Tuesday, March 08, 2005

BANGLADESH: Terrorists? Yes, But Al-Qaeda? NO

After having initially described the arrested leaders and cadres as terrorists, the Government is now trying to play down the gravity of their past acts of terrorism. At the same time, it continues to deny, as it was doing before February 23, that survivors of Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF) have been given sanctuary in Bangladesh territory; or that an organisation called the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which is a member of Osama bin Laden's IIF has been active in Bangladesh and training recruits from the Arakan area of Myanmar and other South-East Asian countries or that the local madrasas and international Islamic universities have become the breeding ground of jihadi terrorism.

TERRORISTS? YES, BUT AL QAEDA? NO
B.Raman

Terrorists in Bangladesh territory? Yes, of course. But Al Qaeda in Bangladesh? No, definitely not.

2. That is the latest position of the Government of Begum Khaleda Zia, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, in the face of growing international pressure spearheaded by the member-countries of the European Union (EU) to act against terrorist groups operating from Bangladeshi territory.

3. The Government banned, under international pressure, the Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB), which also operates under the name the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh(JMB), on February 23 and arrested some of its leaders and cadres, but not the most important --- Moulana Abdur Rahman, a former activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), which is a member of Khaleda Zia's ruling coalition, who is now the Amir of the banned organisation, and Siddiqur Rahman also known as Bangla Bhai (Bangla brother), its operational chief.Till February 23, the Government denied the very existence of these organisations and of Bangla Bhai, who used to be described by it as a figment of the media's imagination.

4. Faced with the threat of aid curtailment from the EU countries, the Government has now been forced to admit that these organisations and Bangla Bhai existed and were creating a state of anarchy in Bangladesh. However, its action has been half-hearted and does not seem to be due to its conviction on the need to put a stop to the use of its territory by all terrorist organisations---domestic or international--- and to closely monitor the functioning of the large number of Saudi and Kuwaiti funded madrasas and international Islamic universities which have come up in its territory to spread Wahabism among the Muslims of Bangladesh and South-East Asia.

5. While the Government now admits that some of the activities of the banned organisations such as acts of violence directed against non-Muslims and secular-minded Muslims amounted to terrorism, it is trying to avoid blaming them for acts of political terrorism directed against the leaders and cadres of the opposition parties, such as their repeated attempts to kill Sheikh Hassina, former Prime Minister, and the recent assassination of Shah M.S.Kibria, a former Finance Minister, who was a close personal friend of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh. It was reportedly Kibria's assassination that set off alarm bells ringing in New Delhi and contributed to the decision of Dr.Singh to postpone his visit to Dacca to attend the SAARC summit.

6. After having initially described the arrested leaders and cadres as terrorists, the Government is now trying to play down the gravity of their past acts of terrorism. At the same time, it continues to deny, as it was doing before February 23, that survivors of Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF) have been given sanctuary in Bangladesh territory; or that an organisation called the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which is a member of Osama bin Laden's IIF has been active in Bangladesh and training recruits from the Arakan area of Myanmar and other South-East Asian countries or that the local madrasas and international Islamic universities have become the breeding ground of jihadi terrorism.

7. The Bangladesh branch of the HUJI of Pakistan has been active since the 1990s and one of its leaders had signed bin Laden's fatwa of 1998 calling for attacks against the US and Israel. The annual reports titled the Patterns of Global Terrorism of the US State Department have been repeatedly referring to the activities of the HUJI from Bangladesh territory. Even its latest report submitted to the US Congress on April 29,2004, says as follows:

Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh (HUJI-B)(Movement of Islamic Holy War) :

Description

The mission of HUJI-B, led by Shauqat Osman, is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh. HUJI-B has connections to the Pakistani militant groups Harakat ul-Jihadi-Islami (HUJI) and Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HUM), who advocate similar objectives in Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir.

Activities

HUJI-B was accused of stabbing a senior Bangladeshi journalist in November 2000 for making a documentary on the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh. HUJI-B was suspected in the assassination attempt in July 2000 of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Strength

HUJI-B has an estimated cadre strength of more than several thousand members.

Location/Area of Operation

Operates and trains members in Bangladesh, where it maintains at least six camps.

External Aid

Funding of the HUJI-B comes primarily from madrassas in Bangladesh. The group also has ties to militants in Pakistan that may provide another funding source.

8. Since 9/11, there have been persistent reports from secret as well as open (the US "Time" magazine and the "Far Eastern Economic Review", for example) sources that at least 200, if not more, survivors of the Al Qaeda and other components of the IIF, many of them originating from South-East Asia, have shifted to Bangladesh and have been given sanctuaries there by the HUJI (B) and other jihadi terrorist organisations. There have also been reports that due to the increasing monitoring of the activities of the Pakistani madrasas by the US intelligence, recruits from S.E.Asia are now being taken to the madrasas in Bangladesh for religious education and training.

9. On December 10, 2003, a Canadian media organisation disseminated edited extracts of a report on the internal security situation in Bangladesh prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which it had obtained under the Access to Information Act. The extracts as disseminated by it said that the Government of Bangladesh was not doing enough to prevent the country from becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists in South Asia and expressed its concern over the activities of extremists suspected to be connected to Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. It said that the Government of Bangladesh was unwilling to crack down on terrorism and referred to the likelihood of dangers to Canadian aid agencies in Bangladesh.

10. .In a statement issued on December 11, 2003, the Bangladesh Foreign Office strongly denied the contents of the CSIS report. It said: "The contents of the report are far from the reality on the ground. The Government remains firmly committed to combating terrorism. Some quarters are bent on tarnishing the peaceful image of Bangladesh."

11.In a separate statement issued at Ottawa the same day, the Bangladesh's High Commissioner in Ottawa, Mohsin Ali Khan, denied that his country had become a terrorist haven and asserted that his Government was very "conscious of its responsibility to protect its citizens. We condemn terrorism in any country, in any form, in any place. Bangladesh is against any terrorist attack and it will not allow its soil to be used by any terrorist group."

12. This position has now been reiterated by the Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan in a statement issued on February 26,2005. He said: "There maybe some local goons, working in the name of religion, who are being hunted down. There is a difference between international terrorists and local goons.There are no international terrorists in the country. "

13. An oft-reiterated contention of the Bangladesh authorities is that if there were Al Qaeda or pro-Al Qaeda terrorists in Bangladesh territory, by now they would have been invoved in some act of international terrorism somewhere or the other. According to them, the fact that there have been no instances of the involvement of terrorists based in Bangladesh in any act of international terrorism showed that there were no international terrorists based in its territory.

14. It needs to be recalled here that the Pakistani authorities used to take up a similar position and deny the presence of pro-Al Qaeda international terrorists in their territory. The investigation into the explosions near the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August,1998, showed that some of the perpetrators had gone from Pakistan or Afghanistan. This weakened Pakistan's denials. The international community ultimately found after 9/11 that the planning for the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the USA had been made from Karachi and other places in Pakistan by terrorist elements such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, whose presence and activities in Pakistani territory Islamabad used to deny.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter.