Islamist Extremist Mobilization in Bangladesh

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 12

Bangladesh is increasingly recognized as the locus of a significant and expanding threat emanating from radicalized Islamist extremist mobilization and its systematic transformation into political and terrorist violence. Notwithstanding vociferous official denials, it has, for some time now, been an established staging post for terrorism within the region, and is seen as a potential center of Islamist consolidation for the “global jihad” as well. It is already a major supply route and transit point for illicit weapons smuggling, and a safe haven for some of the militant groups active in India’s northeast as well.

Worse, these processes are rooted in an entrenched political dynamic that has progressively diminished the space for secular or moderate politics in the country. Given the polarization and extreme hostility between the two dominant political parties in Bangladesh, and the near complete split down the middle in voting patterns, the Islamist parties have become central to the processes of government formation in the country, and have gradually expanded their political presence as well. These trends have been compounded further by the combination of religious mobilization, intimidation and extremist violence that these radical parties and their armed allies engage in, as well as their very wide and expanding presence in the social sector, particularly education. Given these broad trends, the scope for any reversal of the Islamist extremist consolidation in Bangladesh has shrunk progressively.

It is necessary to understand the dynamics of these processes, as well as to make an objective assessment of their real and potential threat, both in terms of internal stability and external security. Firstly, what are the real dimensions and magnitude of the threat of Islamist extremist mobilization in Bangladesh? The coastal area stretching from the port city of Chittagong south through Cox’s Bazaar to the Myanmar border, notorious for piracy, smuggling and arms-running, is the principal area of activity of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami Bangladesh (Movement of Islamic Holy War, HuJI-BD), which is a signatory to Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front and a designated terrorist outfit in many countries, including the United States. [1] Further, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB or Awakened Muslim Masses), a vigilante Islamist group, is reported to have created strong bases mostly in northwest Bangladesh, in the districts of Rajshahi, Satkhira, Naogaon, Bagerhat, Jessore, Chittagong, Joypurhat, Natore, Rangpur, Bogra, Chittagong, and Khulna. [2] Elsewhere, the Jama’atul Mujahideen (Party of the Mujahideen) is training small groups of youths for jihad in the northern districts of Natore and Bogra, one in the southwestern district of Chuadanga and another in the mid-eastern border district of Chandpur. It also has a network in the Shaghata, Sundarganj and Sadullapur areas of Gaibandha district as also in Rajshahi district and parts of Khulna city. [3] While both of them espouse the ideal of a “Talibanised” Bangladesh, JMJB leaders have openly proclaimed links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There have also been reports that JMJB’s training of recruits includes recorded speeches of bin Laden and video footage of warfare training at al-Qaeda’s (now defunct) Farooque camp in Afghanistan. Professor Abu Sayeed, in his two books, Aghoshito Juddher Blueprint (Blueprint of an Undeclared War) and Brutal Crime Documents, claims that around 50,000 militants belonging to more than 40 groups are now controlling a vast area of the country, with the assistance of ruling coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami and a section of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). [4] Sayeed also says over 50 camps are now in operation across Bangladesh, where Islamists are getting military training and that militant groups have their recruits in all sections of society, including mosques, seminaries, educational institutions, the judiciary, mass media and even the armed forces.

The prevailing socio-political dynamics lend themselves to the consolidation of Islamist extremism in the country. For instance, the JMJB is believed to have exploited the countryside’s abhorrence towards left-wing extremism to spread radical Wahhabism among the rural populace and in the process also emerged as a significant force to be reckoned with. The group’s rapid spread has been primarily achieved through an assumption of the role of “protector” in areas of widespread mal-governance, support of local administration and perceived linkages and claims of contact with the al-Qaeda-Taliban combine. Taking recourse to a policy of appeasement, the Khaleda Zia regime has remained largely indifferent to the growing power and clout of such radical Islamist groups.

Political violence, including assassination of political opponents, has increased exponentially under the current dispensation and furthermore, most investigations have been inconclusive. Approximately 1,096 persons, including leaders and activists of different political parties, were killed in 997 incidents of organized violence of political parties between October 2001 and February 2005, according to the Bangladesh Institute of Human rights. [5] The opposition Awami League (AL) in a 74-page report titled Growing Fanaticism and Extremism in Bangladesh: Shades of the Taliban (released on February 13, 2005) has documented the rise of jihadi groups as well as the politics of vendetta. [6] In what is probably the first detailed documentation of Islamist extremism by an internal source in Bangladesh, the AL report mentions at least 34 bomb blasts between 1999 and February 2005, in which 164 persons died and 1,735 people sustained injuries.

