledged it to the press: “ISI and Al Qaeda have their networks throughout the world and they might have their activities in our country too,” commented Morshed Khan on September 19, 2003. It should be noted that Khan had previously denied any ISI presence in Bangladesh. For example, on November 28, 2002, Khan described Indian allegations about the presence of Al Qaeda elements and the ISI in Bangladesh as “unfounded and malicious”. (p.79)

Riaz writes: “Ostensibly, the ISI’s strategy was not only to help the existing north-eastern Indian insurgents but also to build other groups who would be able to keep the border regions unstable, provoke the Indian authorities, and drive a wedge between India and Bangladesh. RAW, on the other hand, was trying to beat the ISI.” (p.79)

The Afghan connection of the Bangladeshi militants is important because it facilitated the organisational structure of the militants without being known outside Bangladesh. Although it is widely known that the radical Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan alongside the mujahideen have been incorporated into the Islamic movements throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, their impact in other parts of the world, particularly in countries like Bangladesh, is understudied.

Beginning in 1984, a ‘volunteer corps’ was organised to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Some 3,000 people under the leadership of Abdur Rahman Faruki travelled in several batches to Afghanistan to fight alongside other volunteer mujahideen. Over the following four years at least 24 of them died and ten became disabled. In 1988, a delegation of self-proclaimed ulema too visited Afghanistan. (p.82)

As in Pakistan, Islamist terrorists attack the NGOs in Bangladesh. Throughout the 1980s, NGOs, especially through their micro-credit programmes for poor rural women and free primary education programmes as an alternative to madrassas, irked the Islamists. The Islamists responded with critiques of the NGOs, portraying them as aided by ‘Jews and Christian conspirators who undermine Islamic cultural values, spread atheism, convert people Christianity and try to create an aggressively feminist, impure society’. They are helped by Rabita Al-Alam Al-Islami, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RJHS), etc. (p.83) #

First published in The Daily Times, May 24, 2009

Ali Riaz heads the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University and has written before on Islamism in Bangladesh