Monday, February 28, 2005

BANGLADESH: Reining in the Radicals











The government's delay in taking action has also raised concern that violence and radical Islam may already have become entrenched in Bangladesh. In the northern town of Rangpur, police told local reporters that two arrested militants claimed to be part of a 15,000-strong militia aiming to "bring about an Islamic revolution." And talking to reporters while in custody, the Arabic professor Al Galib who denies links with extremists- warned that any campaign to rein in fundamentalism would fail. "Whether we are hanged or jailed, our movement will continue," he declared. Until last week, that seemed guaranteed. Now, finally, Bangladesh can ho that he is wrong.

Reining in the Radicals
Bangladesh is finally starting to crack down on Islamic extremism. But is it doing enough?
BY ALEX PERRY

For three years, a wave of bombings, assassinations and religious violence has swept Bangladesh. Members of the militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (J.M.J.B.) in the north have claimed responsibility for the bombings of cinemas and cultural shows, and for the killing of scores of Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims they considered too lax. A campaign of assassinations by bombs saw failed attempts last year on British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, and a successful bid on Jan. 27 to kill senior opposition figure Shah Abu Mohammed Shamsul Kibria. Meanwhile, Western intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. "We were blind on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia," says a South Asia-based Western intelligence official. "We don't want to miss the signs this time around."

Yet until very recently, Bangladeshi officials flatly denied that the country was a hotbed of militancy and violence. "We have no official knowledge of the existence of J.M.J.B.," State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar told reporters on Jan. 26. "Certain so-called newspapers have been running reports on it, [but] we have no record that any such group has formed."

Last week, however, the government dramatically changed its strategy. Police announced the arrest of scores of suspected militants in two days; they allegedly included several in possession of explosives and bomb-making equipment, as well as a professor of Arabic named Mohammed Asadullah Al Galib whom Bangladeshi authorities have accused of having ties to militants in the Middle East and Asia. Officials also banned Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (J.M.B.) and the suddenly acknowledged J.M.J.B., accusing these two organizations of "a series of murders, robberies, bomb attacks, threats and various kinds of terrorist acts," and of "trying to create social unrest by misleading a group of youths and abusing their religious sentiments." Police are still looking for Azizur Rahman (also known as "Bangla Bhai" or "Bangla brother"), the man they claim is the J.M.J.B.'s leader. Reflecting the authorities' new attitude, State Minister Babar publicly lamented the failure to apprehend him, saying: "We feel very disturbed and embarrassed about this." The security services announced a border alert for 20 fugitives, including Rahman.

There are several reasons for the change of heart. Law and order, never good in Bangladesh, has deteriorated to frightening levels. Last month, India forced the cancellation of the annual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, citing poor security in the host city, Dhaka. Islamic violence is also awkward for ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party Prime Minister Khaleda Zia because her coalition includes two conservative Islamic parties. But the catalyst for the crackdown appears to have been a donor meeting in Washington last week, attended by representatives from the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank, at which the rising tide of violence and Islamic militancy in Bangladesh and ways to end it, possibly by suspending funding to the aid-dependent nation topped the agenda. Bangladesh's donors "are very dissatisfied with the way things are heading with respect to security, the economy, corruption and governance," observed Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, president of the Bangladesh Economic Association, an independent Dhaka-based group.

Critics of the government aren't convinced that it's truly committed to curbing militancy and prosecuting radicals who have been arrested. Hasina spokesman Saber Hossain Chowdhury, who quickly dismissed the government's actions as "too little, too late," voices concerns that Zia's alliance with Islamic fundamentalist groups might make it too difficult for her to control the forces of extremism. "The root of the problem ... lies with the ruling alliance itself," he says.

The government's delay in taking action has also raised concern that violence and radical Islam may already have become entrenched in Bangladesh. In the northern town of Rangpur, police told local reporters that two arrested militants claimed to be part of a 15,000-strong militia aiming to "bring about an Islamic revolution." And talking to reporters while in custody, the Arabic professor Al Galib who denies links with extremists- warned that any campaign to rein in fundamentalism would fail. "Whether we are hanged or jailed, our movement will continue," he declared. Until last week, that seemed guaranteed. Now, finally, Bangladesh can hope that he is wrong.

With reporting by Saleem Samad