A deeper scrutiny of these blasts reveal that, while there were only 13 bomb blasts between 1999 and 2003, 2004 alone saw 13 such attacks, and there have been eight blasts in the first two months of the current year. Eight of the 34 bomb attacks documented by the report have targeted the AL; nine were detonated during cultural functions; and five occurred at religious shrines, including the one in the shrine of Hazrat Shahjalal in Sylhet on May 21, 2004, in which the British High Commissioner was wounded. The report notes, “The selective and deliberate targeting of AL and the like-minded secular and progressive forces, cultural organizations, religious minority groups and entertainment places such as movie halls or local fairs is indicative of a consistent pattern that clearly unmasks the identity of the perpetrators of such crimes and their ideology.”

A sharp polarization of the country’s polity has led to a situation in which the government seeks to maintain an electoral balance, while the Islamic extremists seek to broaden their political and social base. This is crucial and is expected to continue, considering the past trajectory. In the October 2001 Parliamentary elections, the ruling BNP secured 40.97% of the votes, with its coalition right-wing parties, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh securing 4.28%, and the Islami Oikyo Jote (Islamic Unity Council, an alliance of seven radical Islamist groups) wining 0.68%. At the other end, the opposition AL received 40.13% of the vote. This extremely close competition between the two main parties has given the Islamists disproportionate leverage, considering their tiny electoral base. [7] It is this battle for electoral balance among the BNP and AL that is being exploited by the Islamic extremists.

While it is true that Bangladeshi Islamic extremists, with some exceptions, have not been linked to major international terrorist incidents, it would be perilous to consider the Islamist ensemble as purely internal developments. These movements are, to a certain extent, local variants of an international Islamist enterprise and a significant number of these groups and individuals maintain links with the “global jihad”. To that end, it would be hazardous to focus only on the transient geographical location of Islamist terror. The identification of the locus of terrorism, according to Delhi-based analyst Ajai Sahni, with the transient geographical location where it finds the largest number of victims, or from where it mounts the most significant of its recent outrages, is a grave error of judgment.

What real – immediate, imminent or potential – threat does the Islamist extremist mobilization in Bangladesh constitute to security and stability within Bangladesh; the immediate neighborhood; and to Western interests? Challenges in Bangladesh, on current projections, emerge from two quarters – a bitter power struggle between the BNP and AL and secondly, terrorism orchestrated by Islamic extremists, more often than not, in tandem with their over-ground supporters, some of whom are in the ruling coalition. A weakening of the democratic process in Bangladesh leading to a failed state scenario in the long run are bound to have repercussions in the immediate neighborhood and to the growing Western interests in the region. To this end, international donors at the recent aid meeting expressed serious concern over the deteriorating law and order situation. Many in Bangladesh believe that the government proscription of two Islamist groups on February 23, 2005, was a fallout of global pressure and not otherwise. Without impartial and effective government action against Islamist extremism, global skepticism regarding Bangladesh is bound to escalate. When asked about the future of democracy in Bangladesh, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, said on May 12, 2005, “I wish a good future but I have no crystal ball.” [8]

Notes:

1. Profile of Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami, South Asia Terrorism Portal, www.satp.org.

2. Profile of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, South Asia Terrorism Portal, www.satp.org.

3. Sharier Khan, “Bangladesh New Battleground for Jihad,” Accessed at www.oneworld.net/article/view/66160/1/?PrintableVersion=enabled.

4. “Cops seize books from Abu Sayeed’s house,” The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 19, 2005.

5. “Political violence 1096 killed in 52 months,” The New Nation, Dhaka, March 17, 2005.

6. “Growing Fanaticism and Extremism in Bangladesh: Shades of the Taliban,” Official Website of the Awami League, www.albd.org/aldoc/growing/growing.fanaticism.pdf.

7. Official Website of the Election Commission Secretariat, Bangladesh, Accessed at

www.bd-ec.org/stat/Main%20Menu.htm.

8. News from Bangladesh, Daily News Monitoring Service, Accessed at http://bangladesh-web.com/.