The Roots of Extremism in Bangladesh

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 1

In many ways, Bangladesh seems an excellent place for al-Qaeda to find sanctuary in the decisive years ahead. It is an impoverished Islamic nation, politically weak and backward in its economic development. Its ports have been active hubs for transnational crime, including weapons running. [1] More significantly, it has a formidable presence of religious groups, some noticeably extreme, jostling in the political space often left vacant by frequent bouts of political instability and military intervention since the country’s violent birth in December 1971.

Before the war of liberation, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, a compact patch of Gangetic delta sliced out of the Indian subcontinent during the Partition of 1947. Separated from the mainland by the mass of the Indian subcontinent, East Pakistan remained a distant outpost for Islamabad; a neglected, impoverished state, governed by local army commanders who used it as a staging ground for helping militant groups engaged in a prolonged conflict with India for the liberation of their respective States in the north-east.

The Pakistan Army first began training Naga rebels in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tradition that continued subsequently with Manipuri and Mizo insurgent groups. Although the 1971 war and the consequent birth of Bangladesh put an end to this joint venture between militant groups and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, this setback proved to be temporary. The assassination of Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his family in 1975, and the subsequent political turmoil, helped these militant groups to reclaim their training camps, now run by Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies. These agencies enjoyed support from various religious groups which had their origin in Pakistan. One such group was Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). After emerging as a strong religious/political party, JeI became Bangladesh’s third largest party in the October 2001 elections.

Religious parties like JeI owed much of their growth to the Islamization of the country’s political institutions initiated by President Zia-ur Rehman in 1977. A little more than a decade later, President HM Ershad made Islam the state religion, further strengthening Islamic forces like the JeI. The growing clout of religious political parties was revealed with shocking clarity during a huge protest march of some 70,000 to 80,000 persons against the well-known Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, in June 1994. Religious groups have also gained tremendously by the bitter feuding between the two main political parties, the Awami League led by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by current Premier Begum Khaleda Zia. Both parties have been assiduously courting JeI throughout this political fight. The Awami League, for instance, sought support from the religious party to campaign against the BNP while the latter has co-opted JeI as a coalition partner.

The rise of radical political and religious parties like JeI promoted the growth of madrasas in the country, mostly funded by certain Middle Eastern countries. The prominent donors are the Saudi-based al-Haramain Foundation, UAE-based al-Fujayrah Welfare Association and the Dubai-based Dar ul-Ansar and Muslim Welfare Association. Although none of these organizations have any offices in the areas where terrorist groups are active, they operate through a network of preachers who not only distribute money but also motivate the youth to join jihad. [2]

Not surprisingly, Bangladesh has been host to various terrorist groups anxious to recruit and train young students coming out of these madrasas. One of the more prominent ones is Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), widely regarded as al-Qaeda’s operating arm in South Asia. HuJI has been consolidating its position in Bangladesh where it boasts a membership of more than 15,000 activists, of whom at least 2,000 are “hardcore”. [3] Led by Shawkat Osman (alias Sheikh Farid) in Chittagong, the group has at least six training camps in Bangladesh. According to one report, about 3,500 Bangladeshis had gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan to take part in jihad. Barring 34 who died, a large number of them returned home; of these, about 500 form the backbone of HuJI.

While in Afghanistan, some HuJI members met Osama bin Laden at Khost on February 11, 1989, a few months before their leader Abdur Rehman Farooqui died while clearing mines near the city. More evidence of the group’s alignment with the Taliban and al-Qaeda is revealed by a fatwa issued by the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh led by JeI chief Fazlur Rehman on February 23, 1998. The directive was signed by Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, Rifa’i Ahmad Taha (alias Abu Yasir of Egyptian Islamic Group) and Sheikh Mir Hamzah (secretary of the Jamiat ul Ulema e-Pakistan). The most troubling aspect of the rise of HuJI revolves around these sorts of connections with religious groups. HuJI has camps in the inaccessible, hilly terrains of Cox Bazar and Banderban and along the No Man’s Land adjacent to the Bangladesh-Burma border. Furthermore, the group enjoys support and patronage from about 30 madrasas in Chittagong. Credible reports indicate that the camps are used for recruitment and weapons training. [4]

Chittagong is one of the areas in Bangladesh which has become a base for the resurgence of the Islamic movement. In a series of investigative articles, Prathm Alo, a prominent Bangladeshi newspaper, disclosed the involvement of several madrasas in the border areas of Naikhangchhari and Ukhia in providing weapons training and motivating the youth to launch an Islamic revolution in the country.

But it is not HuJI alone which has gained immensely from the support of the local network of madrasas. More worrisome is the growth of a HuJI clone, Harkat ul-Jihad, a little known group which has vowed to create an Islamic state in Bangladesh and HuJI’s youth organization, Jagrata Mulsim Janata Bangladesh. [5] In June 2004, Bangladeshi police raided the training camps of Harkat ul-Jihad in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where at least 50 students were being trained at any given point in time. Another formidable group is Rohingya Solidarity Organization, which based itself in the area in the early 1980s and linked up with other Islamic militant groups like Gulbuddin Hekmatyr’s Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, Hizb ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir, and Angkatan Belia Islam Sa Malaysia (the Islamic Youth Organization of Malaysia). Significantly, on May 10, 2002, nine religious extremist groups, including HuJI, decided to form a Bangladeshi Islamic Manch (Platform) to coordinate their activities and develop a collective infrastructure.

Besides these groups, the Chittagong Hill also shelters other, less-known radical political and insurgent groups like the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (Chittagong Hill Tracts People United Front). This organization is comprised of former Shanti Bahini and United People’s Democratic Front guerillas that are fighting both each other and the government in Dhaka for political power. Although these groups do not have a large public support base, there is evidence that they are heavily armed. Last year, the Bangladesh Rifles seized anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and rocket launchers from one of these groups during a raid. The number of high-profile bomb attacks was so high last year – attacks on the British High Commissioner on May 21, 2004 and Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina during a political rally on August 21, 2004 killed more than 20 persons alone – that the U.S. government sent a team of CIA and FBI officials to help the local security and intelligence agencies.

Another clear indication of the growth of extremist organizations is the emergence of the pan-Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in Bangladesh. Although HT claims to be strictly non-violent, intelligence agencies in several countries – from Central Asian republics to Pakistan – fear that the sophisticated infrastructure and organizational discipline of the party can be exploited by al-Qaeda. HT is fairly active in Bangladesh but deliberately keeps a low profile, optimistically anticipating the emergence of a political “third force” as a possible alternative to the dominance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. [7]

What should be of immediate concern to regional nations and the West (in particular the U.S.) is, irrespective of the absence of sustained links between Islamic groups like HT, JeI and terrorist organizations, they essentially share the same ideology and anti-Western agenda. Moreover, lack of direct organizational links does not necessarily preclude the existence of “informal” links between members of the strictly political groups and underground Islamic terrorist organizations like HuJI. In Pakistan, al-Qaeda has been quite successful in co-opting various religious and sectarian groups to work for the larger “cause” of global terror. In Bangladesh such networking could be easier, making this small, impoverished country a potential sanctuary.

Notes:

1. Biological Weapons in The Arsenal Of Criminal Underworld, Dainik Janakantha (Bengali daily published from Dhaka), 21 July 2002. (accessed at http://www.nisat.org).

2. Ibid.

3. Prathm Alo (Bengali daily published from Dhaka), August 14, 2004.

4. Ibid.

5. Bangla Busts Den of Militants in Jungle, Associated Press, June 3, 2004.

6. Shanti Bahini was created during the 1971 war.

7. From a leaflet dated January 2004 available at www.khilafat.org.