Thursday, February 03, 2005

BANGLADESH : Another bloody carnage!

+ It may be presumptuous to suggest government complicity in the recent incident. But one cannot help notice the reluctance of many in the administration, to acknowledge the possible existence of extremist groups in Bangladesh with strong religious motivations, capable of carrying out violence such as the recent one in Habiganj. Regrettably, such remarks display an ostrich like attitude when it comes to acknowledging the presence of radical elements in our country. Acknowledging the possibility of the presence of religious extremists in Bangladesh does not adversely affect our image abroad, on the contrary, what sully our reputation, not to speak of the grave implications these have for our national security, are acts like the one we witnessed in Habiganj recently.+

03/02/2005

Another bloody carnage!
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd)

It was with a feeling of trepidation that I woke up to attend the telephone very early on the morning of Friday last. I had no idea what time it was and my apprehension was confirmed when the caller gave me the sad news of Mr. Kibria's death and the circumstances under which it had happened. A bomb attack at an Awami League (AL) meeting in Habiganj the previous evening had taken the lives of four others and injured more than seventy.

Let me dilate on what transpired between the caller and me subsequently.

He put me several questions, the first of which was, "Why was it that majority of the bomb blasts were occurring in Sylhet and who were behind these incidents?" Those were indeed million-dollar questions whose answers have eluded even the government and the investigating agencies all these years, far be it for me to offer a plausible explanation to these events.

It is indeed significant that, of the eight major incidents of bomb blasts in the country since Jan 12, 2004, five had occurred in Sylhet (greater), and the targets, which included the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, were high profile. But it is not important that the incidents were occurring in Sylhet but that they were happening in Bangladesh and the main targets of these attacks were the main opposition party, or important personages of a particular political hue or cultural organisations. These were the issues that I feel we ought to dwell on, although, the Sylhet equation is indeed very relevant.

The simple answer to the question was that if we could find out the perpetrators of these attacks, we would perhaps be able to say why these were happening in Sylhet. By the same argument, if we could determine why Sylhet was the venue of majority of the bomb attacks, identifying the perpetrators would not be difficult. But alas! We can do neither with precision since we do not have all the facts on hand. Neither has the government been able to get to the bottom of these, in spite of the international assistance that it has received since 8/21. And the public is not privy to what has been unearthed so far by the committees entrusted with finding out the facts of these occurrences either.

However, we can perhaps explicate on these incidents and see if we cannot detect a pattern in the recent grenade attacks.

First, why is it that the perpetrators are choosing Sylhet to carry out the attacks? For all one can say, it is perhaps a coincidence. But, that would run the risk of being characterised as a very simplistic and facile explanation.

It could perhaps be that the security in Sylhet is lax and the perpetrators find it easy to carry out their nefarious acts there.

Again, another argument could be that the majority of those made targets of the attacks, apart from being politicians of standing, hail from Sylhet, who were subjected to attacks when they were at party meetings or some sort of assemblage; they were never targeted individually.

One could also ask whether Sylhet's close proximity to the border has anything to do with the large proportion of these incidents taking place there? May be, but that means the presence of trans-boundary factor in the equation. That possibility notwithstanding, attributing the bomb attacks on the AL to some dissident elements of another country seems far-fetched, unless of course, these elements have an axe to grind against it.

There is perhaps strong rationale in the argument that, of the many pockets in Bangladesh that are suspected of having the presence of extremist elements, Sylhet is one; and Sylhet is where they are better organised and directed.

There is also the possibility that this and other bomb attacks have been externally inspired, designed to make Bangladesh unstable. But we are not to know, since the findings of the investigations have not been made public yet.

The second question, a natural corollary, is why are the attacks targeted at the main opposition party? It is a fact that, of the eight attacks carried out since Jan 2004, Awami League (AL) was the target in four of these. From available reports it appears that Mr. Kibria was not a victim of a random grenade attack but died as a result of injuries inflicted by the grenade thrown at him directly.

That, this is the work of those that do not approve of AL politics and all that it professes, in particular the opinions and views of Mr. Kibria, could be a plausible explanation. Not being able to counter it through open platform politics they resort to such acts, to convey a message to AL. However, one cannot find credibility in the argument that these acts are designed to wipe the AL out of political reckoning. One would hope that a party like AL is made of sterner stuff, enough to withstand such adversities.

While it may not be possible to identify the perpetrators conclusively at this point in time on the evidence that are available so far, a profile analysis of the targets of the attacks since 1999 might provide one with a likely image of the culprits, and expose the character, motivation and the religious inclination of the people behind these attacks. A close look at the disposition and character of the majority of the targets might also suggest the motivations of these attacks.

However, it would be a fair assumption that the aims and objectives of the Aug 21 grenade attack and the recent attack in Habiganj stem from entirely different motivations than that which prompted the other attacks since 1999. Whether the perpetrators are the same is difficult to say. The type of weapons used in these attacks point to their common link, at least of those that occurred since May 2004.

It may be presumptuous to suggest government complicity in the recent incident. But one cannot help notice the reluctance of many in the administration, to acknowledge the possible existence of extremist groups in Bangladesh with strong religious motivations, capable of carrying out violence such as the recent one in Habiganj. Regrettably, such remarks display an ostrich like attitude when it comes to acknowledging the presence of radical elements in our country. Acknowledging the possibility of the presence of religious extremists in Bangladesh does not adversely affect our image abroad, on the contrary, what sully our reputation, not to speak of the grave implications these have for our national security, are acts like the one we witnessed in Habiganj recently.

Also, the fact that none of the governments so far has been able to get to the bottom of any of the bomb incidents since 1999 and bring any of the perpetrators to book, has only emboldened the extremists. It is a matter of grave concern that the biggest arms haul in Bangladesh still remains a mystery. At least the current LGRD minister has made it bold to acknowledge the weakness of the administration to find out the culprits behind these acts.

At the risk of being repetitious, it must be said again that there is an urgent need for capacity building in respect of investigation. The intelligence agencies must also concentrate on acquiring expertise on counter terror intelligence along with enhancing their counterintelligence capabilities. One of the reasons these acts have been repeated with impunity is the rank ineptness of relevant agencies to preempt these happenings in the first place.

The recent incident further reinforces the demand that investigations into these episodes are conducted objectively without any interference, because, interference not only saps the initiative of the agencies and those who conduct the investigations, it affects their output also. Intelligence agencies are on record that they were unable to pursue militants' links of some of the explosions due to pressure from government high-ups.

The government has been prompt in seeking international assistance in investigating the recent incident, but we must not keep our eyes closed to all the possibilities, as some of us are wont to do. The causal links must be established as well as the cost and benefit of these actions must be calculated until excluded by a process of elimination.

The author is Editor, Defense and Strategic Affairs, the Daily Star.