Between August and December 2005, a series of attacks hit Bangladesh, collectively killing 12, wounding hundreds of others and involving the country’s first suicide strikes. In the most audacious assault on August 17, 434 homemade bombs were set off in 63 districts over the course of just one hour. This unprecedented bout of violence has thrust the country to the forefront of regional and global terrorist attention, generating fears that a new jihadist beachhead is emerging in this predominantly Muslim nation of roughly 144 million people.
The Islamic Threat
Two main militant organizations currently exist in Bangladesh: Jama’at ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB, or the Bangladesh Assembly of Holy Warriors)  and Harakat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (HuJI-B, or Movement of Islamic Holy war–Bangladesh).
The JMB, which first came to prominence in 2002, is alleged to operate in 57 districts across Bangladesh. According to regional sources, the group is able to call on roughly 10,000 full-time and 100,000 part-time cadres and has recently formed a 2,000-strong suicide squad. The organization is thought to be led by a triumvirate consisting of a spiritual emir, Maulana Abdur Rahman, and two operational commanders, Siddiqur Islam and Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib. Together, these three individuals have worked to forge a movement to replace Dhaka’s secular legal system with one based on Islamic law, and to ensure the eradication of all non-Muslim influences in the country.
The JMB took responsibility for the August 17 bombings, as well as three subsequent suicide strikes during November and December that killed 18. Leaflets written in Arabic and left at the sites of several of the earlier mid-year attack locations appear to confirm that the group’s immediate goal is to terrorize the Bangladeshi judiciary in preparation for the full institution of Sharia rule: “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh. There is no future with man-made law.”
Similar to the JMB, HuJI-B aims to establish a fully-fledged Muslim theocracy in Bangladesh. Intelligence sources in Delhi, however, assert that the organization’s real intent is to foster an Islamic revolution in India’s northeast by working in conjunction with radicals based in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Assam.
HuJI-B’s roots date back to 1992, although it is only since 2000 that it has emerged as a prominent militant entity. Shauqat Osman leads the group, overseeing an operational cadre that is believed to number 15,000, of which 2,000 are described as hardcore. Most of these radicals are based in cells scattered along a stretch of coastline that runs from the port city of Chittagong to the Burmese border.
Most of HuJI-B’s past actions have been directed against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority as well as the country’s moderate Muslim population. Western officials have expressed concern, however, that this focus has steadily expanded in recent years to include aggression against international aid agencies. There is widespread speculation that the group was responsible for a slate of firebomb attacks on Christian-oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in early 2005.
The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the dominant party in the coalition government that was formed in 2001, has moved to stymie the activities of domestic Islamic militants. JMB and HuJI-B were both been outlawed in 2005, following the August, November and December attacks, and the government authorized widespread detentions. The BNP’s actions reflect a growing awareness of the internal threat posed by these two outfits, as well as pressure for more concerted counter-terrorist action by international financial and donor institutions (upon which Bangladesh is heavily dependent).
Despite these efforts, JMB and HuJI-B continue to enjoy broad latitude, largely because they retain the backing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) and Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ). Both parties, which are part of the ruling administration and forceful advocates of a Sharia system, have studiously worked to limit the scope of measures aimed at disrupting the activities of fundamentalist Islamists. This allows the JMB and HuJI-B to steadily expand their national presence. Indian commentators additionally allege that the two outlawed organizations directly benefit from support provided by elements within Dhaka’s Directorate of Field Intelligence (DFGI) and that it is this that accounts for the scale and sophistication of recent attacks.
Just as importantly, JMB and HuJI-B are thought to have established at least tenuous ties with foreign Islamist entities to buttress their current militant activities. Financially, funds have reportedly been sent from individual donors in the Middle East, allegedly channeled through prominent Arab NGOs such as the Revival of Islamic Heritage and the Al-Haramaine Islamic Institute. Operationally, there is speculation about the external provision of training and expertise. The advent of suicide attacks has been taken as evidence of outside influence, as well as the make-up of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in many of last year’s assaults.
The BNP-dominated administration now faces an overt challenge to its authority, which, worryingly, manifest the operational hallmarks common in the wider international jihadist movement. At the same time, the coalition government continues to be constrained by the actions of its JIB and IOJ partners and arguably lacks the complete loyalty of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. Under such circumstances, the future prospect for stability in Bangladesh is bleak.
1. Another group, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), is thought to be a front name for the JMB.