Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Bangladesh: Visible Gains, Hidden Dangers
S. BINODKUMAR SINGH
On December 18, 2014, the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2) indicted Forkan Mallik, an alleged Razakar (a paramilitary force organized by the Pakistan Army) commander from Mirzaganj sub-District in Patuakhali District, for his involvement in crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of 1971. The tribunal framed five charges against Forkan, a supporter of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
On November 24, 2014, ICT-1 awarded the death penalty to Mobarak Hossain aka Mobarak Ali (64), former rukon (union member) of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and commander of the Razakar force. Mobarak was indicted on April 23, 2013, on five specific incidents of murder, abduction, confinement, torture and loot.
On November 13, 2014, ICT-1 sentenced Zahid Hossain Khokon alias Khokon (70), vice-president of BNP's Nagarkanda unit and a Razakar commander of Faridpur District, to death in absentia. Khokon was indicted on October 9, 2013, on 11 charges, including genocide, torture, abduction and confinement during the Liberation War. He is absconding and, while Bangladeshi authorities say they have no information regarding his whereabouts, reports suggest that he may be residing in Sweden with his elder son and daughter.
The War Crimes (WC) Trials began on March 25, 2010, and through 2014, the two ICTs indicted nine persons and delivered four verdicts. Thus far, the ICTs have indicted 25 leaders, including 13 from JeI, five from Muslim League (ML), four from BNP, two from Jatiya Party (JP) and one Nizam-e-Islami leader. Verdicts against 14 of them have already been delivered – 12 were awarded death sentence while the remaining two received life sentences. One of the 12 who received the death sentence has already been executed, while the remaining 11 death penalties are yet to be executed. The two persons who were awarded life sentences have already died serving their sentence. They were JeI Ameer (Chief) Ghulam Azam (91), who died on October 23, 2014; and former BNP minister Abdul Alim (83), who died on August 30, 2014.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League (AL)-led Government, which retained power winning the 10th General Elections held on January 5, 2014 in the face of a comprehensive Opposition boycott, has enormously consolidated its secular commitments and kept its promise to punish the perpetrators of the 1971 genocide. By bringing the war crimes' perpetrators to justice, Dhaka has also succeeded in minimizing the threat of Islamist extremists within the country, both because they have become conscious of the clear intent of the incumbent Government, and because many of their top leaders are among those arraigned or convicted for the War Crimes.
The Government also remained determined in its approach to dealing with JeI, the country's largest right-wing party and main Islamist extremist troublemaker. Law Minister Anisul Huq, speaking at Dhaka city on December 7, 2014, announced, "The Draft Bill to ban JeI will be placed in the Cabinet this month and it is expected to be passed in the first session of the Parliament in 2015." Notably, in a landmark ruling, the Dhaka High Court, on August 1, 2013, had declared the registration of JeI as a political party, illegal. A three-member Special Bench, including Justice M. Moazzam Husain, Justice M. Enayetur Rahim and Justice Quazi Reza-Ul Hoque, passed the judgment, accepting a writ petition challenging the legality of JeI's registration as a political party.
Further, in a major blow to JeI, Election Commissioner Shah Nawaz, on November 7, 2013, declared that the party could not participate in the General Elections of January 2014, in line with the High Court order. JeI was, of course, one of the Opposition parties that boycotted the Election.
Significantly, Security Force (SF) personnel arrested at least 1,757 cadres of JeI and Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of JeI, through 2014, in addition to 4,038 such arrests in 2013.
Nevertheless, disruptive elements led by the BNP-JeI-ICS combine, continued to engage in violent activities through 2014. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 60 people, including 29 civilians, nine SF personnel and 22 extremists, were killed in incidents related to Islamist extremism in 2014 (data till December 21), in addition to 379 persons, including 228 civilians, 18 SF personnel and 133 extremists, killed in 2013.
As the Government continued with its policy of checking the growth of Islamist extremist forces led by the BNP-JeI-ICS combine, it deprived the Islamist terrorist formations of any opportunity to revive their activities within the country, despite sustained efforts, through 2014. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested JMB chief coordinator Abdun Noor and four of his close aides from the Sadar Sub-District Railway Station of Sirajganj District, on October 31, 2014, and recovered 49 detonators, 26 electronic detonators, four time bombs, 155 different kinds of circuits, 55 jihadi books, and a power regulator. During preliminary interrogations, the JMB operatives confessed that they were planning to carry out large-scale bomb attacks across the country, particularly in Dhaka city.
