Excerpts from "Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement", authored by Angel Rabasa, Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, Sara A. Daly, Heather S. Gregg, Theodore W. Karasik, Kevin A. O’Brien, William Rosenau
In Bangladesh, the principal group that has been linked to al-Qaeda is Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI B), which aims to establish a system of Islamic hukumat (rule) across the country. The organization’s roots date back to 1992, although it has emerged as a prominent militant entity only since 2000. Shauqat Osman (also known as Maulana or Sheikh Farid) leads the group, overseeing an operational cadre that is believed to number 15,000, of whom 2,000 are described as hardcore.
Most of these militants are based in cells scattered along a stretch of coastline that runs from the port city of Chittagong, south through Cox’s Bazar to the Burmese border.57 Indian intelligence sources allege that HuJI B’s long-term goal specifically calls for an Islamic revolution in India’s northeast and that, with the help of the ISI and Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI), the group has actively sought to cultivate links with radicals in Kashmir and Assam—including HuM, JeM, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).58
HuJI B’s links to al-Qaeda allegedly go back to the group’s inception in 1992, when bin Laden instructed Bangladeshi mujahideen returning from Afghanistan to take up arms against the government in Dhaka and to replace it with a fundamentalist order committed to the creation of a nation of “true believers.”59 Although it is difficult to establish the veracity of this claim, al-Qaeda is known to have disseminated at least some funds to the country throughout the 1990s, much of which appears to have been channeled through the Saudi-based al-Haramain Foundation60 and the “Servants of Suffering and Humanity International” charity in Dhaka.61
Together with donations from Pakistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Oman, these financial contributions were used to underwrite a proliferating web of radical unlicensed madrassas (known as Dars-e-Nizami) throughout Bangladesh that have been linked to some of the country’s most fundamentalist religious entities and parties, including the Muslim League, the Tablighi Jama’at, the Jammat-e-Tulba, the Jamaat-ul-Muderessin, Islamic Oikya, and Jamaat-e-Islami. Indian and U.S. sources both maintain that the madrassas—which number between 15,000 and 20,000, of which at least 40 are known to be run by Afghan war veterans—have constituted an important source of recruits for extremists.62
HuJI B is also thought to have established contacts with al-Qaeda through the Taliban. Between 1996 and 2001, several hundred Harakat activists received training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.63 The precise number of recruits who were sent to these camps is unknown; however, given that several facilities were reserved only for Bengali speakers, it would appear that the overall Bangladeshi component was quite substantial.
A more concrete tie to al-Qaeda has been identified in the person of Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the leader of the “Jihad Movement in Bangladesh”—to which HuJI B belongs—and one of the original signatories of the 1998 Khost “Declaration of Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” Apart from bin Laden and Rahman, other parties to the joint statement included Ayman al-Zawahiri, Rifa’i Ahmad Taha (also known as Abu Yasir) of the EIJ, and Sheikh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan.64 In June 2001, a 25-member joint al-Qaeda–Taliban team was reportedly dispatched from Afghanistan to train HuJI B cadres in Bangladesh.65
It appears that this initial foray into Bangladeshi territory provided the impetus for a further expansion of logistical and operational ties between al-Qaeda and the HuJI B throughout 2002. It is known, for instance, that al-Zawahiri was in Dhaka during the first part of the year, using his time in the Bangladeshi capital to explore the feasibility of establishing a new beachhead for regional Islamic extremism in areas around the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In July that same year, Indian intelligence sources verified that a fishing vessel—later identified as the MV Mecca—had been covertly ferrying al-Qaeda operatives and weapons into Bangladesh for several months and that unlicensed madrassas funded by al-Haramain were providing training and arms to Arab and North African militants from Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and Sudan.
This was followed three months later by the arrest of Fazle Karim (also known as Abu Fuzi), a known Harakat activist and reported veteran of bin Laden’s camps in eastern Afghanistan, who admitted he was part of an al-Qaeda–Taliban team that had been secretly established in Bangladesh.66
Commenting on these developments, one Western diplomat in Dhaka remarked that by the year’s end Bangladesh had emerged as a viable haven for foreign jihadists: “If . . . militants want to come in here and buy themselves new passports and new identities, stock up on any weapons they might want and maybe do a little refresher training before heading off again, there’s nothing to stop them.”67
As in the case of the extremist groups in Kashmir, the HuJI B’s rhetoric has become steadily anti-Western in the wake of the global war on terrorism, gravitating toward an ideological agenda that now, arguably, gives precedence to internationalist over local objectives.
