Tuesday, March 01, 2005

BANGLADESH: Bangladesh: New Destination for Radical Islamists

Though Islamists now exist all over Bangladesh, some of their strongholds are in northern Bangladesh in areas bordering with India, Sylhet and lawless hilly areas of south eastern Bangladesh (Chittagong). As a large number of Muslims in Bangladesh are converts from Hindus, they have continued with part of their culture, like jatra (a folk theatre form) shows. Radical Islamists want to purge local Islam of these features. On January 14 and 15 this year, two such shows were bombed in Bogra and Natore districts in which two persons died and at least 60 others were injured. Islamists also hate functions celebrating Bangla language because they were opposed to Bangladeshi War of Liberation. nce, these functions have become their primary targets.
Bangladesh: New Destination for Radical Islamists
Anand Kumar

The radical Islamists of Bangladesh have been playing hide and seek with international community for a long time now. They used to lie low whenever world attention got focused on them. Moreover, the state always comes to their rescue, by denying their presence and hushing up any investigation in which Islamists are suspected to be involved. The world also had greater problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with. Hence it chose to ignore the Islamists forces in Bangladesh. Even countries like India did not take this emerging threat with equal seriousness as they have been doing with Islamic extremists active in Jammu and Kashmir. But when the cadre strength of some the radical Islamists group reached over 10,000 the threat became too serious for the world to ignore.

There are at least fifty Islamist organizations active in Bangladesh. The numbers of their cadres vary. Some of these organizations take new names when they get adverse publicity. Some of the prominent Islamist organizations are Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), Jamaatul Mujahedin (JUM), al-Hiqma and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB). Besides a number of anti- Ahmadiyya groups are also active. These groups are using threat and violent methods to force Ahmadiyyas shun their religion. The government has already succumbed to their pressure and banned all Ahmadiyya publications last year.

After the US started its 'war on terror' and dislodged the fundamentalist Taliban regime, Afghanistan and Pakistan no longer remained available as a safe haven for Islamic jihadis. The fugitives of Al-Qaeda and its allied groups started searching for new places to hide. A number of them migrated to Bangladesh. When the noose was tightened on the Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia a number of its top leaders including Hambali tried to relocate to Bangladesh. Hambali was caught in the city of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok when he was about to relocate to Bangladesh.

About the same time, the October 2001 elections in Bangladesh brought a right wing coalition into power of which Islamists are an important constituent. The Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote, especially the latter is well known for its sympathies towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The IOJ’s membership largely duplicates that of the HUJI, which was founded in 1992 by Bangladeshi mujahedin returning from Afghanistan. This organization is funded by bin Laden so that the moderate Islamic state could be converted into a hard-line one.

A new radical extremist outfit, Jama'atul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) came into limelight in Bangladesh on February 13, 2003 when a series of bomb blasts took place inside a tin-shed house in Chhoto Gurgola area in the Dinajpur town, leaving three persons injured. Besides arms and ammunition police also recovered subscription receipts and leaflets of this group. Among the arrested figured two employees of Hazrat Aayisa Siddiqa Salafia Islamia Girls' Madrassah.

Police were also able to trace a number of fanatics whose address was stored in the mobile phone recovered from the blast site. It also confirmed that the hideout belonged to Jama'atul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) and its militants had planned to bomb several functions in the area. It was also revealed that the organization was doing its "underground work" in the region for more than a year and eight of its activists were arrested on May 20, 2002. Moreover, the madrassah teacher, Faruk, who was arrested after the blasts, was found to be the ringleader of the outfit which has about 25 activists and several hideouts in the area.

It is strongly suspected that JUM became JMJB after it fought with police on August 15, 2003 in Joypurhat, and reports regarding its existence in 57 districts of Bangladesh were published. JMJB Amir (chief) and spiritual leader Mawlana Abdur Rahman was also earlier associated with JUM.

Though Islamists now exist all over Bangladesh, some of their strongholds are in northern Bangladesh in areas bordering with India, Sylhet and lawless hilly areas of south eastern Bangladesh (Chittagong). As a large number of Muslims in Bangladesh are converts from Hindus, they have continued with part of their culture, like jatra (a folk theatre form) shows. Radical Islamists want to purge local Islam of these features. On January 14 and 15 this year, two such shows were bombed in Bogra and Natore districts in which two persons died and at least 60 others were injured. Islamists also hate functions celebrating Bangla language because they were opposed to Bangladeshi War of Liberation. Hence, these functions have become their primary targets.