In a disturbing development, the Detective Branch (DB) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) arrested two cadres of the Ansarul Bangla Team (ABT), Tanjil Hossain Babu (26), who had some technological expertise, and Muhamad Golam Maula Mohan (25), a Computer Sciences and Engineering graduate, along with a plastic frame of a drone, electronic devices and some books on jihad, from Dhaka city's Jatrabari area on December 16, 2014. After their interrogation, Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam of DB claimed, "They reached the final stages of making the drone after a six-month planning and research. Once completed, the drone could be flown up to around 25th floor of a building to launch an attack." ABT is an al Qaeda inspired terrorist formation that crystallized in 2013 from the remnants of the Jamaat-ul-Muslimeen.
Nevertheless, under the sustained pressure exerted by Security Forces, the country did not record a single major terrorist incident (resulting in three or more fatalities) by any Islamist terror outfit through 2014. In fact, only one violent incident involving such groups was reported through the year. On February 23, 2014, a Police Constable was killed and another two Policemen were injured, as an armed gang of 10 to 15 unidentified terrorists ambushed a prison van that was carrying three convicted Jama'at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists in the Trishal Sub-District of Mymensingh District. All the three convicts managed to escape during the ambush. Though Police arrested one of them soon after, the whereabouts of the other two remain unknown.
On the other hand, a total of 96 terrorists were arrested through 2014, adding to the 163 detained in 2013. Of these 96, 43 belonged to JMB, 25 to Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), 12 to Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), six to Kalamaye Jamaat, five to ABT, three to Hizb-ut-Towhid (HT), and one each to Kalema Dawat and Islamic State.
Dhaka has also continued its campaign against an incipient Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement in a somewhat one-sided battle. Through 2014, 16 LWE cadres were killed - 11 of the Purbo Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), three of the Purbo Banglar Sarbahara Party (PBSP), one of the Biplobi Communist Party (BCP), and one unidentified. No civilian or SF fatality took place in LWE-linked violence through 2014. In 2013, a total of 25 fatalities were connected to LWE violence, including four civilians and 21 militants.
The nation, however, continues to face a significant threat from Islamist extremism. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), investigating the October 2, 2014, accidental blasts at Burdwan in West Bengal, uncovered a plot by JMB to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia.
According to revelations made by arrested accused in the case, JMB was planning to establish an 'Islamic state' in Bangladesh through armed struggle. The projected 'Islamic state' was also intended to incorporate the Districts of Murshidabad, Nadia, and Malda in West Bengal. Referring to the development, Bangladesh's National and Security Intelligence (NSI) Director General, Mohammad Shamsul Haque, observed, on December 15, 2014,
We have largely neutralized radical groups like the JMB or HuJI-B, but now they seem to have found sanctuaries across the border. If we think we have neutralized a group and sit easy, it is (a) big mistake. There is no room for complacency. We need to closely monitor their activities even if a few terrorists are left in the fray. Because they may well set up bases across the border, make fresh recruitment, acquire weapons and plan attacks.
Further, on September 5, 2014, Asim Umar, the leader of the newly formed al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) based in Pakistan, incited Muslims to engage in the global jihad (holy war) and expressed his group’s determination to extend the fighting from Pakistan to Bangladesh, Myanmar and India. Further, a video released on November 29, 2014, and attributed to the 'Bangladesh division' of AQIS, encouraged Bangladeshi Muslims to come to the jihadi battlefield and included glimpses of a base of fighters in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Threats from the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS) are also very much a reality. On September 29, 2014, a 24-year-old British citizen was arrested in Dhaka city on suspicion of recruiting people to fight alongside IS cadres in Syria. When asked about Bangladesh’s position on the IS and the Syrian crisis, Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali disclosed, on September 30, 2014, “We have not heard about any presence of the [ISIS] group, but a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin was arrested.”
Bangladesh’s achievements on the counter-terrorism and internal security fronts through 2014 have been remarkable. Further, over the last few years, the WC Trials have also progressed quite well. A note of caution, nevertheless, remains to be sounded, as the residual capacities of subversive and extremist elements, prominently including JeI-ICS, are still significant, and their alliance with BNP remains sound. Further, surviving fragments of a range of other outfits, including JMB, HuT, HT, HuJI and ABT, also have a potential for regrouping and fomenting violence. In the unstable environment of South Asia and the wider Asian region, there is little space for complacence.
First published in South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 13, No. 25, December 22, 2014
S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, India