Many of the fundamentalist religious institutions to which HuJI B has been linked are open about their support of al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Indeed, Mullah Obaidul Haque, head of the national mosque in Dhaka and a known sympathizer of Harakat, is on record for pledging that “America and Bush must be destroyed,” while HuJI B, itself, now explicitly exhorts the dual refrain of Ambra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan: “We will all be Taliban and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan.”68
Regional commentators believe that the increasingly pan-Islamic orientation of HuJI B is being fostered by al-Qaeda ideological “perches” that have been set up in Bangladesh over the last three years. At least six dedicated transnational training camps are thought to operate in Bangladesh. These camps were reportedly set up with the direct backing of renegade elements in the ISI and DGFI to offset the terrorists’ reduced operational and political space in Pakistan after September 11.69
According to one former Burmese guerrilla, three facilities located just outside the town of Cox’s Bazar have a combined capacity of at least 2,500 cadres, with the largest comprising a complex of 26 interconnected bunkers built under a three-meter-high false forest floor. The camps are allegedly complete with kitchens, lecture halls, telephones, and televisions, and all have access to a wide range of weapons, including AK-47s, heavy machine guns, pistols, RPGs, mortars, mantraps, and mines.70
A further possible indication of links between al-Qaeda and Harakat militants is manifest in the so-called Islamic Manch (IM, literally Islamic Association), which was formed in mid-2002 at Ukhia, near Cox’s Bazar. Coming under the leadership of HuJI B and representing nine other radical Islamic interests in Bangladesh, this umbrella group advocates an extremist jihadist rhetoric that closely resonates with bin Laden’s line. The movement seeks the creation of a transnational caliphate that will eventually take in all of Bangladesh, Assam, north Bengal, and Burma’s Arakan province, and has been identified as a key propaganda and logistical conduit for al-Qaeda in South Asia. Indian and Western intelligence sources fear that many of the al-Qaeda and Taliban members who entered the country between 2001 and 2002 are now training the IM and may be seeking to establish the group as a concerted operational wing for cross-regional attacks in South Asia (in essence, a version of the Jemaah Islamiyah network in Southeast Asia).71
Assessment and Future Outlook
HuJI B actions have been directed against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority as well as the country’s moderate Muslims. For the most part these attacks have been small-scale and opportunistic, which would seem to suggest that al-Qaeda has not had a significant bearing on the group’s operational agenda. That said, HuJI B cadres have exhibited at least a rhetorical willingness to act beyond the Bangladesh theater; in this context, connections to bin Laden and his global terror network begin to take on greater relevance. Indian intelligence sources have long insisted that the HuJI B has made logistical and operational arrangements with groups in Jammu and Kashmir—claims that are now being further supplemented by the assertions of independent regional observers who believe similar ties may have been instituted with militants based in Assam and Burma.72
Although there is no conclusive, publicly available evidence to verify these allegations or back the associated claim that outside contacts have been made at the behest of external extremist forces, the presence of a Harakat leader at the signing of the 1998 Khost fatwa, the group’s reported hosting of an al-Qaeda–Taliban training team, and its central role in the (explicitly transnational) IM do seem to reflect a broad jihadist outlook. According to one commentator, members of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization and the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam have been training in HuJI B camps since at least June 2002, while Harakat activists have traveled to Kashmir and even Chechnya to join forces with Islamist militants fighting there.73
More recently, a 2003 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) expressed specific concern over the growing extremist activism exhibited by HuJI B, hinting that this was being fostered by al-Qaeda as part of a wider policy to drive Western aid agencies out of Bangladesh.74 In February 2005, suspected Islamist extremists firebombed several such organizations, which could represent the first stages of a heightened, externally directed operational agenda of this sort.75 If Harakat militants are, in fact, moving in this direction and beginning to hire themselves out as “subcontractors” for al-Qaeda, it would represent a fundamentally new development in HuJI B targeting and mission objectives that must be factored into assessments of the organization’s future threat potential. #
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56 ICG (2005b), p. 5.