Sylhet city, last year witnessed six incidents of bomb and grenade blast that killed 12 and injured over 100 people. The much talked about incidents include the bomb blast at the shrine of Hajrat Shah Jalal during Urs on January 12, grenade attack on British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury after Juma (Friday) prayer on May 21, bomb blast at the meeting of Awami League (AL) stalwart Suranjit Sengupta MP in Sunamganj on June 21, grenade blast at a meeting of city AL on the night of August 7 and blasts in two cinemas in the city on August 5. The Shah Jalal shrine in Sylhet has been attacked a number of times because Islamists think that praying on a shrine is akin to idolatry. The Criminal Investigation department (CID), which has been asked to investigate these cases, has so far achieved nothing. In the name of investigation, it only harasses innocent people.

The ruling party of Bangladesh uses these incidents to victimize opposition, Awami League by implicating their leaders and activists. In one such incident, police took AL leader and Bangladeshi expatriate SM Nunu Miah into custody and allegedly tortured him. He was later released at the intervention of British MP Oona King, who came on a short trip to Bangladesh.

In recent times, a bigger threat has emerged in the form of Bangla Bhai who heads an organization called Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB). JMJB has been active underground for the last six years to establish a Taliban-like rule before coming out in the open a year ago on the pretext of fighting Sarbaharas (outlaws). The militant band started operations on March 31, 2004, unleashing a violent campaign in which as many as 15 have been killed and several hundred others tortured, allegedly with police support on the plea of eliminating outlaws.

Now Bangla Bhai has become so strong that he is running his parallel government. No one has the courage to touch him. Even when the Prime Minister Khalida Zia, ordered for the arrest of Bangla Bhai, it was not implemented.

The Islamist forces who are sharing power with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are being used to cow down opposition. In August, 2004 they attacked the rally of Sheikh Hasina in the capital city, Dhaka and managed to nearly assassinate her. Islamists are targeting all popular leaders of opposition Awami League. They are threatening local Awami League leaders to quit the party and join their rank. Local AL leaders have alleged that the cadres of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) have threatened at least three Union Parishad (local body) leaders with death unless they quit their party. On January 22 this year, JMJB cadres made an attempt on the life of the Sripur Union Parishad chairman, Mokbul Hossain Mridha for his refusal to quit the Awami League.

In the attack on Mirdha, a local villager was killed leading to a clash between villagers and cadres of JMJB in which three of Bangla Bhai’s men were lynched. Two days after this incident, the cadres of the Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) armed to the teeth, gathered in thousands to display their might. They clashed with the police when it tried for the first time to stop them. In this clash, at least 50 people, including eight policemen, were injured at Bhabaniganj in Bagmara. Though, 64 JMJB cadres were rounded up, none of the prominent leaders of the group who led the attack were detained. The JMJB leaders declared the lynched men martyrs, as "they were killed while on a religious mission." Their family members also expressed pride over the deaths.

It is strongly believed that the infamous militant leader Bangla Bhai has been able to elude police dragnet despite high-level government orders for his arrest, because of the strong political backing enjoyed by him. The sincerity of political leaders and police high-ups is in doubt as they have made contradicting statements about his existence. The local police administration tried to deny the involvement of JMJB in the attempt on the life of Mokbul Hossain Mridha. It accused the anti-government quarters for conspiring through publishing such reports centering on the “so-called” Bangla Bhai with a view to destroying the image of the government as well as the police force for political mileage. It also tried to term the attackers as ordinary criminals which is far from truth. State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar on January 26 promised that Bangla Bhai would be arrested as soon as he is found. But talking to BBC radio the same day, he denied the existence of the JMJB.

Now it is believed that JMJB men have started gathering arms and are recruiting armed cadres from different parts of the country to take on the police. They are also believed to be recruiting people in Bangladesh for fighting Jehad in Iraq. The JMJB is striving hard to Talibanize Bangladesh society. The Bangladesh government is supporting them by giving legal immunity. If the international community does not come out of its slumber quickly, it will have another serious problem to deal with.