A couple of events in January 2005, have once again highlighted the increasing political activity of radical Islamist parties in Bangladesh, and the precarious state of a country which threatens to become the next theatre for the War on Terrorism. The first was the assassination, at an election rally at Habiganj on January 27, of an Awami League opposition leader and former Finance Minister, Shah M.S. Kibria, for which Jamaat-e-Islami activists are prime suspects. The second was the renewed outbreak of violence in the northern Rajshahi province, where on January 23 three members of the Jagrata Muslim Janata (JMJ) were lynched after having killed another, local, leader of the opposition Awami League.
Investigators of the Habiganj assassination arrested Chhatra Shibir, the former president of the local unit of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Shibir was famous as head of the party’s student wing which established thousands of madrassas in Bangladesh, based on the Taliban model. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which aims to establish an Islamist state in Pakistan, has denied any contacts with armed militant organisations, such as the Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami, but Shibir himself has been accused of involvement in a number of assassinations and bombings.
The assassination of the local Rajshahi Awami League leader was carried out by members of the JMJ led by Bangla Bhai, who has presided over an informal reign of terror in the region, complete with intimidation rackets and torture chambers. The JMJ group achieved notoriety last spring when it instituted vigilante justice against leftist underground groups. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s instruction last May to put him behind bars was met with a brazen open demonstration by 6,000 JMJ militants. Since that time, worryingly, the local authorities have been dilatory in bringing Bangla Bhai to justice, amid strong suggestions of collusion and co-operation. The call for his arrest was renewed on January 25 — largely, as the Bangladeshi political journal Holiday maintained, as a reaction to a New York Times interview of Bangla Bhai highlighting the JMJ’s program for an Islamic revolution (www.weeklyholiday.net).
These events point to increasing and unchecked Islamization of Bangladesh. According to a January 20 report by a Bangladeshi human rights group, there are now some 31 Islamic militant groups in the country, actively targeting non-Muslims and liberal intellectuals, and seeking to establish a “greater Islamic nation,” including parts of some adjacent Indian states. It described Bangladesh as a “cocoon of terrorism and violence.” The January 27 assassination of Kibria was foreshadowed by a well organized attempt in August 2004 to kill Awami League President, Sheikha Hasina, at a rally in Dhaka protesting the advance of Islamic fundamentalism in the country.
The implications internationally are enormous. Should Bangladesh go down, the United States will have another Talibanized failed state to complicate its security interests in South Asia. Bangladesh may provide the next arena for the ideological progeny of al-Qaeda.