57 U.S. Department of State (2003), pp. 133–134; Lintner (2002); Lintner (2003), p. 3; “Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI),” Terrorist Outfits, Bangladesh, South Asia Terrorism Portal, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bangladesh/terroristoutfits/Huj.htm (as of February 21, 2006).
58 Jaideep Saikia, “Triangle of New Concern: North East India,” unclassified briefing, ULFA was established in 1979 and seeks the creation of an independent Assam state in India’s northeast; the group has an estimated strength of 2,000 cadres. The NDFB emerged in 1988 (then under the name of the Bodo Security Force/BSF) and is committed to carving out a separate “Bodoland” north of the Brahmaputra River for the region’s mostly Christian tribal groups who number around 13 percent of Assam’s total population; it is reportedly able to field some 1,500 fighters. For an interesting account of these groups and their links with militants in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Burma, see Davis and Bedi (2004).
59 “Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI),” Terrorist Outfits, Bangladesh, South Asia Terrorism Portal, http://wwwsatp.org/satporgtp/countries/bangladesh/terroristoutfits/Huj.htm (as of February 21, 2006); Alex Perry, “Deadly Cargo,” Time Asia, October 21, 2002.
60 The al-Haramain Foundation is widely believed to be one of the principal financial conduits for the dissemination of funds from the Middle East to terrorist groups.
61 Ajai Sahni, “Al Qaeda’s Strategic Reach in South Asia,” paper presented before “The Transnational Violence and Seams of Lawlessness in the Asia-Pacific: Linkages to Global Terrorism” Conference, Honolulu, Hawaii, February 19–21, 2002, p. 7.
62 Saikia, “Triangle of New Concern”; Datta (2003), p. 8; Perry, “Deadly Cargo.” Overall, it is estimated that the total number of madrassas in Bangladesh is in the vicinity of 64,000.
63 Recruits were taken mainly via Nepal to Pakistan before making the final trip to Afghanistan. On arrival, they were reportedly paid 30,000 Bangladeshi taka (approximately US $525) and then offered an additional “stipend” of 10,000 taka (approximately US $175) to fight alongside Taliban and al-Qaeda forces against the Northern Alliance. Lintner (2002).
64 Saikia, “Triangle of New Concern”; Datta (2003), p. 8; Lintner (2002); Abuza (2005a), p. 53. For the complete text of the Khost fatwa see Alexander and Swetnam (2001), Appendix 1B, pp. 1–3.
65 Sahni, “Al Qaeda’s Strategic Reach in South Asia,” p. 7. South Asian Clusters 101 66 Datta (2003), p. 9; Perry, “Deadly Cargo”; Lintner (2002); Lintner (2003), pp. 19–21; Abuza (2005a), pp. 53–54.
67 Cited in Perry, “Deadly Cargo.”
68 Perry, “Deadly Cargo”; Sahni, “Al Qaeda’s Strategic ” (2002), p. 7; Datta (2003), p. 8; Abuza (2005a), p. 53.
69 An internal HuJI B document lists no less than 19 training camps across Bangladesh,but it is uncertain how many of these actually offered dedicated militant instruction. Indian intelligence sources believe that, overall, the country hosts a total of 194 militant camps for various insurgent movements opposed to the Delhi government.
70 Saikia, “Triangle of New Concern”; Perry, “Deadly Cargo.” South Asian Clusters 103
71 Perry, “Deadly Cargo”; Saikia, “Triangle of New Concern”; Datta (2003), p. 9; Lintner (2002).
72 See, for instance, Perry “Deadly Cargo”; Lintner (2002); Lintner (2003), pp. 19–21; Abuza (2005a), pp. 53–54; “Dhaka Police Look for Al-Qaeda Link,” Far Eastern Economic Review, October 10, 2002. The International Crisis Group (ICG) reported several border incidents during 2004 that Indian sources claimed were connected to Bangladeshi ties with northeastern separatists (ICG, 2004, p. 5).
73 Lintner (2002).
74 Jim Bronskill, “CSIS Wary of Bangladesh,” CNEWS, December 12, 2003; Raman (2004); Hussain (2004).
75 ICG (2005a), p. 5; “WB Concerned Over Attacks on NGOs,” The Daily Star, February 18, 2005.