A dramatic, and particularly lethal, demonstration of intent has been staged in Bangladesh by the banned Jama’at ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) group. On August 17 a coordinated series of bomb attacks, affecting 58 of the country’s 64 districts, left two fatalities and upwards of 100 injuries. According to the Bangladeshi daily The Independent, between 10:30am and 11:30am local time, up to 400 small homemade bombs — apparently designed to cause limited damage but maximize panic — were set off in crowded areas, many of them adjacent to government offices, legal courts and journalists’ clubs [www.independent-bangladesh.com].
The message intended by the bombings was neatly encapsulated in this incident: the message of strength — the group operates nationwide in a highly coordinated manner; and the message of purpose — its targets are the elements that stand in the way of its Islamization program. This purpose was further underlined by the leaflets found on the scenes of the explosions, as reported by the Bangladeshi Daily Star. These stated that this was “the third call to establish Islamic rule in the country. If ignored and [if] our people are arrested or persecuted, Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen will take counter measures.” Bangladesh is a country of some 140 million inhabitants, 90 percent of whom are Muslim. What is interesting about this latest call for Shari’ah law is how it is coupled with an issue that appears intended to give the demands resonance, by appealing to areas where there is greater consensus. “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh”, the leaflets claimed [www.thedailystar.net]. The JMB is led by Siddiqul Islam (also known as Bangla Bhai), which has been on the run since the group was banned earlier this year (see Terrorism Focus Volume II, Issues 3 and 5).
This coordinated spate of bombings came three days after a grenade explosion at a Muslim shrine in eastern Bangladesh, which caused one fatality, and adds further weight to concerns that Bangladesh is mirroring developments in Pakistan. Certainly, incidents of terrorism and extremism have increased markedly, with the number of attacks in 2004 equaling those of the preceding five years. These have targeted opponents of Islamization: secular and leftist politicians, intellectuals and journalists, and religious minority groups. In rural areas, strong-arm intimidation is being employed to impose formal observation of perceived Islamic norms. Meanwhile, the number of madrasas has mushroomed from 1,500 registered in 1970 to something approaching 8,000 today. Even if these do not actively promote its application in the modern context, as in Pakistan, the schools’ curriculum perforce includes jihad theory. Religious parties such as the Islami Oikya Jote party, itself a patron of many madrasas, are gaining strength in Bangladesh, complicating measures to oppose the accelerating de-secularizing trend. Without concerted action now against terror groups such as the JMB, the fear is that the laissez-fair image of Bangladesh could increase its attractiveness as a haven for Islamist terrorists running from harsher security climates and place the country in danger of political deterioration. As it is, a movement such as the Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh is said to number thousands of fighters and is expanding.